1 Jacob settled in the land where his father had lived as an alien, the land of Canann. 2 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. 3 Now 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. 4 But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.
12 Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock near Shechem. 13 And 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.” 14 So 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, 15 and 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.” 17 The man said, “They have gone away, for I heard them say, ‘Let us go to Dothan.’” So Joseph went after his brothers, and found them at Dothan. 18 They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him. 19 They said to one another, “here comes this dreamer. 20 Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.” 21 But when Reuben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.” 22 Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood; throw him into this pit 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. 23 So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the long robe with sleeves that he wore; 24 and they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it. 25 Then 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. 26 Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? 27 Come, 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. 28 When 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. And they took Joseph to Egypt.
In the next two Sundays, we are coveringthe story of Joseph from the Book of Genesis. If you have children or if you have a child-like heart, I recommend checking out Dreamwork’s Joseph: King of Dreams, which gives you a fun, visual summary of Joseph’s story.
So, who is Joseph? In the Old Testament, also called the Hebrew Bible, there is this one incredibly special family introduced in Genesis. This family is also known as the biblical patriarchs, which gives birth to the identity of God’s people—the people of Israel. This family begins its root with Abraham. The covenant was established between God and Abraham; that God will make Abraham the father of a multitude of nations (17:5); that the covenant between God and Abraham’s offspring will be an everlasting covenant; that God will be their God always. And with this covenant established as our context today, we read about the story of this particular family in Genesis, from Abraham to his son Isaac, from Isaac to his son Jacob, and from Jacob to his son Joseph.
As I mentioned earlier in the movie title, Joseph is known for his dreams. And his life story is written extensively in Genesis, making up 14 out of its 50 chapters. But the selected readings before us—Chapter 37 and 45—only cover so much. And what these two chapters highlight seems to be the reality of human relationship.
His father, Jacob, has two wives: Leah and Rachel. *Now, how Jacob married to these two women is a whole another story (Ch. 29). Jacob has five sons with Leah, and two more with Leah’s maid, Zilpah. And he has two sons with Rachel, and two more with Rachel’s maid, Bilhah. So there are in total twelve.
Now the sons of Jacob were twelve. The sons of Leah: Reuben (Jacob’s firstborn), Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun. The sons of Rachel: Joseph and Benjamin. The sons of Bilhah, Rachel’s maid: Dan and Naphtali. The sons of Zilpah, Leah’s maid: Gad and Asher. (Gen 35:23-26)
Jacob favored Rachel over Leah, which makes Joseph, Rachel’s firstborn, Jacob’s favorite, even though he was the youngest among them aside from little Benji. And this is what causes the drama in Chapter 37, which changes the course of Joseph’s life in a drastic way.
Joseph is introduced as a seventeen-year-old boy in Chapter 37. Imagine how those seventeen years were like for his older brothers. Rachel was barren for a long time—so Joseph was God’s precious gift for both Jacob and Rachel. As soon as Joseph was born, he meant the world to Jacob, putting him over the other ten boys. And I’m sure those ten sons felt their father’s favoritism towards their youngest brother at the time.
Funny thing about favoritism is that those who are being favored often don’t really know that they are being favored. It’s almost impossible for them to recognize on their own, to realize on their own, that they are being favored over others. It’s almost always the case that someone else needs to break their bubble to help them realize that they are being favored. It’s a lot like the teacher’s pets we all remember from our school days. The favored students do not know what’s going on until their classmates let them know in an embittered manner.
So, my guess is that Joseph wasn’t aware of his father’s favoritism towards him. And his father’s favoritism only enabled him to be more entitled. I’m sure Joseph was able to get by with everything his older brothers had not been permitted to get by with, and this entitlement shaped him as a young man.
So, today’s story is a result of Jacob’s 17 years of favoritism towards one son over the other ten.
Walter Brueggemann, a writer and theologian, describes this relationship as “a turbulent triangle.” This triangle can also be found in our lives, in the past or even at this current moment; “as one having been loved too much, one loving too much, and one feeling loved too little.”
