Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Inhumanum verbum est ultio Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28
Jacob settled in the land where his father had lived as an alien, the land of Canaan. 2 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. 3 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.[a] 4 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.
12 Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock near Shechem. 13 And Israel said to Joseph, “Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem? Come, I will send you to them.” He answered, “Here I am.” 14 So he said to him, “Go now, see if it is well with your brothers and with the flock; and bring word back to me.” So he sent him from the valley of Hebron.
He came to Shechem, 15 and a man found him wandering in the fields; the man asked him, “What are you seeking?” 16 “I am seeking my brothers,” he said; “tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock.” 17 The man said, “They have gone away, for I heard them say, ‘Let us go to Dothan.’” So Joseph went after his brothers, and found them at Dothan. 18 They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him. 19 They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. 20 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.” 21 But when Reuben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.” 22 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. 23 So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the long robe with sleeves[a] that he wore; 24 and they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.
25 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. 26 Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? 27 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. 28 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.

Matthew 5:38-48
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’[h] 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[i] and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

This story in the Old Testament is an awful story. 

          Let’s think about this.  Joseph is part of a big family.  He is blessed with 11 brothers and one sister.  His mother, who had recently died, adored him.  His father who is alive and who would continue to live many, many years loves him and gives him wonderful gifts. 
Now granted, Joseph is a bit self centered.  But hey, he’s 17 years old.  It happens at that age.  He has dreams about how his family will someday bow down to him, and he shares these dreams not stopping to think that the others might not like the idea of bowing down to the younger brother.

          Father Jacob gives him a wonderful coat of many colors with long sleeves – obviously made for relaxing and not for working.  That’s like a 21st century father giving all of his children bicycles except the one favorite son who gets a car!

          Of course the others are jealous.

          But what happens to Joseph is inexcusable. 

          The brothers decide to kill Joseph. 

These brothers strip Joseph of this wonderfully ornate robe and then they throw him in a pit. 

Meanwhile, the brothers are hanging around the pit and have a picnic. 

There they are eating while Joseph is nearly naked, down in the pit, where there is no water.
There is nothing worse than being betrayed by people you love, and who are supposed to love you.

Poor Joseph.  He is in that pit.  Alone.  In the dark.  He probably yelled up something like, “Ah come on guys, you’ve had your fun.  Lemme outa here and give me back my robe.”

At some point it had to have dawned on him that these people hate him.  His own family hates him and has betrayed him.

Have you ever been betrayed?


Had the rug pulled out from under you?

Maybe your spouse had an affair?

Maybe your parent disowned you?

Maybe your best friend stabbed you in the back?

Maybe a coworker took advantage of you and deserted you?

It is a terrible feeling when one is betrayed.

It creates feelings of anger.  Hatred.  One usually has a desire for revenge. 

Poor Joseph. 

He is in this pit left to die.

But – as the story goes, over the hill comes a group of Ishmaelites.  Brother Judah comes up with a plan that is even better than killing Joseph.

          “Hey guys, I know how we can make some money – and get rid of brother Joseph.  Let’s sell him.”

          And it turns out that it is easier than selling something on Ebay.  They negotiate a price and these brothers get 20 shekles of silver. 

          So poor Joseph is taken by force.  He is betrayed.  He is taken from his home and family.  He loses his coat.  He loses his freedom.  At that time there was an active slave trade with Egypt.  Human trafficking was on the upswing and these traveling merchants have no problem selling this 17 year old kid in Egypt.

          Joseph ends up being sold to Potiphar, who is a captain of the guard working for Pharaoh. 

          Now here is the thing about Joseph.  People respond to betrayal and abuse in different ways.  They may become blind to the betrayal and have no memory of it.  They may develop psychological disorders.  They may become bitter and angry and may even become abusive and betray others years later.

          What Joseph does is to accept that there are things in his life in which he cannot control.  He cannot control the hatred from his brothers.

          He cannot control that he is now a slave.

          But he can control how he will deal with the present.

          He becomes a hard worker.  He prospers – even in this mess, he prospers so that others take notice.

          A couple of chapters after our Old Testament reading, we find these words:  “Joseph’s master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord gave him success in everything he did.” 

          Then the slave, Joseph, becomes the master’s personal assistant.  Then he moves into the master’s home.  Then he becomes in charge of all of Potiphar’s household business. 

          Joseph is doing pretty good. 

          And apparently he is looking pretty good as well.

          Potiphar’s wife takes notice and tries to seduce Joseph.  Not once, but over and over she tries to get Joseph in bed with her.

          Now, had Joseph still been a 17 year old, he probably would not have hesitated to jump in the sack with this woman.  As a 17 year old he was self-absorbed and didn’t give any thought to the consequences of his actions.

          But now, a few years later, he has matured and he knows that finding a quick sexual satisfaction with the boss’ wife is a dangerous thing. 

          Joseph tells this woman, “My master has withheld nothing from me except you, because you are his wife. How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?”

          But in a hot and steamy scene that would fit in well with some of the movies and television shows of today, the woman is literally clawing at Joseph and he has to run for it!  But in so doing she has ripped Joseph’s cloak off of him. 

