A sermon for 9th after Pentecost, Proper 14
Genesis 37:1-4; Psalm 105, 1-6,16-22, 45b; Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14:22-33
When we left Jacob last week, he was settling in Shechem. Since then, there has been a very unpleasant conflict with the neighbors about the treatment of one of his daughters and her brothers’ violent response. At God’s instruction he has moved to Bethel. Rachel dies giving birth to Benjamin; and later Isaac dies. Jacob and company end up in Canaan, where Isaac once lived.
We know Joseph is his father’s favorite, being the oldest son of Rachael, his favored wife. His demonstrates his favoritism by giving him a robe; we’ve heard of it as a coat of many colors; which is a mistranslation; though we really don’t know what the words mean, (Brueggemann) we do know it is long, with long sleeves, in a time when laborers coats were sleeveless, (Sermon Suite) and is certainly a sign of special favor.
Joseph doesn’t exactly get along with his brothers. Giving his father poor reports about them doesn’t help. Neither do his dreams.
He has two dreams: one about sheaves of grain harvested by his brothers, bowing down to the one he harvested; a second about the sun, moon and eleven stars, his father, mother and 11 brothers, all bowing down to him. Even as Jacob reprimands him about the dreams, you get the sense he wonders; after all Jacob knows the power of dreams.
Some undisclosed time later, Jacob sends Joseph after his brothers, who are way out in the field tending sheep. You wonder what he was thinking, or was he just hoping for the best. Whatever the reason he regrets it, for the rest of his life.
As Joseph comes over the horizon, his brothers instantly recognize that long robe with its distinctive sleeves. They plan to kill him. Ruben, the oldest, and therefore the one accountable, tells them not to shed blood and suggests putting him a dry well, planning on rescuing him later. They do, and settle down to lunch. In the midst of lunch Ishmaelite traders appear on the horizon. Judah appeals to their financial interest (Brueggemann) and suggest selling Joseph to the traders, and they all agree. When the Midianite traders pass by, they sell him for 20 pieces of silver. Sound familiar? Joseph is taken off to Egypt. When Ruben discovers the empty well, he rages about what to do. They all scheme to drench the robe in goat’s blood and send it to their father. Jacob instantly recognizes it, and begins to lament his son’s death, declaring he will mourn until he goes to Sheol, the Jewish place of death. In the meantime, today’s story ends as Joseph is sold into slavery in Egypt.
There are several intriguing points in this story. One of which comes from the curious bit about Ruben and Judah saving Joseph from their brothers’ vengeance; made all the more curious by the plan to sell him to Ishmaelite traders, who turn out to be Midianite. Many scholar believe this is two traditions woven together (Brueggemann), (Fretheim) from the tribal descendants of the brothers. Also note the traders are descendants of Ishmael and Midian, Abraham’s sons by Hagar, surrogate mother, and Keturah, his second wife, whom he married after Sarah’s death. There are lots of competing interest here.
There is also Genesis’ theme of the younger son first that begins with Isaac, continues with Jacob, and is taken to extremes with Joseph (Schifferdecker) but it lays the ground work for David’s selection as King.
As a reminder, we know Genesis is written when Israel is in captivity in Babylon. They know about grief, disorientation and the collapse of what they thought was their dream, (Hoezee) just as Jacob laments, they lament.
And thus we come to the centrality of dreams. It’s unfortunate the lectionary leaves the dreams out. While it’s true their subject matter foreshadows events many years and a few chapter later and aren’t necessarily central to today’s story line, the existence of the dreams is core to seeing what’s happening. From now until the end of Genesis we see the theme shift from stories about individuals, to the story of a people. (Fretheim) The dreams are the first key to this transition, because they are the first reference to political power. After hearing Joseph’s dreams his brothers question the idea that he … would reign over us? … have dominion over us? The Hebrew for ‘reign’ and ‘dominion’ more often translated ‘rule’ (Strong’s) are overt terms of political power. The dreams are about political power, political change.
The other aspect of dreams is the inherent conflict between those who benefit from the established order, like the older brothers, and a vision of another way. It’s a debate about hope, more precisely where hope is to be found. The conflict in Babylon is: is hope for the future in cooperating with their captors, or in the hidden hand of God? In Genesis the conflict is: is hope for the future in political structures of surrounding city/nation states, or in the hidden hand of God? Jacob believes hope, the promise of the covenant is gone, with Joseph’s death; if he even thought of it. The older brothers resist the dream with all they have. Kill the dreamer, and kill the dream. (Brueggemann) It sounds so very familiar ~ ah yes ~ familiar to the parable of the vineyard, where the workers kill the son, to sustain their benefit of working the vineyard. (Matthew 20:1, Mark 12:1, Luke 20:9)
We get a glimpse into the future in the last verse: “Meanwhile the Midianites sold Joseph in Egypt …” Is the dream of the covenant over? Joseph, the youngest son, of the youngest son, of the youngest son, is in Egypt! God has not abandoned the covenant, God has not abandoned them. By the waters of Babylon, the story that flows from the dreams is a source of hope the Jews need to hear.
Today the waters of Babylon are threatened by militant extremists. Hawaii is recovering from the waters of hurricane Iselle, and threatened by hurricane Julio. The west is threatened by shrinking waters everywhere. Stable political, economic, and ideological structures are no longer so stable. There is the tendency to double down on what once was, from whence we think our security came.
But then, there are the dreamers, who see the world differently, who offer entirely different: views of power, ways of relating to each other, and understandings of justice, righteousness and salvation. The dreamers call for changes; some small, some big, some inconceivable. The challenge we face is do double down? or we risk chasing the dream? I for one, place my hope in the hidden hand of God.
Brueggemann, Walter. INTERPRETATION. Ed. Patrick D Miller Jr and Paul J Achtemeie. Vol. Genesis. LOUISVILLE, n.d.
Fretheim, Terence E. The New Intrepreter’s Bible, Genesis. Ed. Leander E Keck. Vol. 1. 2003. 12 vols.
Hoezee, Scott. “Commentary on Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28.” 10 8 2014. Working Preacher. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id>.
Schifferdecker, Kathryn. Working Preacher Commentary on Genesis 21:8-21. 16 June 2014. PDF. 18 june 2014.
Sermon Suite. Proper 14 | OT 19, Cycle A. 10 8 2014. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/newsletter.html>.
Strong’s Talking Greek & Hebrew Dictionary. Wordsearch, n.d.