Opening The Old Testament
Death to the Tattletale! Reflections on Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28
The brothers attack Joseph, being especially careful to strip off that terrible robe before they toss him into a dry and deep pit. Callously, they sit down for a picnic, but soon see a band of traders heading toward Egypt, loaded with rich goods. Judah hatches a plan to make some cash out of the fate of their now helpless brother. "What profit is it if we kill our brother and hide his blood? Come, let us sell him to these Ishmaelites, and not lay our hands on him, for he is (after all!) our brother, our own flesh" (Gen. 37:26-27). So, murder evolves into human trafficking, and one can only assume that Judah is more than cynical while uttering that crack about "our own flesh" as he prepares to name a healthy price for his brother. Might as well get something for the nasty little twerp, says Judah.
But while that scene is unfolding, some Midianite traders ride by, lift Joseph out of his pit, and proceed to sell him themselves to the Ishmaelite traders for twenty silver pieces (Gen. 37:28)! Not only does Judah get nothing for Joseph, so too are the hopes of Reuben dashed when he returns to the pit and finds his one chance to find his way back into Jacob's favor gone. With a shriek of despair, he cries, "The boy is gone: and I, where can I turn?" (Gen. 37:30). Where indeed?
Well, this is fully a Genesis tale, is it not? Trickery and hatred and deception abound, and the hero is finally not so heroic after all. He flaunts his sumptuous robe and his dream skills, and finds himself at the bottom of a pit, alone, and then sold off to the pits of Egypt, nearly a certain and monstrous death. But of course, as we know, that will not be Joseph's fate at all, a fate that still will intertwine with his murderous and greedy brothers in ways we will be astonished to discover. And just who is Joseph? He is Abraham and Isaac and even Jacob all over again. And, as usual, he is us, if we are courageous and honest enough to admit it.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.