The Life of Joseph (1) - "A Family Divided" (Genesis 37:1-28)
Lessons from the Life of Joseph (1)
“A Family Divided” Genesis 37:1-28
Joseph was a young man of only seventeen. Already in his life he had experienced many trials. He grew up in a very complicated family for his father Jacob did not simply have one wife - he had two wives and two concubines. And he had children from each one of them. When still a very young boy Joseph had been uprooted from his home many hundreds of kilometres north in Haran, in present-day Syria. His father Jacob and his mother Rachel’s father, Laban (Jacob’s father-in-law), simply could not get along together. There was intense family rivalry and conflict. Jacob and his wives secretly planned to leave Haran and return to Jacob’s family in Palestine. It was a very unhappy and acrimonious parting with Laban, Joseph’s grandfather.
And things were not easy back in Palestine either. Joseph would never forget the tension and fear they all experienced on hearing that his father’s brother Esau was coming to meet them with four hundred armed men. The two brothers had been rivals from their earliest years and Esau wanted to kill Jacob. This was a truly complicated, dysfunctional family! Not too long after returning to Palestine something else cut like a knife into Joseph’s heart. When giving birth to his younger brother, Benjamin, Joseph’s beloved mother, Rachel, died. Joseph knew the intense pain of bereavement.
Although his great grandfather Abraham and his grandfather Isaac had known God personally & intimately and although even his own father Jacob had seen God intervening in his life in powerful ways, the fact is Joseph grew up in a very unhappy family. Money was not their problem. They were very wealthy with large flocks of animals – sheep, goats, cattle and camels. Their problem was not lack of money. It was disunity, rivalry and jealousy.
Joseph’s ten older brothers hated him and there were a number of reasons for this. Firstly, they had different mothers. Joseph and his baby brother Benjamin were born to Jacob’s favourite wife, Rachel. Some of the older brothers however were sons of Rachel’s older sister Leah, while yet others were sons of the two concubines, Bilhah and Zilpah. There was intense sibling rivalry – just as there was intense rivalry between the women in the household. This was not surprising. Polygamy (i.e. one man having more than one wife) leads to all kinds of insecurity, just as marital unfaithfulness on the part of parents today leads to insecurity for their children. Polygamy is banned in all developed societies today but marital unfaithfulness & extra-marital affairs are all too common and just as evil & destructive. The trauma & psychological damage to children from broken marriage relationships can be huge.
Another reason Joseph was hated by his older brothers was the fact they saw him as a tale-teller. When they worked together looking after their flocks Joseph saw some of the evil things his brothers were doing and he reported them to his father. We read in verse 2, “he brought their father a bad report about them.” This is typical of brothers. I grew up with four brothers and know all about how boys blame each other – “Dad do you know what Johnny did? He took another piece of chocolate cake when Mum wasn’t looking.” “Dad, Brian punched me. It isn’t fair!” How many of you young folks fight with each other or tell tales on each other? I guess sibling rivalry is no different today all these thousands of years since the days of Joseph. Actually, we know that Joseph’s brothers were really very bad. They did do some very immoral and cruel things. Joseph’s reports were no doubt perfectly true. Not surprisingly, his brothers hated him for pointing out their evil deeds to their father.
There was yet another reason for their hatred of Joseph, and it was not Joseph’s fault this time. We read in verses 3 & 4, “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 a richly ornamented 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.”
Jacob had his favourite. It was Joseph. Was this right? Of course not! Joseph was quite a bit younger than his brothers. They were all grown men. In some ways it was natural for Jacob to have a special soft spot for his young son. However, showing favouritism in a family can be very destructive. Last week Ross Paterson told how having a wife and five daughters was like living in a women’s dormitory. It is amazing Ross still looks so young! Ross & his wife Christine loved each of their girls equally and it is no wonder they have a very close family. l grew up with four brothers – so my Mother lived in a men’s dormitory – with my Dad and her five sons. Each of us liked to think we were Mom & Dad’s favourite – but in reality they never treated any of us as their favourite. We were all equally precious to them. At meal times the food was dished out so that none of us could say we had more than any other brother.
Parents, if God has blessed you with more than one child take care to treat each one of them with love & fairness. Do not show favouritism and do not compare them. Don’t spoil one child while you are hard on another. The one you spoil may become selfish and the one you treat harshly may become bitter. Of course, if you only have one child, don’t spoil that child nor treat it cruelly either. Every child needs to learn to share and every child needs discipline & loving correction, and of course they need parents who are a good example.
Jacob not only loved Joseph more than all his other sons, he showed it in a way that made his other sons hate their younger brother even more. He “made a richly ornamented robe for him”. Every time his brothers saw Joseph in this beautiful and expensive robe it reminded them of their father’s favouritism.
Parents need to treat all their kids fairly. Imagine having two kids and on their birthdays giving one a gold watch and giving the other a plastic watch. It would certainly not go down well with the second child. Imagine if two brothers (or sisters, or a sister and a brother) are fighting over something and you as their parent only discipline one of them, even though both are equally at fault - I think they would very quickly sense that you had your favourite. Children should never doubt that their parents love them equally and always try to treat them fairly. Parents need to love each of their children, remembering that each one has a unique personality, individual gifts, & their own particular needs.
