The Favored Child

[see below for detailed translation and exegetical notes]

Proper 14

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28; Psalm 105, 1-6, 16-22, 45b or 1 Kings 19:9-18; Psalm 85:8-13; Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14:22-33

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28; 
Textually, note that there may be at least two (and maybe three) strands of the same story woven together.
  • Jacob and Israel are used interchangeably. Vv. 2-3: “This is the story of the family of Jacob. 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. Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children…” 
  • Both the Ishmaelites and the Midianites seem to have taken Joseph away (v. 28)
  • Joseph has two very similar dreams (vv. 6–7 and 9)
  • the similarity of the compassionate actions of Reuben and Judah (vv. 21–2 and 26–7)

From the NISB on the three strands:
The account is introduced by the Priestly writer (vv. 1-2), who employs the formula ‘This is the story of the family of Jacob’ (Lit., ‘These are the generations [descendants] of Jacob’), a formula used to mark off new periods in the ancestral history (e.g., 2:4a; 5:1). The narrative is made up of traditions from both the Yahwist and the Elohist.
The traditions woven together here provide three explanations for the conflict between Joseph and his brothers:
(1) Joseph’s negative comments bout his brothers to his father (v. 2, P);
(2)  Jacob’s favoritism toward Joseph, symbolized by Jacob’s giving him the special robe (vv. 3-4, J); and
(3)  Joseph’s dreams about his superiority over his parents and brothers (vv. 5-11, E).

Sermon Points

If I were to preach on this passage, there are (at least) two directions I would go in.

One: the favorite child.

Joseph was hated, or at least disliked by his brothers, and that was the source of a lot of the narrative’s action and conflict. Reasons why Joseph’s Brothers didn’t like him:
  1. His father openly preferred him. Joseph was Jacob’s favorite. “Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children” (v. 3).
  2. He was a tattle tale. Evidently he told Jacob that some of the sons of Milpah and Zilpah who were supposed to be working in the fields were actually slacking their duties. He the youngest of the boys, and was their “helper” and he “brought a bad report of them to their father.”
  3. Jacob gave Joseph a coat that was very expensive and of fine cloth (Not actually a “coat of many colors” but the idea was the same).
  4. Joseph had dreams of all of his older brothers bowing down and following him. When he told them his dreams that did not (to put it mildly) endear him to them more (v. 5).

Why was Joseph the favored child? It’s not important to the story, but it is an interesting question to raise in your introduction, and was probably because he (and later Benjamin) was born to Rachel, who was the only woman of the four he bore children with, whom he really loved.

I think it would be helpful to list for your listeners the four reasons why his brothers hated him. And then link them to possible experiences they might have had. Say “How many of you can identify with being the favorite child? Were you the youngest and the cutest, were you the oldest and your father liked doing Boy Scout things with you and left the others behind? Or were you one of those left behind? Were you jealous of the favorite one?” This story has a little bit for everybody in it. Making the list personal will help people identify with the story.

Two:  the Providence of God as an invisible undercurrent.

An interesting thing to note is how little God shows in this story. The reason (according to Brueggemann[1]) is that God is directing the action from the underground, unbeknownst to the actors above, God is present, but below all the time. The writer of this story knows this and surely intentionally leaves out God until way far into the action. In the passage next week, Joseph says God had been behind the scenes pushing the actors in all that they had done.

Genesis 45:5-8
“And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. 6 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. 7 God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. 8 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.”
Genesis 50:20
20 Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.

The meaning of Providence, “God’s will.”

It’s always something of a balancing act between those who believe that God controls everything (predestination) and those who believe God does nothing (“God has no hands but our hands”). Truth is, God is a little bit of both. I believe that God does not so much control us as to work out alternative plans for us. We have the free will to mess the plans up, but God will work out new ones right after that. God is in the events of the day working to draw the best, healthiest conclusion out of our (sometimes sloppy, chaotic, unwise, selfish) actions. But God always gives us the free will to say yes or no to those plans. God does not cause the brokenness; God causes the healing after it happens. God is the power that draws all things together into one as healing, reconciling.

Beginnings of a possible sermon narrative…

Since we ended the story last week, a lot of things have happened. None of which am I going to go into today. Go and read it yourself. But Jacob (now usually known as “Israel”) has finally settled in Bethel, the land of promise, which is about half way up the coast in what will later be known as the kingdom of Israel.

It is the story of his next-to-the-youngest child, Joseph. Joseph is seventeen by the time this story begins, but I get the sense that his younger brother, Benjamin, had just been born because the story says that Joseph was Jacob’s favorite son because he was his youngest. Their mother, Rachel, by the way, died tragically in child birth having Benjamin.

