Families: Can’t Live With Them, Can’t Live Without Them
As Katie and I plotted the DysFUNctional Family sermon series and considered what images this story of Joseph created, she immediately found on YouTube a TV commercial for Direct TV, which parallels Joseph’s plight.
You may recall it because it was both humorous and annoying.
The short commercial opens with a narrator describing a man pictured on the phone. When you are on hold with cable for a long time, you get angry. (Scene cuts to man playing racquet ball.) “When you get angry you need to let off steam.” (Scene cuts to man hit in the eye will a ball.) “When you let off steam, you get injured.” (Scene cuts to man in doctor’s office receiving an eye patch.) “Then you look tough, and when you look tough, people wonder ‘how tough?’” (Scene cuts to bullies chasing him into roadside ditch.). “And then you end up in a roadside ditch. Don’t end up in a roadside ditch…switch from cable.”
Yes, this image reminded us of Joseph, who just could not seem to stop annoying his brothers and doing all the kinds of things that led him from one thing to another such that he was thrown into a cistern and then sold-off to Egypt.
More importantly, as I dug into the narrative and scholarship surrounding it, this commercial parallels why this novella about Joseph might have been written. Just as the commercial is an example of a story created to persuade you to believe and do something, stringing together a series of events, the Joseph story is about far more than the danger of beautiful coats, family triangles and Ishmaelites carrying balms from Gilead. It is more than a saga of how the Israelites left the Promised Land to venture to Egypt: it was crafted to persuade you to believe something of God and yourself.
In the 10th BCE, while Solomon reigned in Jerusalem and the Israelite people were quite comfortable in their intellectual achievements, the people were flexing their muscles and secure in their strength. Although twelve centuries ago is a long time, this still would have been centuries after these events with Joseph and his brothers would have transpired; yet this is when scholars believe the novella was written. During Solomon’s reign wisdom writers were discerning the order of creation, constructing order from the varying sources of ancient texts and, most of all; they were seeking to restore faith in the mysteries of God.
At the time, the people had a shared memory of the stories of creation, Abraham and his descendants, who were the first to be blessed and to be blessings from the covenant with God. In the 10th BCE, they also shared the memories of Egyptian slavery and the exodus from bondage. From these events emerged the sacraments they practiced and the laws and commandments, which governed life.
Missing between these two long-held memories was an account of “how did the Israelites get from Jacob settling in the Promised Land of Canaan to being slaves under Pharaoh?” Scholars believe the style of Hebrew writing, the tone, such a cohesive, narrative framework, and, more importantly, the embedded theologies all argue for something other than pure history. Besides, nothing in Egyptian history confirmed a Joseph lived in Pharaoh’s court – I know, my history geek is showing.
Rather than get caught in questioning the truth of these events: if the novella was conceived hundreds of years after the fact, or if the events are an accurate account, what is more intriguing are the truths embedded in the story, which impact our lives today. We have as much to learn from this narrative of our ancient Israelite family as well as the families in the 10th BCE for whom it might have been written.
Bear with me.
Let’s begin with us. We are sophisticated – possessing technologies, economic stability, resources, and culture as never before. We have accumulated knowledge, power and perhaps security; we can keep God in an ethereal realm and presume God is not involved in human affairs. In our hectic lives, we often forget about God.
Although, on a daily basis we are also confronted with events in New York Times – or CNN or the Tribune, your choice – and all the human tragedies. People are killing each other in Gaza and Israel, Afghanistan, Iraq, Ukraine and, as always, in Chicago. These are all tragedies created by humans.
Then there are the mudslides, droughts and hurricanes – natural disasters. I’m not sure where Ebola fits on the list between human or natural disasters, but a tragedy of frightening magnitude.
One can only ask “where is God” with all these sorrows. Does faith even matter amidst such flexing of power? How can the cycles of hatred end?
These are the challenges the writers in the 10th century were addressing, more so, than the minor aspects of bridging the memories of how we got from the Promised Land to Egypt.
How many times did we hear the brothers hated Joseph? They hated him for telling their father unflattering things. Tattling is not typical of a teenager, so this may have been a persistent problem for years.
They hated him for the preference – more than preference – flagrant way Jacob favored this son over all others. Joseph’s mother Rachel had been Jacob’s beloved wife and their mothers were not. (For those of you, who heard the first sermon in this series, recall this is one instance in the Bible in which someone “fell in love.”) This disadvantage could never be overcome. They hated him for being given an extraordinary coat and for his dream of foreseeing a day when he would rule over them.
They hated him for his name, Joseph, which means, add, as in added late in life, and later understood to be the one added to save the family. Jacob dotes on him since this son is a sign that God’s blessings and the promise of abundance were still at work in his life and in his body.
Their hatred was born of a deeply seated emotion each of these incidents provoked – fear. They were afraid of what they were lacking and what they offered their father would never suffice. They were afraid of how his presence would disrupt their privileged positions as elder sons.
