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Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28

The family of promise is by no means perfect. Throughout the story of the patriarchs, it is clear that the only possibility of a future rests on God’s faithfulness to bring life out of barrenness. The barrenness is most often attached to physical barriers to the future of the family. Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel all are unable to bear children, but God makes a way. That being said, this is not the only barrenness the family of promise has to deal with. They wrestle with fully trusting the promise of this God of new possibilities and often try and manufacture their own way. They deal with generational traumas and sins which take them off track and leave people hurt and relationships broken in the family. This week’s passage is one of jealousy, division, and harm for Israel and his children. The scripture does not shy away from the difficulties faced by this family. What a gift for the family of God to hear that it has never been perfect and God has still been faithful even when we are not.

This is a story that takes us through the family drama by focusing in on several members. There is first Jacob, now named Israel, who scorned his father and brother because Isaac favored Esau. He too now plays favorites – with his wives and his sons. He loves Rachel more than Leah, and now that she has a child, Joseph, he disregards his other children to favor him. He gives him a cloak unlike any of the clothes his brothers wear and shows him special treatment. His love for Joseph is noticeably above his other children. The generational harm of favoritism is on full display here. A change of heart brought by God is needed to restore this. God plays no favorites, watching over even those who are cast out (remember Hagar, Ishmael, and Esau!).

Joseph’s brothers take notice of the favoritism and they scorn Joseph, who did not ask to be the favorite. They are not even on good speaking terms; there is no shalom between them. What is more, in the text between the lectionary passages, Joseph starts having dreams that imply him ruling over his brothers! The bitterness comes to a head when one day Joseph is sent looking for his brothers and ventures out of the sight of his father and the rest of the family. From here, the brothers could have chosen grace, truly taken responsibility for Joseph as their brother, and despite everything treat him with the peace and love for which they long desperately.

However, instead of grace, they chose to continue another family tradition: plotting against their brother (remember Jacob and Esau). They see him coming from a distance and cannot even say his name, but use a nickname: “The dreamer.” They immediately sentence Joseph to die! Reuben tries to be half-way compassionate and change their minds somewhat. Rather than side with Joseph completely and risk himself, he offers a plan to leave Joseph for dead and secretly hopes to come by and save him later. Though this saves Joseph from death, it is another chance for grace wasted. Reuben tries to have his cake and eat it too. This way, he neither has to have guilt over Joseph nor do the hard work of naming wickedness in himself and his brothers and calling for repentance, risking their rejection of him too.

Following Reuben’s plan, they strip Joseph of the clothes that symbolize his special treatment and the reason for their hatred for him and throw him in a dry pit. Then, another chance for grace gets wasted. Judah sees some Ishmaelite traders and comes up with the idea to sell Joseph. He “mercifully” agrees with Reuben that they should not shed blood. His remark leaves us reeling: “He is our brother; our own flesh.” Why would we hurt him? Let’s just sell him. He is our brother after all! They sell him to the Ishmaelites. It is sadly ironic that the nation named for Ishmael, the son thrown out of the patriarchal family now receives another castaway and brings him to Egypt. The brothers lift Joseph out of the pit! Yet, it is not to restore him, but to sell him.

The actions of these brothers should serve as a warning for us. We too have the tendency to withhold grace when the opportunity arises. Like Reuben, we too become complicit when we try and make the wrong done to others, even that which is caused by us, more merciful but not fully mercy. We tend to, like Judah, talk big talk about our love for others, “our own flesh,” while we take part at the same time at letting harm come to them. The brothers here serve as an image to help us identify the sinful patterns in ourselves. However, even in the darkness of this part of their story and ours, the Gospel sheds light! God can turn around these deep-seeded, generational and personal sins. Jesus was rejected and killed by those he came to save, and he still chose mercy and grace. And God raised him from the dead! Despite the scheming of brothers and sisters against themselves, God has made a way for all of creation to have a future! God has made a way for enemies to be redeemed and become part of the family of God. The Gospel of John says it best, “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God (John 1:11-12, NRSV).” Through his death and resurrection, not only can we receive this grace and mercy by faith in Christ, but when we do, we are also empowered by the Spirit to have shalom with our brothers and sisters and choose grace and love when the opportunity arises.

Furthermore, what serves the church today are the characters who talk very little in this passage. Joseph gets little say in what happens to him. As the victim, his brothers think they can do to him what they see fit. We hear no argument or struggle from Joseph. He turns the other cheek in silence. His last words before being stripped and sold are, “I am seeking my brothers. Tell me please where they are pasturing the flock.” (One might recall when God asked Abel where his brother was). Joseph persistently sees them as brothers, even when they see him as an enemy. The voice of the dreamer is quieted by his own brothers who felt they were not his keepers. He is not dead yet, however, and his voice will go out soon for the good of his brothers and the nations. Where they had a chance to give grace and failed, what will Joseph choose? What will we?

Finally, one might notice that Yahweh, who has to this point in Genesis been very vocal in the story of the patriarchs, has little to say and is not even acknowledged for the most part. This is true for most of Joseph’s story! It is only in hindsight later that we hear Joseph fully testify to God’s involvement. This is a significant message for the Church, as it helps speak to those times when the presence and voice of God seem very distance. Just like in this first act of Joseph’s narrative, all the favoritism, jealousy, hatred and harm in our own stories can leave us wondering, “Where is God? Is God listening? Does God see what is going on? Why doesn’t God do something about this?” Even in the times when God feels absent in our story, God still hears the cry of the victims and is still working to make a future; to bring good when others give harm.