          And she uses it to betray Joseph.

          She tells the other servants that Joseph tried to seduce her and tried to rape her and uses the cloak in her bedroom as evidence.
       It is an awful thing to be betrayed.  To endure sexual harassment is terrible.  To be a victim is dreadful. 

          Has anyone every lied about you?

          Another student in school may accuse you of cheating, when you were not.

          A coworker might suggest to others that you are skimming company funds or falsifying time cards. 

          A friend may tell your spouse that you are cheating.

          These people may have all sorts of reasons for doing what they are doing, but betrayal hurts. 

          And Joseph is no stranger to betrayal – first his brothers and now this woman.

          When Potiphar arrives home and hears of his wife’s false accusations, he believes his wife and he has Joseph thrown into prison.

          If Joseph thought being thrown into the pit was bad, prison must have been worse.

          But again, some victims of betrayal and abuse will let the things other people do defeat them.  But others are like Joseph. 

          He can’t change what others do.  He can’t convince people of his integrity.  He can’t just walk out of prison. 

          But what he does do is to continue to be focused on the Lord and to be a person of integrity. 

          And again, he prospers, even in prison.

          I used to work in a state prison and we would have some inmates who would earn the trust of the warden and the guards.  I’m not sure what the terminology is today, but we used to call them Trustees.  They had better cells.  They would work for the prison staff and that gave them access to parts of the prison that were off limits to other inmates.  Sometimes, they even served as drivers for the prison staff when there was a need to leave the prison to run errands.  To earn this, the inmate had to prove himself trustworthy, with a good attitude.

          Joseph becomes a trustee in prison, and when the Pharaoh became angry at two of his servants and threw them in prison, Joseph was the one who supervised those new inmates.

          This went on for a long time.

          Then one day, Joseph came to these two men and they were both depressed. 

          Joseph asked what was wrong, and both had troubling dreams during the night and wondered what they meant.

          Hey, they are in luck – it just so happens that Joseph has a talent for interpreting dreams. 

          So one of the inmates – the Pharoah’s cup bearer or wine steward, told his dream and Joseph said, “Good news!  In three days the Pharaoh is going to free you from prison and you will once again work for him.

          So the other inmate, the Pharaoh’s baker, told his dream.

          Ah gee, this is not good – his dream means that in three days Pharoah is going to kill the poor baker!

          But Joseph tells the cup bearer, “when you get out of prison and work for the king, remember me and put a good word in for me.”

          But what happens when the cup bearer is released from prison three days later?

          The Bible says, “The chief cupbearer, however, did not remember Joseph; he forgot him.”

          Poor Joseph.  He is betrayed by brothers.  He betrayed and sexually harassed by his boss’ wife.  And now even a near stranger betrays him by neglecting him.

          Two years go by!!!

          And then Pharoah has a dream and talks to others about what this might mean. 

          The cup bearer speaks up !!!  “Ah you know, now that I think of it I remember this Hebrew prisoner who was good at interpreting dreams.”

          So they send for Joseph.

          But after years and years of being in a dungeon, he is not longer the sexy hunk that was chased by Potiphar’s wife.  He’s grungy and dirty and they have to clean him up.

          The Bible says, “So Pharaoh sent for Joseph, and he was quickly brought from the dungeon. When he had shaved and changed his clothes, he came before Pharaoh.   Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I had a dream, and no one can interpret it. But I have heard it said of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it.”

So Pharoah tells the dream to Joseph.

Joseph says, “I got good news and bad news.  The good news is that for 7 years, food will be plentiful.  Rain will be good.  Farming will be big business.  The bad news is that after that, there will be a drought.  Instead of being in abundance, there will be a scarcity of food.  And that will last for 7 years.”

Joseph goes further than simply interpret the dream, he suggests that Pharoah put someone in charge of storing 1/5th of all the crops for the next 7 years, so that when the lean years come, the nation will be in a good position to deal with hard times.

Pharoah decides that the man to lead the food program is Joseph.  He gives this former prisoner great power, telling him, “You shall be in charge of my palace, and all my people are to submit to your orders. Only with respect to the throne will I be greater than you.”
Joseph is 30 years old at this point.  He has spent almost half his life as a slave.  There have been high points and low points.  He has been betrayed over and over.  But throughout these betrayals, Joseph remains a man of integrity.  He grows in maturity and wisdom.  He is a victim over and over – but he is never defeated.

Joseph manages the food program through 7 years of abundance, and then the famine begins – right on schedule.

But that’s fine – because Joseph has saved all this food.  Not only do the Egyptians have enough food for their people, the whole world comes to Egypt to trade for food. 

And that is where Joseph’s family shows up at Joseph’s doorstep.

Jacob has sent all the boys to Egypt to look for food, except young Benjamin, who was a toddler when Joseph was sold into slavery.  These brothers come face to face with Joseph, but they don’t recognize him.

Of course they don’t.

He is a powerful Egyptian leader.  He has aged.  He is not a teenager any longer, but a grown man.

If you have been out of college or high school for 20 years and go to a reunion, you know the experience of seeing your old buddies and not knowing who they are.

