“What Will Become of His Dreams”
“CHANGES & CHOICES”
Genesis 37 37:1-4, 12-28
Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, 45b
August 13, 2023
As I was growing up, I just knew that the idea that ‘Parents don’t have favorites’ was total bologna. I believed, growing up, that there were two favorites in my family- my older brother and my older sister – and there was just one UNfavorite. I mean, why else was I the ONE always getting in trouble?! (Okay, it took me a few years, but I figured that out. And yes, my parents really loved us all very much. I was not the unfavorite.)
I’m the youngest child in my family, in case that’s not already obvious, and even though I was the one most frequently getting in trouble back then, nowadays, I like to pretend that I have been the perennial favorite. I found a cute little gift for my mom a few Christmases ago – a little box of Kleenexes that had printed on the side, “I love how we don’t have to say out loud that I’m your favorite child.”
And, because it was a joke, we all thought it was funny.
A few years ago, my extended family had a gathering over Zoom, which was all we could do at the time, and as we talked, I noticed something I hadn’t noticed before, and that was that my two uncles on my mom’s side both like to egg each other on by pretending that they’re my grandma’s favorite. It really was pretty humorous. Not long after that call, I saw a cute little coffee mug on Amazon that read: “My favorite child got me this mug.” I thought to myself, “I wonder what would happen if I sent that mug to Grandma anonymously so she would have to guess which of the uncles had sent it and then see what happened from there”… I was good, and I didn’t do it. But because in my family, ‘being the favorite’ is a joke, it probably would have ended up being pretty funny.
Today’s Scripture readings are taken from the lectionary, and we are going to spend our time with the first reading from Genesis 37, which Glen read earlier. Genesis 37 holds the story of Jacob and HIS FAVORITE child, his son Joseph… oh yeah, and the other sons too.
The part of Genesis that we’re in follows the lineage of the patriarchs. Genesis is the first of the five books in the Pentateuch – the Torah law of Moses – so this is real meat in the history of the beginning of God’s chosen people, their tottering first steps, their calling and their foibles, by telling us the stories of the patriarchs of faith and their families.
We are here, in the middle of the Jacob story, now hearing about his 12 sons, the favorite of whom was Joseph. The story goes like this:
The family was living in the land of Canaan, Scripture says, which had been the land of great promise for their ancestors. Scripture establishes that Joseph was 17 and was the favorite of his father Jacob, who was also called Israel. The text says, “Now Israel loved Joseph more than any of his other sons… 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.” Of course, Joseph and his brothers were born of four different women – Leah, her sister Rachel, and each of their servants – Zilpah and Bilhah. To Rachel, who had been Jacob’s favorite wife, were born Joseph and Benjamin. So of course, that favoritism was passed down from the favorite wife to her boys, particularly to Joseph, her firstborn. The brothers hated Joseph, probably because it’s easy to hate a favorite if you’re not it.
And, of course, Joseph bringing a bad report about his brothers that we read about to his father probably didn’t help either. Many preachers over the years have called Joseph a tattle-tale for that, and you can too, if you want to, but as I spent time with this story this week, I began to think of Joseph a little differently. In the long Joseph narrative, it seems that he was as upright as they come and loyal to boot. So this week, I began to think of Joseph as a truth-teller. Maybe when his dad asked how the brothers had done, he simply told the truth. The only problem with that is that no one likes a truth-teller when the truth doesn’t make them look very good.
While not included in the lectionary for today, the next things we see in the story are the dreams that come to 17-year-old Joseph, the favorite, the tell-all. He decides to share his gift of “night vision,” recounting these two dreams with his family. In the dreams, everyone in his family bows down to him. The older brothers quickly dismiss the dreams as crazy talk! How dare he even suggest such things! We know from the Bible that they hated him before he shared the dreams. Safe to say that things are not getting any cozier.
Then one day Joseph’s father sends him to check on the brothers as they are shepherding their flocks. By the time he catches up with his brothers, first of all, they have already seen him first and, secondly, they’ve decided to kill him. Their contempt has grown to its full maturity. Notice that “they said to one another,” – not just one of them suggested – “They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. 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.” Hm… wouldn’t they just?
The brothers have decided to kill Joseph. (You know how people always say that there’s a reason for every rule? I can think of a few of the Ten Commandments that were later made just for guys like these. )
To counter the murderous plot, Reuben tries to empathize with the brothers and puts forth a compromise of leaving him in a pit in the wilderness without killing him themselves, apparently, the text says, with the idea that Reuben will somehow take him back to their father eventually. So his brothers take the compromise and throw Joseph into a dry cistern.
A little before-dinner mercenary work. That’s right – the brothers grab him, throw him in the pit, and sit down to eat. Then again, you can’t imagine that after that the food would be tasting any good to someone like Reuben, who had, sort of, tried to help. His food might have gone down like a BRICK into the PIT of his stomach.
But then what’s this? Even better for the brothers, they now see some traders on their way to Egypt.. Maybe the “better” alternative is to sell him as a slave and have him sent away to Egypt. “After all,” Judah says in v 27, “he is our brother, our own flesh and blood.”
So they sell their own flesh and blood for 20 shekels to the strangers passing by. And that’s the end of today’s passage.
Of course, we know that once Joseph gets to Egypt, things change dramatically for him, with both lows and highs.