This favoritism of Jacob toward Joseph is the crux of the story. And it was made worse by both of them. List the four reasons why Joseph’s brothers hated him: The coat (perhaps with royal connotations [see 2 Sam 13:18]), the tattle tale, the dreams. “Dreams in that world were usually understood to be externally and divinely generated (cf. Jer 23:25-26), not the result of an interior psychological process. Yet the brothers interpret Joseph’s dreams as if they are the product of Joseph’s own arrogance rather than a divine word about destiny.”[2]

It’s interesting that in the second dream, about all of the stars bowing down before him, even his father is incensed, but unlike the brothers, instead of just getting angry, he also “kept the matter in his mind.” In other words, he remembered it, wondering if it might not someday become true.

After the incident with the new coat, the brothers hated Joseph so much that they refused to greet him with “shalom” (v. 4) an important statement implying that they refused to live in “peace” with him.

This jealousy comes to a head in v. 12 when Jacob is sent by his father to check on the how the other brothers are doing as shepherds in the fields. He sends him up to Shechem. “Go now, see if it is well with your brothers and with the flock; and bring word back to me.” The story doesn’t say how far that was, but it’s about 20 miles north of there. He gets lost and asks directions, and hears that they have wandered further up towards a town called Dothan, so he goes and finally finds them. Incidentally, Dothan is a little stopping spot along the trade routes from north of Canaan down to Egypt, a little fact that plays into the story later. (It’s also the name of my brother-in-law’s dog, but that’s a little fact that probably won’t help you very much in your sermon.)

When they see him coming from off in the distance and they probably know that he’s going to give a bad report on them to their father when he gets back. So one of them says, “Here comes that guy who had the dreams. Let’s kill him and throw him in one of those pits.” Now, the nrsv says “pit” but it was probably a cistern (see more on that in the notes below). They had several throughout the desert areas where water could be gathered up and the flocks could be fed from them. And it made a good place if you wanted to kill an unwanted brother and hide the body.

But Reuben—whom you may recall was the oldest of the brothers—says, No, let’s not kill him. Let’s just throw him into the cistern and let him die there, with the secret thought that he might sneak back later and haul Joseph out and save him. So they do that, but it’s interesting that when they grab him they first carefully take off his robe. That hated item that symbolizes both his status in the family and their distaste for him. Then they find one of the cisterns without any water in it and throw him into it.

It’s interesting about the coat. It’s not the central theme of the story, but it is the central symbol of their hatred. It’s funny how hatred will cause you to do certain things. They obsessed on that one symbol. If you have the time in your retelling of this tale, you might give a brief example of a person you know who obsessed on something like Joseph’s coat to their own detriment.

Now Reuben’s idea was to get Joseph down into the pit and then come back for him later and rescue him, but it doesn’t work out that way. While the brothers were eating lunch, a caravan of Ishmaelites comes by and another brother, Judah, says, “Hey, why don’t we sell Joseph to these guys? That way we can get rid of him, but not have his blood on our hands.” The others agree and they sell Joseph to the Ishmaelites for forty pieces of silver (the going amount for slaves in those days, and interestingly, the same amount that Judas sells Jesus for many years later), and they haul poor Joseph off to Egypt.

Then, to cover their steps, they take Joseph’s robe and dip it in the blood of a goat and take it back to their father saying that some horrible big animal must have eaten poor Joseph. What a sad thing!

Jacob, of course, is distraught. He tears his clothing and mourns and dresses in sack cloth and says he will go to his death mourning his poor son, Joseph. “The brothers sought to displace Joseph in their father’s affections, but ironically Joseph will retain a preeminent place in his father’s love even in death.”[3] And that’s where the story ends. Jacob is mourning, but we, the readers, know that Joseph is still alive, but has been sold as a slave down in Egypt (v. 36).

Next week we will pick it up again when Joseph becomes a powerful leader in the Egyptian government and the brothers come down to him begging for food during a famine, but for now, let’s look at this story. What does it mean?

First, the favoritism and sibling rivalry. Nobody wears a white hat in the story. How many of you are Joseph in this story (pride)? How many are the brothers (jealousy)? How many are the father (favoritism)?

Second, mention the fact that God is not mentioned anywhere in this story. But that doesn’t mean that God is not present. When they finally get together later in Egypt and the brothers recognize Joseph, they are stricken with grief and shame and guilt, but Joseph says don’t worry. God was at work in all of your deeds bringing us to this place. You may not recognize God’s hand, but it is there nonetheless.

