The story of Joseph and his coat of many colors is one of our favorite Bible stories to share with our children. There are quite possibly more children’s books and more coloring pages for this story than any other! I don’t quite understand why as it’s a complex story of betrayal and violence among family members. It’s complicated to tell children about a father who favors one son above all the others and brothers who hate their brother so much that they sell him into slavery! It’s not exactly what we would call kid-friendly! In fact, it’s such a juicy story that it’s been made into a Broadway play, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat with lyrics by Tim Rice and music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. The plot includes betrayal, premeditated murder, slavery, deception, seduction, wrongful imprisonment, dream interpretation, and famine. What more could you want in a good story?! In the book of Genesis, the promise of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob continues through Jacob’s family, Jacob’s twelve sons, but as we get to this complicated story of Joseph and his brothers, we can’t help but wonder how God is going to work through this disaster of a family.
So much has happened in Jacob’s life before this heartbreaking story about his sons. Jacob, the younger son who wrestled his father’s blessing from his older brother Esau, has worked fourteen years to marry his beloved Rachel after being tricked by his father in law Laban into marrying Rachel’s older sister, Leah. He has had five sons with Leah – Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun, and one daughter Dinah. He has had two sons with Rachel’s maid, Bilhah – Dan and Naphtali. He has had two sons with Leah’s maid, Zilpah – Gad and Asher. He has watched Rachel after a long time of being barren finally give birth to a son named Joseph. Jacob has wrestled with God and reconciled with his brother. He has lived with the consequences of the rape of his daughter Dinah and the retaliating violence of his sons. He was given another son, named Benjamin, by Rachel, and then watched his beloved Rachel die in childbirth. Soon after, his father Isaac died. Jacob has experienced grief after grief, and as our text for today shows, there will be much more grief to bear.
Genesis 37 begins by telling us that Jacob has settled in the land of Canaan. In the land where his father was a stranger, an alien, a wanderer, he has finally been able to make a home. In the midst of their every day living, their complex family dynamics continually give rise to betrayal. You can imagine all the different divisions that occurred and the jealousy that arose between twelve brothers with four different mothers. To make matters worse, Jacob, the one who was not favored by his father but by his mother, had a favorite of his own. He loved his son Joseph, the second youngest, more than any other of his children. Perhaps, it was because he was the first son of his favorite wife, Rachel. Why not the youngest, Benjamin? Maybe because Benjamin reminded him of Rachel’s death? Whatever the case, Joseph was his favorite, and all the other brothers knew it. Joseph was the annoying little brother, the brat that knew his father favored him, the tattle tell who spoke ill of his brothers, the ones born to his mother’s maid and his aunt’s maid, brothers who surely felt less than in this family triangle. None of my stories about my half siblings or my step-siblings can even begin to match the drama of this biblical story of sibling rivalry. Can’t you hear Joseph, playing it up to his father about how his brothers aren’t doing a good job shepherding the flock? And what does Jacob do? He continues to make matters worse, to deepen the hatred between Joseph and the rest of his brothers, by giving him a material object, a long robe with sleeves, that reminds everyone that Joseph is indeed the favorite. It’s a gift that foreshadows the future, for people who wear long sleeved robes are not laborers but rulers.
As if his brothers needed any more reason to resent him, Joseph shares a dream he has with them. It’s a dream of his brother’s sheaves bowing down to his sheaf in the field. When he tells his brothers, they wonder aloud what the dream means: Are you indeed to reign over us? Are you indeed to have dominion over us? They hate him even more. It makes Joseph seem arrogant. Why didn’t he just keep his mouth shut! The lines in the Broadway musical make this scene come alive. Joseph marches around chanting, “I look handsome. I look smart. I’m a walking piece of art!” His brothers talk amongst themselves saying, “What if he’s right? The dreamer has to go!” Dreams in the world of Jacob and his twelve sons meant more than we think dreams mean today. They wouldn’t have thought about dreams as the result of an interior psychological process or a space that lets the subconscious go wild. They would have seen dreams as a message from an external source, as God speaking a vision.
When Jacob hears of Joseph’s dreams, he wonders what might be going on, what these dreams mean for the future. Like his son, he is a flawed human who pursued God’s dream though his motives were not always pure. But when Joseph’s brothers hear of the dream, they are angered and threatened. How can this younger brother of theirs dare say aloud that he is to rule over them, that somehow he is better than them? Joseph naively tries to struggle through the meaning of this dream with them, not knowing that it will spark hatred in them so intense that they will seek to harm him. This younger brother is now marked by a dream that the present order of things will be upended, that he the younger will rise above the older. It’s a dream that should have been familiar to the people following the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and yet after all this time, while it may have been familiar, while they may have believed it would be true, it was still threatening. The brothers, the other sons of Jacob, would still resist the dream.
