Opening The Old Testament
Death to the Tattletale! Reflections on Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28
The result of the gift of this wonderful garment is predictable. As Joseph parades his resplendent self among his brothers, perhaps flashing his great robe before them, it is abundantly obvious that he is Dad's pet, so "the brothers saw that their father loved him more than all of his brothers, and they hated him and could never say 'shalom' to him" (Gen. 37:4). Even the most common greeting stuck in the brothers' throats whenever Joseph showed up flaunting that stinking robe!
Foolishly, the lectionary collectors, always for reasons of time, I presume, have left out of the reading for today the crucial verses 5-11. We must read them, because we learn two important facts. Joseph is a clever interpreter of dreams, a skill that will ultimately save his life in Egypt, elevating him to an amazingly powerful position in pharaoh's court. Also, his eager recounting of these dreams in the less-than-eager ears of his seething brothers only adds to their increasing fury at their arrogant sibling. His two dreams, first of shocks of wheat bowing down to his larger shock, and then, of all narcissistic twaddle, the sun and the moon bowing down to him (!), cause the brothers nothing less than an enraged apoplexy (Gen. 37:8), even bring his father, who loves the boy to distraction, to a very sharp rebuke of his favorite (Gen. 37:10).
All of this leads to a sadly tragic series of events. The brothers, excluding the hated Joseph, lead the family flocks toward the pastures of Shechem, high in the Israelite mountains, leading Jacob, a plainly less than observant parent, to send his favorite on another mission of espionage. "Go now," says Jacob, " and see the shalom of your brothers and the shalom of the flock and bring me word" (Gen. 37:14). The irony can hardly be missed. We have just heard in verse 4 that the brothers have no word of shalom for their brother, so if Jacob expects any shalom to exist among them, he is badly mistaken.
As Joseph looks for his brothers, he meets an unnamed man who tells him that he has heard that the boys have headed toward Dothan (Gen. 37:15-17). This man appears to be a plant the better to lure Joseph further away from Jacob in order that the enraged brothers can work their plan to slaughter Joseph and rid the world of his dreams and words, not to mention that foul robe. It appears to work to perfection. Joseph wanders alone into their sight, and the brothers determine to murder him, to throw him into a pit, and to announce to Jacob that he has been devoured by a wild animal. With that, his disgusting dreams will finally end without fulfillment of any kind (Gen. 37:18-20).
Surprisingly, Reuben, Jacob's firstborn, urges them not to kill their brother. "Let us not strike his life! Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him" (Gen. 37:21-22a). He acted like this, we are quickly told, "in order that he might save him from their hand to restore him to his father" (Gen. 37:22b). Nothing in this story itself suggests just why Reuben is acting in this way. However, a tiny note in an earlier chapter may offer a clue. "While Israel (Jacob) lived in that land, Reuben went and slept with Bilhah, his father's concubine, and Israel heard of it" (Gen. 35:22). It appears likely that Reuben sees the saving of Joseph as his meal ticket back into the good graces of his old man, who could not have taken kindly to his eldest son's sexual relationship with one of his women, the mother of Reuben's half brothers, Dan and Naphtali (Gen. 30:3-8). Poor Reuben hopes he has found a way to assuage his father's anger. Unfortunately, his hopes are soon dashed (Gen. 37:29-30).
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.