I was not that stellar of a science student, I’ll admit, but reading these stories in the book of Genesis reminds me of something I learned in physics class.
Or was it chemistry?
Remember 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 a truth when it comes to human relationships, isn’t it?
Our choices have consequences, and sometimes those consequences outlive us.
As we tell the stories of the book of Genesis, it’s important to note that such is certainly the case in the lives of our first families of faith. We’re now on generation number three of Abraham’s grand experiment to start a new nation, and we’re starting to see 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, most scholars will tell you begins a whole new part of the sweeping epic we’ve been following. Up until this point our text has been little pericopes, or self-contained narratives, loosely strung together in one grand story. But chapter 37 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 descendents ever finds itself planted in the land of Egypt, eventually forced into slavery.
The tie between the stories of weeks past and today’s new narrative is our character Jacob. Remember what he was up to last week? Jacob had sent his family—wives and children, that is—across the Jabbok River ahead of him because he was scared of what his angry brother Esau might do to him.
What are we to do with this turn of events?
Well, aside from shaking our heads in disbelief at the antics of our ancestors of faith, we can read this story . . . and take some comfort. For those of us who think our families are dysfunctional, well, these families make yours and mine look rather normal, if not downright boring.
Just think about the wild ride they’ve all been on: Abram claimed that his wife Sarah was his sister because he could tell the king of Egypt was interested in her, and Abraham was scared he’d be killed.Nice. 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. And when we encountered Jacob last week he was just ending a 20-year estrangement from his birth family, having pulled up the roots he’d planted with Laban and sending his family out ahead of him.
Forget an episode, it’s more like a whole season of Jerry Springer in those middle chapters of the book of Genesis.
But even with the start to a new chapter in the narrative, 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.
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Jacob is already well up in years when chapter 37 opens. Remember, Jacob had two wives and two servant women, concubines. Leah, the first wife whom Jacob was tricked into marrying, was the mother of six boys. Rachel, Jacob’s favorite wife, was the mother of two boys. The two concubines were mothers of four boys together, information from which, if you were so inclined to do math, you could quickly deduce that the total sons of Jacob at this time was 12. Twelve sons. Not bad for somebody who started out with nothing, just hoping to establish a great nation through his descendents.
We already know that Jacob loved Rachel above all of the other mothers of his children, but Rachel had died while giving birth to her youngest son, Benjamin. So Jacob was left grieving and clutching tightly to her memory through the affections of the two boys she’d birthed: Joseph and Benjamin.
And this dysfunctional favoritism, unresolved grief or whatever it was Jacob was dealing with, well, it had a way of rippling down into his relationships with his children and, as a result, their relationships with each other. And that is exactly what today’s story is all about.
Turns out that, though Joseph was number 11 out of 12 sons of Jacob, Jacob had specifically chosen him as his favorite child. As one of five children, I certainly know how it feels to be absolutely sure your parents have a favorite . . . and it’s not you. (Turns out all my siblings were equally bitter about our parents having favorites, but we all thought the favorite was someone besides ourselves!)
But if we study the Hebrew text carefully there is no disputing that Joseph was by far the favored child of Jacob. We’re told that 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.
The text tells us that Joseph was17 years old when the story begins and, remember, the 11th out of 12, so you might imagine the dynamic of 17 year old Joseph running home to his Daddy to report that his older brothers were taking extra long lunch breaks!
To make matters worse, we’re told that Jacob had gifted Joseph with a beautiful coat. The Hebrew descriptive words in that section of the text are unclear, so scholars have translated them to say a “coat of many colors” or a “long-sleeved coat.” The Hebrew phrase Kethoneth passim could also be understood to mean “a coat with special markings” or “a coat with long stripes.” It was the good old King James translation of the Bible from 1611 that popularized the phrase we learned in Sunday School: “Joseph’s coat of many colors.” And the particular Hebrew word for “coat” here is used only one other time in the Hebrew text, in 2 Samuel, when we learn that Tamar, daughter of King David, wore a special royal garment. And to be called by the same name a garment of the king’s daughter would be called, well, we have to know that Joseph’s coat was not just any coat, that’s for sure.
Whenever he wore this coat it was clear to anyone watching who had the favor of their father . . . and who didn’t. 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. And, in fact, would mark them as less important. It would be like wearing a McDonald’s uniform versus a finely tailored suit. Everyone who saw these two standing next to each other would definitely know who was more highly esteemed in the eyes of their father, Jacob.
Day after day, apparently, Joseph would come down to the fields and strut up and down, his beautiful coat swinging easily around his ankles. And he would hurry back to his father Jacob and report any indiscretions he observed, 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, if there’s anything we learn from this story it is that 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. The straw that broke the camel’s back, as it were, was one day when Joseph ambled down to the fields where his brothers were working and proceeded to tell them about some dreams he had had. Remember what they were? They were dreams about all the brothers out in the fields, binding sheaves of wheat, when suddenly all the brothers’ sheaves bowed down to Joseph’s. And another dream, about the sun, the moon and 11 stars, all bowing down to Joseph.
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 Joseph’s arrogance . . . just sick of the whole situation.
I don’t think any of us would dispute the fact that this was a situation of injustice. Jacob perpetuated the dysfunction of his own childhood by repeating it with his sons, who could easily read the writing on the wall. There was no future for them as leaders of the family; even though he did not deserve to have it, Joseph was the one Jacob had chosen to set his sights on, the apple of Jacob’s eye, his favorite. And as a result, all the other brothers’ status were bumped down a notch—they were losing out, unfairly, because of the way Jacob was behaving. And Joseph’s gloating, whether intentional or not, was not helping matters in the least. It’s one thing to be the adored baby of the family; but it’s another thing altogether to use your special status to oppress other people.
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. Their plan was to kill him and throw his body into a pit. But somebody’s conscience was pricked—the NRSV says it was Reuben—and Reuben convinces his brothers to sell Joseph to a passing caravan, to get him far, far away and out of their hair forever.
And, they staged the whole thing. They killed an animal and smeared that beautiful coat with blood, then they took it back to their father, who made the assumption that Joseph was dead. And Jacob’s grief nearly cripples him, he is so devastated by the loss. Then, life continues, as it always does even in the face of tragedy and violence and pain, with the injustice perpetrated against the brothers seemingly avenged. 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.
Curiously, God is not a figure in this story at all. We’ve come from epic sagas where God is appearing in all manner of ways, to this story, where 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. See, every action has a reaction, and we’re stuck, always, living with the consequences of our actions and the actions 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. When we are faced with injustice, as Joseph’s brothers were, we have a choice about how to respond. And remember, 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; he wanted forgiveness as he was dying because he was afraid that his soul would not be able to rest in eternity unless he was forgiven.
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 also because the soldier begged him not to leave. 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 eventually just left the room.
The next day he found out that the soldier had died and left all his things to Wiesenthal; Wiesenthal spent the rest of his life 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. Sometimes we set out, for example, like Jacob in our story two weeks ago, to marry Rachel and end up married to Leah. But even when these things happen, we always—always—have a choice about how we will respond to the situations in which we find ourselves.
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 always . . . always . . . 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, you 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, p. 35
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.