Narrative Lectionary Texts (embedded below): Genesis 37:3-8, 17b-22, 26-34; 50:15-21
This fall, we are trekking through the Old Testament again, this time watching for the recurring theme of promise. There was a promising start in the garden, the promise of paradise and purpose as the first humans tended the garden.
But this was followed by the broken understanding, the people choosing to believe that God would somehow hold back from them, not offering them the best, choosing to go against God’s wishes. And then facing the consequences.
Even in their exile, in their struggle to produce their own food in the reality of the same world we inhabit, Adam and Eve experienced God’s grace. God’s presence was a bit more distant, but the promise of care and provision remained.
They were still known and watched over, they were still beloved. Just as we are beloved in our still-not-as-it-should-be, still-not-as-it-will-be world.
Abraham’s relationship with God also reminds us that God is a keeper of promises. To be sure, we can never predict exactly how those promises will play out Or when. But as we consider the millions – maybe billions – of people who have walked this earth and who trace could their spiritual lineage to Abraham through his sons Ishmael and Isaac, God’s promise of heirs as countless as the stars in that ancient, unpolluted night sky is a promise kept.
In spite of Abraham’s faltering obedience, he ultimately displayed great faith, and was rewarded. And, as the apostle Paul writes, that faith was his righteousness.
Fast-forward now, from Abraham to Isaac, the child of promise. The long-awaited son of Abraham and Sarah. Isaac had an older half-brother, Ishmael, fathered by Abraham when Sarah – not unlike Adam and Eve – chose to act on her doubt that God would come through, could come through.
She chose to believe that God might somehow hold back, that she would never bear children. And so she offered up her bond-servant, Hagar. What could have been a lovely gift of surrogacy from one woman to another was marred by jealousy. And when God caused Sarah to conceive and give birth to Isaac, things went from bad to worse.
Abraham agreed to release Hagar and Ishmael from their bond, but only after God extended the promise to Ishmael, that as a descendant of Abraham, Ishmael would also be the father of a nation. We also see a prophecy that Ishmael would often be in conflict and others would be in conflict with him. His people would live in the east.
We don’t hear much more about Ishmael once they go to the wilderness, because the narrative focus shifts to Isaac and then Jacob. But we do see evidence of his descendants and their interactions with the Israelites.
Jacob was Abraham’s grandson, the second son of Isaac… (though not by much, as he and Esau were twins). Jacob becomes the heir instead of Esau when he gains his father’s blessing through deception.
He flees to his uncle where he prospers and earns his two wives, Rachel and Leah. Eventually, Jacob’s name is changed to Israel, and between his wives and their handmaidens he has twelve sons, the ancestors and namesakes of the twelve tribes of the Children of Israel. Just as a side note, they also had a daughter, Dinah..
Of those 12 sons, Joseph was the youngest.
And we’ll pick up our reading there…
37:3 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. 4 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. 5 Once Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more. 6 He said to them, “Listen to this dream that I dreamed. 7There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright; then your sheaves gathered around it, and bowed down to my sheaf.”
8 His brothers said to him, “Are you indeed to reign over us? Are you indeed to have dominion over us?” So they hated him even more because of his dreams and his words.
Now – you would think that Israel – Jacob – would have learned something from the conflict and drama of his youth. But as we see in many of our own households, people tend to carry the good and the bad of their family’s ways of being into the households we create through marriage.
That dysfunction that made you mental as a teenager will most likely play out in some way as you relate to your spouse or co-workers, room mates or children. Or all of the above!
Sometimes you fall into the same patterns without even noticing or at least not until it’s too late. Sometimes you fall of the ledge on the opposite side – overcompensating in hopes of avoiding the same trap.
My mom’s brother was just charming enough that he got away with more than she did. Mom found that really annoying. But she also began to suspect that because her parents seemed not to see or respond to his antics (and always cracked down on her)… they must have loved him more.
So it came as no surprise when my sisters and I were gathered here in Florida for Christmas a few years back, we all got identical t-shirts. We all opened them at the same time, along with my brother opening his while on the phone from Texas.
All four of the shirts said “Mom loves me best”
She thought it was clever. But I’m not sure it had the desired effect. More than one conversation with more than one sibling has raised concerns that not all the shirts were given with the identical levels of sincerity,.. or irony… Either way, that strange rivalry that exists between siblings had been awakened from hibernation.
That same dynamic had been simmering among Joseph and his brothers for several years. The robe didn’t help. Neither did the dream. After all, the symbolism clearly suggests that they will become subservient to him. Really, it is no surprise that they “hate him even more.”
It is hard not to sympathize with the brothers in this instance — Joseph has been stoking the fires… poking the bear. Honestly, He was a jerk.
So they decided to do something about it.
17b 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.
Ok – not even jerks deserve to to be thrown into a pit to die.
And those jerks you’re thinking of right now? No – not even those jerks…
And if even if he did think Joseph deserved that kind of death, Reuben probably had no desire to be the one responsible for causing his father that much pain. I mean, what kind of wrath might Israel unleash at that point?
Plus, there is the possibility of looking like a hero if Reuben is Joseph’s rescuer.
Then Judah pipes up… clever boy, this one…
26 Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? 27 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.
28 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.
And thus a Schmidt family tradition awaited… lying dormant for thousands of years, until the twins were born.
