Over the last few weeks we have been looking at the story of Jacob who was renamed Israel. His story and the stories that follow are identity stories of the Jewish people, the people of Israel. They are stories of a dysfunctional family over the generations. Their dysfunction is not unique to this family or to Israel and so can also be read as stories of humanity, the human family. In a chapter before this week’s reading (Genesis 35) we are told that Isaac died and the once estranged brothers Esau and Jacob buried him. The family that was fractured by behaviour of Rebecca and Jacob, both choosing favourite children, was reconciled.
We hope that children will learn from our mistakes and we fear is that they will repeat them. The opening verses of this week’s reading tell us that Jacob has not learnt the lesson as favouritism continues to feature. The tension is set as once again it seems the younger son, Joseph, will be given the father’s blessing and the lion’s share of the inheritance at least if the infamous coat is anything to go by.
I love the story of Joseph. It has been my favourite Old Testament / Jewish Scriptures / TANAKH story since being a little girl. As a primary aged child, I would sit in church most weeks and instead of listening to the sermon I would open the bible and read this story. I am not sure what attracted me to it back then but as I got older my love of this story may have been influenced by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical comedy Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. When in high school I was very excited by the opportunity to go on a school excursion to see it. You might want to check out these videos of the film version of ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat’ starring Donny Osmond as Joseph and Maria Friedman as the Narrator.
Although I love the story, I do not love the character Joseph. I think that is part of the point as one of the first things we learn about Joseph through the narrator is that he was a bit of a tattletale, bringing back to their father a bad report of the brothers (Genesis 37:2). We do not know exactly what Joseph said, or whether it was correct. The Hebrew construct can mean “lies” or evil whispering. Joseph is also a bit of a bragger and arrogant. After having a dream about his brothers bowing down before him, he decides to tell his brothers. He is not only the favourite, but he rubs it in their faces. Joseph is acting too big for his britches.
Joseph’s brothers were tending the flocks when Jacob sent Joseph to check on them. Remember what happened after the last time Joseph went and checked on his brothers and reported back to their father? There was real fear of Joseph delivering another unfavourable report to the father. When they see Joseph coming they said: “Let’s kill him, throw him into a pit, and tell Dad he was killed by a wild animal.” I wonder how serious this comment was? Was there real intent or was it an exaggerated outburst of anger? I am not justifying what they did, only the way we hear it. Until the brothers act on their anger, they are acting just like brothers do. Reuben, the oldest, steps up to appease the anger of the siblings and suggests throwing him into a pit, empty well or cistern, rather than killing him. This is the first of several literal and metaphorical descents (and ascents) Joseph will make in the story. Drawn out of the pit, he is taken “down” to Egypt (Genesis 39:1) and sold into slavery.
Ruben tried to defuse the situation. He is acting like the oldest brother and the redeemer for Joseph. His intention was to come back and rescue his brother (Genesis 37:22). That way the brothers would get their revenge and Joseph would hopefully learn something and rejoin the family. But it turns pear-shaped when the plan changes. Judah see the potential of material gain by selling him to the traveling caravan of Ishmaelites. The brothers valued “profit” (Genesis 37: 26) over the “brotherhood.” The selling of their brother for twenty shekels of silver highlights the evil that is done. They valued material wealth more than kinship.
Try to place yourself in the place of the brothers. Why were they so willing to strip their younger brother and sell him into a life of slavery? What were their feelings as they saw their brother coming to them? Conflicting emotions of both fraternal loyalty and sheer hate. They probably were afraid for their own futures. Their father’s clear favouritism surely caused pain, masked by jealousy. Ultimately these ten older brothers boosted themselves to protect their privilege, and sacrificed the life of their brother in the process.
In what ways do we act like these brothers protecting our own privilege at the expense of those in marginalized spaces?
Rev Tammy Hollands