The story of Joseph and his brothers is a story that has captured peoples’ imaginations for thousands of years. Books have been written about it, movies have been made about it, they even made a Broadway show out of it a few years back – Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. It’s a great tale, full of all the things that make up memorable stories: dreams and danger, betrayal and intrigue, palaces and kings. It’s also a family story, though it’s not the kind of story you’re likely to find on the Family Channel.
Today I’d like to take us inside the story, behind the scenes so to speak. In Lord of the Rings, Frodo’s friend Sam says:
“The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for… because they were exciting and life was a bit dull… but that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered.”
The ‘tales that really matter’, as Sam comes to realize, aren’t all that easy to live through for the people in them. The same could be said of Joseph and his brothers.
The story of Joseph and his family, like most family stories, actually begins years before they’re born, in generations past. The anger and division in Jacob’s family can be traced all the way back to their father Jacob’s birth. Jacob had a twin brother, Esau, who was born just minutes before he was. As the eldest, Esau had the right of inheritance. But Jacob, who wrestled with his brother even in the womb, is not content being second. God tells his mother Rebekah the reason the babies are wrestling inside her is because ‘the elder will serve the younger’. Throughout his life Jacob uses every opportunity to try to force that prophecy to come true. He acquires his brother’s birthright by withholding food when Esau is starving; he and his mother conspire to deceive his father Isaac to get Esau’s blessing for Jacob.
Esau, who is furious when he finds out about the conspiracy, makes plans to kill Jacob. So Rebekah sends Jacob to live with her brother Laban in a foreign land, for safety. Jacob soon discovers that Laban is just as crafty as he is. Jacob falls in love with Laban’s daughter Rachel and agrees to work for seven years in exchange for her hand in marriage. But on the morning after his wedding Jacob wakes up and finds Laban has pulled a bait-and-switch, and Jacob is sleeping with Leah, Rachel’s older sister! Jacob confronts his father-in-law, who concocts a story about it being tradition that the older sister must be married first, but he says ‘never mind – you can work another seven years for Rachel’. Jacob is so in love that he does.
And the competition and envy that was once between Esau and Jacob is now between Leah and Rachel. The two women begin to compete in the child-bearing department. God, seeing that Leah is un-loved, gives her many children; while Rachel, who is loved, has none. After some jockeying with their maids and a few more babies, by the time Leah’s oldest boy has grown up there are ten sons in the family, and none of them is Rachel’s. Any family who has ever struggled to have children knows the kind of pain Rachel was feeling. Finally Rachel gets pregnant and gives birth to Joseph – and Joseph, being the only son of the woman Jacob loves, immediately becomes his father’s favorite. To make matters worse, a few years later Rachel gets pregnant again… and dies in childbirth. As she is dying she names her last son “Ben-oni”, which means ‘son of my sorrow’. (Jacob later renames the boy “Benjamin” which means ‘son of my right hand’.)
And the competition and envy that was once between Esau and Jacob is now between Jacob’s sons: the elder ten against the younger two. The elder ten are herdsmen, keeping sheep and other animals; but Joseph stays at home near his father. Jacob sometimes sends Joseph out to see how the older boys are doing and report back to him. His brothers come to see him as a tattle-tale and a snitch. Jacob makes Joseph a beautiful coat of many colors, something he’s never done for any of the other boys. And then Joseph starts having dreams – dreams about sheaves of wheat belonging to his brothers coming and bowing down to his sheaf of wheat.
The older boys have had just about enough. The next time Joseph comes to check up on them, they grab him. They’re about to kill him when a caravan passes by. So they sell him as a slave for 20 pieces of silver.
Imagine what it might have been like to have been one of the ten brothers. They’ve worked for years for their father – hard labor – and not one word of thanks. It seems like nothing they do is ever good enough. Their father never wanted their mother, and as Leah’s children they are rejected through no fault of their own. To be rejected by a parent is one of the hardest things a child can live through. And then to see their father favoring Joseph over them, a child who does nothing but make their lives harder – no wonder they’re angry. No wonder they want to get rid of him.
On the other hand, imagine what it might have been like to be Joseph – young, innocent, not really understanding why he’s his father’s favorite. (Not that he wants to change that.) Not really understanding why his brothers hate him, why they hate it when he tells the truth. And suddenly one day he finds himself attacked by his brothers, thrown into a pit, and then sold to foreigners as a slave. Torn away from everything and everyone he’s ever known, torn away from the father who loves him – can you hear his cries for mercy as the caravan pulls away?
Fast forward now to our scripture for today. Fifteen years have passed, give or take a few. In that time, the ten brothers have married and started families of their own. Their father Jacob has never stopped grieving for Joseph – and they have come to realize their anger hasn’t gotten rid of Joseph after all, it’s just turned him into a ghost who will haunt their father for as long as he lives. Their lives are not happy.
Meanwhile Joseph was sold to the Captain of the Guard in Egypt. He does well there until his boss’s wife decides she wants him. When he refuses her, she accuses him of rape, and Joseph is thrown in prison. From there, after a few years, he gets the chance to interpret a dream for Pharaoh and overnight he is made the second most powerful man in country. He is given Pharaoh’s signet ring and Pharaoh’s daughter for a wife. Joseph has kids. He dresses and acts and talks like an Egyptian. He keeps his Hebrew faith but otherwise he’s one of them. And life is good.
The dream Joseph interprets for Pharoah predicts there will be seven years of great abundance followed by seven years of famine. Joseph uses his position to gather food for the coming famine. When the famine comes, news of Egypt’s food reaches Jacob’s family in Canaan, and Jacob sends his sons to Egypt to buy food – all of them but Benjamin.