But today’s part of the story ends with Joseph being sold.
Today’s part of the Joseph story is not a very flattering part, and that’s why I’m glad it was included as is in the lectionary. Here’s why. Do you remember when you heard your first “family secret”? How it rocked you at first but eventually gave you better understanding into what was going on in your family? That’s because, when we know the hard stories of our families, we can learn their lessons. In fact, NOT telling our family stories in their totality makes it hard to live in reality.
I think it’s similar in our faith family. If we don’t look quite honestly with both eyes at our highs and lows as a faith family, we’ll have a hard time living in the reality we find ourselves in.
Thankfully, Scripture does not just make a clean sweep of the harder parts of our history. We don’t read in Scripture only the things we can celebrate. We read and chew on the harder parts of the story as well, the failures and missteps. That’s what we’re doing this morning. Because it’s maybe especially those things that can teach us the most.
The story of Joseph is one of those hard stories, particularly hard to navigate if we’re looking for a salvific note at every turn. Today’s passage doesn’t tie up nicely. Not every part of the story before the happy ending is happy.
What I’d like to do now is transition us to talking about how God’s presence sustained Joseph and I’d like to share all of the incredible things that happened to the people of God because Joseph made it. . . But I won’t be doing that.
Why? I had to spend this whole week with these hard first 20-some verses, so that’s all you get too!
But seriously, there has got to be a reason for the creators of the lectionary choosing to end the reading for today at verse 28. I suspect it has a little to do with people needing to eventually go home and eat, cos you can’t always count on the fact that someone in the congregation is going to bring five loaves and two fish. But even more so, this very particular choice of verses for the lectionary forces us to look closely at what we find here. And what we find here, what drives this passage forward, is not Joseph’s call and the way he lives into it but the intensity of the brothers’ envy of Joseph.
This is supposed to be Joseph’s story, but the center of gravity is really the brothers. Joseph becomes in this passage someone who is not the main actor in his own story but simply acted upon.
We recall from the reading that Joseph’s brothers ‘couldn’t say a kind word to him’. Not even the basic ‘Shalom!” “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all,” right? I imagine that if they were following the old adage, they would have been living with a lot of silence between them. And still more, somehow it escalates further.
It seems that by the time they see Joseph in the fields, they are now so mentally and emotionally detached from the situation that they’re no longer able to make any human connection to Joseph. They’re ready to get rid of him. Their hatred has so blinded them that they’re not able to live in reality, to see Joseph as a person.
How is it that the brothers are so quick to violence? These are supposed to be the twelve tribes of Israel!! These twelve sons are the start of the nation. Israel. God’s people.
These are God’s people? Really? They’re fueled by rage and unholy envy.
And it was envy that ultimately carried a big price tag.
We know that it cost Joseph dearly. We know he had “pleaded with [them] for his life,” because later in Genesis it says so, though we hear nothing from Joseph in the text as he is taken prisoner. He is not his own anymore. His body with the dry mouth and hunger is not his own. Instead of sitting down to the meal with the brothers, he is sent away hungry. He is young and alone, without his brothers, without the delight of his father. And the ‘mother of the disappeared’ is not alive to mourn his trauma and his preciousness.
Not only Joseph, but the brothers’ envy cost them their continued guilt. We read later in Genesis that the brothers remember well their guilt, and it almost seems like their guilt has grown over time.
Later, when it comes time for Jacob to die, he blesses these twelve boys, prophetic blessings that speak who he sees his boys to be, what he believes they are and will become. And I can’t help but wonder, did they ever live up to the blessings spoken for them by their father?
The brothers’ envy cost the brothers their guilt, yes, but also a critical relationship. I won’t spoil the sermon for another week, but as the story continues, Joseph becomes the one person they really need. Guess who is in charge of their future now?
Their envy also almost cost the people of Israel future leaders like Joshua, who would come from Joseph’s family. What would Israel have been without a Joshua?
For now, suffice to say that the brothers’ envy has put everything at stake. The brothers have succumbed to their worst selves, and Joseph has been sold. Can anything come from those dreams?
Of course, in time, each brother and no less Joseph himself, they will all see for themselves what will become of his dreams.
Somehow, and we all know how, Joseph flourished in spite of all that had happened. This was hinted at in our second reading today from Psalm 105. God somehow made something good out of what could hardly have been worse.
We don’t have time for all the details, but suffice it to say that as the story continues, the other brothers mostly fade into the background and Joseph shines. At no point do we see Joseph acting with self-interest or self-promotion. He leads, despite all who wanted him torn down to their preferred size. If we follow the whole story arc, we see that it reveals that God’s choice is not manufactured by or modified by human opinion. Somehow, Joseph comes through – not today but eventually – and leads not only the people of Egypt but also his own family out of famine. They do not fade out of history. He was the right leader for the time – so that their story and ours could continue. But he almost wasn’t.
For a faith family today that is looking back and looking forward, if we’re really going to bring this story out into the sunshine and not relive its shame as we move forward, the story really does give us some questions to chew on, and we’ll end with these:
Will I let God have God’s way, through the people God chooses?
Am I robbing myself of any critical relationships by competing or envying others?
How am I responding to ‘the dream,’ the vision in front of us?
And maybe most importantly … whose dream is it anyway?