Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | August 10, 2014

2014.08.10 “Stories From the Family of Faith: Joseph, Part 1” – Genesis 37: 1 – 4, 12 – 28

Central United Methodist Church

Stories From the Family of Faith:

Joseph, Part 1

Pastor David L. Haley

Genesis 37: 1 – 4, 12 – 28

August 10th, 2014

 Joseph'sCoat

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. 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.

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.”  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, and a man found him wandering in the fields; the man asked him, “What are you seeking?” “I am seeking my brothers,” he said; “tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock.” 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. 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.” – Genesis 37: 1 – 4, 12 – 28, the New Revised Standard Version

See if this story sounds familiar.

It begins in a far away land. Due to difficult circumstances, the family moves often.  Eventually, willingly or unwillingly – above a slave ship, to avoid a debtor’s prison, due to famine or economic hardship – a member of the family emigrates, to begin life in a new land. At first, life is hard, but eventually, through hard work and a few breaks, they get a leg up.

Meanwhile, back in the old country, the remainder of the family experiences hardship. As much as possible, the ex-patriot helps, sending money home, until finally, the whole family is able to emigrate, and a new life begins in a new land.

Unless we are Native American, this is the story of all our families, and many of us; it is only a question of how many generations ago. In a land of immigrants, where ancestral traditions are important, all of us are hyphenated Americans: as in African-American, Asian-American, Assyrian-Americans (and that’s just the “A”s). In our congregation, the list could go on and on.

From time to time, we may go back and visit the old country, which – in some cases – may educate us as to the reasons our ancestors left there in the first place. For example, if you go to Ireland, you will find a lot of rocks, but not much money. Sometimes, after visiting the old country, when asked what the favorite part of our trip was, our answer might be, “when the wheels of the return flight touched down at O’Hare.”

If this is our story, it is also the story of Joseph in the Old Testament book of Genesis, whose story we hear today and next Sunday.  If – as I have suggested – Joseph’s story is our story, then it should be no surprise that we like Joseph’s story so much.  Of course, it did not hurt that Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber made it into a musical mega-hit in “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”; but again, this may also only illustrate the story’s enduring appeal.

The story of Joseph brings us to the fourth generation of the patriarchs and matriarchs of the OT. For the three religions who make up “the people of the book” – Judaism, Christianity, Islam – this story is also the story of our family of faith.

As we have heard so far, it seems there has never been a more dysfunctional family than this one. And almost never has a story been told with more realism and moralism, with such a mix of approval and disapproval. To use the phrase the Bible uses, never have the sins of the fathers and mothers been more visited upon their children. Today, in particular, the story of Joseph raises the twin issues of family and fortune: what mistakes did they make, and all said and done, was it finally for good or bad?

The story opens by alerting us to the problem in the family: “Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age . . . 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.” Joseph, at this time, was 17: it therefore becomes a story that resonates with all of us raising teenagers.

You may note that I skipped a particularly important detail of the Joseph story: one of the ways Jacob flaunted his favoritism for Joseph was by giving him a “kethoneth passim,” (Hebrew: כְּתֹנֶת פַּסִּים‎). Often translated as a “coat of many colors,” it could also be translated as “colorful,” “embroidered,” or “striped,” or even – as it’s most bland – as “a robe with long sleeves,” which is how the NRSV translates it. No wonder – in our imagination – most of us, prefer “amazing Technicolor dreamcoat.” After all, isn’t that the kind of coat we’d like our parents to give us, and that we’d like to give to our children?

At any rate, whether it was Versace or Old Navy, you might think – after all the troubled family history in Genesis – Jacob – having suffered the consequences of parental favoritism himself – would have avoiding this mistake. From the story of Cain and Abel, to Isaac and Ishmael, to Jacob and Esau, favoritism in the Bible is a fatal family flaw, with consequences that endure for generations.

And yet before we blame them, we should confess that fathers and mothers are blind in every generation, our own included. We see our parents doing things and say, “When I have children, I will never ever do that.” Until the day comes when we do have children, and find ourselves – to our shock and surprise – doing the same thing our parents did. This is why, especially when there is domestic or sexual abuse in a family, intervention and treatment is so important; otherwise it tends to keep repeating, generation after generation. If you or someone you know experiences this, please break the silence and get help.

Again, before we condemn Jacob, we should acknowledge how much birth order shapes our lives. Firstborn children are often spoiled, privileged; parents are still in the learning curve. It’s always an uphill battle when two elder children marry each, an automatic prince and princess conflict. (How many are eldest children?) Youngest children like Joseph, on the other hand, get away with everything: by that time Mom and Dad are tired, and after all, it’s hard to see the flaws of the baby in the family. (How many are the youngest?) Middle born children can fade into the woodwork, falling somewhere in between. [How many are middle born?) As we have seen over and again in Genesis, families can be a curse or a blessing, often both at the same time.  Do I hear an Amen?

