Genesis 37 – The Story of Joseph. This sermon was prepared for a preaching seminar at United Theological Seminary, 2013.
Dreams can come to nothing unless your dreams are God-given dreams. For Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob the quest for the whole land of Canaan was a God-given God-sized dream. God chooses to covenant with this family and promises to fulfill this God-given dream of family, land, respect, and nations. And, God chooses Joseph to continue the prosperity of this particular family. God has a dream. God has a covenant. God has a people. God has a land. God provides the promise. God makes the dream a reality.
Trouble in the text: Joseph continues the family dream.
Joseph lives in the land of Canaan where is father, Jacob, grandfather, Isaac, great-grandfather, Abraham, and great-great grandfather, Terah, lives as immigrants and dreamers. An immigrant is a person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country. These are nomadic tribes that graze their flocks from place to place across the land of Canaan. Terah moves into the land of Canaan from Ur of the Chaldeans and settles at Haran. But Abraham is the one who continues the dreaming and moves from Haran to a land that God shows him. God makes a promise to Abraham of the whole land of Canaan. In fact Abraham dreams about becoming a father of a great nation and possessing the land of Canaan. Abraham had a dream, and God made a promise.
Isaac dreams of marrying a beautiful woman named Rebeccah. Jacob dreams big family-size dreams and marries two wives – Leah and Rachel. Jacob had a dream that he would marry his Rachel, but instead he was deceived as was given another wife, Leah, first. This broken-hearted lover eventually marries his Rachel, but his dream is delayed from being realized for 14-long years. It’s no surprise to find that Joseph, Jacob’s son, is a dreamer, too. Dreams have been a unique part of this family tree for five generations and their dreams all focused around property, marriage, and children. Most of us dream those kinds of dreams… a nice home, a yard for the children to play, the dog to run, the cat to climb, and the spouse to cookout and read a book on Sunday afternoon. In fact the account of this family of dreamers stretches 39 out of 50 chapters from Genesis 11 until the death of Joseph in the very last verse of chapter 50. God made a promise, and Joseph is God’s choice to fulfill that promise.
We find our story of Joseph in Genesis 37 where Joseph is presented in an unflattering way. He is wrapped in a specially designed robe that his father presents to him. This robe surely symbolizes his father’s intensions of making this son the heir to the family estate. While Joseph’s body is wrapped in a robe, his attitude is wrapped in arrogance, and his brother’s recognize their father’s favoritism of this young man. Remember when you were 17. Car. Dating. Job. College. Home. Career. Marriage. The whole world set before you ready to discover. Joseph, our main character in this narrative, is ready to find his place in the family household.
The texts are fairly quiet about Joseph until now. Abraham’s dream and God’s promise-fulfillment continues through Joseph’s life much to the frustration and bitterness of his many brothers. We are introduced to Joseph as a 17-year-old young man that is stirring up trouble in his family tree. Joseph tattles on his brothers by telling their father unflattering things about them. Unflattering might mean here that Joseph was lifting up his good behavior in light of his brothers’ bad behavior. Unflattering might mean Joseph gave a negative impression of his brothers’ while making himself look good. Joseph may have been setting himself apart from his brothers to gain his father’s favoritism. The text points out Jacob loved his son Joseph more than any of his other sons; Jacob was playing favorites. In fact Jacob had made for Joseph a long robe. This robe might have been fancy in design with long sleeves, colored fabrics, or possibly bejeweled. However, the robe itself had little cause to make the brothers jealous if there had not been favoritism lurking about in the family relationships. When his brothers perceived that their father loved Joseph more, they hated him and couldn’t even talk nicely to him.
When we examine the text we realize that Joseph unwittingly set himself at odds with his brothers by sharing his God-given dreams. Joseph tells his brothers about his dreams, which cause his brothers to hate him even more. The dreams are not hard to discern the meaning and the brothers become even more jealous. Joseph is boasting about this plan for leadership. His brothers question him, “Will you really be our king and rule over us?” So they hated him even more because of the dreams he told them. If you want to cause people to dislike you, here is the way to do it. Tell people your dreams and plans from God. People are not going to understand where you are coming from. Your confidence might be in God, but you can come across as arrogant.
