Let’s kill him!

“Here comes that dreamer!” they said to each other. “Come now, let’s kill him and throw him into one of these cisterns and say that a ferocious animal devoured him. Then we’ll see what comes of his dreams.”

When Reuben heard this, he tried to rescue him from their hands. “Let’s not take his life,” he said. “Don’t shed any blood. Throw him into this cistern here in the wilderness, but don’t lay a hand on him.” Reuben said this to rescue him from them and take him back to his father.

Genesis 37:19-22

 Detail of the Verduner altarpiece in Klosterneuburg, Austria by Nicholas of Verdun. Joseph thrown in the pit.

Detail of the Verduner altarpiece in Klosterneuburg, Austria by Nicholas of Verdun. Joseph thrown in the pit.

It’s funny how when I look back over my life, it’s the most painful, difficult episodes that have led to the greatest moments. At the time, of course, going through difficult patches is deeply unpleasant, but I’ve seen for myself that more often than not God works through these hardships to mould us into the kind of people that he would have us be. When I was made redundant from my job in retail management at the age of nineteen, it felt like my life and career was over. Yet this sudden departure from my intended career allowed me to spend three very happy years at university, followed by another happy year at a different university. When I found myself suffering from acute anxiety and depression it seemed like there was no future for me. Yet having these experiences has shaped me into a kinder, more tolerant, more compassionate human being, a better follower of Christ, and indirectly led to marriage and a wonderful son.

I suspect that Joseph had similar thoughts during his life. At the time described in today’s verses, being thrown into a cistern and left for dead, and then being sold into slavery must have seemed to be the worst possible situation to be in. He found himself alone, far from home, far from the father who cared desperately for him, facing a bleak and uncertain future ahead of him.

Of course, his brothers (with the possible exception of Reuben in today’s verses, and possibly Judah later in this chapter) intended to harm Joseph, indeed to kill him. They had had enough of him. They were sick and tired of Joseph getting all the adoration from their father. And they were especially sick of Joseph arrogantly recounting his dreams which suggested that he would soon rule over them; it is the dreams that they give as the reason for their action at the beginning of today’s verses. Finding Joseph in the middle of the desert and far from home his brothers decide that enough is enough, and that Joseph has to die. Most of the brothers want to kill Joseph and throw his body into a cistern. It is only because of Reuben’s compassion that Joseph lived to tell the tale.

So, what can we take from today’s passage? Once again we see the dangers of anger, the consequences of being fuelled with hatred which can lead us to take rash decisions. We can see that, as Reuben did, sometimes it might be necessary to speak out, to be the sane voice in a group of hot headed people who are not thinking straight. But perhaps most importantly of all, if we know the conclusion of the story of Joseph, we can see that when we find ourselves in the pit of despair (literally in Joseph’s case), it does not mean that we have been abandoned by God; God is still with us and can still work through us to achieve his plans. Indeed, it might be that when we find ourselves at the darkest moments of our lives that God is working most actively in our lives, whether we are aware of it or not.

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To speak or not to speak

Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him all the more. He said to them, “Listen to this dream I had: 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.”

Genesis 37:5-7

Joseph Reveals His Dream to His Brethren (watercolor circa 1896–1902 by James Tissot)

Joseph Reveals His Dream to His Brethren (watercolour circa 1896–1902 by James Tissot)

I’m one of those people who regularly has quite vivid dreams, dreams that I can recall when I wake up. Usually they are very bizarre, and my wife, if I share them with her, tends to find them absolutely hilarious. Sometimes, though, I have dreams that could be seen to be prophetic, showing me what the future holds. Of course, I have no idea if they are or not, but it’s quite nice to think that God does work through dreams, and maybe he is showing me something of my future. Sometimes I share these dreams, but most of the time I keep them to myself and ponder them silently.