I’ve been listening to a lot of new stories lately—whether through in-person, Zoom, or phone calls—as I am talking with more people as their pastor. And as I hear people’s concerns, wishes, and prayer requests, what I’m realizing is that all of these longings are coming from this very triangle we are all part of. We share our prayers for those whom we love too much. We share our distress because we are feeling loved too little. We share our regrets for the mistakes we’ve made from our entitlement that is enabled by being loved too much; we share our remorse for the mistakes we’ve made because of our resentment from feeling loved too little; and, we share our embarrassment for the mistakes we’ve made due to our obsessions from loving too much. All of our so-called relational problems we deal with stem from this very turbulent triangle.
Being in relationship is difficult.
Jacob didn’t get this love thing right and his favoritism brought family division and dissension. And its consequence was pretty extreme. The older brothers almost killed Joseph. And they settled by selling him into slavery in Egypt.
Earlier I introduced this biblical patriarchs, this special family—from Abraham to Isaac to Jacob to Joseph. And it seems like what was passed down to each generation was not just family property but also their parenting tendency. Abraham’s favoritism resulted in the division between his sons Isaac and Ishmael, and Isaac’s favoritism did the same for his sons Esau and Jacob. I wonder why Jacob did not have sympathy for his older children or concern for his favorite son Joseph since he himself was once a younger son who despised his father Isaac’s favoritism for his older brother. But this repetitive parenting behavior stayed consistent in their bloodline, as Jacob’s favoritism also caused division between Joseph and the rest of his sons.
But this is not a pattern unique to this biblical patriarchs. This also happens in our lives. We model our relational habits and skills after our parents and parental figures. Whether we like it or not, we subconsciously pick up their behaviors, both good and bad, and apply them to our own relationship: friendships, marriage, parenthood, etc. And our children will do the same, modeling after us as they grow and build new relationships. We pick up and we pass down the relational skills that we both appreciate and despise, knowingly and unknowingly.
And what’s so difficult about this is the fact that none of us get this love thing right. None of us are perfect in modeling love. None of the people who showed us how to love are perfect. All of our models of love are imperfect. All of their love has both strengths and flaws. That’s why we see ourselves fall in this triangle with varying levels of turbulence overand over again.
Recently, my wife showed me a video that speaks to this. Kier Gaines, a father with a two-year-old daughter, speaks to the camera about the fatherhood.
"A lot of young men, particularly young Black men, hit me up being like, 'I can't wait to be a dad, I can't wait to be a father," he says in the video as he carries his daughter on a walk through the neighborhood. "I love that because I think the men that were a generation before us got raised by the men that were a generation before them, and those men didn't really know warm love."
Becoming a parent, he says, "exposes things about you that you don't know about yourself," before adding how it's a "huge emotional undertaking if you do it the right way."
"Go see somebody about the trauma that you've endured throughout the course of your life, and start healing," he says. "Because if you don't heal from that? You'll have all this and you'll never be happy."
In order to break the cycle of picking up and passing down, there needs to be tiresome work of healing and transformation. And this reality check is relevant to all of us.
In today’s story, Joseph involuntarily finds himself in this turbulent triangle caused by his family line’s repetitive parental favoritism. Yet, we are reminded of one very important truth: God’s love ispersistent.
God’s love is persistent despite the family’s repetitive toxic behavior and failures. As we will see as we read more about Joseph’s story, God stays true to God’s word: God will be their God always.
God’s love is persistent despite the Israelites’ repetitive toxic behavior and failures. As we read the Old Testament, we read about God’s people continuously being rebellious against God and making so many mistakes, generation after generation. Yet, because of God’s persistence, God sent his Son Jesus into the world in flesh, Love Incarnate, to be the very model of love, the perfect model of love. That’s why Jesus came to us as the healer, the great physician.
“But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, andby his bruises we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5).
God’s love is persistent despite our repetitive toxic behavior and failures. Christ’s love is now available to all of us. Because of this love, Christ invites all to his table, to earnestly repent of our sin and seek to live in peace with one another, to commit to the tiresome work of holistic healing and transformation.
Christ Jesus reminded the disciples of this truth again when he said to them, “And surely I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” This truth applies to us today as well. Christ, Immanuel, is God-with-us. And we commit to this journey of being in relationship with our God and with our families, friends, and neighbors. We commit even when it requires our tireless effort of healing and transformation. That’s the overarching theme of the Bible: imperfect people, persistent God, and the journey we walk together towards healing and transformation.