What a great moment – the betrayed sits on a thrown looking down at the powerless, begging brothers who hurt and betrayed him years ago.

In the movie, STAR TREK, THE WRATH OF KAHN, there is a moment when the Starship Enterprise is under attack and the villain says to James T. Kirk, do you know the Klingon proverb, "Revenge is a dish best served cold"?

It’s not a Klingon proverb – that quote comes from the novel THE GODFATHER when Don Corleone said, “Revenge is a dish that tastes best when it is cold.” 

And before that it shows up in 17th and 18th century French literature, Chinese literature and even in writings from the Roman Empire.  Revenge that comes after many years is supposed to be the best revenge there is.

YES!  Joseph has his brothers where he wants them.  Now a quarter of a century later Joseph is face to face with his brothers who tried to kill him, but then sold him into slavery. 

So what does Joseph do?

He doesn’t let on that he is the long lost brother.

Instead, he accuses them of being spies.

These band of disreputable brothers respond by saying, “Oh no.  We have come to buy food.  We are all sons of one man.  We are honest people, not spies.”

“No,” Joseph says, “You have come to see where our land is unprotected.”

What follows is a wonderful bit of arguing back and forth with these brothers pleading with this powerful man that they are just there to buy food, while Joseph, not letting on as to his real identity, continues to insist that they are spies!

At one point they tell Joseph about the youngest brother who is still at home – and so Joseph says, fine – one of you will stay here in prison while the rest of you goes back to get the youngest brother.  Bring him here, then I will know if you are telling the truth.

Joseph puts Simeon in prison, sells the brothers grain in exchange for silver, and then sends the brothers back to fetch younger brother Benjamin.

What happens next shows how messed up that family was – Joseph came from a terribly dysfunctional family.  They get back to Jacob and explain what has happened.  In response, Jacob says this:  “You have deprived me of my children. Joseph is no more and Simeon is no more, and now you want to take Benjamin.” 

Now while it is sad to lose any child, Jacob is acting like these other sons are not really worth anything. 

And I think that is part of this family’s problem.  The father did not love all of his children – he had more love for Joseph and Benjamin because they were the two children of his beloved wife Rachel.  The other sons came from other wives and handmaids. 

Now Reuben has a plan – and you gotta listen to this plan – it’s awful.  Reuben said to his father, “You may put both of my sons to death if I do not bring Simeon back to you. Trust me.”
Jacob decides not to go for it, but to leave matters as they are – Simeon will stay in an Egyptian prison and Benjamin will stay home.

          And that works out well until the family runs out of food. 
And Jacob finally agrees to send the boys back to Egypt – along with Benjamin.
Once there, Joseph negotiates trade with the boys and they are on their way back to Jacob with lots of food in hand – but inside Benjamin’s travel bags Joseph has secretly placed a valuable cup.

Joseph sends his men to stop the caravan, they search the bags and find the cup.  Joseph, so often betrayed, is getting some sweet revenge. 
He announces his plan to imprison Benjamin and to send the others back home to the father. 
And the boys plead with him and one of the brothers says, “if the boy Benjamin is not with us when I go back my father, and if my father, whose life is closely bound up with the boy’s life, sees that the boy isn’t there, my father will die.”

          And that is when the games come to an end. Joseph admits to being their brother.
Now that is not good news to these brothers because they know what they did to this poor man when he was 17 years old.  The tried to kill him and then at the last moment sold him into slavery.

The brothers must have thought about how Joseph had been playing with them just to extract revenge. 

But this is what Joseph tells them:  “I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt!  And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you.”

          As the book of Genesis closes, Jacob, or Israel as he is increasingly called, joins the boys in Egypt.  The famine gets worse before it gets better, but Joseph is there for the family.  When Jacob dies, all of Egypt joins Joseph in grieving. 
Jacob’s death makes the other brothers nervous.  I’m not sure that anyone every told Jacob what really happened to Joseph and how he made his way to Egypt, but the brothers know, and after the death of the father the brothers are concerned that finally joseph will seek revenge.

          Joseph has every right to strike back.  He was hurt, why not hurt them back?  He has all the power.  He can throw them in the prison where he spent years.  He can throw them in a pit and let them die as they started to do with him. 

          But no. 

          Joseph looks at his now-remorseful and penitent brothers and has this line:  “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good.”

          And with that, until the day he dies, Joseph shows love and compassion to those who deserved bitterness and retribution.

          The Old Testament presents the rule of justice – an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.  At the time that was a radical improvement in justice at a time that if you put out a man’s eye, he was justified in plucking out BOTH of your eyes.  The intention in the Old Testament was that justice should be fair and reasonably limited to the offense.
          But by the New Testament times, that phrase had become a sounding call for vengeance, not justice.  It was mistakenly viewed as permission to hurt when others hurt you.

          So in the Gospel of Matthew Jesus reminded people,  “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’  But I tell you, do not struggle with an evil person. … You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you … If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?

          The ancient Roman philosopher, Seneca, once said “Revenge is an inhuman word.”

          And Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

          It is part of human nature to desire vengeance.  To desire to get even with those who do us wrong.

          But this is what made Joseph a man of faith – the strength to put aside his anger and to forgive and show compassion.