Part 3 of the series “Bible Stories for Grown-Ups”
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center, American University
October 11, 2009
Genesis 37:2b-8, 12-14, 18-28; Acts 7:9-15
Genesis 37:2-8, 12-14, 18-28 · 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. 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.
Once Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more. He said to them, “Listen to this dream that I dreamed. There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright; then your sheaves gathered around it, and bowed down to my sheaf.” His brothers said to him, “Are you indeed to reign over us? Are you indeed to have dominion over us?” So they hated him even more because of his dreams and his words.
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.” So he said to him, “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.
He came to Shechem, 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.” But when Reuben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.” 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. 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.
Then they 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. 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.
Acts 7:9-15 · “The patriarchs, jealous of Joseph, sold him into Egypt; but God was with him, and rescued him from all his afflictions, and enabled him to win favor and to show wisdom when he stood before Pharaoh, king of Egypt, who appointed him ruler over Egypt and over all his household. Now there came a famine throughout Egypt and Canaan, and great suffering, and our ancestors could find no food. But when Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent our ancestors there on their first visit. On the second visit Joseph made himself known to his brothers, and Joseph’s family became known to Pharaoh. Then Joseph sent and invited his father Jacob and all his relatives to come to him, seventy-five in all; so Jacob went down to Egypt. He himself died there as well as our ancestors,”
As many of you know, I am a die-hard, life-long Red Sox fan. My sister is a die-hard, life-long Yankees fan. Which makes for some interesting family dynamics. She rarely misses an opportunity to remind me of a Yankees victory over my beloved Sox.
Of course, given the relationship that often exists between siblings, there were other occasions of mocking behavior. I remember when I got my wisdom teeth removed–all four at once–the swelling was such that my jaw was fairly distorted, trapezoidal almost. My sister came in my room with a present for me: a paper bag I could put over my head, with eye holes cut out and a face drawn on.
Now, truth be told, my sister and I have always gotten along really well and even in our worst moments were nothing like some of our friends whose sibling relationships would involve knock-down drag out fights with hair pulling. But even those friends’ family relationships, as contentious as they were, didn’t hold a candle to the relationship that Joseph has with his brothers in tonight’s scripture lesson.
This story is a famous one–one that has been a staple of children’s Bible stories, and a source for many religious TV shows, and even a Broadway musical. It is popular, perhaps, because it so plainly tells the story of family dynamics, of sibling rivalry, and parental favoritism. It presents the story of the vindication of the wronged innocent and how he eventually bests his siblings who had tormented him–much like the way Cinderella’s wicked step-sisters tormented her and then were left out when Prince Charming comes to call.
II. WHAT WE THINK WE KNOW
But as with many of the stories we are looking at in this sermon series, there is much that we assume we know about the story that does not quite hold up when we dig deeper.
A. The Coat of Many Colors
The first and most obvious is the “coat of many colors”. This phrase has become almost a part of idiomatic English. The Hebrew term found in the text is somewhat mysterious. The term ketonet passim that describes the “coat” means something like “a tunic of palms of hands”. The translators who produced the Greek version of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, rendered it as χιτον ποιλικον chiton poikilon, which means a “multicolored tunic”, perhaps because they couldn’t figure out what it meant either. The translators of the New Revised Standard Version, which we read in our worship, uses the phrase “long coat with sleeves”, perhaps discerning that the reference is of “hand-lengths” or a tunic that reaches to the palms of the hands.
So, once again we are confronted by a situation in the Bible where we just don’t really know what the original text says. But ultimately, whether it was a coat or a tunic, long-sleeved or short, monochromatic or many-colored, there is one thing that is clear: the coat is special. It conveys the special status that Joseph enjoys among his brothers.
B. The Reasons for the Brothers’ Anger
Because the story is often framed around the “technicolor dream coat”, it’s possession is seen as a source of envy for Joseph’s brothers. In so doing, this story becomes another tale of sibling rivalry and envy over the gifts that one sibling has versus the others. Another story of petty jealousy over the possession of things.
But that interpretation often misses the connection this story has with the rest of the narrative in Genesis. Joseph is the eleventh son of Jacob to be born, but the first child born to Jacob’s wife Rachel, his favored wife. He may be first in Jacob’s heart, but he is eleventh in line of succession, eleventh in terms of birthright and privilege. Reuben is Jacob’s firstborn through Leah. And so the issues involved are not simply of issues of a younger sibling getting better presents than the older siblings, the issues involve an inversion of the expected social order.
