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The Pits

The Reverend Matt Gaventa

August 9, 2020
Genesis 37:1-11, 18-28

A Reading from the Book of Genesis

Jacob settled in the land where his father had lived as an alien, the land of Canaan. This is the story of the family of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was shepherding the flock with his brothers; he was a helper to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives; and Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father. Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves. But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.

Once Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more. He said to them, “Listen to this dream that I dreamed. There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright; then your sheaves gathered around it, and bowed down to my sheaf.” His brothers said to him, “Are you indeed to reign over us? Are you indeed to have dominion over us?” So they hated him even more because of his dreams and his words. He had another dream, and told it to his brothers, saying, “Look, I have had another dream: the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” But when he told it to his father and to his brothers, his father rebuked him, and said to him, “What kind of dream is this that you have had? Shall we indeed come, I and your mother and your brothers, and bow to the ground before you?” So his brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind.

They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him. They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.” But when Reuben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.” Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him” —that he might rescue him out of their hand and restore him to his father.

So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the long robe with sleeves that he wore; and they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it. Then they sat down to eat; and looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels carrying gum, balm, and resin, on their way to carry it down to Egypt. Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers agreed. When some Midianite traders passed by, they drew Joseph up, lifting him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. And they took Joseph to Egypt.

Poor Joseph. It must be hard being the youngest brother — and there are so many older brothers in this story, and they just don’t like him very much. Joseph doesn’t ask to be the youngest, or the smallest. He doesn’t ask to be his father’s favorite, but he is anyway — the text makes this sly reference to Jacob’s pride in having fathered again in his advanced age. But this favor hasn’t done Joseph any favors, all it’s done is curried the resentment of these dozen plus brothers, all of whom are just looking for an excuse. And then of course, Joseph hasn’t asked for these dreams, but when the family hears them, it’s done. They don’t want to hear from this child anymore. They don’t want to hear about his dreams anymore. They don’t want to put up with his dreaming anymore. They don’t want him around at all. And so, you know where this goes. The brothers round him up, and they take him down the road, and they throw him in a pit. And I think we can all agree that this is not the most thoroughly considered plan of attack. They even realize pretty quickly that throwing Joseph in a pit is not actually a good long-term viable strategy. But I get the instinct. When you just don’t want that voice around anymore. It’s gotta stink to be canceled by your own family.

They throw him in a pit. But, before we jump in there with him, I do think we should at least note the content of his dreams. The lectionary, oddly enough, cuts out the dreams themselves, so that when the brothers say “here comes that dreamer,” it’s almost nonsensical, and when they throw in the pit it seems almost from nowhere. But I think we have to admit that the dreams themselves are a bit obnoxious. “Listen to this dream that I dreamed,” Joseph tells his brothers, “There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright; then your sheaves gathered around it, and bowed down to my sheaf,” and look, I’m an only child and I know nothing for how to be a good sibling. But this seems like a dream that Joseph could have kept to himself. We don’t have a lot of control over what we dream but we have some control over whether we tell our brothers about our authoritarian domination fantasies, and I wonder whether Joseph could have made a different decision that might have saved everybody a lot of trouble. But still. It’s just a dream. It’s just a story. It’s just words. Surely, nobody deserves to be thrown into a pit over a difference of opinion. I can just see the #CancelJoseph hashtags now, but surely instead we can all rally around the free and equal exchange of ideas.

I have been thinking a lot about the free and equal exchange of ideas, particularly in a time when we seem so quickly inclined to throw the ones we don’t like into a pit, or to cancel those voices who dare speak out of turn. I was raised and taught to value the free and equal exchange of ideas, and something about that pit just rubs me the wrong way. I was raised and taught at some of the most privileged institutions in the country, at Princeton High School, at Georgetown University, places that proclaimed to live and breathe the free and equal exchange of ideas. At Georgetown, in the last years of the last century I sat in the crowd in Gaston Auditorium and heard from a regular parade of dignitaries who would hardly have agreed on the price of milk but made the trip up M Street to talk to the undergrads: Colin Powell, and Newt Gingrich, and Allen Keyes, and Madeline Albright, and I knew that I didn’t have to agree with them to sit in the crowd and listen, and I knew that somehow it was going to be make me better to sit there and listen even when I didn’t agree, because I had been raised and taught to value the free and equal exchange of ideas. Just because you disagree doesn’t mean you get thrown in the pit.

But it’s also true that in the late 90s at Georgetown, there was one visiting dignitary who just kept coming back for more. He was an alum, and he lived close-by, and I think he enjoyed having an audience outside of his normal sphere. His name was President Bill Clinton, and he showed up with actually surprising frequency, even during, as some of you may remember, was a complicated second term in office. Not that he would ever talk about any of that. Clinton never came to campus to talk about his affair with a White House intern. He would come to talk about anything else, whatever else, magnesium tariffs in the Far East, whatever he could find. And I would go, if I could get a ticket, because, of course, I had been raised and taught to value the free and equal exchange of ideas. And friends would come with me, because it was just what you did, including young women who had themselves been victims of sexual assault, and including young women who would themselves love to have gone to work on Capitol Hill in offices of power, and it never crossed my mind to wonder what they might be thinking, feeling, reliving, just by watching this man walk across the stage. It never occurred to me to ask about their stories, or their voices, or their needs.

Which calls into question a bit what I had been raised and taught to value.