There are two ways of viewing God in the world. One is to say that God does everything (God’s plan, “What does God have for me?” “Why did God take my father from me?”). The most extreme version of this is Predestination, which says that we have no free will whatsoever. I don’t believe that. At the other end of the pole is God as the first mover, the First Cause. Here God acted in creation, but never again. God got the ball rolling down the hill and then sat back and watched us to see how it turned out. That’s a little much.

“[T]his dialectic: either divine determinism, where God fully controls events, or deism, where God must simply make do with whatever human action turns up and acts with no independent initiative. Neither of these options grasps the theological perspective that governs the story.”[4]

I’m somewhere in the middle. God acts but doesn’t control. God is the one who cleans up our messes. God has a plan for us, has a goal for us, one which is stronger and healthier and more humane, and which we most of the time ignore and substitute instead our own goals and plans. And then God creates “Plan B,” which we may take but sometimes will not take. Then God creates “Plan C” and Plan D” (and for a few of us God is still hammering out “Plans X and Y” well into our adulthood), always trying to get us to follow a plan that will bring us to health reconciliation, redemption, and salvation.

A couple of good illustrations right here on times when you (or someone you know) made bad decisions but were turned around in the midst of them, would be in order. When was a time when you had a perfectly good option for your life, but you took a different path instead and it turned out badly, but that fate or God or luck pulled you back from disaster and set you on a healthier path? If that has happened to you or someone you know, this would be a good place to share it.  

I believe that each of us are kind of like this dysfunctional family. Most of us are not essentially bad people, but stricken with greed, selfishness, pride, favoritism, or jealousy. I believe God is working around all of that to find a way to reconcile all of us in our own families and in our church family and in our global family. But it’s up to us to do the right thing, to hear the call to compassion and mercy and go for it.

This could similarly be applied to your church. Ninety percent of the churches in the world are going through tremendous stress turmoil, and we have thousands of choices. But in each of these choices God is working to bring about a beautiful new church and beautiful new world. It’s up to us to hear God’s voice and respond, for even when it appears as though God is not present or here or near, God actually is. God is at work cleaning up the messes of all of our decisions, moving us forward, healing our wounds, and making us new.

I’ve relied far too much on the New Interpreters’ Bible for this Sunday’s sermon, but it’s been helpful, and I’ll close with a lengthy piece from it. Tip: don’t read something like this to your congregation in a sermon. Paraphrase, don’t read. In fact never read something lengthy to your congregation in a sermon, unless you’ve already accepted a call to your next parish. People hate it when Pastors do that.

From the NIB:
“We should not evaluate the brothers’ life-diminishing activity against Joseph as good (see 50:20) or deem irrelevant how they conduct themselves within God’s economy. Rather, God’s activity from within the context set in part by the brothers’ sinful behaviors has proved, finally, to be decisive. Hence, what God has done now counts in charting a way into the future. God has preserved life; God has kept this family intact in the threat of death. To use a different image, the brothers’ sinful objectives have been thwarted by being drawn into the larger orbit of God’s purposes and used by God in such a way as to bring life rather than death. To repeat, God has “taken over” what they have done and used it to bring about this end.”[5]

[1] Walter Brueggemann, interpretation: Genesis (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), p. 301.
[2] New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, p. 601.
[3] New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, p. 600.
[4] New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, p. 601.
[5] New Interpreter’s Bible , p. 646

Exegetical/Translation Comments 

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28

Joseph Dreams of Greatness
1Jacob settled in the land where his father had lived as an alien, the land of Canaan. 2This is the story[1] of the family of Jacob.
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. 3Now 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.[2] 4But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.
5 Once Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more. 6 He said to them, “Listen to this dream that I dreamed. 7 There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright; then your sheaves gathered around it, and bowed down to my sheaf.” 8 His brothers said to him, “Are you indeed to reign over us? Are you indeed to have dominion[3] over us?” So they hated him even more because of his dreams and his words.
9 He had another dream, and told it to his brothers, saying, “Look, I have had another dream: the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” 10 But when he told it to his father and to his brothers, his father rebuked him, and said to him, “What kind of dream is this that you have had? Shall we indeed come, I and your mother and your brothers, and bow to the ground before you?” 11 So his brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind.