There’s a lot more going on here than just jealousy over a nice looking coat.
C. The Ishmaelites
In addition to the other elements of this story that we take for granted, there are a number of details that we often overlook. For example, the people two whom Joseph is sold, who carry him down to Egypt to sell into slavery, are defined as “Ishmaelites.”
Now, Ishmael is the half-brother of Isaac, the first-born to Abraham not through Sarah but through her Egyptian slave-girl Hagar. Isaac was born after Ishmael and ultimately Ishmael and Hagar are sent away. God tells Hagar that Ishmael will be a great nation.
Isaac is Jacob’s father. Jacob is the father of the twelve sons who will become the Twelve Tribes of Israel. That means that Isaac is the grandfather to Joseph and his brothers. Thus, Ishmael is their great-uncle. Which means that at the very least, these Ishmaelites have to be second-cousins to the sons of Jacob. Second cousins. We so focus on the fact that Joseph is sold into slavery by his family that we miss the fact that he is also sold into slavery to his family.
D. A Blended Tale
There’s another detail often overlooked as well. When the brothers initially decide to kill Joseph, Reuben comes up with the idea to throw him in the pit–he’ll still die, but they won’t have to lay a hand on him. We are told that this is his plan to rescue him later and restore Joseph to Jacob. Then later on as the Ishmaelites come by, Judah makes the argument that Joseph should not be killed but sold to the traders. And so we have a story in which two different brothers attempt to intervene in some way to preserve Joseph’s life. Reuben and Judah. Evidence that this story, too, like the flood, like many others, is a composite of different traditions from different parts of Israel. Here is likely the conflation of an Elohist tradition (the name given to the tradition that calls God Elohim or “God”) and a Yahwist tradition (the name given to the tradition that calls God Yahweh ). The Elohist is a northern tradition, and Reuben is a northern tribe. The Yahwist is a southern tradition, and Judah is a southern tribe. Two versions of the story in which one of Joseph’s brothers seeks to intervene to spare his life.
III. VINDICATION OF A WRONG
Too often we see this story as one about sibling rivalry and how mistreated Joseph was. The story then transitions to become a story of how the mistreated Joseph, rejected by his own brothers, should find vindication in the house of Potiphar and then in prison, and ultimately in the halls of Pharaoh.
For after Joseph is sold into slavery, he winds up in the house of an Egyptian official named Potiphar. There his work becomes a blessing to Potiphar that he is eventually made overseer of Potophar’s household. However, Mrs. Potiphar has designs on Joseph and when he spurns her and runs off leaving her to hold onto his clothing, she accuses him of assaulting her and for this he is thrown in prison.
In prison he interprets the dreams of two fellow prisoners, one whom he gives a message if his pardon, the other a message of his execution. When the pardoned prisoner is let go he forgets what Joseph had done until Pharaoh himself begins to have dreams. The cupbearer remembers Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams and eventually Joseph is brought to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams, which he reveals to be a warning about coming famine.
So impressed is Pharaoh with Joseph’s abilities that he places great responsibility upon him such that Joseph becomes, for all intents and purposes, the Prime Minister of Egypt, administering the nation’s food program in preparation for the coming famine.
When the famine does arrive, the sons of Jacob go down to Egypt in hopes of finding some food. Joseph meets his brothers but they do not recognize him. After a few go-arounds of deception Joseph eventually reveals himself to the brothers and they are reconciled. Jacob himself comes down to Egypt along with his entire retinue and they all dwell in Egypt in the land of Goshen. A happy ending to the story. Joseph gets to prove to his brothers that he was right all along, they apologize for what they’d done and everyone comes out okay in the end.
IV. THE PURPOSES OF GOD
But that simplification often misses the deeper points of the story. For when we frame it simply as a story of envy or sibling rivalry we miss the deeper message. We also miss the point that Joseph’s conduct is not entirely blameless. He has visions of his brother’s sheaves of wheat bowing down to his sheaf. He has visions of the sun, moon, and stars bowing down to him. And he tells everyone about these dreams. Why? For what purpose? The one who would later be credited for interpreting dreams seems not to be interested in the injury caused by sharing his dreams, the interpretation of which is obvious to everyone around him. And so, while we cannot say that Joseph does anything to warrant being sold into slavery, neither his he entirely blameless in his conduct.
