A Dreamer’s Rude Awakening, Genesis 37:1-4,12-28
Plymouth First United Methodist, August 9, 2020
Pastor Toni Carmer
He was 17, and as far as he was concerned, his family was lucky to have him. He was without question (in his mind), the best looking, most intelligent son of Israel, and Israel (who we once knew as Jacob) had a lot of sons. By this time, Israel has 12 sons and one daughter, but Joseph, being the 11th son and 12th child—was the first child born to Rachel, and Rachel had always been Jacob’s favorite wife.
Israel looked at Joseph and he remembered his beloved Rachel. He remembered the time they shared together and her joy at finally giving Jacob a son. Joseph had some of her features—his eyes were the color of her eyes. Israel could see her smile and hear her laughter in Joseph. She had later borne Benjamin as well, and he was certainly precious to Israel, but as his youngest son had entered his life, Rachel had left it, and so his similarities to his mother sometimes triggered a grief that still hung over him, even though years had passed.
But here is Joseph, bigger than life. Did I also mention he was the best dressed of all his siblings? That’s because his father had given him a luxurious coat, a garment made with sleeves, which was distinctive enough that you could pick Joseph out of a crowd. And he loved to wear that thing. Watching him strut around in it made Israel smile, but it caused his brothers to roll their eyes. There he goes again…as though he’s better than the rest of us.
Israel was blind to the way he showed this favoritism and how it played out in the relationships between his sons. Whether Israel sent Joseph out purposely to spy on his brothers to bring back reports of what they were doing, or he just did it on his own, Joseph brought back “tales” of their activities—in other words, he was a tattle tale. And who feels comfortable being around someone eager to catch you making a wrong move to report back to dad, your boss, whoever? Life was just simpler when Joseph wasn’t around.
His brothers couldn’t even speak peaceably to him; that is, they couldn’t greet him with the expected and customary “shalom”. You can hardly blame them.
But it gets even worse. Joseph begins to dream and can hardly wait to share his dreams with his brothers. The result, as any clear-thinking person would imagine, is that “his brothers hated him all the more.” His first dream involves sheaves of grain standing in a field. Joseph’s sheaf stands up very straight, while the sheaves of his brothers gather around his and bow down to him. Now, here’s a dream designed to cool the anger of some jealous brothers! “Are you really going to rule over us?” they shout at him in disgust.
But Joseph can’t leave it alone.
He has another dream and again rushes out to share it with his angry brothers. This time, “the sun, moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” This dream is even too much for his doting father, who “rebukes him.” The verb for “rebuke” is used several times to describe God’s shouts to the sea or at the nations, so it is a powerful expression. Jacob, the patriarch, can hardly believe that he and the boy’s mother are actually going to “bow ourselves down to the ground before you.” Of course, we know the rest of the story and that it will happen just as the dreams say, but Joseph’s words still are boastful and arrogant and we’re not surprised that his brothers hatch a plan to remove him from their family picture.
The brothers go to pasture the flock near Shechem, a long distance away—about 60 miles—from the sight of the story at Hebron. Shechem doesn’t hold good memories for the family. It is the place where their sister Dinah was raped and the family retaliated by deceiving the Shechemites and slaughtering them in retaliation. (You can read that story in Genesis 34). Joseph, perhaps on another spying mission for his father, goes toward Shechem to discover whether or not it is shalom with these brothers who never speak shalom to him anyway. Jacob, basically, is sending his favorite to his death.
Joseph arrives in Shechem but his brothers aren’t there. He is alone and defenseless; his father’s protection doesn’t stretch this great distance. A stranger (perhaps a part of the brother’s plan?) meets Joseph and tells him that his brothers have moved the flock even further from Hebron, to Dothan, which is probably another 8 miles or so away.
As he approaches, Joseph’s brothers see him from far away. (It’s that coat that distinguishes him, you know.) They devise a simple plan: They will kill him and say that a wild beast has eaten him. The dreamer and his dreams will no longer plague their existence.
As they plot, Reuben, the firstborn son of Jacob, suggests an alternative. “Let’s not kill him, but instead, let’s throw him into a pit, so his blood won’t be on our hands.” The narrator of the story tells us that Reuben says this in order to “rescue him out of their hands, to restore him to his father.”
