Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28 - link to the NRSV text
How does the saying go? What goes around comes around? In pastoral care terms, our text this morning is an example of family patterns being repeated by the later generation. Jacob and Esau fought, Jacob and Laban fought, Rachel and Leah (and their handmaidens) fought. And now that familial animosity has been passed down to the following generation, enflamed by Jacob’s preference for Joseph over and above his other brothers, a product of his union with Rachel who he preferred over Leah.
And so the brothers first plot to kill their brother, then decide instead to sell him into slavery. Why just kill Joseph when they can make a little money of him? It would just be bad stewardship, right?
To be fair, Joseph really doesn’t help his own case. In Genesis 37:5-11, Joseph recounts to his brothers a pair of dreams that symbolically communicated that his brothers would bow to him, and he tells them these dreams in a way that really doesn’t seem to blunt the impact. It seems to the others that Joseph may be getting a little big for his britches. Even his father Jacob rebukes him over the dreams.
This sets the stage for our reading the morning. Jacob sends Joseph out to the fields where his brothers are, and when they see him coming they decide to end his ambitions then and there. “Here comes this dreamer,” they say to each other. “Come, let us kill him” (Gen 37:19-20). Now, Joseph might believe his own press a little too much, but that’s not really an excuse to kill him. But the decades of family conflict finally has gotten to what might have been an inevitable conclusion without a serious intervention: the murder of someone in the family.
The brothers want to kill the dream, to stop it from becoming a reality. And by the end of the story the dream is over in the minds of the brothers and Jacob; the dreamer is dead, at least from their point of view. But God’s dream, and though the text never says it explicitly the dream is God’s dream, isn’t over but in truth has only just begun.
As Walter Brueggemann insightly observes:
Though hidden in the form of a dream, silent and not at all visible, the listener will understand that the dream is the unsettling work of [the LORD] upon which everything depends. Without the dream there would be no Joseph and no narrative. From the perspective of the brothers, without the dream there would be no trouble or conflict. For the father, without the dream there would be no grief or loss. The dream sets its own course…And in the end, the dream prevails over the tensions of the family (Brueggemann, Genesis, 298-99).
The irony in all of this is the fact that the brother’s choice to turn on Joseph is the very thing that leads to the fulfillment of the dream. Joseph’s trials and tribulations as he rises to power in Potiphar’s and then later Pharaoh’s household mold Joseph into the leader needed to assure the future of God’s people. Joseph, whose name is related to the verb “to add” or “to increase,” increases the house of Pharaoh through his careful management of Egypt’s crops and thus is able to secure the future God’s dream for God’s people.
The brothers assumed the dream was about Joseph’s ambition and some kind of preferential treatment. And can you blame them? That’s how Jacob dealt with Joseph all the time, so they had no other frame of reference. They assumed that the dreams of them bowing to Joseph was a continuation of Joseph’s status over and above them, when the truth is that Joseph’s elevation wasn’t one of oppression but one of providence. God’s people needed to be cared for, and Joseph was tabbed as the person best able to pave the road forward.
And here is the gospel, the good news found in the Joseph cycle: the dream of God prevails over the plans of human beings. Maybe not always in the forms God intended at first, and there may be long and trying times before it comes about, and it may come about in ways that we never expect, but the dream of God, God’s desire for the world and God’s people is still being achieved. God is still at work in the lives of God’s people in order that the world might be restored. We might unexpectedly find ourselves in Egypt along the way, but that’s all right. God can work with that.