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Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28
| I grew up in a
family that was, depending upon your perspective, either small or
medium-sized or even large. That is, there were five
children. I was the oldest. I had three younger brothers
and a younger sister, the youngest of the siblings.
Although we had our usual competitions, the usual immaturities of growing up together, I think we got along fairly well. I KNOW we got along better that Jacob’s children; and we certainly got along better than Adam’s.
What are we being told about humanity when we learn that, failing in a competition to please God, Cain murders Abel?
Yes, the Bible gets off to a bad start. It seems that the first family in creation is as dysfunctional as the rest of us. Maybe worse. But these stories are relatively brief. Later in Genesis we encounter a HUGE story about a family conflict. It runs for fourteen chapters, from the thirty-seventh through the fiftieth and final chapters of Genesis. It begins with brothers being nasty to one another; and it concludes with them making up and forgiving one another.
Of course, there are a number of stories intertwined with this story, but basically it comes down to a story of sin and pardon.
Now, obviously we don’t have time for a story this long in our few minutes this morning; but we do have time to take a look at what started it all.
In the opening to the thirty-seventh chapter of the book of Genesis, we read:
“Jacob settled in the land where his father had lived as an alien, the land of Canaan. This is the story of the family of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was shepherding the flock with his brothers; he was a helper to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives; and Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father.
Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves.”
So far, almost nothing is happening, but we can already see trouble brewing. Joseph is an adolescent snitch. His father plays favorites, and does not hide his favoritism. How could favoritism be more clear than with a gift of fancy clothes?
It might be the equivalent today of a father buying a son a very expensive sports car.
“But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.”
Of course, Joseph COULD have attempted to make peace with his brothers. He COULD have said to them, “Hey, don’t get upset with me for what my father gives me.” And he COULD have suggested to his father that the coat was really a bit much.
Thanks, but no thanks. Or, maybe I’ll just wear it on special occasions.
Yes, he could have done those things, but he didn’t. Instead, he just made matters worse. You see, Joseph was a dreamer. And not only did he dream, but he told OTHERS about his dreams.
And not only did he tell others about them, but he also INTERPRETED those dreams. And HOW did he interpret them? He interpreted two dreams of which we know to mean that his brothers would all bow down to him. And can’t you just see good times acomin’ for this family. Could Joseph have made matters any WORSE?
But let’s skip ahead to the twelfth verse of that same chapter in Genesis:
“Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock near Shechem. And Israel said to Joseph, “Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem? Come, I will send you to them.” He answered, “Here I am.”
Now notice, that even at the age of seventeen, he is not one of the shepherding brothers, at least not on this occasion. Who knows WHAT he is doing at home. Seventeen in Biblical times is not particularly young. Many men were getting married off by that age.
“So Jacob said to Joseph, “Go now, see if it is well with your brothers and with the flock; and bring word back to me.” So he sent him from the valley of Hebron.”
Now, there’s a whole lot we don’t know here. We don’t know how long the brothers have been gone with the sheep. We don’t know how soon they are coming back. Are we talking days? weeks? months? Is Jacob’s concern serious or minor?
How important is it that Joseph perform this task? “See if it is well.” Or is Jacob just trying to get Joseph out of the house?
“Joseph came to Shechem, and a man found him wandering in the fields; the man asked him, “What are you seeking?”
Well, all Joseph knows is that his brothers and the flock are supposed to be near Shechem, and that’s all. But he may also be lost. “Wandering in the fields.” We don’t know how experienced he is at tracking down his brothers. This may be something of a first-time experience for him. Joseph may indeed be a somewhat pampered favorite son of whom his father has not demanded much.
“I am seeking my brothers,” Joseph said; “tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock.”
It must have been like those small towns where everybody knows everybody, so no one needs to tell anyone his or her name. And, also, everybody assumes that everybody knows everybody else’s business.
“The man said, “They have gone away, for I heard them say, “Let us go to Dothan.” So Joseph went after his brothers, and found them at Dothan.”
Not only does everybody KNOW everybody else’s business, but everybody HEARS everybody else PLAN his or her business.
But let’s answer some logistical questions here. How far was it from Hebron to Shechem? About fifty miles. Which is probably at least a couple days of walking WITHOUT a herd of sheep. And how MUCH further would it be from Shechem to Dothan?
About another fifteen miles.
So we’re talking major mileage. And we’re talking about folks a long time gone. It may also be that the brothers wanted to get away from their father and his favorite son.
