September 29, 2013
“Making a Case for the Brothers”
The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
12 Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock near Shechem. 13 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.” 14 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, 15 and a man found him wandering in the fields; the man asked him, “What are you seeking?” 16 “I am seeking my brothers,” he said; “tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock.” 17 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. 18 They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him. 19 They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. 20 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.” 21 But when Reuben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.” 22 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. 23 So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the long robe with sleeves that he wore; 24 and they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.
When best-selling authors Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish were writing what was to be another best-selling book on parenting, “How to talk so kids will listen & listen so kids will talk,” they ran into a problem. The chapter on sibling rivalry was getting out of hand – it was over a hundred pages long and they were only halfway through it.
Whenever they traveled around speaking about parenting the very mention of the words sibling rivalry would trigger an immediate and intense reaction. Parents would say: “the fighting drives me up the wall,” “I don’t know what will happen first. Either they’ll kill each other or I’ll kill them.”
Take two or more kids in competition for their parents’ love and attention. Add to that the envy that one child feels for the accomplishments of another, the resentment that each child feels for the privileges of the others, the personal frustrations that they don’t dare let out on anyone else but a brother or sister, and it is relational dynamite.
So the authors wrote an entire book just on parenting siblings, called “Siblings without Rivalry” and in it are chapters about comparing children, putting them in roles, showing preference for a child.
Many of us who grew up with siblings know exactly what all these things feel like.
When Faber and Mazlish gathered parents together to talk about their own challenges of parenting siblings, the most gut-wrenching stories were not about their children but their own experiences – always being told by a sister that they weren’t pretty, always feeling pressured to be the good child because an older sibling had a mental illness, becoming a workaholic because of always wanting to keep up with older siblings. Story after story of anger and resentment because of favoritism and unfairness.
All things we see play out in the story of Joseph.
The text we read this morning drops us in the middle of the story where the anger of Joseph’s brothers is so great that they are ready to kill him, abandon him and sell him into slavery.
Here is how the story begins: “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.”
Joseph has two dreams actually both involving all his brothers, even his mother and father, bowing down before him. And those dreams made things worse.
I’m going to make a case for the brothers – if we were in their shoes, we might have felt the exact same way. George Bush (not the president) wrote a classic commentary on Genesis and argued that grammatically that line about Joseph tending the flocks with his brothers should be taken to mean that he was the superintendent; he was the one in charge of the flocks and therefore of the brothers as well. For that reason it would not be out of place for him to send back a report to his father about the activity of his brothers.
In addition Joseph had already been given the birthright from his father, meaning he was getting the wealth, power, privileges and prestige that came with it. Reuben had lost it by sleeping with his father’s wife. Joseph was the first born of the second wife, so although he wasn’t the next oldest he got the birthright.
Furthermore, Joseph was given this outward symbol of authority, or superior rank. In this family there were twelve sons born of four different mothers but fairly close in age, all but Benjamin being born within a span of 6 or 7 years.
But Joseph was the youngest besides Benjamin, and he is seventeen when we pick up the story – a man in his culture as are all his older brothers but he is given authority other them.
His authority, his favor in his father’s eyes is marked for everyone to see with this coat that he is given. The word that is used there in the Hebrew for the coat has been translated as a coat of many colors or a coat with sleeves, or an ornamental coat. The only other place that word in used is in 2 Samuel where it describes the royal garment of King David’s daughter.
So it was a distinctive garment – an explicit sign that Joseph was the favorite. In the movie “A League of the Their Own” another story about sibling rivalry, the younger sister in the story, Kitt, is complaining about how her parents favor her older sister Dottie. She says, “You ever hear Dad introduce us to people? “This is our daughter Dottie, and this is our other daughter, Dottie’s sister.” Should’ve just had you and bought a dog!” So it was for Joseph’s brothers.
This pattern of showing favoritism, especially to a younger sibling, goes back generations: Abraham picking Isaac over Ishmael, Isaac favoring Esau but Rebekah picking Jacob, Jacob favoring the younger sister Rachel over the older sister Leah.
The opening line from the novel Anna Karenina is “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This is how this family has been unhappy for generations.
Add to all that the intensity of the dreams that Joseph, somewhat unwisely, shared with his family. It is the dreams that the brothers mention as they create their plot to kill Joseph. One commentator points out that the dreams were the tipping point, perhaps confirming their fears, that Joseph would ultimately be the powerful one in the family. Fear so often breeds hatred
Miroslav Wolf in his book about hatred and forgiveness, “Exclusion and Embrace”, writes about how we exclude, we hate, because we are fearful of “anything that blurs our boundaries, disturbs our identities . . . Others strike us like objects that are ‘out of place,’ like ‘dirt’ that needs to be removed in order to return the sense of propriety to our world.”
And so the brothers hated Joseph and wanted to remove him. He was a walking, dreaming, coat-wearing reminder of profound unfairness, of what happens when one sibling is loved too much, and the others too little.
Jeffery Kluger, a senior editor of science and technology at Time Magazine states that how we react to unfairness is “powerfully encoded in the human genome – we process that phenomenon through the same lobe in our brain the processes disgust meaning we react to the idea of being cheated the same way we react to putrefied meat.”
So you can imagine the feelings of the brothers as they see Joseph coming towards them as they pasture the herd, highly visible in his long sleeved coat, more than fifty miles from the security of his father’s house. They decide to kill him and throw him into a pit, then they decide to just throw him into a pit to let him die, then they decide to sell him into slavery and make some money off the venture. So it was that Joseph ends up in Egypt and on goes the story.
When I was in seminary one of the ways we were taught to approach a sermon was called the four pages, which meant there were four movements of the story to tell. Here are the four movements: the problem in the text, the problem in the world, the grace in the text, the grace in the world. Here is how this works for us with this story:
The problem in the text: We have a family aching under the burden of resentment, jealousy, fear, hatred, Siblings who hate each other because of favoritism shown by a parent. But also siblings living with terrible guilt – later in Genesis as they are facing a grilling from Joseph who they do not recognize they say to each other, “Truly we are guilty concerning our brother, because we saw the distress of his soul when he pleaded with us, yet we would not listen; therefore this distress has come upon us”
The problem in the world: That most of us reading this passage have relationships stained by the very same things – old hurts that still fester, broken relationships, fear, hatred, perhaps we have not killed a sibling or sold them into slavery, but maybe we wanted to. Maybe some of us are still fighting comparisons with a brother or sister or still feeling like mom or dad loved someone else best.
The grace in the text: The grace in the text is something we have to wait for. Theologian Søren Kierkegaard wrote “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” Such is Joseph’s story. God is there all along but hidden, working in spite of the foolishness of Joseph or the misguided love of Jacob, or the anger of the brothers. In the end Joseph’s placement in Egypt means the survival of his family, and not only survival but forgiveness and reconciliation with his brothers.
This is how the story ends (this is after Jacob has died): “Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?” So they approached Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this instruction before he died, ‘Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.’ Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father.”
Joseph wept when they spoke to him. Then his brothers also wept, fell down before him, and said, “We are here as your slaves.”
But Joseph said to them, “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, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.”
The grace in the world: Depending how deep the wrongs, it may be a long time for us as well to experience this kind of forgiveness or reconciliation. We may not have lived far enough forward, to the see the grace in the rear view mirror. But the promise of this text is that it is not impossible, it is not beyond hope. And it is always the case, even when we don’t even speak God’s name, God is still there, bigger than our pettiness and blindness and fear.