Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, 45b Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28
Last week, I talked about our Family of Faith—a family that stretches back for thousands of years. We have lots of characters in our family, some embarrassing events, and a number of miraculous events—but our Scriptures are full of this family history! Today, I want to talk about an early event in the life of our family, one that shows how to put the FUN in dysFUNctional! And I want to explore how God can use EVEN A DYSFUNCTIONAL FAMILY to work God’s purposes. It’s the story of “Jacob and Sons.”
The family in our story has all the ingredients for unhealthy behavior:
- JOSEPH is a tattle-tail, bringing “a bad report about his brothers” to their father;
- His BROTHERS are all jealous of him because he is their father’s favorite son;
- There is plenty of intrigue as the brothers first plot to KILL Joseph, and then Reuben talked them into only throwing him into a pit (so that he could go back later and get him out). Way to go, Reuben. Maybe that’s why they named a sandwich after you?
- Then, unbelievably, they sold him into slavery so that they could 1. Get rid of him and 2. Make a little money to boot!
- In our reading this morning, we didn’t get to hear one particularly dastardly detail, which is this: They took his special coat and dipped it into the blood of a goat they had slaughtered—and they took the bloody coat to their father so that he would believe that a wild animal had killed his most-beloved son. And these brothers let Jacob grieve the death of Joseph, knowing full well that he was actually still alive. Amazing. Cruelty.
Now, friends, this sounds to me like the worst plot of the most despicable soap opera in the history of daytime television! But, this is our family we are talking about! (Some of us, with wacky families, can take comfort from being in such good company!)
Of course, there’s a reason for all the jealousy and conflict in this family. Jacob, the patriarch, had two wives—who were sisters. Polygamy is trouble enough, but these gals were sisters with their own history of conflict. Leah, the elder, was not pretty like Rachel, and Jacob had to marry her first before he could marry the sister that he truly loved. (That was the tradition then and there.) Are you following? Now, add into this hotbed of discontent the fact that both wives had maidservants, and Jacob had children with them as well. Finally, his beloved Rachel had a son—Joseph—so is it any wonder that Jacob favored him?
As if that wasn’t enough, there was another reason the brothers hated Joseph: he had dreams of superiority that he was all-too-ready to share with them. Here’s a sample: “We were binding sheaves of grain out in the field when suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright, while your sheaves gathered around mine and bowed down to it!” No wonder they hated the little creep!
And they had to hate him a lot to do something so despicable…sending him away to a foreign land.
You and I see spending time in a foreign country as an adventure, an opportunity to see other places and meet new people. But in the time of this story, being sent to foreigners would have been perceived as being murdered. Four thousand years ago, people were very tribally-oriented. The family was everything, even one as full of conflict as this one was.
Being banished from the family would have felt like a death sentence. There were strong suspicions of “OTHERS,” and sending him off as a slave with a caravan of Ishmaelites heading for Egypt—well, it seemed like the perfect punishment for this little creep who was such a source of grief for these brothers!
By the way—Ishmaelites (modern-day Arabs) were distant cousins of these brothers. Their great-grandfather, Abraham, had fathered a son with his wife’s maidservant. Then, finally, Sarah gave birth to a son of her own, and she insisted that Abraham throw Ishmael and his mother out into the desert. (Talk about a dysfunctional family!) Now these descendants of Ishmael come along and buy their cousin to sell him into slavery in Egypt. The price? 20 pieces of silver.
I TOLD YOU THIS WAS WORSE THAN ANY SOAP OPERA!
I wish that Genesis was a little more forthcoming regarding Joseph’s experience. I wonder: What was he feeling? Hurt? Angry? Betrayed? After all, he had been on the top of the heap back in his home territory. (You could even say that he was a spoiled BRAT.) Now, he was on his way to Egypt to be sold into slavery. The Psalm we heard today tells us “His feet were hurt with fetters, his neck was put in a collar of iron.”
I’m also curious about what Joseph was learning. In chapter 39, he is bought by Potiphar, the captain of the guard. He worked hard, and the Lord was with him, and eventually Potiphar put him in charge of the whole household. This was not the spoiled little tattle-tale we saw back in chapter 37! Something was happening in Joseph!
Now, next week we are going to take up the continuing story of Joseph and his brothers. We will see how God used all this messed-up family stuff to work out God’s purposes. I wouldn’t be surprised if Joseph was Paul’s inspiration for what he wrote to the Romans: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God.” As Christians, we can look at a cross and see, not just a horrible instrument of torture and death, but a symbol of the LIFE that is given to you and to me through Jesus Christ. You see, even though it was the Romans who crucified Jesus, it was actually members of our family— the religious leaders of the day—who arranged to have him put to death.
And, as awful and shocking as that is, we have the great news that Christ is risen from the dead, offering us life as well! See—God uses all things to work for the good—even a family as messed-up as ours.
And that gives me hope as I look at all the trouble we have in our world today. I wonder: What is God doing in all this?!
In time, the whole story will be revealed. But, in this moment, I can already glimpse some of God’s activity! For example, our little church has been forced to step into the 21st Century, reaching out beyond our walls to folks who (most likely) would never have come to our building. Just as the Apostles were impelled out into the streets on the Day of Pentecost; just as persecution of the early church scattered them beyond Jerusalem and even into Gentile territory, God’s Holy Spirit is using our current restrictions to help us discover new ways to BE THE CHURCH and to SHARE OUR FAITH!
I look forward to seeing what else God is doing! God uses all things to work for the good!
Prayer: God, we give you thanks that you can take even the awful stuff we give you and do something wonderful with it. Help us to trust that you are in the middle of all the mess, and give us the kind of faith that looks for what you are doing, even when we can’t see it. We ask in the name of Christ, amen.