I confess I was not the world’s greatest science student, but reading our story from the book of Genesis today reminds me of something I learned in physics class.
Or maybe was it chemistry?
The teacher called it Newton’s third law of motion: “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.”
It’s a scientific law but it’s also all I could think about as I read this next installment in the grand saga of Israel’s ancestors. Our choices have consequences, and sometimes those consequences outlive us.
These past weeks the lectionary texts have taken us on a wild ride, where we’ve seen that truth of human relationship played out on a grand scale. Today, generation number three of Abraham’s family starts to feel the effects of some seriously misinformed choices, reactions that buckle under the weight of bad decisions and ripple out over and over again, over generations, even.
We crack open our story today to Genesis chapter 37, which, begins a long, drawn-out narrative that spans nearly ten chapters and tells the story of how it is that this ragtag little band of Abraham’s descendants finds itself planted in the land of Egypt, eventually forced into slavery.
Just think about the wild ride they’ve all been on: Abraham claimed that his wife Sarah was his sister because he could tell the king of Egypt was interested in her. Sarah herself wasn’t much better. She convinced Abraham to have a child with her slave, Hagar, then tried to kill both Hagar and the child when she got jealous. Abraham almost sacrificed his son Isaac on an altar. Isaac and his wife Rebekah raised two sons Esau and Jacob, who had a sibling rivalry that went far beyond fighting over their toys—it was really a matter of life and death. Jacob ran away to his Uncle Laban, who lied to him and tricked him out of marrying his true love, Rachel—on his wedding day, no less! Whew!
Aside from shaking our heads in disbelief at the antics of our ancestors of faith, we read these stories and maybe take some strange comfort: for those of us who think our families are dysfunctional, this family can make yours and mine look rather normal, if not boring.
But even with the start to a new chapter in the narrative today, I’m afraid the drama is not over yet. Dysfunction breeds dysfunction, and for every action there is a reaction, so once Jacob gets settled and starts raising his own kids, well, it’s not surprising that they have some issues, too.
Jacob is already well up in years when chapter 37 opens. Father of 12 sons by several women, he was well on his way to establishing that nation his grandfather was so fond of talking about. But one of his sons, Joseph, son of his wife Rachel, was his favorite.
Just 17 years old, Joseph had been assigned to a supervisory position in the family business, responsible for reporting back on the activities of his brothers—who were busy managing Jacob’s herds and herds of flocks.
To make matters worse, we’re told that Jacob had gifted Joseph with a beautiful coat. Think of the situation like this: when Joseph would come down to the fields wearing his colorful coat, the drab fabrics his brothers wore would pale in comparison. Everyone who saw the two standing next to each other would definitely know who was more highly esteemed in the eyes of their father, Jacob.
So, day after day, Joseph would come down to the fields and strut up and down, supervising, his beautiful coat swinging easily around his ankles. And he would hurry back to his father Jacob and report any extra long lunch breaks, any questionable behavior he saw in his brothers. Ooooh, it was not nice. There he was every day, gloating on the sidelines while his brothers managed the flocks and tried to keep their burning anger in check.
Remember, every action has a reaction, and Joseph’s ridiculously unfair behavior, totally encouraged by his father Jacob, was bound to have a ripple effect.
And, it did. Boy, did it ever. One day Joseph ambled down to the fields where his brothers were working and told them about a couple of dreams he’d had the night before. Apparently, Joseph managed to report his dreams to his brothers with a straight face—totally serious, and the meaning of the dreams was obvious to Joseph—he was meant to be in charge, to lord it over all of them.
The meaning of the dreams was obvious to Joseph’s brothers, too, and they were sick of it . . . sick of Jacob’s favoritism, sick of feeling second best, sick of the injustice, sick of Joseph’s arrogance . . . just sick of the whole situation.
Action, reaction, remember?
And so the narrative ball begins to roll; you know what happened. The brothers plot to kill Joseph out there in the field one day—just do away with him and his silly dreams once and for all. Brother Reuben’s conscience was pricked, though, and eventually the brothers sell Joseph to a passing caravan, to get him far, far away and out of their lives forever.
But every action has an equal and opposite reaction, and you’d better believe the brothers’ behavior had consequences.
We’ll hear more about what happens as the story continues next week, but we stop here to think about what it is we might learn about ourselves and about God as we read this story.
The story of Israel is an epic saga, where God appears in all manner of ways. But in this story, God never appears. All we have are the actions and reactions of human beings, trying desperately to live in community, in family, with each other, and not doing too well at all. Every action has a reaction, and we’re stuck, always, living with the consequences of our behavior and the behavior of others.
It was unjust and unfair, it’s true, and Joseph’s brothers did not deserve the treatment they were receiving from Joseph and Jacob, but they made a choice to address injustice with another act of injustice, of violence, even, and Newton’s third law of motion swung into effect, as we know by now it always does: every action has an equal and opposite reaction.
Simon Wiesenthal was a Jew who lived during World War II in an area of Europe that was conquered by Germany. During the war he was forced to live in a ghetto and then sent to a work camp where he faced the possibility of death every day. One day in the work camp, Wiesenthal was summoned by a nurse to hear the dying confessions of an SS Nazi soldier. The soldier asked for forgiveness for the things he had done to the Jewish people.
In his book The Sunflower Wiesenthal tells about trying over and over to leave the room because he was so afraid and because he hated Nazis. But he stayed and listened to the dying man out of pity and fear. Wiesenthal recognized that the Nazi soldier was showing true repentance but he also knew that the soldier was ignorant, selfish, and a member of the group that had taken away the lives of his friends and family.
Overwhelmed with the heaviness of the decision, Wiesenthal didn’t know what to do. Eventually, without saying anything, he just left the room. Wiesenthal spent the rest of his life haunted by the experience and asking the question: “What would you have done?”
The book’s newest edition includes the contributions of many noted Jewish and Christian thinkers who comment on the dilemma Wiesenthal faced. Most agree that Wiesenthal could not have forgiven that solider on behalf of an entire race of people, but many also note: there’s something powerful in stopping violence and hatred with forgiveness and love.
Desmond Tutu, who presided over the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa after Apartheid writes of Wiesenthal’s dilemma: “It’s clear that if we look only toward a retributive justice, we might as well close up shop. Forgiveness is not some nebulous thing. It is practical politics. Without forgiveness, there is no future.”
Sometimes in life, things happen to us that we can’t control, unjust, unfair, hurtful, terrible things. But when these things happen, we always—always—have a choice about how we will respond.
We can respond to the injustice we face with anger and hatred and violence, and maybe some would say a response like that is even justified.
But remember: every action has an equal and opposite reaction, and violence and pain and injustice tend to breed more violence and pain and injustice.
What pain could have been avoided if Joseph’s brothers were able to face the unjust situation in which they found themselves and respond, not with violence, but with forgiveness? What pain could we avoid if we train our hearts with the discipline of answering injustice with forgiveness and love?
Every action, as we know, has an equal and opposite reaction . . . and I suspect what would happen when violence and injustice is countered with forgiveness and love, might even be something akin to what happened when Jesus stepped toward the boat through the churning storm, reached out his hand through the whipping wind and utter chaos, and said, “peace, be still.”
And it was.
 Kay Carmichael, Sin and Forgiveness: New Responses in a Changing World, Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2003, ISBN 075463406X, 9780754634065,
Sermon delivered at the Washington National Cathedral, August 10, 2014.