Summary: The story of Joseph is a story of betrayal by those closest to you. But it is also a story of how God will see you through, no matter what you face, and how God can bring good out of the worst possible situation.
Genesis 37:2-4, 12-28
The Pain of Betrayal
Boy, does it hurt when someone betrays you! As the anonymous saying goes, “The saddest thing about betrayal is that it never comes from your enemies.” We went through a painful experience in one of my churches. A small group was full of people dissatisfied with the church, grumblers, spreading gossip. As the senior pastor there, I felt betrayed. Looking back on that experience, I think I could have done some things better, sought the peace more, ensured those people had a voice. Yet, I do know firsthand the hurt you experience when someone you thought was on your side goes out and betrays you.
The Old Testament character of Joseph certainly knows betrayal. We’ve been looking at the stories of his father Jacob for a couple of weeks. Now the book of Genesis shifts to Joseph. In fact, Genesis talks more about Joseph than any other character; the last third of the book centers on his story. We will only spend two Sundays, but I encourage you to read the 14 chapters on your own. This week we’ll talk about the pain of betrayal; next week we’ll look at the climax of his story, with the joy of reconciliation.
Joseph’s betrayal comes at the conflux of several streams of jealousy and pride. You might call it the dysfunctional family’s perfect storm. You have Father Jacob playing favorites, having learned nothing from his family of origin where his own parents did the same. Moms and dads playing favorites never goes well. Jacob gives Joseph an ornate robe, sometimes translated a “robe of many colors.” The Hebrew meaning is unclear. 2 Samuel 13:18-19 describes this kind of robe as a garment worn by royalty. Perhaps it is gold-studded. Regardless of the specifics, the robe is a constant visual reminder of who is the favorite child.
And then there are Joseph’s dreams, which we did not read about today. God had given him two dreams, one in which his brothers bow down to him, and the second in which his brothers and even his parents bow down to him. Joseph had shared the dreams proudly with his family. Yes, at 17 he’s a little immature and prideful. And no, it does not go over well with the rest of the family!
The straw that breaks the camel’s back is the “bad report” Joseph brings to his father: he snitches on his older brothers (verse 2). We don’t know exactly what they were doing wrong, but it’s not hard to imagine that word got back to them of the informant in their midst. All of these factors set up the perfect storm of pride, hatred, jealousy, and betrayal.
There are two things I want to highlight from today’s story. I think we can all agree on the first point, which is,
1. People will let you down.
Yes, they will. People are not perfect. And if you stay in a relationship with someone, anyone, the inevitable truth is, that person will let you down. It may not be to the full extent of a betrayal, but any person will let you down at some point. We are all sinners. We have all gone astray, according to the Bible (Romans 3:23, Isaiah 53:6). And we will disappoint each other. It’s hard to hear, but it’s true.
Joseph lets down his family. He lets his pride get the best of him. He flaunts his dreams and his ornate robe before his older brothers. He lets them down.
And his older brothers let Joseph down. They allow the green-eyed monster of jealousy to consume them, to the point of plotting murder against their own flesh and blood. They should have heeded God’s admonition to Cain, before he killed his brother Abel. In the height of Cain’s anger, God told him, “Sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it” (Genesis 4:6). As Joseph’s brothers see him coming from a distance, they start to plot his murder. You can hear the derision in their voice as they say, in verse 19, “Here comes that dreamer!” And in verse 20: “Come now, let’s kill him and throw him into one of these cisterns and say that a ferocious animal devoured him. Then we’ll see what comes of his dreams.”
Only the level-headedness of the oldest brother, Reuben, saves Joseph’s life. Verses 21 and 22 record the brothers taking his advice and throwing Joseph into a dry cistern or well. Reuben hopes to come back later and secretly rescue him. But while Reuben is away, Judah leads the other brothers to do the unthinkable: they sell Joseph into Egyptian slavery. While the offense is lessened from pre-meditated murder, the brothers are in effect sentencing Joseph to a lifetime sentence of hard labor. They fully expect to never see him again. Their cold-heartedness will also let down their father, whose heart will be broken over Joseph’s staged death by wild animals.