GENESIS 37:1-12

DECEMBER 28, 2009

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            Listen to this dinner time story.  If you enjoy children, I’m sure you will enjoy this tale.


            Before supper began I suggested to Curtis (who was six) that he should serve Charissa (who was four) before he served himself.  Naturally, he wondered why, since the platter of chicken sat directly in front of him ... and he was hungry as a lion.  I explained it is polite for fellas to serve girls before they served themselves.  The rule sounded weird but he was willing ... as long as she didn’t take too long.

            Well, you’d never believe what occurred.  After prayer, he picked up the huge platter, held it for his sister, and asked which piece of chicken she wanted.

            She relished all that attention.  Being quite young, however, she had no idea which piece was which.  So, very seriously, she replied, “I’d like the foot.”

            He glanced in my direction, frowned as the hunger pains shot through his stomach, then looked back at her and said, “Uh ... Charissa, Mother doesn’t cook the foot!”

            To which she replied, “Where is it?”

            With increased anxiety he answered (a bit louder), “I don’t know!  The foot is somewhere else, not on this platter.  Look, choose a piece.  Hurry up.”

            She studied the platter and said, “Okay, just give me the hand.”

            By now the mother and father were biting their lips to refrain from laughing out loud.  We would have intervened, but decided to let them work it out alone.  That’s part of the process.

            “A chicken doesn’t have a hand, it has a wing, Charissa.”

            “I hate the wing, Curtis ... Oh, go ahead and give me the head.”

            By then I was headed to the bathroom.  I couldn’t hold my laughter any longer.  Curtis was totally beside himself.  His sister was totally frustrated, not being able to get the piece she wanted.


            He then concludes the dinner time story by saying,


            Fun.  Just plain ol’ nutty times when hearty laughs and silly remarks dull the edge of life’s razor-sharp demands and intensity.  Families and fun go together like whipped cream on a hot fudge sundae.


            For some of us that is quite true.  We do have side-splitting memories of our family life.  Some of our memories may even match the memory about Charissa and Curtis and the chicken dinner.  That is not the case, however, for other families.   Our memories are of a far different kind.  For example, did you know that twenty-percent of all police officers killed in the line of duty are killed while answering calls involving family life?  Did you know that thirty-percent of all American couples will experience some form of domestic violence in their lifetime?  Did you know that roughly fifteen million women are battered in our nation each year?  These kind of statistics led a sociologist at the University of Rhode Island to describe the American home as “the most dangerous place to be outside of riots and wars.”

            I mention all this today because we are going to look at a not-so-perfect biblical family.  If this family had lived in America they would have been one of those statistics I read earlier.  One member of the family, Joseph, will experience domestic violence at the hands of his brothers.  We won’t see that today.  We’ll look at that next week.  Today will be more of a preview of what is to come.  Today we will look at three relational pollutants at work in this family.

            Before we do that, however, let me bring us up to date in our study of Genesis.  We last saw Jacob at his wife’s funeral.  His wife, Rachel, died will giving birth to Jacob’s twelfth son, Benjamin.  She died just outside he city limits of Bethlehem, and some say that Jacob buried a piece of himself when he buried her.  That was not the only tough thing Jacob had to face since we have last seen him.  He had to face the news that his only daughter, Dinah, had been raped, and if that wasn’t bad enough, he soon discovered that his oldest son, Rueben, had become involved in an incestuous relationship with Bilhah, one of Jacob’s concubines.  I know.  I know.  As I mentioned before, soap operas have nothing on the Bible.

            Now, as we come to the 37th chapter of Genesis, Jacob has settled back in the Promised Land, and as this chapter begins the author introduces us to the third major character in the book.  Thus far we have studied the lives of Abraham and Jacob, and now we embark on the third and last patriarchal epic in the Genesis, the epic of Joseph.

            Like his father, Jacob, Joseph’s story begins on a negative note.  Remember Jacob grabbing his brother’s heal as they left the womb, and his eventually swindling his brother out of his inheritance?  Well, Joseph’s story also begins negatively.  The negative note is Joseph’s family of origin.  Joseph’s family puts the “D” in dysfunctional and as we look at Joseph’s family today we will observe three of the nastiest relational pollutants known to humankind.  Furthermore, these relational pollutants are equally distributed among family members.  No family member has a corner on the dysfunction.  Each discharge a relational pollutant, and let’s begin with the new focus of the book, Joseph.

            Joseph’s relational pollutant?  He reveled in negative reporting.  Listen to the words about Joseph that spring from the author’s pen.  The words are not very complimentary.


            Joseph, being seventeen years old, was shepherding the flock with his brothers; he was a helper to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives;  and Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father.


            I find it interesting that the author of Genesis does not elaborate on the report.  I find it interesting that the author did not say whether the bad report was true or false.  Why not?  I believe because the trustworthiness of the report was not the issue.  The issue was Joseph’s issue of speaking negatively behind his brother’s backs. 

