Genesis 37:1-4; 12-28
There are many different stories living in the later chapters of Genesis that perhaps we may have heard of, they ring a bell someplace, but they’re not the ones that immediately come to mind. Last week was one of them, this week is another, but at least thanks to a well-known musical, this is a story that we at least have heard of: the opening notes of the epic of Joseph. Almost immediately, we might think of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat.” –Which was, incidentally, first performed in a Methodist church in England in 1968 as a 15 minute pop cantata when the composer was twenty years old. The composer’s father was the music director at the time, and felt it had promise.
The story, of course, is all about promise, but it also has some very dark themes in it. It has notes of poor parenting –Jacob showing favoritism of one child over another, the assumption of privilege, bitter sibling resentment and rivalry resulting from this, and then a conspiracy of murder. The opening words of this story have virtually nothing of redeeming value. It’s no wonder preachers tend to avoid it… or rather skip over this part of it.
Still, the story of Joseph represents more than fourteen chapters in Genesis, occupying more than the last quarter of the book. It is a novella, an extended short story with a full-blown plot arc showing how the people of Israel came to Egypt. It’s a tale of its own, but it also sets the stage for the epic in Exodus. How it starts is fundamentally important because it is rooted in relationships, it is a cautionary tale, and the characters in it are so blithely lacking in self-awareness that it has all the potential of ending in a terrible tragedy.
At least in this part of the story, there are three major characters: Joseph, his father Jacob, and his brothers. At this point in the story, we don’t know how many brothers he has, and only at the last moment do two of them acquire names: Reuben and then Judah. None of them are painted in a particularly good light: Joseph is a spoiled brat, Jacob is playing favorites with his children, and the brothers are resentful to the point of betraying one of their own.
They are resentful for two reasons: their father’s obvious favoritism for their youngest brother, AND Joseph’s own role undermining his own brothers. Inserted into this that Joseph seems to have dreams of grandeur, which absolutely does not help the situation at all. These are not a good example of family dynamics, and yet they are very human dynamics.
Despite all of this, despite all of these terrible dynamics, God is able to break through these chains of behaviours and brings something good out of it. Yet it doesn’t happen right away, and it takes an entire story to show how each of these characters change. It shows us that while God can and does work with our gifts, our talents, our enthusiasm, God can also work wonders in spite of our short-sightedness, our selfishness, our unwillingness to listen. That’s the harder lesson.
In all, the story of Joseph is one about transformative change… but the change does not happen instantly. It doesn’t happen because the players in the story want it to happen. In fact, the transformative change happens through the story precisely because they need to change. Even so, it only happens after the early chain of events and character flaws that see Joseph ripped away from his family.
As tragic as it sounds, the story of Joseph is not a tragedy in the purest sense. It may start out like one, but as Wayne or Peggy might confirm or contradict, a feature of a tragic story is that a character or characters in the story has a flaw that causes their downfall. In this case, Joseph, his father, and his brothers all have flaws, and it unleashes the story. At this point in the story, we know that one change in this chain of behaviour could have changed the outcome of the story. Yet it doesn’t and so Joseph is sold into slavery, torn away from his father, and abandoned and betrayed by his brothers. At this point in the story, it threatens to unfold as an irredeemable tragedy.
Fortunately, it doesn’t end here. As the story unfolds, we follow Joseph through his particular evolution, but all of the characters in these opening chapters evolve and grow. While the ending is hopeful, we can’t simply jump ahead or we don’t learn anything. We need to sit with this part of it for a bit longer. We need to sit with where the characters are with where they are at, if we are going to learn and grow from this.
If our faith is about transformative change, recognizing where we are is as important as where we are going. In the story of Joseph, they aren’t there yet. They don’t recognize that their attitudes and actions are impeding their relationships with one another… and yet these attitudes of favouritism, arrogance, privilege, and resentment clash and begin this downward spiral that could unfold in a terrible way.
Over the course of the story, they do begin to recognize this, and unlike a true tragic story, they begin to make the personal changes to make new life possible. Joseph’s story invites us to take the uncomfortable journey into our own flaws, to ask ourselves what we need to change. What are the chains of behaviour that we, our congregations, or our communities are living into that need to be changed? What behaviours in ourselves could change to move us towards new life and new hope?
This isn’t to instill a sense of guilt, but rather a mindset of transformation. God has been working in and through our own human flaws for far longer than you or I have. As the story of Joseph eventually shows, God can turn tragedy into triumph, despair into hope, and as the cornerstone of our faith, life from death. That’s the kind of story I want to help live out.