Now remember, that in an earlier verse we read, “Joseph was shepherding the flock with his brothers, and Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father.”
It may well be that the brothers have told Joseph to just stay at home!
Well, he doesn’t. Which brings us to a turning point in our story.
“They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him. They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer.
“Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.””
Now, notice what is the primary motivation for killing Joseph. It is not that he is his father’s favorite. It is not the fancy coat that he owns. It is not that he is a snitch. No, it is his dreams.
Dreams? Kill someone because of his dreams? Well, maybe it is more than that. Maybe it is what those dreams mean. Or what Joseph and his brothers THINK those dreams mean. Joseph interpreted his dreams to mean that his brothers would bow down to him. So his brothers probably think that he is an arrogant little twerp, that he thinks he is BETTER than they are. And whenever anyone puts us in a position of feeling LESS than we are, it is liable to make us feel angry.
Add this to the favoritism shown by their father toward Joseph and you have a truly explosive mixture.
“But when Reuben heard his brothers’ plans, he delivered Joseph out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.”
Joseph has a supporter? Well, maybe and maybe not. It may be that Reuben is thinking of the consequences of this act. After all, the boys must eventually go home and tell their father what became of Joseph.
And even though Jacob showed favoritism toward Joseph, maybe Reuben still loved his father and did not want to have to tell him that his son was dead.
“Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him”--that he might rescue him out of their hand and restore him to his father.”
And what his brothers are hearing is, “Let’s not kill him; let’s not be actively responsible for his death; let’s just let nature take care of him; throw him into a deep pit.”
But what Reuben is thinking is, “I can come back later and save him from this pit.”
So Reuben IS genuinely concerned for Joseph. He does not want him to die even as an indirect result of their actions.
“So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the long robe with sleeves that he wore; and they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.”
Stripping him of his robe, leaving him only with his undergarments, leaves him at the mercy of the elements--cold, heat, rain.
But for the brothers it also removes the symbol of Joseph being special, of being someone better than they are, or at least, someone whose father thinks he is better than they are.
So Joseph is in the pit. Leave him there a while and starvation and dehydration will kill him.
Well, at this point in the story we really have four characters. We have Jacob, who loves Joseph more than any of his other sons, and does not hide his favoritism. We have Joseph, the favorite, who makes matters worse by sharing dream interpretations of his superiority to his brothers. We have his brothers, who get just a little bit upset with having to put up with all of this, and plot to get rid of him. And we have Reuben, who intercedes to avoid the murder of Joseph.
Now let me put you on the spot. Let’s choose up sides. Where do good and evil lie? I mean, REALLY? Think about this. Where do YOUR sympathies lie?
Even though you may already know the remainder of the story of Joseph, for the moment forget chapters thirty-eight through fifty and ask yourself, “Where do my genuine sympathies lie? With Jacob? With Joseph? With the brothers?”
Personally, I think that there are some rather tough issues here.
“Then the brothers sat down to eat; and looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels carrying gum, balm, and resin, on their way to carry it down to Egypt. Then Judah said to his brothers, what profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood?
Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh. And his brothers agreed.”
You see, as angry as these brothers are, they are not, down deep inside, murderers. ESPECIALLY of their own brother. They wanted to be RID of Joseph, but did not want to destroy him. Which is why Reuben was persuasive.
Reuben’s suggestion was basically to throw him in a hole and walk off. But Judah’s two-pronged suggestion is even better. Sell him! Make some money off him! And whoever buys him will take care of him and haul him off to another country and we will never see him again!
“When some Midianite traders passed by, they drew Joseph up, lifting him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. And they took Joseph to Egypt.”
One of the recurring questions that pastors get is, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” And the question is loaded with assumptions. Jesus himself once said, “Why do you call me good? Only God is good.”
But we want to think the best of our family, friends, and neighbors. And when we think of bad things, we are defining them according to OUR definitions.
Now, let’s make a quick leap to the fiftieth chapter of Genesis, and to the twentieth verse, one of my favorites. Joseph, now a successful leader in Egypt, says to his brothers, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.”
In chapter thirty-seven, seventeen-year-old Joseph is a real pain-in-the-neck. If his brothers had not sold him off into slavery, somebody else may have done something nasty to him.
One might make the argument that the adolescent Joseph was an accident waiting to happen.
But as he points out to his brothers much later, God intended that outcome for good.
God’s plans, in the moment, are often not clear-cut. Indeed the harm, the evil, of the moment may, many months or years later, be somehow intended for good.
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