I’m not sure who made the threat first- mom, dad, my brother or me. But at some point in the juggling of all the diapers, bottles and crying jags that accompanied the first several months of life with twins, someone asked if we might be able to sell them to a passing band of Ishmaelites.
I’m pretty sure that all four of us kids, and perhaps my dad, only escaped our own times in exile because there were no Ishmaelites roaming Central Texas in the 70s or 80s.
But I digress. Let’s go on
29 When Reuben returned to the pit and saw that Joseph was not in the pit, he tore his clothes. 30 He returned to his brothers, and said, “The boy is gone; and I, where can I turn?” 31 Then they took Joseph’s robe, slaughtered a goat, and dipped the robe in the blood.
32 They had the long robe with sleeves taken to their father, and they said, “This we have found; see now whether it is your son’s robe or not.”
33 He recognized it, and said, “It is my son’s robe! A wild animal has devoured him; Joseph is without doubt torn to pieces.” 34 Then Jacob tore his garments, and put sackcloth on his loins, and mourned for his son many days.
Reuben was the first to mourn.
Perhaps he mourned his brother. Perhaps he mourned his opportunity to be the hero. Perhaps it was the recognition that his relationship with Jacob was in the balance as well.
Listen to his words when he realizes Joseph is gone: When Reuben returned to the pit and saw that Joseph was not in the pit, he tore his clothes. 30 He returned to his brothers, and said, “The boy is gone; and I, where can I turn? In the Hebrew, his repetition of the “I” is even more emphatic than it appears in the English translation.
Then, Instead of confessing all to his father, Reuben goes along with the lie the brothers tell their father, that Joseph has been killed by wild animals
Ultimately, Joseph is sold to Potiphar in Egypt. Through a series of twists and turns, he finds himself in a seat of great power and influence. His prophecies make it possible for Egypt to survive a famine that was so severe people from neighboring countries came seeking aid.
Eventually, that included Joseph’s brothers. They made a couple of trips to Egypt, the first time not knowing they had been in the presence of their long-lost brother.
Joseph sets them up, a bit, so that he might see Benjamin, and so that his family might be saved from starvation. Eventually, even Jacob comes to Egypt and meets the Pharaoh. He blesses Joseph’s children before finally dying.
Let’s take a look at the last portion of the reading…
50:15 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?” 16 So they approached Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this instruction before he died, 17 “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.
18 Then his brothers also wept, fell down before him, and said, “We are here as your slaves.” 19 But Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? 20 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. 21 So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.
It’s hard to know who we are meant to identify with in this story. Certainly, we want to be like Joseph, lucky and skillful enough, faithful and gifted enough to overcome adversity. And we are eager to look past his faults and failings, just as we prefer to look past our own.
We like being the hero of the story, whose choices are helped along by fate (and a promise-keeping God).
We like the idea of being in the right place at the right time to see God’s purposes worked out in our own long and winding roads.
The truth is, we are also a bit like the other brothers. Jealous, plotting… and dangerous when we feel cheated. And Rueben, not a bad guy, but not really all that good, either. Definitely interested in looking good. We are certainly a bit like Jacob, wrestling with God, unable to love as unfailingly and fairly as God.
But as we think about the promises of God, we need to look beyond the people with whom we relate… What is God up to in the midst of all this human messiness, this messy human-ness?
Certainly, God does not will that Jacob’s sons would hate one another, especially to the degree that is leads to violence… (what kind of a God does that?)
We’ve talked before about the tension caused by the fact that God has given us agency, intellect, and free will, even as we believe that God can and does intervene and direct us.
In other words, the spirit of God is at work in a world that is shaped by human actions.
God is present in this story through the actions of others, of Joseph, of pharaoh, of all those who move Joseph’s story along toward its positive conclusion.
And so, generations before God steps into time and takes on flesh, there is thus a strongly incarnational element in the way God is at work in this long and complicated narrative of creation, separation and eventually – reconciliation – between God and humankind.
When we were commissioned to the work of making disciples and teaching all that Christ commanded, we were commissioned into that same work, becoming the Body, God’s incarnational plan for for reconciling the peoples of the world to one another and to God.
So what does that mean, precisely? Or as Paul might ask.. how then shall we live?
For one thing, we don’t get to throw people into pits. Physically or metaphorically. Yes, there are a bunch of people I would love to walk right up to a pit, distract and then gently push while they aren’t looking. I know there are plenty of people who would be happy to do likewise with me.
I suspect that if we were to dig enough pits for everyone to dispose of the people they would just as soon not attempt to get along with… well, the world would be awfully hard to navigate.
But that isn’t who we are called to be. That isn’t what we are called to do. We are made in the image of the God who Reconciles, the God who Loves, the God who Rescues and Redeems. We are made in the image of the One the psalmist thanks for raising him out of the pit. The One to whom I have given thanks for not leaving me where I have have been pushed, or where I have fallen.
Thus, we are to listen for the cries of those who have been rejected or set aside, those who have been put down and held down, those with whom we would rather not associate because they are not to our liking for one of eleventy-hundred reasons…. and when we hear their cries, we are to walk over to the pit from which they call out, put out a hand, and raise them up.
And we are to be about the work of filling in the holes that we have dug, teaching others to fill in theirs. We are to be about the business of speaking up and showing up, wherever those cries are heard, learning about the bigger picture and seeking real change, real healing, real wholeness.
Because the long and winding road that Joseph walked may have started with a pit, but it ended with a family reunited and made whole. Isn’t that worth getting a little dirty for?