2This is the story of the family of Jacob…3Now 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. 4But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.
5Once Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more. 6He said to them, “Listen to this dream that I dreamed…the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.”
10But when he told it to his father and to his brothers, his father rebuked him, and said to him, “What kind of dream is this that you have had? Shall we indeed come, I and your mother and your brothers, and bow to the ground before you?” 11So his brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind.
12Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock near Shechem. 13And Israel said to Joseph, “Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem?…Go now, see if it is well with your brothers and with the flock; and bring word back to me.”
So Joseph went after his brothers, and found them at Dothan. 18They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him. 19They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. 20Come 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.”
21But when Reuben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.”22Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him.”
23So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the long robe with sleeves that he wore…25Then they sat down to eat; and looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead…
26Then Judah said to his brothers, “…27Come, 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. 28When 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. (NRSV)
Joseph, the firstborn of Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel, enters the world as a favored son.
Try to imagine being Joseph. You grow up coddled by your father. After your mother dies giving birth to your little brother, your dad focuses on you all the more. As a young man, you must try to become yourself while carrying your father’s hopes and dreams, and your mother’s memory. You carry the burden of several lives, and only one of them is yours. Still, you can do almost no wrong. So, for all that’s truly wonderful about you, you are insufferably self-centered.
Now, try to imagine being one of Joseph’s brothers. Imagine feeling less loved than that spoiled brat. You’ve been a good son, but because your mother wasn’t Rachel, you feel as if you’ve been bred as part of a workforce the way a mule is bred to be part of a team. And when your father gives Joseph that splendid coat, it’s salt in your wounds.
Jacob’s family is unmistakably human. And its dysfunction is part of what makes the story real. The human family is always both broken and loving.
Reading through Chapter 37, we notice something else, something missing. There’s no mention of the Bible’s main character. Wherever God may be in this story, God is not being talked about, much less talking. So, this whole sleazy deal will have to play itself out before we can see where – if anywhere at all – God is lurking about, transforming brokenness into wholenes. And through it all, the naively arrogant Joseph contends with his brothers who become bitter, and mean as cornered snakes.
Again, that struggle makes the story real, because when we leave God out of our stories, or when we twist our perceptions and language so as to reduce God to a servant of our purposes, love gets diminished. Psychoanalyst and author, Robert Johnson, says that hate is not the opposite of love. The opposite of love, he says, is power.1 When one person or group seeks to control another person or group for selfish gain, love is the first casualty.
When mired in desperate quests for the fleeting certainties of power and control, and when anxiety about personal privilege and tribal dominance govern our actions and attitudes, we cannot love as we are loved. And perhaps that’s because what we’re trying to do is to seize absolute control – Godlike control – over our own lives. And isn’t that the very point of the story of Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit (Gen. 3:1-7), or the people of Babel building the tower into the heavens (Gen. 11:1-9)? Aren’t they all trying to become “like God”? (Gen. 3:5)
If, the opposite of love is power, and if, as John says, “God is love” (1John 4:16), then to impose ourselves on others does violence to the image of God in all of us. In Genesis 37, the entire family of Jacob seems unaware that they’re in the midst of learning this lesson.
As Joseph lies in that pit, he probably thinks that he’s reached rock bottom. Before long, though, his brothers will sell him to a band of Ishmaelite traders for twenty pieces of silver. If, at that point, the brothers choose to deal equitably with one another, two pieces of silver is each man’s reward for his role in kidnapping Joseph, conspiring to commit fratricide, and then, after thinking better of premeditated murder, devising an elaborate lie to hide their treachery from their father.
So, here’s the situation at the end of Genesis 37:
Joseph, who has exploited his father’s favor, finds himself the property of some vagabonds. In a matter of hours, he goes from privileged son to powerless slave.
Ten young men have terrorized their brother and sold him into bondage. And they deceive their father about their actions.
And an old, careworn Jacob must mourn another death he helped to create.
To banish love and peace from community life, or to exile these holy gifts to some knickknack shelf with other pretty words and decorations, is to lose awareness of God’s dynamic presence and energy in our lives and in the Creation.
For all who have ever wondered if the very idea of God is pure fantasy, or if God has left us to the arbitrary mechanics of chance, we can find ourselves in this story. Maybe we feel ripped from a place of comfort and privilege, and bound to some outside force. Maybe we wrestle with silent remorse because we can’t confess an act that causes suffering. Maybe we mourn the irreplaceable loss of someone we loved or of some great hope. Whatever the case, when driven by selfish concerns, love and peace disappear.
Now, some of us have probably jumped ahead. We’re already hearing a powerful Joseph say to his groveling brothers, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.” (Genesis 50:19-20)
We may know how this story ends, but when we’re caught in the midst of the God-drought of our own Chapter 37, we can’t see it. And when we fear the worst, it’s natural to fall into despair where love and peace are as absent as God seems to be. It’s easy to give up in that place. It’s easy to decide that only the strong and the proud survive, and that only violence wins. But pride and violence are tools of fear and vengeance, not gifts of the Spirit.
To those who follow Jesus, that desperate place can become an Emmaus Road, a place to experience firsthand the power of Resurrection. We experience it by surrendering ourselves to it the way an experienced paddler who falls out of a kayak turns feet first and gives herself to the flow of the river. She doesn’t know what will happen, but she knows that if she lies back and uses her feet to avoid the obvious dangers, the current will eventually deliver her to calmer waters. And if it doesn’t, she probably knows that her life would have been diminished by not having entered the river at all.
When you feel as if you must declare Chapter 37 in your own life, when you feel as if God has abandoned you to chance and chaos, that is the very place it’s most important to show love and to speak peace. You stand in a place in which, through the power of Resurrection, you can experience, and bear witness to, the love and the peace of the living, redeeming, purpose-creating God.
My name is Allen Huff. I am a Presbyterian pastor (PCUSA) living in the delightful community of Jonesborough, TN. Jonesborough - home of the International Storytelling Center and the National Storytelling Festival - is nestled in the beautiful foothills of northeast Tennessee.
I find that preaching forces me to wrestle with God, my faith, and trying to live as a Jesus-follower in a broken and all-too-often violent world. I want to be known as someone who trusts and follows the Jesus' way of compassion, peace, and justice. I also know the road of discipleship is fraught with challenges from within and without. I tend to use my sermons as a way of struggling, like Jacob at the Jabbok River, with God and with how to make sense of life in this magnificent but incomplete creation. If something you read in these sermons, newsletter articles, and occasional, random musing speaks to you in a positive way, I will be grateful. I'd love to hear your thoughts, too. And feel free to take issue with anything I say. I certainly don't claim to have a lock on the truth.
When I'm not writing sermons, I may be writing songs on my guitar, taking photographs of the mountains, rivers, or streams in east TN and western NC, hiking the woods with my wife, or throwing a stick for our insatiable Border Collie, Todd.
*I have been posting my weekly sermons and monthly newsletters for several years on another site, Storied Faith at: pastorallentn.blogspot.com. While I will soon stop posting on that site, I will maintain it. So if you find anything on either of these sites interesting and helpful, please share with others!
Blessings and peace. Allen
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