Our first reading this morning from the Book of Genesis introduces us to Joseph the dreamer as described by his brothers in Genesis Chapter 37, captioned in the New Revised Standard Version of the Holy Bible as Joseph Dreams of Greatness. As the story unfolds we learn that Joseph’s family may have been one of the original dysfunctional families! We hear about favoritism on the part of his father, sibling rivalry, envy and, in the end, forgiveness.
When Joseph was only seventeen he was shepherding the flock with his brothers. Jacob, his father, showed favoritism to him which angered his 11 brothers. Jacob treated Joseph as his favorite son because Rachael, Joseph’s mother, was his father’s favorite of four wives/concubines. Rachael had been barren for several years but gave birth to Joseph in his old age. Jacob’s special love for Joseph was made public by his gift of an ornate robe with sleeves. The robe has been described as an ornamental tunic, a garment of stripes, a coat of many colors and an amazing technicolor dreamcoat in the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. The gift of the ornate robe served to set Joseph apart from his brothers feeding their envy of him. It was not so much the robe itself but the fact that it symbolized the special love that their father had for their younger brother!
Joseph's brothers also hated him for his ability to interpret dreams. A dreamer is a person whose ideas and plans are not practical or based on reality. His interpretation of his own dreams plus dreams of other powerful rulers like the Pharaoh fueled his brothers’ hatred of him to the point that they plan to murder him. Joseph’s first two dreams both point to his future high status among his brothers and within his family. His first dream envisions his brothers’ sheaves of grain bowing down to his sheaf. The clear message is that Joseph will assume predominance of some kind among his brothers.
The second dream has a cosmological setting as he sees the sun, moon and eleven stars bowing to him. The number 11 points to his brothers, the sun and moon to Jacob and Rachael, his father and mother! His father expresses alarm at this interpretation. His brothers grew in their jealousy and hated Joseph even more! The future will prove the dreams correct. As we read in Genesis 47: 1-12 Joseph did eventually save his family from a severe famine.
Jacob's preferential treatment of Joseph resulted in significant rivalry amongst his siblings. I’m sure those of us who have brothers and/or sisters can recall a time when we perceived that mom or dad treated our sister or brother better than they treated us. As the oldest of four children I’m sure my siblings thought that I was treated better than them – the first to be confirmed; the first to get a driver’s license: the first to attend university. As the oldest son I perceived myself as the first to be disciplined when my younger siblings got into trouble – I was supposed to be setting the example for them to follow! When it comes to children they should all be treated with equal love in word and deed! There are other examples of sibling rivalry in the Bible – Cain and Abel or Esau and Jacob are examples.
The temptation is to try to correct the behavior of the difficult child by heaping praise on the “good” one and using his or her behavior as a standard for the unfavored child to emulate. This can make things worse not better! It gives the favored child a puffed up sense of themselves while it can fuel anger on the unfavored child toward the family as a whole.
There is no doubt that Jacob’s special treatment of Joseph caused significant rivalry among Joseph and his 11 brothers. Had Jacob treated all 12 brothers the same there may not have been the ill-will among Joseph’s brothers to harm him. But as we explore this relationship further we find that God had a purpose in mind and indeed a more significant role for Joseph to play in his future and that of his brothers!
Let us move on to the second part of the Joseph reading this morning – Joseph’s brothers’ plot to kill him. His brothers had taken their flocks about 80 miles away to Shechem. Jacob has sent Joseph to find his brothers and find out from them how things were going. He was to report back to their father with a status report. Jacob seemed oblivious to the potential danger to Joseph because of his brothers’ intense jealousy.
Joseph goes dutifully to Shechem only to discover that his brothers have moved on to Dothan which is about 13 miles further from home and the protection of his family. Dothan was on an international trade route that ran from the north down to Egypt.
Joseph’s brothers see him coming towards them from a distance. They don’t refer to him by name but call him “the dreamer”. They plan to kill him and cover up the crime by throwing his body in a cistern and then report to their father that he has been killed by a ferocious animal. By doing this they hope to subvert the message of his dreams. If he is dead he certainly can’t rule over them! It is unlikely that they believe the dreams were from God himself!
Reuben, the eldest brother, intervenes at this point suggesting they not kill Joseph nor shed his blood as it would be on their hands forever! Instead, they should just throw him into an empty cistern and let him perish there. (Reuben intended to come back later and rescue Joseph and return him to Jacob).
When Joseph got closer to his brothers they ripped off the offending ornate robe that symbolized Jacob’s preferential treatment of his second youngest son and threw him into the cistern, leaving him to die a slow death from exposure, hunger and thirst.
As the brothers were eating they looked up and saw a caravan of Midianites heading for Egypt. While Reuben was absent Judah, one of the brothers, suggests selling Joseph to the Midianites rather than killing him and having his blood on their hands forever. His brothers agree and sell Joseph as a slave for 20 pieces of silver. They lift him up out of the cistern and he is on his way to Egypt.
As we read further in Genesis we learn that his brothers slaughter a goat, put its blood on Joseph’s ornate robe and then convince their father Jacob that a wild animal has devoured him. Jacob mourns for him for many days. But the story of Joseph has a very successful ending in his and God’s favor as well as the people of Egypt. He becomes the second most powerful person in Egypt next to the Pharaoh. He forgives his brothers and is given permission to bring his father and mother, his brothers and their families to Egypt to live in the Land of Goshen. He saves them from a terrible famine! God’s dream for Joseph has just begun!
What lessons might we take away from this story this morning? Could I suggest the following:
For parents – treat all of your children with the same amount of respect and support – don’t play favorites!
For siblings – respect your sister and brothers as well as your parents!
For all of us – dream once in a while but be realistic about interpreting your dreams. Perhaps God is trying to teach you something! You don’t always have to share your dreams with others like Joseph did!
Though hidden in the form of dreams, silent and not at all visible, we understand that Joseph’s dreams are the unsettling work of God upon which everything depends. Without the dreams there would be no Joseph and no story. From the perspective of his 11 brothers, without the dreams there would be no trouble or conflict. For Jacob, there would be no grief or loss. The dreams set their own course- and in the end the dreams prevail over the tensions of the family. The dreams of God prevail over the plans of human beings. We accept the fact that many of our dreams may be God speaking to us about the direction our lives should and must take.
In the story of Joseph and his brothers we see the themes of forgiveness, father son bonding, sibling rivalry, brotherly love and God’s greater good in times of suffering. Just like Joseph we are called to forgive those who have offended us even if they are our parents or brothers and sisters as part of God’s plan to love one another.