But something happens to Joseph in Egypt. Perhaps it is the shock at the circumstances that have befallen him. Perhaps it is something else at work, but he no longer is as focused on himself as he had been. There is no talk of sheaves or moon, sun, and stars. There is a new found humility at work.
The narrator tells us “The Lord was with Joseph, and he became a successful man…” Throughout the succeeding narratives, it is not simply the narrator who tells us that God is with him, but Joseph. Indeed, when Potiphar’s wife wants Joseph to sleep with her, he responds, “How then could I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” He is equating being faithful to his master to being faithful to God. Later, when Pharaoh is asking Joseph to interpret the dream, Joseph says, “It is not I; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer.”
We see that in his time in Egypt, Joseph has begun to express his belief that it is not he who is working these things, but God. He has opened himself to the possibilities of God working through him in the world.
Indeed, that is really what this story is all about.
For when the brothers come again to Egypt and meet with their long lost brother, whom they still do not recognize, we read:
“Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, “Send everyone away from me.” So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence.
Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come closer to me.” And they came closer. He said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.
Joseph could have said so many things. He could have said, “Who’s laughing now?” and lorded his power over them. He could have cast them out, the way they cast him out of their presence. He could have had them thrown in jail, the way they’d thrown him in the pit. He could have said, “I dreamed of your sheaves bowing to mine and sure enough, here you are bowing down to me!” He could have done any of those things.
But instead, he tells them “do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.”
Joseph has looked at the brokenness that he experienced–the hatred of his brothers, their rejection and selling him into slavery, the false accusations by Potiphar’s wife, his time in prison–and chooses not to see tragedy and pain but something of God.
For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt”
“So it was not you who sent me here, but God…”
Joseph recognizes that even in times of division and strife, even in times of great brokenness, God is still active and God’s purposes may still be accomplished.
For the same God who gave Joseph the dreams his brothers so despised, helped him in Egypt, and when the time came, made it possible for Joseph to save his family.
This is an important lesson for us. There are many times in our lives when we will experience brokenness. We will be in situations we would rather not have been. We will suffer insult and injury and feel alienated from those we love and from the places we call home. There will be times when we will have to endure the brokenness of relationship and all that comes with that brokenness.
And yet, in the midst of all that pain, God is still working. God does not abandon Joseph in Egypt nor does God abandon his brothers. Ultimately, God works through their brokenness, in spite of their brokenness.
When we suffer affliction and brokenness we can respond out of pain and hurt. We can declare ourselves cursed and afflicted. We can choose to focus on the wrongs done us by others. That’s something that happens easily in families, isn’t it? Where grudges can last a very long time and the record of hurt is a perpetual remembrance.
Or, we can try to discern where in the midst of this alienation and brokenness God is at work. Joseph humbled himself and began to see that God was at work in his midst. So much so that he was not only able to reconcile with his brothers, but provide the one thing they needed the most: life giving food.
God calls us to do likewise. God calls us not to hold on to our pain and our brokenness but to let it go. Not to bear grudges or to seek vindication over those who had once opposed us, but to see the greater purposes of God at work in the world. Purposes that may seek our reconciliation with one another, that seek to preserve life.
People talk a lot about what faith is. Whether faith is a belief, or a system of beliefs, or an implicit trust. While I tend to come down on the “trust” definition, for me, faith is also something else. Faith is a lens.
Faith is a lens through which we see the world. We can look at the world as an unending string of random occurrences and no one would think us crazy for doing so. We could look at the world as one long run of broken relationships, of broken communities, of broken faith with one another. We could look at it as a place of unrelenting misery.
Or, we could see the world as Joseph saw it. As a world in which God’s purposes are present, even in the midst of our brokenness. Where the hand of God can be felt in places we would not have expected. Where the good that God would seek is being worked out in our midst.
When we see the world this way, when we act out of a trust that the world is in God’s keeping, then we find that the hope that creates transforms not only us ourselves, but our relationships, and our world. And we find that we will be able to provide for the world the life giving bread the world so desperately needs.