A fair bit of water has passed under the bridge since last weeks reading about Jacob. He has met with Esau at an emotional reunion; there is the shocking incident of rape against Jacob’s daughter and ensuing retribution; Jacob’s escape to Bethel, the building of an altar, God’s further blessing and a reiteration that Jacob’s name would now be Israel, the promise of the land and an entire nation of descendants; the death of Jacob’s beloved Rachel as she gave birth to Benjamin; and the death of Jacob’s father Isaac. Meanwhile Esau had been living in “another land” (Genesis 33-36)
And now we come to the life and times of Jacob’s sons. A collection of brothers and half brothers with four different mothers: Leah, who was not Jacob’s first choice of wife, but a marriage he was tricked into by his father-in-law; Bilhah, Rachel’s slave, who Rachel ‘gave’ to Jacob so that she could have a child for her; Zilpah, Leah’s slave, who she ‘gave’ to Jacob to have children for her; and finally Rachel has her two sons.
Even allowing for a different cultural setting this must have been a melting pot emotions, jealousies and jostling for your place in this family.
Joseph and His Brothers
37 Jacob continued to live in the land of Canaan, where his father had lived, 2 and this is the story of Jacob’s family.
Joseph, a young man of seventeen, took care of the sheep and goats with his brothers, the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s concubines. He brought bad reports to his father about what his brothers were doing.
3 Jacob loved Joseph more than all his other sons, because he had been born to him when he was old. He made a long robe with full sleeves for him. 4 When his brothers saw that their father loved Joseph more than he loved them, they hated their brother so much that they would not speak to him in a friendly manner.
Joseph Is Sold and Taken to Egypt
12 One day when Joseph’s brothers had gone to Shechem to take care of their father’s flock, 13 Jacob said to Joseph, “I want you to go to Shechem, where your brothers are taking care of the flock.”
Joseph answered, “I am ready.”
14 His father told him, “Go and see if your brothers are safe and if the flock is all right; then come back and tell me.” So his father sent him on his way from Hebron Valley.
Joseph arrived at Shechem 15 and was wandering around in the country when a man saw him and asked him, “What are you looking for?”
16 “I am looking for my brothers, who are taking care of their flock,” he answered. “Can you tell me where they are?”
17 The man said, “They have already left. I heard them say that they were going to Dothan.” So Joseph went after his brothers and found them at Dothan.
18 They saw him in the distance, and before he reached them, they plotted against him and decided to kill him. 19 They said to one another, “Here comes that dreamer. 20 Come on now, let’s kill him and throw his body into one of the dry wells. We can say that a wild animal killed him. Then we will see what becomes of his dreams.”
21 Reuben heard them and tried to save Joseph. “Let’s not kill him,” he said. 22 “Just throw him into this well in the wilderness, but don’t hurt him.” He said this, planning to save him from them and send him back to his father. 23 When Joseph came up to his brothers, they ripped off his long robe with full sleeves. 24 Then they took him and threw him into the well, which was dry.
25 While they were eating, they suddenly saw a group of Ishmaelites traveling from Gilead to Egypt. Their camels were loaded with spices and resins. 26 Judah said to his brothers, “What will we gain by killing our brother and covering up the murder? 27 Let’s sell him to these Ishmaelites. Then we won’t have to hurt him; after all, he is our brother, our own flesh and blood.” His brothers agreed, 28 and when some Midianite traders came by, the brothers pulled Joseph out of the well and sold him for twenty pieces of silver to the Ishmaelites, who took him to Egypt.Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28
It is difficult to read this story and not be influenced by anything Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber have already said and portrayed! But we’ll give it a go.
What was Jacob doing? It is parenting 101 that you do not have favourites, and certainly no child or it’s siblings should have the feeling that one is more special than any others. Yet that seems to be the feeling that they all understand – and so inevitably that brings trouble. Was Jacob still playing out his childhood experiences of when he had been his mother’s favourite and his brother was his father’s favourite? Had he learned nothing of the life-time damage such blatant favouritism can cause?
Joseph bring back reports to his father of his brothers misdemeanours. Telling tales? Stirring? Naivety? Trying to cement his place as his father’s number one? Or genuinely thinking he was doing the right thing because they were doing the wrong thing and his father should know? Most likely a combination – we will never know. But that was how it was. At times that is how families play out.
But Jacob makes a show of his favouritism of Joseph the presentation of the infamous coat.
That for his brothers was the final straw. They could no longer bear Joseph.
Jacob sends Joseph out to check on his brothers and the flock, and even as they see him coming, they decide he has to go. Perhaps they thought he was coming to take back more tales of what they had got wrong, or perhaps their jealousies just overwhelmed them. The plot to kill him and say he has been killed by a wild animal forms in their minds, and a plan is made. Reuben is the lone voice, petitioning for his survival – though even he is content to leave him in a well in the wilderness, where one would assume he would be unlikely to survive.
The arrival of a camel train on it’s way to Egypt turns their minds to a different solution though – and the opportunity to make some money. They appear to have a realisation that this is actually their brother, so maybe they can get him out of their lives, and out of their fathers spotlight, via different means.
Joseph is gone from their lives and they have twenty pieces of silver.
(I’ve never noticed before the echo of the pieces of silver… Joseph is out of his brothers lives for twenty pieces of silver, Jesus was out of the lives of the Chief Priests for thirty (Mtt 26:14-16) )
This is a tale of the mess some humans can get themselves in to. One action leads to another, which escalates out of control. An error made in one generation is perpetuated in the next, with similar awful consequences. God is seemingly absent in this whole sorry story. Yet…
Not wishing to give away the rest of the story, the events of this passage eventually lead to Joseph being in the right place at the right time and able to do a lot of good (though ultimately that becomes a problem!) Not that Joseph’s brothers were in the right or did the correct thing, but that sometimes circumstances that humans make a mess of can ultimately work out. God was not in the jealousies and the plotting, but he was still able to work in the result.
This story is part of the Old Testament cycle of something going wrong, God stepping in and doing something amazing, the people go ‘Oh wow God, you’re awesome!’, then they forget about him and do what they want, it goes wrong – and so it goes on. God is constantly doing powerful, wonderful things; and people quickly forget and try and make things happen their way.
It is so easy to get caught up in cycles of behaviour. For our actions to come from how we are feeling and not what we know, deep down, is the correct way; to react from our pain, confusion and anger, whether temporary or long nurtured. None of us is exempt or faultless.
My overwhelming reaction to this story, which is so familiar it is hard to get a handle on, is of confession and prayer.
Forgive me Lord
for the times I get things very wrong.
When I go my way,
do my thing
and expect you to bless it;
rather than seeking your way
and doing that.
Forgive me my stupidity,
the actions I take
that have bad effects on others,
the times I let my anger,
rule my head,
and my actions.
when I perpetuate
the errors of the past,
when I fail to see the cycle,
or refuse to break it.
Heal me Lord
from the scars
that make me
and make wrong choices.
from how I think
and lead me to what you think.