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Is It Well with Your Brothers?

San Williams

August 10, 2014
Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28

The family drama about Jacob and his children has many nuances, twists, and complexities, but at its center is Jacob’s admonition to Joseph:  “Go now, see if it is well with your brothers.”  I wonder if the entire Word of God is embedded in that expression.   Earlier in the book of Genesis, after Cain has slain his brother, Abel, we hear the voice of God thunder:  “Cain, where is your brother?”  Indeed, the entire Law and the Prophets are elaborations on the theme of neighborliness, and of concern for the welfare of one’s brothers and sisters.  In the New Testament’s First Letter of John, the writer is blunt:  “Anyone who hates his brother and claims to love God is a liar.”  Or recall how, in his parable of the Last Judgment, Jesus identified his presence and God’s purpose as inextricably bound up in the plight of those who are “the least of the brethren.”  So when Jacob tells Joseph to go see if it is well with his brothers, all of scripture echoes the sentiment.

Now it’s clear in today’s story that all is not well with the brothers.  The brothers in question are the offspring of Jacob and his wives Bilhah and Zilpah. Jacob has made no secret of the fact that Joseph is his favored son.  Joseph, after all, is the first son of Rachel, Jacob’s beloved wife. He is the son of Jacob’s old age. Smitten with the boy, Jacob adorns Joseph in an expensive, many- colored coat while, as Frederick Buechner writes, “the brothers were running around in T-shirts and dirty jeans.”

As if that weren’t enough to incite family discord, Joseph offends his brothers by recounting his dreams, the ones in which he rules over them and they grovel at his feet.  Is it any wonder the brothers hate Joseph? They can’t even speak peaceably to him, and they seethe with jealousy.

So we’re not surprised that the brothers decide to do away with Joseph. First they plot to kill him. Then they change their minds and opt to leave him in a waterless pit. Finally, though, they sell him to traders on their way to Egypt.  Having been treated unjustly by their father and further enraged by Joseph’s air of superiority, these other sons of Jacob turn against their brother and sell him into slavery.

Interestingly enough, though, this is not a story of good guys and villains.  The truth is, no one in this dysfunctional family is without blame. We can’t really admire any of them. Take father Jacob.  He’s hardly the model of good parenting, this doting father whose blatant favoritism is largely responsible for the jealousy among his children.  Actually, this business of family strife resulting from parental favoritism has been a prominent theme in Genesis, beginning with the murder of Abel by his older brother Cain, and continuing through the stories of Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau.  Now in today’s passage, this pattern of parental favoritism once again poisons relationships, and in this case, Jacob is partly to blame for the callous, violent behavior of his sons.

But Joseph himself is no angel.  Even though God’s promise to bring a blessing to the nations now resides with Joseph, he’s far from noble. In today’s reading, Joseph is described as a self-absorbed teenager who’s a spoiled brat and a tattletale.  His attitude toward his brothers reminds me of the bumper sticker that says:  “Jesus loves you, but I’m his favorite.”   It’s hard to tell whether Joseph is naively unaware, or whether perhaps he enjoys lording it over his brothers.

No, all is not well with the brothers, or for that matter with anyone else in this dysfunctional family triangle– a triangle that consists of a father who cannot love his children impartially, a son who is perhaps loved too much, and other sons who feel too little loved.  Such is the unhealthy triangle that breeds betrayal, discord, and hatred.

And there’s no resolution in today’s story.  It simply ends with the brothers’ attempt to get rid of their despised sibling.  We’re left with the image of a 17-year-old boy tied to a camel, on his way to a foreign land and an uncertain future.

And isn’t that image one that keeps reappearing throughout history and into our present day?  Perhaps the image evokes in your mind the flood of Central American refugees who, like Joseph, are mere teenagers, with many even younger. They, too, have made a perilous journey into a foreign land and a highly uncertain future.

Next weekend, Austin seminary professor Greg Cuellar is leading a small group to McAllen to check on the Central American refugee children who have crossed our borders and are being held in shelters in McAllen and in other cities.  The seminary group has named the project “Arte de Lagrimas,” or “Art of tears.”  Our congregation helped gather art supplies for the project.  The purpose is to give the children a way of telling the stories about their journey to our borders, using markers, crayons, and paper when words are slow to come.  Professor Cuellar and others hope to exhibit the pictures at the seminary this fall.  Once again we have a deeply disturbing reminder that all is not well with our children, with our brothers and sisters here and throughout the world.

Given these harsh realities, it’s tempting to conclude that all of human history is adequately represented in the drama of this biblical family turned against itself.  In other words, while the characters, the scenes and times change, the plot continues to unfold in a tragically predictable way:  nation against nation, tribe against tribe, brother against brother.  It’s hard to argue against realists who would say, in answer to Jacob’s question:  “Sorry, but all is not well with the brothers.  Never has been. Never will be.”

And yet.

And yet, this biblical story of Jacob and his family is far more than a report of bad behavior and family dysfunction.   The story, sordid as it is, is laced with promise.  All the experiences of Joseph—his brothers’ decision not to kill him, his journey to Egypt, his initial good fortune, his later imprisonment, and then his rise to prominence—are all woven into and become part of God’s redemptive movement in history.  Later in the story, Joseph will be reunited with his brothers, and he will then understand how the thread of God’s providence had been woven into everything that had happened to him. “What you meant for evil,” he says to his brothers, “God turned to good.” Martin Luther King could have had the story of Jacob and his family in mind when he declared that the arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.  This is God’s promise, and the saga of Jacob’s badly flawed family declares that God’s dream of a peaceable, reconciled humanity will not be abandoned.

Friends, it’s true that all is not well with our brothers and sisters.  But it’s also true that God has promised a blessing, and no human misdeeds or evil intent can break God’s promise.  Thus we dare to live, and dream, and shape our lives toward the time when—in the words of Teresa of Avila—“All will be well.  All manner of things will be well.”