Today we begin a series of stories centred on the 11th son of Jacob, Joseph.
Those of us who grew up in church and had Sunday school stories will have fond memories of this story. Joseph was often portrayed as a young boy – lending itself to being told to children. Well, he was young – just 17 years old – but he was a young man, not a child.
In the text between the story we had last week, and this one there are three basic stories followed by brief accounts of the death of Jacob and Rachel and then some genealogies.
The story of Jacob’s reunion with Esau in Genesis 33 is a lovely story of reconciliation. If you haven’t read it, please do when you get home.
Then there is a scandalous story about the rape of one of Jacob’s daughters and the blood-thirsty revenge that his son’s Simeon and Levi imposed on the family and tribe of the perpetrator. There is a terrible consequence for Simeon and Levi for this violence. When their father’s last words are recorded Genesis 49 he has no good words to say to them. Their violence was scandalous and had long-term consequences.
The third story explains how it was that Jacob came to take his family back to Bethel – the place where he had met God on his way up to Haran and where he had built an altar making it a holy place.
The Genealogy in chapter 36 gives us an explanation of the origins of many of the different tribes who live in the lands around the Israelites. And this leads into our story today.
When Jacob returned to the land of the Canaanites he had 11 sons. And only one of these, the youngest, was born to him by Rachel, his most beloved wife. This sets the scene for what is to follow – which is a story that recalls a previous theme: Favourites.
We reflected on the problem of the favouritism of Isaac over Ishmael some weeks ago, and then the favouritism of Jacob over Esau. Both these stories showed us the problems that can be created when one child is preferred over the other.
So, again today, we have one child who is preferred over the others – and all of them with precedence in the natural order of things. And the outcome is not pretty.
It is aided and abetted by a rather obnoxious child – who seems intent on proving to everyone else in the family that he was headed for something better.
It seems to us quite understandable that the older siblings would be seething with anger and jealousy as a result of Joseph’s behaviour.
But doesn’t this emotion lead them to do, or consider doing some terrible things – murder for their brother and lies & deception of their father. These are the rottenest things a person can do.
We see a glimpse of character in the person of Reuben, the eldest son, when he seeks to deflect his brothers from the intention to murder Joseph.
In the end they sell Joseph off to some travellers and they think that is the end of the story of Joseph as far as they are concerned. But that was not to be – as we will see.
But what has this got for us as God’s people today – far away in time and place from that ancient place in Palestine?
Let me describe what it puts me in mind of.
It makes me think of quite a number of circumstances I am aware of as happening in churches where factions of support or opposition for one person or another in leadership in the church have cause good people to do things that are completely out of character for them as followers of the Way of Jesus.
Rivalry or preference of one over others in the community so often leads to bad things happening and in my experience of it no-one wins. The one who is being preferred or opposed doesn’t win, and the community doesn’t win.
The rivalry of leaders leads to polarisation in the community and everyone is destroyed by it. It leads people who are good people to do things they wouldn’t normally do. They tell tales, they bully people, they collude with others to hurt another.
I have listened to a few stories about the life of Holy Cross over its 40 or more years and I suspect you have been through times like this. I also suspect that every parish falls into this trap at some time or another.
I would like this story today to be a warning to us all – a story never to forget – about the dangers of letting such conflict arise among us. One of the most important parts of the Gospel as both Jesus and Paul taught the early Christians was that no matter what we might have used to differentiate ourselves from others in the past – our birth place, our gender, our theological preferences, our religious piety – as men and women called into the community of the Beloved Son, these differences are meaningless now. Remember these words of Paul to the Galatians:
26 It is through faith that all of you are God's children in union with Christ Jesus. 27 You were baptized into union with Christ, and now you are clothed, so to speak, with the life of Christ himself. 28 So there is no difference between Jews and Gentiles, between slaves and free people, between men and women; you are all one in union with Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are the descendants of Abraham and will receive what God has promised.
We must always be on our guard to preserve this unity into which we have been called. You might think that we are doing alright just now. There is no hint of conflict or rivalry. That makes this a good time to remind us all of how important it is for us to avoid it at all costs.