Genesis 37:3-4 – June 30, 2019
“It’s not fair!” Who remembers hearing brothers, sisters, or cousins say that? “He gets more!” “I don’t have any!” “He has fancy gym shoes!” or, “She takes special classes, but what do I do? Nothing!” At its worst, sibling rivalry can tear a family apart. When brothers and sisters fight among themselves, hurt feelings and disgruntled relations often result as bickering and arguments break out. These hurt feelings can fester for years, even for decades.
But, what if the whispers and even shouts of “It’s not fair!” happen because a parent plays favorites, elevating one sibling over all the rest? Hurt feelings can become downright animosity, which can fester, simmer, and flare up repeatedly in a lifetime. This animosity can be a devastating family-destroyer.
This very sad topic is what we see, taking a closer look at Genesis 37. Jacob plays favorites with his favorite son, Joseph.
In Sunday school, children often learn about young Joseph and his coat of many colors. Or, as lyricist Tim Rice and composer Andrew Lloyd Weber referred to it in their classic musical, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Children get all excited by the many-colored coat. This bible story from Genesis is a great opportunity for making something colorful and memorable for a children’s craft. Often, children do learn about Joseph being his father’s favorite, but not as much about how Joseph tattled on his older brothers, and brought the tales back to his father Jacob. Being a rat like that would not help relations between siblings, either.
But, what was this coat that Jacob gave to Joseph? One of my favorite commentators, Carolyn Brown, wonders about this, too. “Depending on the translation, it was a fancy coat, a beautifully decorated coat, a coat with long sleeves (for one who does not have to work), or a coat of many colors. The Bible was written in another language centuries ago and no one knows exactly what kind of coat it was.”  Whatever kind of coat it was, it certainly caused trouble.
Jacob did not have a simple marriage like those we are familiar with—like we do, in the United States today. No, Jacob had two wives, Rachel and Leah. Plus, Rachel and Leah each had a maidservant, Bilhah and Zilpah. According to the customs of several thousand years ago, Rachel—being a legitimate wife of Jacob—could claim any sons her maid bore if Jacob slept with her. The same went for Leah, being a legitimate wife of Jacob. So, Jacob ended up having four wives, essentially. And, lots of sons. That was where Jacob’s twelve sons came from: from Jacob sleeping with Rachel, Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah.
We might also be familiar with a big pack of kids, cousins, brothers and sisters, kids on the block or the playground. This was what Joseph and his brothers were—a really large family. Plus, little brother Joseph was a little big for his britches. He boasted a lot. You know the type.
After Joseph got the fancy coat from his dad, Jacob, he had a dream. “Listen to this dream I had: 7 We were binding sheaves of grain out in the field when suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright, while your sheaves gathered around mine and bowed down to it.” 8 His brothers said to him, “Do you intend to reign over us? Will you actually rule us?” And they hated him all the more because of his dream and what he had said.”
Even his father Jacob and mother Rachel got sick and tired of Joseph and his arrogant boasting. Here is Joseph’s second dream: “Listen,” he said, “I had another dream, and this time the sun and moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” 10 When he told his father as well as his brothers, his father rebuked him and said, “What is this dream you had? Will your mother and I and your brothers actually come and bow down to the ground before you?” 11 His brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind.” That is, Jacob remembered the boasting dreams that Joseph had. What is more, these dreams would work out to be true in an unimaginable way. But, we are jumping years ahead to the end of the story, already.
If we take a closer look at Jacob, the dad of these twelve brothers, Jacob was no ideal father figure. He not only played favorites with one particular son, but he chose one favorite above the others among his wives and concubines. Rachel was his cherished, favorite wife, and Joseph was her older son. Benjamin was Rachel’s younger son—Jacob’s youngest son, and Rachel died of complications from his birth.
Yes, there was tumult, tragedy and trauma in the whole extended family, going all the way back to the time Jacob was working for Leah’s and Rachel’s, the two sisters’ dad—Laban. Father-in-law Laban was no prize winner where his ethics were concerned. He hoodwinked Jacob into marrying the more unattractive older sister Leah in addition to the beautiful younger sister Rachel. This whole family was messed up, from way back. So, are we surprised if sibling rivalry, hurt feelings and even outright animosity affect all twelve brothers?
In many ways, a lot of us sympathize with the other brothers. Joseph was a boastful, arrogant pain in the backside. Plus, the brothers had a legitimate complaint against their father who was playing favorites. So many have heard this sadly familiar refrain over and over again. “It wasn’t fair that Joseph got the fancy coat and they had their old clothes. It wasn’t fair that the youngest brother was not required to work with the others and was actually sent to check up on them. Where the brothers got into trouble was when they used an unfair strategy (selling their defenseless brother [as a slave]) to get what seemed only fair for themselves.” 
When family members plot and plan against other members of their own family, that is definitely a sign that something is really wrong and really dysfunctional. Perhaps we have been so angry at one of our family members—or a good friend—that we might even have wanted to do something mean or hurtful to them. This seems like something a person who is far from God might want to do—complete with rubbing the hands together and an evil laugh.
Our New Testament reading today is from Romans 2. The apostle Paul lets the believers in Rome know that God judges all people the same—Jews and Gentiles alike. God does not play favorites—unlike Jacob in our sermon passage from Genesis 37.
We know how Jesus responded to people who were unkind to Him, even hated Him. He loved them—all of them. How do you think God wants us to respond when people are unkind to us, or when we don’t like other people? Would God want us to be mean and nasty, and turn our backs on them? Or, would God want us to be kind and loving, even if others are mean and bad? Remember that next time you—we—are tempted to get angry, curse, or fly off the handle.
Face it, this can be really difficult to do, say or think things that are pleasing to God while anger is twisting and roiling deep inside of each one of us.
Going all the way to the end of the story of Joseph, we know he did forgive his brothers for selling him into slavery. In retrospect, Joseph realized that God’s purposes were accomplished, and he reconciled with his brothers,
God can help us reconcile all kinds of families, and friends and acquaintances, too. God can help bring peace and repair relations. God can even bring reconciliation and love back to what some might view as hopeless situations.
Praise God, we indeed have a wonder-working God! Alleluia, amen.
Worshiping with Children, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2014.