Somehow, I suspect that the same campus invite would not come so easily in 2020. Somehow, I suspect that we have gotten a bit more used to the pits. But surely then, we can also challenge ourselves to read this story with a bit more nuance. As we’ve already pointed out, Joseph is not entirely victim — he clearly stirs up trouble by sharing these dreams, and it’s hard not to read a bit of sanctimony in the way he so eagerly promises his older brothers that soon enough they’ll all be bowing to him. That being said, while Joseph may have said some things that he easily could have kept inside his mouth, he doesn’t have any real authority here. He’s still the youngest, and the smallest, and, crucially, in the economic system of Genesis 37, he’s got no claim on any of his father’s estate; by time his siblings finish carving that up, he’ll be lucky to have a bucket of dust and a few twigs. Joseph is seventeen, and his future either involves sticking around his father’s house and following his brother’s orders for the rest of his life, or going off on his own without security or standing. Joseph may have dreams, but his brothers have the real power, and in this story, they use this power to abusive ends.

“Look, I have had another dream,” Joseph says: “the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” And Joseph’s brothers and father get angry again, and they rebuke him, but their responses are different. The text says that Joseph’s brothers were jealous, but his father “kept the matter in mind.” It’s hard to unpack those responses, except that as the story does it for us. Joseph’s father isn’t the one who kidnaps him. Joseph’s father isn’t the one who throws him in a pit and leaves him. The point is that there are other potential responses to being annoyed by Joseph’s dreams and Joseph’s words. What they could have said was: nothing. What they could have done was: nothing. They have all the chips and all the cards. Joseph’s dreams pose no real threat to them. Which means that throwing Joseph in a pit isn’t some tragic blow against his constitutional right to free speech. It’s just a jerk move by abusive brothers in a violent system who don’t want to give up their share of the power. And if that sounds resonant, good, because of course it has become very fashionable to lament the downfall of the free and equal exchange of ideas and the rise of so-called #CancelCulture. And every time we make that lament, I think this text would ask of us: but who really has the power? And who doesn’t want to give it up?

For what it is, Cancel Culture,— at least on Twitter, where the term first arose in common use in the middle of the last decade — has its modern roots in the experience of Black Americans, for whom the ability to connect online gave a sense of solidarity and camaraderie unavailable in the spaces of so-called normal white America. But what it really is, is the most recent chapter in the long history of people without political power still trying to make change. Anne Charity Hudley is chair of linguistics of African America for UC Santa Barbara, and she points out that canceling shares its roots with survival skills like the civil rights boycotts of the 1960s. It’s a way for people who are not given a normal share of power to nonetheless find agency for themselves. “Canceling is a way to acknowledge that you don’t have to have the power to change structural inequality,” Charity Hudley explained, in an interview with Vox. “You don’t even have to have the power to change all of public sentiment. But as an individual, you can still have power beyond measure.” None of this means that cancel culture is always used for the good, or always used for the right. But what it does reflect is a system where some voices were never given the floor in the first place.

I think this is the problem with the free and equal exchange of ideas, this value I was so taught to hold in the privileged and moneyed classrooms of my youth. The problem isn’t that it’s a bad idea. The problem is that every time someone without power tries to invoke it — with their own idea, or their own identity, or any alternate way of being, every time that happens, the people with real power, the people with authority, this gang of brothers hogtied to the status quo show up — we show up — and we take that dreamer and we throw them in a pit. Ask me how many black professors were employed to teach me about the free and equal exchange of ideas. Ask me how many women were given standing to teach me about the free and equal exchange of ideas. And now, with such thanks to Twitter and its friends, we are deeply involved in a long conversation about who gets to speak, and who gets to be heard, and who gets to give standing, and who gets to take it away, but of course we would not have to have this conversation if the system that gave standing and platform for generations before had actually lived according to the values that it taught. The problem with the free and equal exchange of ideas really is that we’ve never tried it.

But we could. That’s the dream, right? I mean, Joseph’s dream is a bit crude, but all he really dares imagine is the same adulation and authority that would have already been given to his oldest brother. All he really wants is not to be in the pit, not the one he was thrown into, nor the one he was born into. We could try that dream, a dream that persists for voiceless people throughout scripture, a dream that clearly lives in Jesus’ ministry as he lived and taught and listened to those on the margins, a dream that echoes through the promises of the apostle that the old dividing-walls have crumbled, and that in Jesus Christ there should be neither Jew nor Greek nor slave nor free, you know how the refrain goes. We could try that dream. But it’s not as simple as sermonizing about the free and equal exchange of ideas. It also means opening our eyes to the pits that are already around us and opening our ears to the very real stories of the people that have been there all along.

So, my invitation is this. To those of you who were raised in the same waters that I was, who have lived and breathed the virtues and values of the free and equal exchange of ideas, to those of you for whom the idea of cancel culture makes your intellectual principles squirm just a bit, as it occasionally does mine. My invitation is to wonder — what voices would you have heard, had they not been canceled long before you got there? What books should have been on your reading list? What artists should have been on your itinerary? What stories should have been in the history books that taught you about the world? Even now, what thinkers, what musicians, what storytellers, what activists, what poets, what mystic dreamers should be helping you understand and interpret the world around you? Which ones are on your bookshelf, and which ones are still in the pit? How can you do the work — how can I do the work — how can we do the work together — so that we can hold one another’s stories with as much dignity and as much holiness as God holds our stories? Then, I think, we might really imagine what it means to be free and equal, as children at one table, sharing one meal, in one kingdom, thanks be to God for ever and ever.


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