At first glance, we may see this as a brotherly act meant for goodwill, to save his little brother’s life and protect his father from some pain. But most likely, there’s more to it than that. In Chapter 35, we’re told that Reuben slept with Bilhah, his father’s concubine (she was originally Rachel’s maidservant). This act was much more than a personal transgression—it was a political statement announcing his intention of taking control of the community/of replacing his father as leader of their tribe. This act had estranged Reuben from his father. He’s lost the rights of the firstborn and they had been passed on to Judah. But perhaps saving Joseph’s life would restore him—at least somewhat—to his father’s favor.
The brothers accept Reuben’s advice: they strip the hated robe off Joseph and throw him into a dry pit. By now, they’ve worked up an appetite, so while they’re eating they notice a passing caravan of Ishmaelites on their way to Egypt. The brothers are shepherds, not practiced criminals, and so they’re making up the plan as they go along. Judah suggests they sell Joseph rather than kill him—"he is our brother, our own flesh, after all.”
While they’re scheming and arguing and figuring out their best course of action, some other traders—Midianites—come by and pull Joseph out of the pit. They sell Joseph to the Ishmaelites for 20 silver shekels, which isn’t a lot of money, he’s a scrawny thing, I guess, and they take him off to Egypt.
That’s a little different interpretation of the story than I’ve read in the past—but look at the words and see what you think. Interesting. It does explain however, Reuben’s reaction when he returns to the pit and discovers that Joseph is gone. In anguish he tears his clothes and shouts, “where shall I go?” His way back to his father’s favor has just disappeared.
Beyond our reading today, we read that the brothers dip Joseph’s hated robe into animal blood and bring it to their father for him to see, with no words of explanation. Jacob sees the robe is Joseph’s, and interprets that he has been devoured by wild beasts. Jacob descends into extreme mourning and refuses to be comforted.
Though Joseph is now out of their hair and they really don’t know the details of how that has happened, he is far from dead. He will be sold—not to work on the quarries or great building projects in Egypt, but as a household slave to a rich and powerful man, Potiphar, a captain of Pharaoh’s personal body guard. Though the brothers may think they have seen the last of their arrogant little brother, their relationship with him is by no means over.
Joseph’s story has just begun.
A few things come to mind as we look at this first part of Joseph’s story. You may think of some others, but here are my ideas:
First, Joseph’s behavior in light of his father’s favor: Did knowing he was beloved make it okay to “lord” that favor over others? He was young and he had much to learn, and obviously he does learn by the end of his story—but he treated his brothers without regard for their value and dignity and alienated them in the process.
I have experienced Christians over the years who have treated those who don’t share their faith as less worthy because they have different beliefs and ideas. Sometimes Christians treat other Christians that way, too. How is that helpful? How does that live out the good news and make disciples? It doesn’t. It seems that it’s worth noting that as Joseph and his family eventually move into Egypt, a foreign land where beliefs are very different—that they are cared for in a generous way, good things happen, and God continues to work through those whose faith and beliefs are very different.
Secondly, we can see in this story how small actions make a big difference. Reuben, even though his intentions may not have been fully selfless, saved Joseph’s life and paved a way for God to work by stopping his brothers from killing Joseph, convincing them instead to put him in the cistern. That’s still not a good thing, but it kept Joseph alive, and God saved the family as a result of it. God worked through this small act.
Perhaps we hesitate to act in some situations because we feel like what we do is so miniscule in comparison to what needs to be done. But taking one step in the right direction, invites other small steps. Gives us confidence to try another step. And together, if we’re all doing something positive, something good and surprising can happen as God blesses the actions and uses them.
Though it’s a glimpse into next week’s story, I always have in mind Joseph’s statement to his brothers as the end of the story: You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives (Genesis 50:20).
God never stops working. When relationships are bad; God keeps working. When the job is lost; God keeps working. When we get sick, or tired, or feel lost or alone…or whatever it might be: God continues to work. We may not be able to see it or understand it or figure it out, but God continues to work in our world/in our lives.
That’s the good news.