Jealousy. Lies. Bitterness. Favoritism. Sibling squabbles. A good family therapist could have saved Jacob, Joseph and the whole family a lot of trouble. Suppose Jacob had learned not to show favorites among his sons, and to appreciate each one for who he was. What if Joseph had learned not to be such a button-pushing brat? And what if the brothers had practiced not letting him get under their skin? The whole story of our faith might have changed.
Find the scripture here.
Read the Working Preacher commentary here.
Of all people, Jacob, now named Israel, should understand the destruction ahead when a parent loves one child more than another. Jacob was once the younger brother who took the elder brother’s place, and now he has made one of his younger sons a favorite over the older brothers. Joseph, the spoiled young son of the father’s old age, is sure enough of his father’s affection to lord it over his brothers. He is seventeen, the story says, a young adult, old enough to know better, but he still runs to his father to tattle on his brothers. His dream that they will one day bow down to him adds to their rage. The angry brothers in this story echo the fury between Jacob and his own brother, Esau.
The brothers are so angry with Joseph that they can hardly think straight. When the opportunity arises, they decide to kill him. No wait, they’ll rescue him. No, on second thought, they’ll sell him to some traveling traders. And so off Joseph goes, and they believe they’ll never see him again. They don’t confess the truth even when they see their father grieving day after day, believing the “evidence” that Joseph is dead. In the face of their father’s pain, they stay silent.
After many years, and more dreams, a famine forces the brothers to come to Egypt to seek food. A series of reunions happens, and finally the family is restored. Seeming wiser now, Joseph is deeply emotional about seeing his brothers again. As his long-ago dream promised, his brothers are now bowing to him. Instead of reveling in that, Joseph wants something different now. He seeks the long-lost connection with his family, knowing that what he didn’t value before has now become precious.
Looking back over the turbulent decades since their last meeting, Joseph announces that the plans they constructed for evil, God has used for good. He offers his brothers a word of forgiveness, but the word also holds the echoes of the old relationship. Joseph tells them, “have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.’ In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.” If they’re seeking a family bond where all of the brothers are now equal, now that their father has died, that still hasn’t happened.
The story gives us an important part of Israel’s history as a people, and tells us about our ancestors in faith. At the heart of the story is one fractured family, and God’s redemptive and gracious work. The family ends the story as they started it – imperfect and anxious. We can see clearly that this family at the foundation of our faith is much like our own families, and that God’s plans to continue to unfold through wildly imperfect people.
- As the brothers conspire to get rid of Joseph, they say “and we shall see what will become of his dreams.” Joseph’s dreams circle around to fruition, but not in the way he imagined. What dreams – either waking dreams or sleeping dreams – have come to life in unexpected ways for you? For your community of faith?
- What dream of God’s is your faith community seeking to bring to life?
- In this story, God’s plans take decades to be revealed, and there’s pain and grief along the way that are not erased by the ending of the story. How long do we have to wait for the unfolding of God’s purposes? What do we do while we wait? Can we give the pain we experience its own meaning, in our stories?
- Faith communities often act out family dynamics, with bossy older siblings and free-spirited younger siblings reprising familiar roles. Do you notice people in your community returning to old roles? Do times of stress or worry kick you back into familiar patterns of your own? Do you sense God at work in any of that?
- Have you experienced being someone’s favorite child? Or being the less loved child? How did that experience motivate you, or stunt you? One of the redeeming experiences of faith is that we are all God’s favorite child. Has this filled in any broken places for you, or someone you know?
Where are your thoughts taking you this week? We’d love to hear your ideas, and to continue the conversation in the comments below.
Rev. Mary Austin is the pastor of Westminster Church, a multi-cultural Presbyterian church in the city of Detroit. She blogs from time to time at Stained Glass in the City.
The image is “Joseph Thrown in the Pit,” artist unknown, from the Vanderbilt Library of Art in the Christian Tradition.
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