When the brothers arrive Joseph recognizes them immediately, but his brothers don’t know him. Joseph looks like an Egyptian, and he speaks through a translator. What went through Joseph’s mind in those moments? Should he tell them who he is? Do they still hate him? Can they be trusted? Where’s Benjamin?
Joseph decides to test them. He accuses the brothers of being spies and throws them into prison. He questions them and they confess there is still one brother at home. Joseph tells them, “Here’s how I will know if you are honest men. One of you is going to stay here in prison. The rest of you take food back to your families – I don’t want them to starve – but then come back to me with your youngest brother. That way I’ll know you are telling the truth. Don’t come here again without him.”
The brothers begin to talk among themselves, remembering what they did to Joseph. They speak in Hebrew, not knowing Joseph can understand them – and Joseph turns away so they don’t see him weeping. As the brothers turn to leave Joseph gives orders to his servant that their money be put back in their sacks.
Back in Canaan, Jacob hears their story and is inconsolable. As he sees it, he has now lost a second son, Simeon, who is in prison, and they can get no more food without putting a third son at risk. When the food runs out and the brothers talk about returning to Egypt he says to his sons, “My son shall not go down with you, for his brother is dead, and he alone is left.” How those words must have stung! Jacob has so many children – but he sees only one.
When he no longer has a choice, Jacob finally agrees to let Benjamin go, and Judah guarantees his safety. Joseph welcomes his brothers and invites all of them to a banquet. Joseph now makes up one more test for his brothers: when the chips are down will they turn on Benjamin? As they leave with food for their families Joseph commands his silver cup be placed in Benjamin’s sack. As they’re on their way back to Canaan, Joseph sends his servant after them to find out who took the cup. The brothers swear innocence and say whoever has it – if it can be found – will become Joseph’s slave. And of course the cup is found in Benjamin’s sack. The brothers now have an opportunity to get rid of the last child of Rachel. What will they do? Will they treat him the way they treated Joseph?
No; after all these years of living with their father’s grief over the loss of Joseph, they don’t want to cause him any more pain. Judah makes a passionate appeal for Benjamin’s life and offers to stay as a slave in his place.
Which brings us to the beginning of our reading for today.
Seeing his brothers have had a change of heart and that the door to reconciliation is open, Joseph is no longer able to hold back his tears. He orders the Egyptian servants out of the room and makes himself known to his brothers. It’s an emotional reunion, especially for Joseph and Benjamin.
But the brothers are afraid. Can Joseph really forgive what they’ve done? And now that he’s the ruler of Egypt he has the power of life and death over them. But Joseph has had lots of time to think and pray. And he says to them, “what you meant for evil, God meant for good – to preserve life…,” to prepare a place for them and their families.
Two things I’d like to point out from this passage. The first is: God works through dysfunctional families. It’s a good thing, because there’s so many of us. And no, I’m not going to give examples! But when I feel discouraged I can look at these twelve sons of Jacob and say “God built a nation out of these boys.” If He can use them, He can use us too.
The second thing I want to point out is Joseph’s character, particularly how much like Jesus he is. Our reading for today tells us Joseph is:
- Wise – he tests his brothers to see what kind of people they have become
- Passionate – he weeps so loudly the Egyptians hear him throughout the palace. Jesus also was passionate, when he drove the money-changers out of the temple. He was passionate about God’s reputation.
- Joseph makes himself known – reveals himself – to his brothers
- He invites his brothers to “come closer”
- He comforts and encourages them
- He has been sent by God to preserve life and to save lives
- He is on God’s mission
- God has made him the ruler of the nation
- Joseph tells his brothers to go and share the good news with their families
- Send them the message “come to me with all that you have” and “you shall be near me”
- He tells them “I will provide a place for you”
- He welcomes each brother with embraces and tears
Doesn’t this sound like Jesus?
Joseph is like an archetype, a forerunner, of the Messiah. Like Joseph, Jesus is wise and forgiving and passionate. He makes himself known to us. Jesus invites us to come closer. He comforts and encourages us. Jesus is on God’s mission and God has make him king of kings and lord of lords. Jesus commands us to go and share the good news, and then come to him with all we have. And when the time comes, he will welcome each brother and sister home with tears of joy to be with him forever.
Both Joseph and Jesus have been sold for silver; both have been betrayed by those closest to them. Joseph is sold into slavery; Jesus is sold into death on the cross. But ultimately both are sent by God for the sake of others – to save lives, and to prepare a place for God’s people. Actions and events that were meant for evil, God meant for good.
We human beings are like Jacob’s sons in a lot of ways. Quarrelsome, envious, hot-headed… and underneath it all, more unsure of ourselves than we care to admit. Like them we’ve been knocked around by circumstances beyond our control. Thank God he has given us a Joseph… He has given us Jesus… to forgive us and to go ahead of us and to prepare a place for us where we can be with him forever. Receive His forgiveness, and live in His love. AMEN.
Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Crafton United Methodist Church, Sunday August 17, 2014
Genesis 45:1-15 NRS
Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, “Send everyone away from me.” So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence.
Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come closer to me.” And they came closer. He said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, ‘Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay. You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. I will provide for you there– since there are five more years of famine to come– so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty.’ And now your eyes and the eyes of my brother Benjamin see that it is my own mouth that speaks to you. You must tell my father how greatly I am honored in Egypt, and all that you have seen. Hurry and bring my father down here.” Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, while Benjamin wept upon his neck. And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.