Joseph Is Sold by His Brothers
12Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock near Shechem. 13And Israel said to Joseph, “Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem? Come, I will send you to them.”
He answered, “Here I am.”
14So he said to him, “Go now, see if it is well with your brothers and with the flock; and bring word back to me.” So he sent him from the valley of Hebron.
He came to Shechem, 15and a man found him wandering in the fields; the man asked him, “What are you seeking?”
16”I am seeking my brothers,” he said; “tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock.”
17The man said, “They have gone away, for I heard them say, ‘Let us go to Dothan.’”[4] So Joseph went after his brothers, and found them at Dothan. 18They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him. 19They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. 20Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits;[5] then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.” 21But when Reuben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.” 22Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood; throw him into this pit[6] here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him”—that he might rescue him out of their hand and restore him to his father. 23So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the long robe with sleeves[7] that he wore; 24and they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.
25Then they sat down to eat; and looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels carrying gum, balm, and resin, on their way to carry it down to Egypt. 26Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? 27Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers agreed. 28When some Midianite traders passed by, they drew Joseph up, lifting him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver.[8] And they took Joseph to Egypt.
29 When Reuben returned to the pit and saw that Joseph was not in the pit, he tore his clothes. 30 He returned to his brothers, and said, “The boy is gone; and I, where can I turn?” 31 Then they took Joseph’s robe, slaughtered a goat, and dipped the robe in the blood. 32 They had the long robe with sleevesc taken to their father, and they said, “This we have found; see now whether it is your son’s robe or not.” 33 He recognized it, and said, “It is my son’s robe! A wild animal has devoured him; Joseph is without doubt torn to pieces.” 34 Then Jacob tore his garments, and put sackcloth on his loins, and mourned for his son many days.[9] 35 All his sons and all his daughters sought to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted, and said, “No, I shall go down to Sheol[10] to my son, mourning.” Thus his father bewailed him. 36Meanwhile the Midianites had sold him in Egypt to Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officials, the captain of the guard.

[1] “Story” (toledot).  Feminine Noun. Generations, account, family history. In the plural, it is used to denote the chronological procession of history as humans shape it. It refers to the successive generations in one family (cf. Gen: 10:32).
[2] “Long robe with sleeves.” (kĕtōnet passı̂m). The traditional KJV translation, “coat of many colors,” was based on the (incorrect) Greek LXX translation of the OT. “An examination of cognate terms in Semitic suggests it was either a coat or tunic with long sleeves (cf. NEB, NRSV), or a tunic that was richly embroidered (cf. NIV)” (NET). “The rare Hebrew term modifying robe appears to mean ‘the palms of the hands’ or ‘the soles of the feet’” (NISB). Aside from this reference, the OT only has it once more, in 2 Sam 13:18, 19, where it is a garment of a princess. In any case, the point was that it set Joseph off from his brothers as their father’s favorite.
[3] “Reign” (mālaḵ).  Verb, to rule, to be king, to make king. “Dominion” (māšal). Verb, to rule, to reign, or to have dominion over. “The dream is a vision of history being inverted against all the odds. ‘Reign’ is a royal word used in relation to the patriarchs only by the P tradition (17:6; 35:11). (‘Rule’ is used only for Joseph among the fathers [cf. 24:2].) We have seen the word used only twice for persons (cf. 1:16-18) in the pre-history: in 3:16 concerning the perverted relation of the man and the woman; and in 4:7, in the ironic promise to Cain that he might control the power of sin. But it occurs nowhere before this in reference to political power. This is a first awareness in the text of genuine, responsible political power. With the dream of Joseph, something new enters the awareness of Israel.” Walter Brueggemann, interpretation: Genesis (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), p. 301.
[4] “Dothan” “[S]ituated fourteen miles north of Shechem, on the main route used by merchants and herdsmen going north to the Jezreel Valley.” Victor Harold Matthews, Mark W. Chavalas and John H. Walton, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000).
[5] “Pit” (bôr). Masculine noun. Not usually a “pit,” and almost certainly not meant as pit here. Its more common meaning is cistern or well. “Cisterns were hollowed out of the limestone bedrock or were dug and then lined with plaster to store rain water. They provided water for humans and animals through most of the dry months. When they were empty, they sometimes served as temporary cells for prisoners” (Matthews, Chavalas and Walton, The IVP Bible Background Commentary : Old Testament [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000]).  Joseph’s dungeon under Pharaoh was also referred to as a bôr (Gen. 40:15). And Jeremiah was also put into one as a prison (Jer 38:6-7, 9-11, 13]).
[6] “Pit” see note on v. 20.
[7] See note on 37.3
[8] “This was the average price for a male slave in Old Babylonian times (early 2nd millennium b.c.),” Victor P. Hamilton, NICOT, cited by Sidney Greidanus in Roger Van Harn, ed., The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday's Texts (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2001), p. 66. It consists of about two year’s wages.

[9] “The official period of mourning was thirty days but could continue for as long as the mourner chose to continue to grieve.” (IVP Bible Background Commentary: OT).
[10]Sheol is the realm of the dead, a shadowy and lifeless place considered in ancient Israel to be the destination of all human beings after death (Pss. 88:307; 89:48)” (NISB).