Things for poor Joseph went from bad to worse with his brothers. You remember in v. 4 it says, “…they hated him and could not speak a kind word to him.” They were really unkind to their young brother. How sad. Big brothers, or big sisters, can make a huge impact for good or evil on their younger siblings. Younger children often look up to and want to be like their older brothers & sisters. It was my prayer as the oldest in our family that I would be a blessing to my brothers, and it grieves me to know that on a few occasions when we were younger I was not kind to them. Praise the Lord, those childish days are long past and we are a close & happy bunch of brothers.
Things got worse for Joseph when, rather unwisely, he shared some remarkable & vivid dreams he had had. Dreams in the Bible are often seen as carrying a deeper meaning. So we read in v 5: “Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him all the more.” He told them what he saw in his dream: “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.” (v 7) Joseph’s brothers were not impressed. They reacted angrily: “Do you intend to reign over us? Will you actually rule us?” (v 8) Rather than laughing about his dream, his brothers got angry. Possibly they may have begun to realise that however much they hated Joseph there was something special about their younger brother. They had done some very bad things but young Joseph, by contrast, seemed to have deeper down qualities that made him different. The contrast however only made them more determined to put him in his place.
Young people - let me encourage you to ask God to give you dreams. As you read God’s Word ask Him to speak powerfully into your life. Don’t despise or take lightly the things God shows you. Dream dreams for God. He wants to give you an exciting future as you learn to trust Him, obey Him and follow Him. If you do surrender your life to God He will in His time & way fulfil His plans for you. And His plans are to bless you and to make you a blessing.
Knowing what a bad reaction he got when he told his first dream, Joseph was perhaps naïve & unwise to tell his brothers about his second dream. He should perhaps simply have kept it to himself. Instead he excitedly told his family. “‘Listen,’ he said, ‘I had another dream, and this time the sun and moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me.’” (v 9) This time even his father criticised Joseph. As for his brothers, they were really mad. Yet, as we find much later on in the story, none of them ever forgot those dreams.
Rather than thinking about how God might be speaking through Joseph’s dreams, his brothers became jealous. Jealousy is a terrible thing. It is like a monster that is ready to eat us alive. Jealousy is seen in families – as it was in Joseph’s family. In some families today, instead of there being love and support, some family members refuse to even speak to each other. They have no contact for years.
Sometimes husbands are jealous of their wives and wives of their husbands. We fear we might lose our partner to someone who appears more attractive, more capable or more successful. If however husband & wife trust each other and feel secure in each other’s love, such jealous feelings have no way to take root.
Jealousy affects young people. If a classmate does well in his or her studies, or if he/she is popular, or excels on the sport’s field, or seems more attractive - it is so easy for other classmates to feel jealous. “Why is she so popular?” “How come he got higher marks than I did?” “How come he got into the first team and I didn’t?”
Jealousy is seen in the work place. When someone gets promoted it is very hard for some people to be honestly happy for them. Instead they feel jealous and wonder why they were not promoted instead. And sadly Christians can get jealous of one another too. We wonder why “so-and-so” got thanked and we didn’t. We wonder why “so-and-so” got to be asked to serve on the committee and we didn’t. We see “so-and-so” leading worship or speaking up front and ask “Why don’t I have their gift?”
Brothers & sisters, we must remember that jealousy can destroy us. It is like self-pity. It is like an unforgiving spirit. It eats us up. It destroys relationships. To overcome jealousy we must learn to find our security, & our sense of worth, in God. If we focus our attention on God and all He has given us rather than on the things He has not given us, we will avoid being jealous of others.
Two restaurant owners were bitter rivals. Their restaurants were directly across the street from each other. Each day they watched to see how many people went to the other person’s restaurant. If one restaurant ended up with more patrons on any one day the owner of that restaurant would feel really good. One night an angel appeared to one of the restaurant owners in a dream and said, “I will give you anything you ask, but whatever it is, your rival will receive twice as much. If you want to be rich I can make you rich, but your rival will be twice as rich. If you want I can give you a long life, but your rival will have an even longer life. What is your desire?” The man frowned, thought for a moment, and then said, “This is what I want. Strike me blind in one eye!” How crazy! Rather than see his rival do better than he did he asked for disaster for himself (& his rival).
Yes, jealousy is dangerous and it was to lead to terrible things in Jacob’s family. In Genesis 37:12 -17 we read that Jacob sent Joseph to see how his brothers were doing. They kept large flocks of animals and at certain times of the year moved from place to place with their animals looking for good grazing. Joseph must have been relieved & excited to eventually find his brothers. Little did he know that something very tragic was about to happen. “…they saw him in the distance, and before he reached them, they plotted to 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.’” v 18-20 Next week we will see what happened. Things got really desperate for Joseph. Yes, Joseph grew up in a dysfunctional family but we will discover in this series of messages that he never saw himself as a victim. In his darkest times, God was with him. God was in control in all the twists & turns of his life – even if this fact was hard to believe at times. Don’t see yourself as a victim. If you are a Christian see yourself as someone with a God-given destiny, someone who, with God’s wonderful help, can break those cycles of jealousy & disunity that so often plague families & destroy relationships. Ask God to be at the centre of all your relationships. Ask Him to be the head of your home.