Then Joseph had another dream and described it to his brothers: “I’ve just dreamed again, and this time the sun, the moon, and even the eleven stars were bowing down to me.” Wow! He’s had two power encounters with God in the night. Dreams that just seem so vivid that Joseph must describe them in great detail. Dreams can do that. They can be so provoking that you want to share them with somebody, even your family. But watch out if you start sharing your encounters with God; people are quick to become jealous and quick to discourage as we see in the next text.
When Joseph described the dream to his father and brothers, his father scolded him. Even his father is resistant to this dream sharing. His father says to him, “What kind of dreams have you dreamed?” His father goes on to say, “Am I …and your mother …and your brothers are we suppose to come and bow down to the ground in front of you?” Can you feel the tension rising in this family system? Can you imagine 12 angry brothers and a disapproving father peering at you as if you have lost your mind? I can just imagine what Joseph wrote in his bedside journal that night! Bad idea! Really God? Are you kidding me? What did I eat last night?
The next scene in this story shows Joseph’s brothers tending their father’s flocks near Shechem. Now Joseph is going to meet up with his brothers at Shechem, and the text has already told us twice that his brothers hated him. It makes you wonder why Jacob, a man who loves his son so much would send his son to check on his brothers. Joseph tells Jacob, “Aren’t your brothers tending the sheep near Shechem? Come, I’ll send you to them.” Joseph didn’t ask questions of his father he just jumped right in eager to oversee his elder brothers. And, Joseph says, “I’m ready.” At this point in the story I want to say, “Stop! Jacob that’s bad parenting!” But instead Jacob says, “Go! Find out how your brothers are and how the flock is and report back to me.” So Jacob sent him from the Hebron Valley to Shechem but at Shechem Jacob discovers the brothers have moved on to Dothan. So Joseph hurries on and finds his brothers at Dothan, which means “two wells.” One might think the brothers are out in the middle of nowhere but actually they are near a major intersection on a ridge where caravans would make their way east to the Orient or west to Egypt. This was a ridge road and if you sat upon this ridge you could see at a distance. And, before Joseph could get close to his brothers, they saw him coming.
The brothers have hatched a plan before he reaches the campsite, before he gets within earshot. The scheme has begun to be hatched. This mob of 12 angry men wrestle, and 17-year-old Joseph is manhandled and dump unceremoniously into a pit. This pit is a dry limestone well bottle shaped with a hallowed out mouth to draw water from. But on this day there is no water and the well is dry. The secrets of their hearts lay bare in community with one another. What had been hidden in their hearts is now acted upon. “Come on now, let’s kill him and throw him into one of the cisterns, and we’ll say a wild animal devoured him. Then we will see what becomes of his dreams!”
Reuben, Jacob’s first-born son from Leah, becomes a key player in the next part of the story. Reuben saves Joseph from his wild brothers who are ready to spill Joseph’s blood. The narrator tells us that Reuben hopes to take Joseph back to his father, unharmed. Meanwhile, a caravan is coming. Ishmaelites, who are Isaac’s half brother’s family, are traveling this ridge road from Gilead. While Reuben has his back turned, the brothers reassess the situation. Judah voices his opinion that they should sell Joseph. Joseph is sold. The dreams of Joseph and his father Jacob come to mourning. The dreams of Abraham and Isaac come to a halt. Joseph is now in the hands of the Egyptian’s commander of the royal guard and chief officer to Pharaoh.
Trouble in our world: When human dreams fail, God prevails.
Trouble has come to Joseph, and his dreams have failed or at least it seems that they have failed. His father Jacob is inconsolable with grief and loss his beloved son. Joseph and Jacob are not unlike our own troubles today. We all have dreams of being a part of a happy, loving family and continuing our family tree. I see these dreams shattered at the hospital every day. Mommy’s and Daddy’s come to the hospital to have their first child and discover that the child has a generational heart problem, a problem that was created from conception. With today’s medicine we think that doctors have all the answers to health conditions, but the truth is we are still looking for answers.