Joseph, of course, is renowned both for having dreams that are prophetic words from God, and also for his ability to interpret dreams. In this passage in Genesis, Joseph has two vivid dreams. In the first dream, recounted in today’s verses, Joseph is out in the fields with his brothers binding sheaves. Suddenly, Joseph’s sheaf stood tall, and his brothers’ sheaves all bowed down to it. The second dream is similar; he sees the sun and moon, plus eleven stars, all bowing down to him.

There is no doubt that Joseph sees these dreams as an indication that one day he will be in a position of authority over his brothers, plus his father Jacob and Jacob’s wives. Rather than keeping this to himself, however, he shares this with his family. His brothers’ hatred for him already runs deep, but now Joseph makes matters worse by sharing his dreams with his brothers! Funnily enough, they were absolutely fuming at the arrogance of their brother – not just any old brother, but their little brother, who also happened to be the apple of their father’s eye.

Would Joseph have been better off keeping quiet? He probably could have handled this situation with a little more tact, perhaps by opting to keep his dreams to himself. In the short term his decision to share his visions with his brothers led to him being sold as a slave, which clearly was not an ideal scenario. Ultimately, this led to the fulfilment of God’s plan for Joseph.

Of course, when God has a plan for our lives, that plan will inevitably come about, whether we make matters easy or difficult for him and for us. I suspect that Joseph would have been better remaining quiet; through no fault of his own he already found himself in a hostile environment as a result of his father’s favouritism, and by opening his mouth he only made matters worse.

Perhaps this is what we should take from today’s verses; sometimes, particularly if we find ourselves in a hostile environment, we would be better off remaining quiet, or at least thinking through the pros and cons of opening our mouths. Ultimately God’s plan will come to fruition in our lives if we continue to follow his guidance, but there is no need to make things unnecessarily difficult for ourselves!

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Favouritism, anger and hatred

Now Israel loved Joseph more than any of his other sons, because he had been born to him in his old age; and he made an ornate robe for him. When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of them, they hated him and could not speak a kind word to him.

Genesis 37:3-4

Jacob_blesses_Joseph_and_gives_him_the_coat

Owen Jones [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It’s funny, isn’t it, how it is easy to regard a sibling as the ‘favourite’ of our parents. Over the course of many years, one can misread the actions or words of our parents as suggestive that a brother or sister is more important to them than we are. Our mind can make personal slights out of comments that were never intended as such. We tell ourselves that this is irrational behaviour, yet it persists, even when we should know better. Of course, the reality is that our siblings may well think the same way!

Pretty much as soon as we meet Joseph in the Old Testament, we see that he has a rather difficult relationship with his siblings. They feel that he is their father’s favourite; Genesis tells us that Joseph’s “brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of them.” Far from being irrational on their part, however, they were spot on; Genesis states that “Israel [Jacob] loved Joseph more than any of his other sons.” To make it abundantly clear, Jacob made Joseph “an ornate robe” – the so-called “coat of many colours” that most of us probably sang about in primary school.

Is it really Joseph who should feel the brunt of his brother’s anger and hatred, however? He couldn’t help being born to his father when Jacob was old. He didn’t choose to be given a coat by his father. Whilst his brother’s anger is rational, it is probably misdirected; they would have been better directing it at their father.

Joseph’s brother’s anger got the better of them and they ended up plotting to kill their brother before selling him into slavery. Joseph, who had not courted the favouritism of his father, ended up suffering as a result of it.

There is much than we can learn about our attitude towards others from these few short verses. Firstly, if we find ourselves in a position of care over others, perhaps our own children or groups that we work with, we must be conscious of being perceived to have ‘favourites’. The story of Joseph shows that favouritism can cause great problems and have ramifications that are far from desirable. Secondly, we must be careful not to misdirect our anger towards others who can not help the position they find themselves in, whether they be our siblings, those born to rich parents, those who we encounter begging in the streets. It is easy to get angry but much of the time our anger is unjustified. Thirdly, we must ensure that we do not let our anger get the better of us. Jacob’s sons’ anger led them to a pretty bleak place, their plot to kill Joseph, and whilst we are unlikely to find ourselves plotting to murder our siblings, anger has the potential to lead us into situations and circumstances that are best avoided.

