[Note: I decided to do a Bible study blog this week after all]
The phrase “dysfunctional family” is redundant and apparently always has been if the Biblical record is any indication. We all have embarrassing stories about our families or meeting the prospective in-laws for the first time. And those are minor issues compared to abusive or violent situations that are all too common, especially in times of great economic and personal stress and pressure.
We’ve all had those moments when a parent pulls out our naked baby pictures to show to a friend or date, and now with You Tube and other digital demons, the opportunities for embarrassing photos being widely disseminated has increased exponentially. Many of us have had times when we would like to sell a sibling to a passing band of Ishmaelites, but Joseph’s brothers actually do it.
No family is perfect. We sometimes look at affluent neighborhoods with manicured lawns and assume those living there have lives that are as impressive as the facades of their large beautiful homes. But no socio-economic class is immune from jealousy, insecurity, tragedy and other causes of brokenness. Earlier chapters of Genesis detail family conflicts between Cain and Able, Jacob and Esau, and now the critical Joseph saga that is prelude to slavery in Egypt and the Exodus salvation of God’s people begins in a tale of sibling rivalry and jealousy that goes rapidly from bad to worse.
Before we get to the oppression of the Hebrews by Pharaoh we encounter some within Jacob’s family, within God’s own people. Perhaps this is a reminder that before we cast too many stones at those ” bad people” out there, we should do some introspection and recognize the logs in our own eyes. No problems can be addressed in a family or any relationship until we first recognize they are there. When Jacob tells Joseph (vs. 14) to go “see if it is well with your brothers,” he is inquiring about their well-being, their peace/shalom. We see very quickly there is no peace in Shechem where Joseph’s brothers are plotting fratricide and finally compromise on selling him and lying about his death at the hands of a wild animal.
The authors of this story want to make very sure we know this is about a family. The word brother appears 20 times, father 10 times and son 8, and there is plenty of blame to go around for all of the above. It is easy to see the sins of the brothers who sell Joseph, but as is often the case in athletic events, the secondary offender is often the one called for the infraction because, especially in the good old days before instant replay, the initiator of a conflict escapes the notice of the referee. Joseph and Jacob need to share the blame for this family crisis. Jacob blew his paternal responsibilities by playing favorites among his sons and Joseph eggs his brothers on by bragging about his dreams and his special treatment from Daddy, and in general being a tattle tale.
My point is that evil is not just out there in the villains du jour, be they Egyptians or Joseph’s brothers or our contemporary religious or political enemies. There is jealousy and unkindness and chicanery among the household of God too, then and now. We can’t do anything about Jacob’s dysfunctional family. That’s history. But we can learn from their mistakes and realize that jealousy or competition or putting on holier-than-thou airs like Joseph does will not work well as evangelistic strategies for the church today. To attract new disciples into the church requires a level of genuine honesty and authenticity possible only when we feel secure in our own faith relationship with a loving, forgiving God. The value of being secure and real is captured in a great quote from the beautiful children’s story, “The Velveteen Rabbit,” by Margery Williams:
“The Skin Horse had lived longer in the nursery than any of the others. He was so old that his brown coat was bald in patches and showed the seams underneath, and most of the hairs in his tail had been pulled out to string bead necklaces. He was wise, for he had seen a long succession of mechanical toys arrive to boast and swagger, and by-and-by break their mainsprings and pass away, and he knew that they were only toys, and would never turn into anything else. For nursery magic is very strange and wonderful, and only those playthings that are old and wise and experienced like the Skin Horse understand all about it.
“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
“I suppose you are real?” said the Rabbit. And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive.
But the Skin Horse only smiled.”
Jealousy is certainly not the only cause of conflict in human relationships, but it is high on the list. Comparison of oneself to others is always dangerous because there will always be some better or worse off. Coveting, a synonym for jealousy, is so dangerous it merits its own place as one of the 10 commandments. Why is that? Some would argue that competition is good motivation to try harder, and there is truth to that. Competition can inspire great achievements, e.g. the landing of humans on the moon was powered as much by competition with the USSR as it was by solid rocket fuel. But competition becomes destructive when the value of persons and not their accomplishments become the standard of measurement as happens in the Joseph story.
When we feel insecure and are motivated by an economy of scarcity no amount of wealth, power, or prestige is ever enough. Keeping up with the Joneses is quickly transformed into staying ahead of them. Winning in business or athletics trumps integrity and community resulting in use of illegal performance enhancing drugs or unethical business practices. Winning an election becomes more important than serving the public good. Self-interest clouds wise and impartial judgment. People who start down a career path intending to do good become blinded by the desire to do well.
In many ways our culture teaches us to be discontent in whatever state we are in – always wanting more in a consumer crazy culture – always thinking the grass is greener on the other side of the fence or tracks, only to discover when we get there that it is artificial turf.
We are all part of God’s family in desperate need to learn to live together peaceably. The width and breadth of the interconnectedness of the human family is lifted up for us very subtly in the final verse of this text from Genesis 37. (Ignore the confusion in this story about whether the traders who bought Joseph were Ishmaelites or Midianites. It says both and this is likely from the combination of two versions of this story.)
It is the late reference to Midianites in this text that intrigues me because centuries later in this story of God’s people (Exodus 2), Moses, the hero of the Exodus story, marries Zipporah, daughter of Reuel/Jethro, a priest of Midian. It’s a small world because we are all sisters and brothers in God’s family and need to learn to live together like real siblings should.