A Mommy carries her child for 10 months and delivers. She delivers a son who must have heart surgery immediately. But even with surgery he may not live and even if he lives he may not live very long. That was the story of a little boy named Ben. His Mommy and Daddy had barely started living their own lives when Ben came along. When I met them, they were holding their breath. Three other heart babies had just died on their wing of the hospital within a few days of each other. They were angry with God. “How could a good God allow my baby to suffer like this?” they asked me. I had heard that question before. I wasn’t surprised by their anger. I had heard the question many times as our hospital offers specialized care of congenital heart defects every day.
The day of surgery came for little Ben. And, he was placed on the heart-lung bi-pass machine. He lived to see his first month of life, and his mother was still holding her breath. Again, she asked me, “How could a good God allow my baby to suffer like this?” I offered no answer, and I waited with her for the answer to come to her heart. Only God could answer her question. I waited.
After three months he was able to go home with medical support, and his mother hoped for a normal life. Two months passed and the next critical surgery came. I visited his mother as she waited for him to recover from the surgery. She held her breath. I waited for her to ask the question. She asked, “How could a good God allow my baby to suffer like this? My heart is aching for him to get better. I am waiting for him to come home. I want my baby to have a normal life. I want a normal life. Maybe tomorrow will be better.” I waited with her, praying, God help! My heart was aching too.
Two months later Ben arrived in the emergency department and as our practice a chaplain was called to the bedside as Ben was intubated. They placed the tube in his mouth and helped him breath. His mother held her breath. As the crisis subsided and her baby was safe she turned to the chaplain, “How could a good God allow my baby to suffer like this? Get out! I don’t want you here!”
I stopped by to see them the next morning. Mom was holding her breath. “I am waiting for him to get better,” she said. “May I wait with you?” “Sure,” she said. And, thus began the last months of Ben’s life together with a few chosen people. I would come in every day and let his mom know I was waiting with her, hoping with her, praying with her, and loving him with her. The day before he died, I advocated for him with the staff to make sure his mother knew everything before it happened so that she could make good choices for him. And, so it was that a few choice people waited with his mother and his father. And, when Ben took his last breath his mother exhaled with him, and his father cried. I cried, too.
Grace in the text: God’s dream lives on.
In our text it states, “And Joseph’s father wept for him.” Jacob was ruined and devastated for ordinary life. His son was no more. Jacob refused to be comforted. Oh, how he must have cried for his beloved child; the son who would be his heir. But God is hidden behind the scenes. But God has plans. But God makes a promise, and Abraham has a God-given dream. And, God’s dream lives on. We know in the chapters that follow that Joseph becomes second in command of all Egypt and the surrounding communities bow to his leadership. Even Jacob will find himself in debt to Joseph’s ability to hear God, and obey his commands. Joseph saves not only Egypt, but many lives including the promised nation of Israel.
Grace in our world: We can dream again with God.
There is trouble in this world. Children die. Dreams die. Parents mourn. Families are crushed under the weight of sorrow. And, God’s plan is hidden in the background of it all. At the end of Ben’s life his mother approached me for prayer and consolation through his baptism that he might go to Heaven. She wanted everything that was best for him. What I discovered was that his mother and his father were not raised in the church. They had no understanding of Christianity. But it was through the loss of their amazing son that their hearts were opened to hear the gospel. I baptized this family into Jesus’ care, and shared the gospel of everlasting life with them. And, as I kissed baby Ben at the time of his death with the love of God touching the earth with his wet passionate kisses of eternal love, I believe that God’s plan is hiding in the background of it all.
When trouble comes… and it will. When you are crushed under the weight of the world… and it happens. Don’t give up on God… he’s hiding in the background of your life. So when you go forth from this place today wondering if God is with you… remember the story of Joseph. Begin a mental scrapbook of all the times that God showed up in your life… and trust that he is with you again. Remember that only God can make dreams a reality. And, when human dreams fail, God will prevail. God’s dream lives on. We can – you and I – we can learn to dream again with God. God is hiding in the background of it all.