Reading, Genesis 37:3-34
Image, Richard McBee, Joseph’s Bloody Coat (1998)
In this reading, the Bible gives us what could be the dictionary definition of a “disproportionate response.” The brothers have good reason to dislike Joseph and envy him as their father has made little to no effort to disguise his preference for his young son. But their animosity is grounded on even more than 17 years of preferential love for their younger brother. Because even before Joseph was born, his brothers had witnessed years of Jacob’s preferential love for his younger wife Rachel (a preference which, we saw some weeks back, comes at the expense of Leah – the unloved mother of several of these sons). And so, even before we come to Joseph’s dreams (and his lack of tact in reporting them), the family is fractured by favouritism and the home built on decades of the unequal affection of its patriarch.
Favouritism wreaks havoc. It creates the feelings of scarcity, indignity, and factionalism that underpins so much violence. Favouritism is also intimately linked to the various cases of brotherly conflict in Genesis. God favoured Abel’s offering over Cain’s and for this, Cain killed his brother. Isaac favoured Esau while Rebekah favoured Jacob, and we have seen the conflict and betrayal of this division. Now, Joseph’s brothers – seeing an opportunity to rid themselves of the one brother so readily held above the rest – are ready to dash his blood.
That is until Reuben speaks out. Reuben, the eldest son – born of Leah when the Lord saw her suffering, and named in the hope that Jacob might love his unfavoured wife. Reuben, hearing the plotting of his younger brothers, delivers Joseph out of their grips and suggests instead they lay him in a pit unharmed. Rueben’s plan, the narrator makes clear, is to return later and rescue Joseph and restore him to their father. However, his plan is thwarted, ironically, by another brother’s attempt to spare his Joseph’s life.
For it is Judah, Leah’s fourth son, who hatches the plan to sell Joseph to a passing caravan of Ishmaelites. While Judah’s suggestion might, on the surface, appear economically motivated, the detail that they sell him so as not to lay hands on him for he is our brother, our own flesh, speaks to a desire to spare the life of one they are responsible. For all Judah knows, Reuben’s plea to throw him in a pit is just another death sentence (only rendered more slowly and with less mess or direct action). And so Judah tricks the others into selling Joseph – he’ll be a slave, but he’ll be alive.
Reuben and Judah might both be commended for not falling prey to the more depraved impulses of their siblings, and yet in their unwillingness to offer a full-throated rebuke of their brothers, they fail to be their brother’s keeper. Perhaps both Rueben and Judah felt alone in their conviction against a tide of animosity. Feeling alone, perhaps they feared drawing attention to themselves, and their dissent to the assumed majority. And yet, had either spoken out, they would have realised they were not alone. And had one spoken out, and the other lent their voice, then who knows whether a third, fourth, or even fifth brother might have been similarly moved to speak in the name of compassion? Who knows how quickly reason and mercy might have prevailed once one (no less) two spoke out in the name of life. Reuben’s voice in particular, as first born with more than enough rightful grievance against both Jacob and Joseph, would have carried a great moral weight.
And yet, fence-sitting out of fear, both settle with half-measures, and unfortunately in this instance two halves do not make a whole. Joseph’s life is saved but he is not restored, instead he is subjugated and shipped off into what could easily be a fate worse than death. Reuben and Judah might indeed have love for their brother, but the greatest love is not seen in striking a balance between preserving one’s own life (and reputation) and the life of another, no, no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
The failing of Reuben and Judah is one to which we all must be on guard. The stakes will be lower for us, for it is unlikely we will find ourselves unwittingly placed in a conspiracy to commit fratricide. But lower stakes only make it easier to remain quiet, to sit on a fence, to take a half-measure so as not to draw too much attention to ourselves. For we will have all been (and shall yet be) in conversations where the life of another is being discussed. The discussion might not be whether this life should be taken or sold, but it might concern whether this life is worth dignity, respect, and understanding.
This might be a discussion about an individual, perhaps a family member, a co-worker, or fellow member of a community group. A conversation where gossip, maliciousness, or jokes are made at another’s expense, denigrating their humanity and dignity. Or it might be a discussion about a whole group of people, perhaps a racial group, or other marginalised class of people. A conversation where prejudice, hostility, and disrespect are voiced often in a most reasonable tone. It can feel like the hardest thing in the world to say something in these moments, even when what we are hearing affronts our deeply held beliefs, even when (often to the ignorance of the one speaking) the words concern someone we know well and love dearly. Sometimes we might hold our tongue because it is the safe or strategic thing to do in that moment, but too often we stay silent when we needn’t. In staying silent, we might be able to tell ourselves later that, ‘well, at least I didn’t offer my support’ – but in not saying something we allow those present to assume that this is exactly what we did. And like Reuben and Judah, should we speak out, should we pull the conversation up and offer our dissent or rebuke, we may be surprised to discover others present grateful that we did and ready to lend their voice to our own. Those of us who have done the domestic abuse bystander training with Julia will know all too well the importance of speaking up in those conversations where the vulnerable are denigrated, dismissed, or threatened.
None of this is to condemn us for the times we haven’t spoken, nor assume our record will be perfect going forward. Though their situation is exaggerated compared to our own, Judah and Reuben are deeply relatable. We’re all going to mess this up and wish we had another chance. The good news is that Rueben and Judah will get another chance. As we will see in two weeks, at the end of this saga they will get another chance to save a brother, another chance to lay down their life for a friend. And if Judah and Reuben, in a situation of such high stakes get another chance, we can take heart, for we too get more chances. This side of God’s restoration of all things, the world will never suffer a shortage of these kinds of conversations. And so we will find ourselves in them again, and our prayer is that – by the power of the Spirit – we shall be found ready to speak out for those whose lives are treated trivially.
But there is more good news yet, because just as there are times when we shall feel (and fail) like Judah and Rueben, there are those times when we shall feel (and be failed) like Joseph. But the good news of the gospel is that Jesus does not love half-hearted. Jesus does not repute injustice in a whimper. Jesus does not try and save us with half-measures until the storm subsides. No, Jesus, our true and perfect brother, has laid down his life for his friends. Jesus, our refuge and shepherd, has claimed us as his own and will not allow anything to separate us from the love of God.
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