One dreadful day, Jacob sends Joseph to check on his brothers who are pasturing a flock. When they see him come towards them, they mock him and conspire to kill him, saying to one another: “Here comes this dreamer. Let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits. We will tell everyone a wild animal has devoured him, and we will see what becomes of his wild and crazy dreams, then!” Reuben, the eldest, the one whom Joseph’s dream would have threatened the most, begs them to not shed his blood but to leave him in the pit, and he makes plans to come and rescue him later. They follow through with this plan, and when Joseph comes near, they strip him of his robe and throw him into the dry pit to die. Then, they sit down next to the pit where they’ve left their brother to die and eat lunch! I mean, yes Joseph was annoying and arrogant, but good grief! Can you imagine how bitter, resentful, and full of hatred that they’ve become to sit and fill their bodies with sustenance after making the decision to take their brother’s very life from him by denying him sustenance? As they sit and eat their lunch, they notice a caravan of Ishmaelites going by. Then Judah decides that there is no reason to be responsible for the death of their own brother, that they can accomplish what they want – getting rid of him – by selling him and making a profit. So when the next band of traders pass by, some Midianites, they get Joseph out of the pit and sell him for twenty pieces of silver.
Notice that God does not appear as a character in this story. God is nowhere to be found. God is only in Joseph’s dream, but where is God in the middle of all of this family mess? If God is the God of this family, then why hasn’t God intervened in this atrocious story? It’s not until the beginning of Genesis 39 that we learn that God has been there all along. God does not micromanage human action, but God works through us even when we veer way off course, even when we sell our own brother into slavery, even when we use our brothers to make a profit. God stays with us even when our brothers sell us into slavery, even when we’ve lost all we had, even when the very ones who love us the most don’t even know we are alive, even when we are at the mercy of a foreign empire. Genesis 39 tells us that the Lord was with Joseph, and that he became a successful man, an overseer in the house of Potiphar, who was an officer of Pharaoh. Even when all looked lost, even when it felt like all Joseph’s dreams were shattered as he rode off on the back of a Midianite camel, God stayed with him. God’s love proves to be deeper than the brokenness of families. In spite of their differences, their selfishness, their betrayal, their apathy, their jealousy, their hatred, God stays and creatively births God’s dream in their midst, even when they are at their worst. Even when they perpetuate evil, God works in and through them for good. God will ultimately use what they’ve done to save them.
We are like Joseph’s brothers because we, too, often scoff at God’s dream. It’s a perfectly natural and understandable response. When I read my son Isaac, Desmond Tutu’s book, called God’s Dream, I can’t help but notice the disparity between our world and God’s dream as I read its words aloud: “Dear child of God, what do you dream about in your loveliest of dreams? Do you dream about being free to do what your heart desires? Or about being treated like a full person no matter how young you might be? Do you know what God dreams about? If you close your eyes and look with your heart, I am sure, dear child, that you will find out. God dreams about people sharing. God dreams about people caring. God dreams that we reach out and hold one another’s hands and play one another’s games and laugh with one another’s hearts. But God does not force us to be friends or to love one another. Dear child of God, it does happen that we get angry and hurt one another. Soon we start to feel sad and so very alone. Sometimes we cry and God cries with us. But when we say we’re sorry and forgive one another, we wipe away our tears and God’s tears, too. Each of us carries a piece of God’s heart within us, and when we love one another, the pieces of God’s heart are made whole. God dreams that everyone of us will see what we are all brothers and sisters – yes, even you and me – even if we have different mommies and daddies or live in different faraway lands. Even if we speak different languages or have different ways of talking to God. Even if we have different eyes or different skin. Dear child of God, do you know how to make God’s dream come true? It is really quite easy. As easy as sharing, loving, caring. As easy as holding, playing, laughing. As easy as knowing we are family because we are all God’s children.”
As I hold my toddler in my arms, the toddler who I have to remind almost every second to use gentle touches, to share and to care, and to be nice to his friends, I feel overwhelmed by the fact that this dream I want him to capture is surely larger than my own imagination, larger than my own capacity, larger than my own dreams, larger than what I believe any of us to be capable of. I wonder if he will be able to hold on to God’s dream as he learns just how lousy we are as a people, as a nation, as a world at sharing and caring and how much we do in fact treat people differently because of where they live or what skin color they have or who their parents are or because of their gender or sexuality . And then I remember it was Desmond Tutu who wrote those words, and if the man who lived through apartheid and witnessed horrible violence and injustice can hold onto God’s big dream of all of God’s children loving one another, then I need to expand my imagination. I need to let God break open my expectations. I need to believe that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob can indeed work through our brokenness and that the ugliest parts of who we are can be redeemed by our God.
God’s dream sounds wild and crazy because it is wild and crazy. God’s dream sounds so far off from our reality that we can’t even begin to fathom it. God’s dream rejects the present social order, the structures that perpetuate all things that cause harm to God’s children – racism, sexism, classism, any-ism that makes it so that there are a privileged few. God’s dream becomes a reality through the ones the world least expects, the younger, the smaller, the least privileged ones, the ones who get sold into slavery. Those who benefit from the way the world is set up scoff at God’s dream because it challenges things as they are. Like Joseph’s brothers, we are tempted to become killers of the dream. We are like Reuben when we try to politely restrain those who try to kill the dream. We are like Judah when, driven by our guilt, we try to kill the dream in a more humane way, a way that focuses on profit and loss instead of bodies. As people who follow the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, do we really believe in God’s dream? Do we work towards it? Do we allow it to be birthed among us even when we can’t control how it erupts? Do we believe that God stays with us when it looks like all is lost, when we’ve made so big of a mess we can’t even see the way forward? God does make beautiful things out of us. Out of our chaos, God brings life. Even when it looks like all hope is lost, God makes us new. Even when we try to kill the dream, God stays and enters our brokenness and makes us into the family of God we were intended to be.