The previous couple generations before mine are all too familiar with the famous musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. It is a musical based on the Joseph Narrative. It was made famous by Donnie Osmond as the titular character. The Joseph Narrative makes up the last part of the book of Genesis. Its conclusion sets the stage for the events of the book of Exodus, the second book in the Torah (Pentateuch). By the time we get to the Joseph Narrative, we have tracked the line of descent from the creator God through Adam and Noah down to the descendants of Abraham. Joseph is the firstborn son from the only woman Jacob really loved, Rachel. That is where this blog post will start to focus.
Jacob fathered twelve sons and a daughter. Leah, his first wife was very fertile while his second wife, Rachel, was stricken with barrenness. As a result, Rachel, recognizing her duty as a wife to produce children offers her handmaid as a proxy. The handmade bears children. Then Leah follows suit and offers her handmaid, who bears more children as her proxy. This becomes what is known as the “Baby Wars.” When Rachel finally gives birth to her first child, it is Joseph. From the beginning, Jacob made no attempt to hide his favoritism from Rachel. In the same way, he makes no effort to conceal his favoritism toward Joseph.
In terms of family dysfunction, we see the issue of favoritism coming from Isaac and Rebekah and continuing with Jacob. All through the narrative, Joseph’s siblings are painfully aware of their father’s favoritism. Often times they would get stuck with hard field work and Joseph would be given easier work. Jacob was likely more affectionate with Joseph, openly expressing his love. This made the other sons very jealous. All that jealousy and ill will culminated with an item that came to symbolize Jacob’s unabashed favoritism, a multi-colored coat.
Most scholars now say it wasn’t really a rainbow type of coat, but rather a coat that people would wear when they were in a class above manual work. It was as if Joseph were being signalled as someone above common work (something his brothers were clearly not exempt from).
In the midst of his brothers’ growing jealousy, Joseph exacerbates the matter with either his own arrogance or his own ignorance. It was bad enough that everytime his brother’s saw him wearing his “nobleman’s” coat, they were reminded of just how unfavored they really were, but then Joseph adds to that angst, making it worse. He has dreams where stalks of wheat are bowing before him and stars are bowing before him. Even though the correlation between the wheat and stars is uncanny, the text doesn’t give an official interpretation of the dreams. But the brothers do. They take it as a prophecy that Joseph will be a ruler over them. The conclusion makes sense. He was already wearing a ruler’s coat. His father favored him more than the others. He was treated as if he were above the physical labor of tending Jacob’s property. Then he comes and tells his brothers about his dreams. After all the favoritism that’s been poured out, coupled with the meaning of the coat, the other brothers had had enough. Was it not enough that Joseph was treat more specially by Jacob, that he had to go and brag about dreams of ruling over his brothers?
One day, when Joseph was coming to them on an errand, they had already adopted a contemptuous nickname for him, “that dreamer.” As he approached, they conspired to get rid of him. They initially thought murder. Reuben (eldest) secretly planned to rescue him and advised they put him in a hole in the ground (maybe an old well), where he could covertly bring him back out. This was because as the eldest, he would bear the guilt of Joseph’s fate, as he was responsible for his brothers. While his scheme was being played out, in his absence, Judah convinced the other brothers to pull him out and sell him to a group of Ishmaelites so as to avoid the guilt of bloodshed (since they didn’t know Reuben’s plan to save Joseph).
In all of the different schemes the brothers’ came up with one thing was a constant factor…Joseph’s coat. They would ruin Joseph’s coat (by tearing it and dipping it in blood). To the brothers, this served two purposes, one practical, one symbolic.
The practical purpose of ruining the coat was to take it as evidence that Joseph had been killed by a wild animal. The coat was an easily recognizable artifact, that would prove it was Joseph’s, thus further convincing Jacob of his son’s fate.
The symbolic purpose of ruining the coat was to declare a victory over their favored brothers. No longer would they be taunted by his coat. No longer would his airs of superiority scream at them because of the nobleman’s coat he wore. And finally, no longer would his “dreams” be a threat. His dreams of dominating them were (in their eyes) ended. They had successful usurped what was to them a prophetic fulfillment of Joseph’s elevation. All that came to a symbolic halt through defiling Joseph’s coat.
The end of the story takes another decade plus years to resolve. However, what we see in Jacob’s favoritism is just how painful a trait is with people. It harbors ill will, resentment, pain, and much more. It taints relationships and keeps people in a perpetual spire of destructive actions. Just looking at the unfavored brothers throughout the narrative tells us how destructive favoritism is on families (and other group relationships).
With Reuben, the firstborn, he acted out against his father by a very shameful and disrespectful act. He slept with Jacob’s concubine. In the ancient world, the was the equivalent of declaring himself to be the new pater familias or authority in the family. As a result he lost his first-born status. Simeon and Levi had crossed a line when they slaughtered all the men in Shechem because the prince seduced their sister Dinah.
Judah left his father’s estate and entered a business partnership with a Canaanite and married a Canaanite as well as had Canaanite wives for his sons. He went against his family’s culture and treated his widowed daughter-in-law in very shameful ways. Later, we see how he redeems himself after being confronted with the errors of his ways.
Though God’s sovereignty led to the establishment of Israel through all of this dysfunction, we see how destructive favoritism is on families. It is easy to think when Rom. 9:28-19 says “All things work out for the better…” that we don’t really need to pay attention to the details regarding the hard work of having healthy relationships. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble, but I have overcome the world.” It essentially means you will have hard times and even times of suffering. Yet in that, the difficulties we face can be determined to some degree. There is suffering in every life. Yet when we make consistently unwise decisions, we multiply the amount of unnecessary suffering. Unnecessary suffering (a.k.a. Consequences to our actions) isn’t something we are guaranteed a pass from. And that is what we see played out in the Joseph narrative due to favoritism. Reuben may not have majorly disrespected his father had he been treat with dignity in line with being the first-born (he essentially had all the responsibility and none of the benefits). That bred indignity with him. Had Joseph been required to work hard like his brothers, they may not have been as jealous about his coat. Had Judah been treated with respect, he may not have conspired to sell Joseph off for some money. On top of that, possibly due to Judah’s lead in selling Joseph, he found living under his father’s household unbearable and broke with his family to live in partnership with Canaanites, forsaking his family’s ways and following the paths of Ishmael and Esau.
The unnecessary suffering caused to Jacob (losing Joseph and Reuben’s actions), suffering caused to Tamar (Judah’s daughter-in-law) because Judah forced on her a reputation of being a cursed wife. Simeon’s and Levi’s loss of property inheritance, and more.
So what can we do in our lives to minimize the harm we do to those closest to us? How can we minimize undue relational suffering by our actions and checking our motivations? What is the Lord telling us today when we read the Joseph narrative in the context of relationship dynamics?
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