p14a 2014 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Joseph’s brothers said, “Hear comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.”
Anyone with experience of a large family will know something about sibling rivalry. But even if you have never experienced it yourself, the Holy Scripture lays out more than enough to satisfy the most insatiable curiosity. Right from the beginning, right from the very first brothers ever to breathe the air of God’s good earth, we find conflict and worse: for Cain killed his brother Abel, striking him down out of jealousy and envy.
Fast forward just a few chapters in Genesis and we find Isaac and his half-brother Ishmael, originally content to play together, soon separated by Isaac’s mother. She is jealous that the son of her servant might inherit along with her son — here it is not the two brothers who are rivals, but their respective mothers!
Isaac will later get payback from his descendant rather than his ancestor, though largely through the machinations of his own wife Rebekah, when his two sons Jacob and Esau set up a rivalry that verges on being as bad as that of Cain and Abel. Jacob cheats his brother out of his inheritance, disguising himself with his mother’s help and deceiving his old, blind father Isaac into giving him his brother’s blessing.
In today’s reading from Genesis we catch up with Jacob some years later. He has settled in Canaan with the large family he has started. And what a family it is! He has four wives — count ‘em, four: Rachel (who died in giving birth to his youngest son, Benjamin) and her sister Leah, and their respective servants Bilhah and Zilpah, and in addition to Benjamin he has eleven other sons and at least one daughter, Dinah — and who knows who is in the kitchen with her!
His favorite son, though, is Joseph, who with Benjamin are the only children born to the his true love Rachel, the one for whom he worked for seven years only to be tricked by his father-in-law into marrying her older sister Leah. (And this is not the only trick to be played on that trickster Jacob before the tale is done! Perhaps this is part of his payback for having cheated his own brother Esau out of his birthright and his blessing.)
In any case, Joseph’s brothers know their father “likes him best” — does anyone remember the Smothers Brothers routine, “Mom always liked you best!” “Lower your voice.” “Mom always liked you best!” — and to make matters worse Jacob broadcasts his favoritism for this teenage boy — giving him a fancy outfit to wear. Think of your own sons and how they might feel if you gave one of them the latest Air Jordans while the rest were stuck with lame tennis shoes or sandals. They might not throw their brother, the one with the fresh kicks, down a pit, but they won’t be happy!
Another thing to note about this fancy outfit is that it is a long outfit, not suited for work: long sleeves mean that Joseph doesn’t have to do yard-work; in many ancient cultures having a long robe with long sleeves meant you were among the upper classes, the royalty who had no hard work to do, who had others to do the hard work for them; they couldn’t be bothered to roll up their sleeves and work themselves. Joseph the tattle-tale — one more strike against him: notice how he informs his father when his brothers are slouching in their work — Joseph is home, spending time around the house, at most sent on errands out checking up on his brothers. And today we see what sets the story in motion — the story that will eventually lead Israel into Egypt, and will set the stage for all that is to come as God’s people are formed in that crucible of slavery and then brought out of it in the Exodus.
But we’re still at the prelude here: Joseph is set for a fall; he’s got three strikes against him, and his brothers simmer with jealousy. To add insult to injury, Joseph is a dreamer. He is also innocent enough to tell his brothers and his father the dreams of them bowing down to him — dreams which for some reason those who planned our lectionary this morning have chosen to omit from our reading — but this is why the brothers refer to Joseph as “this dreamer”! Anyway, the scene is set for sibling rivalry of the most dangerous sort, and his brothers gang up on the boy with the intent first to kill him, and then to sell him into slavery. As we hear by the end of the tale, Joseph is bundled off to Egypt. We’ll hear more about that and the aftermath next week.
+ + +
For now I want to focus on the thread that ties together all of this sibling rivalry in the book of Genesis: all that ties it together up through our own time. And that is the sin of envy, manifested as jealousy. From Cain through Sarah through Jacob himself and then on to his sons — and on to every human heart if we are honest — jealousy and envy, wanting what someone else has, is the craving the leads to the biggest part of human misery, whether brother against brother or nation against nation. No one said it better than James the brother of the Lord, in the epistle that bears his name: “You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts.” (James 4:2) There can be no doubt that the story of Joseph was close to James’ heart: James is the English form of Jacob, after all. And he begins his letter with an appeal to the Twelve Tribes who were descended from Jacob’s unruly household. So his description of jealousy and envy — sins he saw at work in the early church — is sharp and to the point.
The French philosopher René Girard has developed a theory that jealousy forms the basis of much human behavior. I’m not sure it takes a philosopher to read that from the evidence of human history, but René Girard suggests its mechanism. He calls it mimetic desire — but the old words imitation and jealousy will do just fine. Two children — let’s call them Isaac and Ishmael just to keep it in the family — they are sitting on the floor in the romper room happily playing with their toys; perfectly happy, perfectly content, each of them playing with his toy. But then momma comes in and gives Ishmael a new toy. What happens? Anyone want to guess? Little Isaac, until then perfectly happy with his own toy, now wants to have the toy Ishmael has — and so the war begins!
Of course, it is not always a toy; I wish it were. Sometimes, as with Cain and Abel, it is jealousy of God’s blessing. Sometimes it is a birthright or inheritance. How many families have squabbled over grandma’s kitchen table, and who gets it? Sometimes it is an article of clothing — how many young men have been stabbed or shot in the Bronx because someone wanted their jacket? Sometimes it is a father’s favor. Sometimes it is gold, or oil. Sometimes it is called the Gaza Strip, or East Jerusalem, or the Crimea or the Sudan. Whatever it is, as James said, “You want something and do not have it,” — and so follow murder, theft, war, destruction and death.
How soon we forget the verse that ends, “You do not have because you do not ask.” How much of the world’s goods could be shared instead of being fought over? How many sibling rivalries could be stilled if people would set aside jealousy and envy, and cultivate instead the virtues of charity and generosity — to ask, so that it might be given; to knock, so that the door might be opened.
In our Gospel today, Jesus chides Peter because he starts well in his walk on the water, but then begins to doubt. Let’s be honest — doubt is part of our life: it is hard to trust others, it is hard sometimes to ask someone to share what they have; look, let’s face it, sometimes it is hard to share when you are asked! There is always that fear that there won’t be enough to go around; that if I give of what I have I won’t have enough left for myself.
But my friends, we are not called to doubt, to fear — we are called to faith, to trust in the generosity of God, and to “take heart” in the knowledge that he is with us — we can walk on the water if we trust him! He is the same one who fed thousands in the wilderness, who turned a few loaves into enough food to feed a multitude. How much of the world’s five loaves and fishes could be transformed if Isaac and Ishmael would share instead of fighting? There is no need for envy or jealousy — the products of a world-view that is based on scarcity and desire and envy — when the abundant grace of God is there — for the asking; for the asking, my friends. To have great faith instead of that little, stingy, mean faith — the faith that is hardly faith at all, when abundance is around us. Remember, “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
So let us not fear asking God, asking our brothers or sisters, let us not dwell on jealousy or envy, but trust in the abundance of God, and the good news that God is with us, and can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. To him be the glory, from generation to generation in the church and in Christ Jesus our Lord.