Joseph and his brothers

Sermon for the ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28 and Matthew 14:22-33

Once again the lectionary has us working with one of the stories from the book of Genesis, and not for the first time do we find that our forebears in this faith are a rather mucky bunch. Last Sunday we had the story of Jacob wrestling with God through the night, and emerging with a blessing from the Lord, a new name—no longer Jacob, but now Israel the “God wrestler”—and a wounded hip that will leave him limping through the rest of his life. Wounded, but in a real sense more whole than he’d ever been before.

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His first limping steps had taken him straight to Esau, the brother from whom he’d been estranged for twenty long years, and with whom he can now be reconciled. Were this the stuff of fairy tale, the author would have at that point concluded that they “lived happily ever after.” The end. But no, these stories of our deep origins will not so neatly resolve. For all that they come from a world that can seem utterly different from our own, they are populated by characters no less human—no less complicated and fragmented—than us. “Happily ever after” works in fairy tales and folk legends, but not so much with real people.

And so following his reconciliation with Esau, Jacob had settled his sizeable family on a parcel of land by the town of Shechem. He “came in peace” to Shechem, the narrator tells us, but that peace will not last for long. Jacob has at this point eleven sons and one daughter, Dinah, and Dinah catches the eye of Shechem, the son of Hamor, who was “prince of the region.” And so the narrator tells us that when Shechem saw her, “he seized her and lay with her by force.” That translation choice in the NRSV indicates that he raped her, and yet, the writer continues, “his soul was drawn to Dinah daughter of Jacob; he loved the girl, and spoke tenderly to her. So Shechem spoke to his father Hamor, saying, ‘Get me this girl to be my wife.’” Hardly the way for a marriage to begin…

And as far as her brothers are concerned, hardly the way for their sister to be treated. A stunningly violent revenge is staged by those brothers, which leaves even Jacob reeling. “You have brought trouble on me by making me odious to the inhabitants of the land,” he says to them—or as Robert Alter translates it, “by making me stink among the land’s inhabitants.” “But they said, ‘Should our sister be treated like a whore?’” No, of course not, but you sure get a sense of just how hotheaded these sons of Jacob can be. And you realize Dinah herself is never consulted on any of this, and you almost wonder if this is less about a sexual assault and more about an unacceptable Romeo and Juliet sort of tragic romance. The Hebrew here is sufficiently vague that we can’t know for sure. But the point is made: those brothers are damned sure Dinah’s honour has been violated… which maybe really means they think their own honour is violated.

With that in view, should we be entirely surprised at how they treat Joseph in tonight’s reading? “Now Israel—Jacob—loved Joseph more than any of his other sons, because he had been born to him in his old age; and he made a richly ornamented robe for him.” That’s famously translated as the “coat of many colours” in the King James Version, but the Hebrew is a bit elusive on that count. Joseph is also one of only two sons born to the beloved and favoured wife Rachel, which adds another layer of tension and resentment to this family’s dysfunction. “When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of them, they hated him and could not speak a kind word to him.” They hated him because he was favoured, and they hated him, too, because he insisted on talking about his dreams; dreams which suggest that the brothers will all bow down to him as their superior.

Joseph, you see, seems to receive messages in dreams, and as the story unfolds we’ll discover he also has a gift for interpreting the dreams of others. In some traditional cultures he would have been called a shaman, the medieval church might have seen him as a mystic. The great psychoanalytic dream theorist Carl Jung may have worked with Joseph to explore the deeper insights of this gift, and who knows what Sigmund Freud might have said. Were Joseph to have come to me for some spiritual direction, I would have told him to keep paying attention to his dreams… and then I’d have very strongly advised him against sharing their content with his brothers. Joseph didn’t consult me on the matter.

Once Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more. He said to them, ‘Listen to this dream that I dreamed. There 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.’ 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. (Gen 37:5-8)

Their hatred has become so deep that it moves them close to murder; if not for the intervention of Reuben, it might have been murder. Joseph comes out to them in the wilderness where they are grazing their flocks, and in their loathing they do want to kill him. “‘Let’s not take his life,’ Reuben said. ‘Don’t shed any blood. Throw him into this cistern here in the desert, but don’t lay a hand on him.’ Reuben said this to rescue Joseph from them and take him back to his father.” To buy a little time, in other words. And so the brothers seized Joseph, tore that fancy cloak from him, and pushed him into the empty cistern.

And then they sat down to eat a meal, which offers a kind of stunning picture of just how callous they have become toward their brother. Might as well have lunch. As they eat, a group of Midianite traders approaches, which inspires Judah to hatch a new plan. “What will we gain if we kill our brother and cover up his blood? Come, let’s sell him to the Ishmaelites and not lay our hands on him; after all, he is our brother, our own flesh and blood.” Our own flesh and blood, sure, yet they quite gladly trade their brother away for twenty shekels of silver. As Robert Alter wryly comments, “It is, of course, a dubious expression of brotherhood to sell someone into the ignominy and perilously uncertain future of slavery.”

The traders “took him to Egypt”, where he will be sold as a slave to Potiphar, the captain of the Pharaoh’s guard, setting the stage for the chapters that follow. In the meantime a story is cooked up to tell their father Jacob; that they found Joseph’s coat torn and blood spattered, obviously the work of a wild beast. Thinking his favoured son dead, Jacob enters a period of mourning, and aside from Reuben—who is also grief stricken by what they’ve done—the brothers evidently go on with life, quite happy to be free of their irritating dreamer of a brother. They are quite wrong, of course, for their brother Joseph will figure mightily in later chapters of their lives… but that is for next week.

Near the beginning of this sermon I said that these stories of our deep origins do not neatly resolve in that “happily ever after” way of fairy tales, for they are populated by characters no less human—no less complicated and fragmented—than us. It is not simply the stories of our deep origins that refuse simple resolution, for truth be told in the arc of the biblical narrative, there is always one more story to be told. These stories of the matriarchs and patriarchs of Israel will roll forward into the stories told in the book of Exodus, which in turn roll forward into the story of the rise and fall of Israel, with its complicated kings, cranky prophets, and gifted poets. And at any point that it seems that a culminating high point has been reached and the words “The End” finally uttered, more is added; more is told. Even as the transition is made from Hebrew scriptures to the New Testament—even when the story of the resurrection is told, which might seem the highest of all stories—there is more. The resurrection of Christ utters a new story into the world—or better, it tells the old story in a new and renewing way—and it is one that will continue to unfold until all of time and all of history is brought to its culmination.

In the meantime, we are called to live out new chapters of the story, and because we are oh-so-human they will be chapters no less human—and sometimes no less mucky—than those told in Genesis. To be a part of the ongoing story; in this is the risk—and the gift—of being creatures made in the image of God; people claimed as sons and daughters of the Lord most high.

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