Think of how fear of not being good enough causes animosity. Consider the fear you may have that what is really good about you, is not valued by others.
Fear created triangles in this big family between Joseph, his father and his brothers. Known in family therapy as triangulation, triangles are often at the heart of dysfunctional families, they become the source for never ending attempts at domination, belittling and obscured communications. One person seems to be loved too much. One person loves too much and others are loved too little. When we get to see this from a distance, it is so sad, particularly knowing love comes from God in never ending streams that never run dry. There is no risk in loving greatly.
Think of how many times, you’ve witnessed a triangle or been involved in one. A child becomes a pawn, played between two quarreling parents. Best friends divide when one develops a relationship with another friend.
These relationships are not the only source of the fears that haunt us. We also develop fears around money, faith, health, jobs and love. The fear can become toxic.
When we live in fear, we lose our ability to see clearly, it is as though we have a lens that not only clouds our vision, but fear limits our field of vision to the end of our nose, to include just ourselves. The fear of failing in relationships keeps us from being intimate and vulnerable. Fear of defeat at work keeps us from being fully invested and creative. Fear can define how we show up in the world by also becoming the mask that hides what is good and honest and unique.
In C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, Screwtape writes to Wormwood, “Hatred is often the compensation by which a frightened man reimburses himself for the miseries of fear. The more he fears, the more he will hate.” Fear is played out as hatred and we see so much of it as bullying. The darkest fear of all, the fear that has the power not only to shape a life for death-dealing, but also to distort an entire community, is the fear that lurks beneath the pretense of power and privilege, the fear which crouches behind the doorways of prejudice and preys upon the least of these.
Hatred and fear close doors. We are blessed to have the gifts of Tam and Steve as well as the freedom to lift-up a Broadway song, Close Every Door, as part of worship. This was not entertainment. The lyrics of this song gave Joseph a voice that hits at the theological heart of this story.
Though tragedy befell him and people tried to kill him for his dreams, three times we heard the refrain, “I know the answers lie far from this world.” The song reminds us, he was willing to withstand any trial, confident in God’s abiding presence.
Joseph was banished for the way he and his dreams threatened the family. We heard only one of what becomes a series of dreams and Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams. In these dreams, as contrasted with those of his father Jacob, God never speaks. But, in the long arc of the narrative, the dreams are consistent reminders of God’s willingness to uphold the covenant made with Abraham and renewed with each generation.
The Joseph narrative bridges the gap in our faith history, but more so, it confronts the hubris of those residents in the 10th century BCE who, as Walter Bruggemann claims, thought they knew so much and were doing so well, and doing so much competently, their power persuaded them they no longer needed to trust in God. It took a chain of events, some of them calamities in the story, to shake their sophisticated sense of self-sufficiency and realize they continue to need the never-ending care from God.
This Biblical truth in the story names the tension between relying upon our powers – thinking human capacity is sufficient – and remaining faithful to God.
If you think you have the power to subdue enemies, those you fear and hate and those who hate and fear you, who needs God? If you think your ability to protect yourself from natural disasters is sufficient, who needs God? Who needs to be distracted by a God who claims to love and number each hair on your head when you are doing just fine? Besides, who would want a God invested in the details of daily life when we’d rather not think our little sins and petty grievances are noticed? A god who is “up there” and of another realm is actually much easier to live when we are doing fine.
But, we can never amass sufficient power to ever be free from fears. We need a God who is intimately involved in our daily lives, who continues to uphold the long-ago promises, and is the only power great enough to bring new life from the disasters we create.
Trusting the scholarship of Blair Mooney, a retired Presbyterian minister, he claims if you begin in Genesis and count, page by page, through all of scripture, you will find 365 instances of God communicating to us “be not afraid.” Through angles, through bushes, through prophets and most of all, through Jesus, we are repeatedly told do not be afraid.
When we become aware of and believe God is with us each day and for all our days, we do not need to be afraid.
The ancestors living in the 10th BCE needed to be reminded they were part of the long arc of the narrative beginning with the Abraham’s blessing. God remains faithful. God redeems and saves us time, and time again. We too need to be reminded the blessings are for us as well.
Families: sometimes we cannot seem to live with them, our nuclear families, our ancestral families and we prove hatred and fear makes it hard time to live on this world with all those who are part of our extended family.
And yet, we cannot seem to live without them. Come back next week. Katie is going to clean up the mess I’ve left between Joseph and his brothers. Joseph is leaving the Promised Land for Egypt and the life of slavery. The brothers have plotted to deceive their father by dipping Joseph’s beautiful coat in the blood of an animal, causing life-long grief for Jacob. Joseph’s story is not over and continues to inspire our story. Thanks be to God. Amen.
 Walter Bruggemann.: Interpretation Genesis (Atlanta: John Knox, 1982) 299.
 Ibid 300
 Cynthia Jarvis. “The Shadow Side,” The Christian Century, July 17-30, 2002, p. 19.
 Brueggemann. 293.