Of course, ultimately, as we shall see, God worked through the anger of Joseph’s brothers. Perhaps the best situation at the time, however, would have been for the brothers to rise above their father’s blatant favouritism, and to strive to love Joseph. In our own lives this will inevitably be the best option. We must ensure that we don’t allow anger and hatred to contaminate our own lives, but strive to love instead, even those whom we feel have aggrieved us.

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Esau settles in Seir

Esau took his wives and sons and daughters and all the members of his household, as well as his livestock and all his other animals and all the goods he had acquired in Canaan, and moved to a land some distance from his brother Jacob. Their possessions were too great for them to remain together; the land where they were staying could not support them both because of their livestock. So Esau (that is, Edom) settled in the hill country of Seir.

Genesis 36:6-8

One of my pupils didn’t hand his homework in the other day. When I questioned him about where it was he responded that he had been busy the previous night. He made me a promise that he would hand it in to me personally first thing the next morning. Guess what? He didn’t hand his book in and broke his promise. We all break promises from time to time though without thinking. We promise to do something but forget. We promise to phone someone but get caught up doing something else. We promise to visit our elderly aunt at the weekend but would rather spend the time with our friends.

God has made us lots of promises in the Bible. Unlike us, though, God can be relied upon to keep his promises. That’s what we see in today’s reading; God keeping the promises he made to Esau’s ancestors. God made a promise to Rachel, Esau’s mother, saying, “two nations are in your womb, and two people’s within you will be separated” (Genesis 25:23). We’ve seen over the past week or so how Esau’s brother, Jacob, became the leader of a new nation, the nation of Israel. Now we see here that Esau is also the founder of a nation, the nation of Edom. Esau’s is a prosperous and successful nation, with a great deal of livestock, which brought about the separation with Israel. Esau moved away from Canaan because the land could not support his livestock and that of Israel’s. Of course, this was also the fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham, to whom God said, “‘As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be called Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations’” (Genesis 17:4-5).

We see today that God keeps his promises. This is great news for those of us who place our trust in him and seek to follow him, since we can be confident that all of God’s promises – of which there are many in the Bible (3573 according to several websites I’ve just consulted!) – will be ultimately fulfilled!

Let us go up to Bethel

“Then come, let us go up to Bethel, where I will build an altar to God, who answered me in the day of my distress and who has been with me wherever I have gone.”

Genesis 35:3

Have you ever felt the presence of God in your life? I don’t just mean knowing intellectually that he is always there with you, I mean some kind of sensation that you cannot explain, but which you just know is the presence of God? I’ve experienced this a couple of times: once when I was a child and I was visiting Southwark cathedral with friends from my church; on another occasion when I was on the North Downs in the midst of a storm.

Jacob, we see in our verse today, had complete confidence in the presence of God in his life at all times. Throughout his twenty years or so of roaming, he knows that God has been with him wherever he went. Whether it was fleeing from his family after tricking his father into giving him a blessing that should have been his brother Esau’s, roaming around the desert, living with his uncle, returning to his fatherland and making up with Esau, dealing with the fall out of the rape of his daughter, or any number of the other situations he faced, he just knew and trusted that God had been with him. He also knew that God had answered him on his “day of distress,” giving him the support and guidance that he needed in every circumstance. Jacob believed that because of God’s constant love, support and guidance, it was only right that he built an altar on which to make sacrifices to acknowledge his love – and debt – to God.

Just like he was with Jacob, I believe that God is with us wherever we go, offering love, guidance, support and encouragement to us. I believe that when we come to our “days of distress” God answers us too. Since the death and resurrection of Jesus we no longer make animal sacrifices to God, instead we offer him our lives as living sacrifices. Let’s give thanks for God’s love today, and renew our response to him by seeking to honour and serve him in all areas of our lives.