Summary: Though Joseph's brothers intended to harm him, God intended to work through their actions for good. Ultimately this truth allowed Joseph to forgive his brothers. Forgiveness may sometimes be a decision we have to make but we can do so trusting that God will work good through it.
Like last week, we have skipped ahead a few generations in Genesis to get to today’s reading. So to quickly summarize, Abraham, whose deep desire for a son we heard about in last week’s reading, fathered a son by the name of Isaac. Isaac was the father of two children, Esau and Jacob. Jacob or Israel as he will later be called, has twelve sons, and at least one daughter. Of all of these children, Jacob has a favorite child—his son Joseph. Joseph is Jacob’s favorite because although he is one of the youngest children of Jacob, he is the first child of Jacob’s favorite wife Rachel.
See Jacob has this little problem with favoritism. He treats his wife Leah as a second-class citizen even though she is the one who gives birth to most of his children. And he treats Rachel’s son Joseph with such open and obvious favoritism that his brothers take note. Jacob even goes so far as to put his favoritism on display by gifting Joseph a beautiful coat or robe. Tradition (and the Broadway musical) claim this was a coat of many colors or Joseph’s Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, but the Hebrew is much simpler in its description referring to it as a long-sleeved long coat. I cannot even begin to tell you how terribly disappointed I was as a seminary student to learn that Joseph’s coat may not have been as colorful as I had always imagined. I mean its nice and everything, but still, not the same. And I can’t imagine anyone being inspired to write a song about this coat….
But I digress.
Whatever Joseph’s coat may have looked like, it set him apart and told the whole family, heck the whole community, of Joseph’s favored status. And this did not go over well with his brothers. Solely because of Joseph’s impressive coat, Joseph’s brothers have a hard time even talking to him. They are jealous.
As if that Jacob’s blatant favoritism isn’t enough, there is one other reason that the brothers can’t stand Joseph. And we hear of that in the opening of today’s stories. Joseph has dreams and not just any dreams, but dreams which he interprets as giving him superior status to his brothers. Though we only hear of the dream about sheaves of wheat, he also has another dream along the same lines.
Joseph dreams that he and his brothers are all sheaves of grain and that for whatever reason, Joseph’s sheave rises up and his brothers’ sheaves all bow down to it. Eugene Peterson’s The Message translation explains the brothers reaction this way: His brothers said, “So! You’re going to rule us? You’re going to boss us around?” And they hated him more than ever because of his dream and the way he talked.
I’m not sure whether Joseph was totally naïve or rather arrogant by telling his brothers this dream, but his two dreams here really push the brothers completely over the edge. So much so that they are ready to kill him. Like literally kill him.
Thankfully, Reuben, Jacob’s oldest son, convinces them not to (but only so that he can “rescue” Joseph and hopefully earn some of his father’s favor for himself.
Judah, another brother of Joseph is the one who comes up with the winning plan, however. And so the brothers end up selling the beloved child into slavery in Egypt.
I wonder what it felt like for Joseph to be so betrayed by his brothers. It has to be a huge culture shock to go from the Hebrew culture of Canaan and his favored status as Jacob’s son to being a slave in Egypt. He had to learn a new language, a new way of being, and was basically alone in the world. Alone that is except for God.
Whatever slavery was like for Joseph, it seems to have strengthened him in his walk with God and matured him into a man through whom God was able to do great things. If you want in on some of the details of that transition, go home and read the last 3rd of Genesis starting with our reading from today through the end of that book. It reads less like an ancient Biblical text and more like a novel.
Years later, a severe famine hits the land. Pharaoh had been warned in a dream about this famine—a dream which Joseph had interpreted for him, and as such had been storing up grain for years and years. Pharaoh had placed Joseph in charge of the whole economic system by this point and as such, Joseph was the one responsible for doling out the excess grain.
Word of Egypt’s excess reaches all the way back to Canaan and to the family of Jacob. Desperate the brothers travel there and bow down before Joseph. They don’t recognize their brother, but Joseph recognizes them. And though he tests them to see if they have changed, he gives them what they need freely and eventually reveals himself to them.