In Joseph’s case, it wasn’t just family dynamics. Joseph WAS a precocious, gifted child, and worst of all, he knew it. He was blessed with the gifts of physical beauty, dream interpretation, and his father’s love. But, ironically, it is these very gifts that would lead to his downfall, such that he winds up in slavery and exile. As we see time and again, great blessings are always mixed blessings; and great people have great flaws. (At least now we know what’s the matter with us!)

You know what happened.  While his brothers were out working, Joseph was at home (which also tells you something), so his father sent him out to check on them. Because he was so obviously his father’s favorite, not to mention an arrogant little snot, they resented him, and when they saw him coming, they said what most of the human race has said every since about visionaries like Joseph, like Jesus, or even Dr. King: “Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him . . . and we shall see what will become of his dreams.”  Little did they know what would become of his dreams, how in time it would save not only them but their people. You might even go so far as to say that, beginning with Joseph, it is the dreamer who always wins.

But not initially. For now Joseph is thrown into a pit, and, instead of being killed outright, is sold to a band of Midianites, who haul him off to sell him as a slave in Egypt. In a final twist of irony, just as Jacob had once deceived his father Isaac, with a garment, to make him think he was his favorite son, Esau; so now Jacob is deceived by being presented with Joseph’s bloodstained robe.  No matter how much we may have come to dislike Jacob, you can’t help but feel for him here:

“Jacob tore his clothes in grief, dressed in rough burlap, and mourned his son a long, long time. His sons and daughters tried to comfort him but he refused their comfort. “I’ll go to the grave mourning my son.” Oh, how his father wept for him.” (Genesis 37: 34-35, The Message)

And that’s where today’s story ends: Jacob, in mourning, holding Joseph’s beautiful bloodstained robe; meanwhile, unknown to Jacob, Joseph is alive but captive in Egypt.

I would think – wouldn’t you – that would have been a bleak time, a dark night of the soul for Joseph.  Bullied by his brothers, separated from his father, sold as a slave, Joseph had to literally be in the pits.  If Psalm 130 had been written yet, surely Joseph would have prayed it:  “Out of the depths I call to you, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice.” (Psalm 130: 1, 2a)

Based upon experience, I almost certainly know that there must have been such a moment in the lives of all of our ancestors who made the crossing, regardless of their circumstances, some worse than others. Bullied and beaten, abducted as a slave, family and friends left behind, far away, don’t know the language, don’t have a friend, how could one not despair, wonder about your choice, if you even had a choice. Surely, there came that moment when they all asked themselves, “Are you going to succumb or survive? And how are you going to do it?” How they answered that questioned may have determined that we are sitting here today.

Because, as we shall see, if the story of Joseph teaches us anything, it is that we should never be too quick in our lives to call the good things that happen to us GOOD, nor the bad things BAD, though they may initially appear to be.

I appreciate the old Chinese story that poses this question, “Who knows what is good and bad?” There was a farmer whose horse ran away. His neighbor commiserated, only to be told, “Who knows what’s good or bad?” The next day the horse returned, bringing a drove of wild horses it had befriended. The neighbor reappeared, with congratulations for the windfall. He received the same response: “Who knows what’s good or bad?”  Again this proved true, for the next day the farmer’s son tried to mount one of the wild horses and fell, breaking his leg. More commiserations from the neighbor, which elicited the question: “Who knows what is good or bad?” And for a fourth time the farmer’s point prevailed, for the next day soldiers came by commandeering for the army, and the son was exempted because of his injury.  “Who knows what is good or bad?”

So the story of Joseph teaches us. Because of his considerable gifts, he is hated by his brothers, and enslaved in Egypt.  Yet because, in Egypt, he rises from slavery to a position of prominence, he is able to save not only Egypt, but his family and people from famine. Yet because his family and people come to Egypt for bread, they too, wind up enslaved in Egypt. As the Rabbis put it most succinctly: “See the consequences of favoring one child over another,” said the Rabbis, “because of those few ounces of wool [the coat of Jacob gave Joseph], our people were enslaved in Egypt.”

As the saying goes, “Everything will be OK in the end. If everything is not OK, it is not the end.” Or, as Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber put it in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat:

“Hey, dreamer, don’t be so upset.

Hey, Joseph, you’re not beaten yet.

Go go go Joseph, you know what they say

Hang on now Joseph, you’ll make it some day

Don’t give up Joseph, fight ‘til you drop

We’ve read the book, and you come out on top.”

Not bad to remember for ourselves, as well.  Amen.

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