            Few things pollute relationships as much as an insatiable desire to relate bad things about people, and like Joseph did here, to do it behind their backs.  What is it about us that enjoys tearing others down?  Why do we get so much joy in whispering about others behind closed doors?  And almost everyone seems to do it, and more importantly, almost everyone seems to enjoy doing it.

            I grew up in Southern California, and when I was a boy, before all the emission control standards they have today, the air would get so bad, so smoggy, that we would have a smog alert.  Sirens would actually go off, like tornado sirens here in Omaha, alerting everyone that the air was so bad to breathe that we needed to refrain from physical activity and stay indoors as much as possible.  It’s a good thing we do not have “tale-bearing” alerts because if we did sirens would go off all the time, they would never stop.  As Pascal said, “If everyone knew what others say of them, there would not be four friends in the world.”  What’s wrong with us?  If you have gotten through this past month without bad-mouthing someone behind his or her back, then you are a rare bird, a rare bird indeed. 

            But, as I said before, Joseph was not the only one who polluted the family relationships, and let’s turn to someone who should have known better, Joseph’s father, Jacob.  Jacob polluted the family with his favoritism and he should have known better given his family history with his mother loving him best, and his father loving his brother Esau best.  Look at verse three with me ...


            Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves.


            Most of us remember the robe as a being a “coat of many colors.”  That is how the King James translated the Hebrew here.  Actually, the Hebrew wording is uncertain here, but it appears to be the kind of coat more closely associated with the leisure class than the working class.   One would not be expected to work in such a garment, sort of like a smoking jacket, and the symbolism here was clear.  The rest of the boys were wearing short sleeve coats, something akin to bib overall, and Joseph has been given a garment intimating that he is not to work as hard, and listen to how this favoritism affected Joseph’s brothers,


            But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.


            H.G. Wells said, “The only thing we learn from history is that we do not learn from history,” and that certainly described Jacob/Israel here.   We would have thought that being raised in a family where favoritism ran rampant, that he would have made sure he did not put any of his children through what he had to experience, but no, here he is doing what he probably vowed as a child never to do when he had kids.  He is playing favorites just as his mother and father had played favorites.

            Of course, to be fair to Jacob, I found myself doing the same thing as a parent, not playing favorites but doing what I vowed not to do when I was a child.  When I was a child and my father and I were working on a project, and the project wasn’t going well, my father would get frustrated with the project, but take it out on me.  I vowed that when I became a parent, I would never do such a thing.  I vowed that if I became frustrated with a project, I would not take it out on the child who was helping with the project.  It did not, however, turn out that way.  When I became frustrated I would become testy, short with my own children, and I should have known better, just as Jacob should have known better than to play favorites, but he didn’t and I didn’t.

            That leaves us with the brothers.  The brothers are not innocent bystanders in the dysfunction of this family.  They, too, contributed to the the breakdown in the family and they did so with their envy.  Now even though the word in verse 11 is “jealousy,” I think they were more envious than jealous.  Let me explain.

            Jealousy and envy are very similar in meaning and feeling.  They are sort of fraternal twins, but not identical twins.  They are a lot alike, and they are often used interchangeably, but there is a difference between the two. 

            For you see, envy starts with empty hands mourning what it doesn’t have, whereas jealousy begins with full hands and fears losing what it already has.  Envy wants to possess what someone else has, whereas jealousy wants to keep what it already has.  See the difference.  So given the context, saying the brothers were envious rather than jealous is a more accurate description of what they are thinking and feeling.  They wished they had all that pampering and attention, and because they did not, they resented Joseph.

            Envy.  Shakespeare called it the “green sickness.”  Bacon said that envy “has no holidays.”  Envy - are we experiencing any of it ourselves?  Well, let’s see how we answer a question.  “How easy is it for us to celebrate the success or good fortune of someone else.”  Do we celebrate with them or do we become angry and resentful inside, maybe thinking to ourselves things like, “He has connections, that’s why he got the promotion,” or “I could afford that too if I didn’t give so much to the church,” or “I could look like that too if I had a housekeeper”? 

            Let me close with an old story Oscar Wilde liked to tell. 


            The devil was once crossing the Libyan desert, and he came upon a spot where a number of small fiends were tormenting a holy hermit.  The sainted man easily shook off their evil suggestions.  The devil watched their failure, and then he stepped forward to give them a “lesson.” 

            “What you do is too crude,” said the devil.  “Permit me for a moment,” and with that the devil whispered in the ear of the holy man, “Your brother has just been made Bishop of Alexandria.”  A scowl of malignant envy at once clouded the face of the hermit.  “That,” said the devil to his imps, “is the sort of thing which I should recommend.”


            Let us pray.