Stories of Hope: Joseph… and Judah

Thanks to Pastor Doug Bixby, for effectively switching places with me yesterday: while he was back in my hometown participating in the annual meeting of the Covenant Church, I had the chance to preach and teach at the church he serves in Attleboro, Massachusetts. (And thanks to their associate pastor, Chris Wall, for being such a terrific host in Doug’s absence.) Before leading a discussion of The Pietist Option and what it might mean for the future of our denomination, I contributed the sermon below to their new series of Old Testament “Stories of Hope.”

ECC Attleboro
Evangelical Covenant Church of Attleboro, MA

I’m a college professor, not a pastor, so I hope you don’t mind if I start with a quiz… Last Sunday was Fathers’ Day; a month before, Mothers’. But what holiday is celebrated on April 10th of each year?

Did anyone guess Siblings Day? Why would you? It’s not federally recognized, doesn’t get a big push (yet) from Hallmark, and wasn’t even suggested until the late 90s. (Mothers’ and Fathers’ Days have both been around for more than a century now.)

And that’s a shame. The Siblings Day Foundation (yes, that’s a thing) points out that sibling relationships are the longest relationships most of us will ever have — usually outliving those with our parents and predating those with our spouses, our kids, and our best friends.

And relating to siblings gives us some of the most formative experiences in our lives. Especially in childhood and adolescence, those relationships — or, if you’re an only child, the absence of those relationships — do so much to shape our identity, our sense of our place in the world, and our social skills. In particular, our siblings start teaching us how to resolve conflicts.

Because while we love our sisters and brothers, we also fight with them. According to one study, conflict with siblings is the second biggest cause of stress for most children. (#1 has to do problems that parents face.) Just getting a new baby brother or sister is #6 on that list.

Sibling conflict is such a universal experience that it shows up throughout the very first book of the Bible. The first sibling relationship in Genesis, Cain and Abel… doesn’t end well. Ishmael doesn’t get a chance to quarrel with Isaac; Abraham simply exiles him in order to clear the way. But Isaac’s twin sons resent each other, to the point that Jacob tricks Esau out of his inheritance and has to flee for his life. While in exile, Jacob then becomes the cause of tension between the two sisters he marries: Leah and Rachel.

So is it any surprise that it’s not exactly happily ever after for the children of Jacob? The last third of the book of Genesis is about Rachel’s son Joseph and his fraught relationship with his older half-brothers.

Maffei, Joseph Sold by his Brothers
Francesco Maffei, “Joseph Sold by his Brothers” (ca. 1658) – Wikimedia

It’s a familiar story, one of the most dramatic in Scripture. We start in Genesis 37: Jacob’s favorite child is Joseph, who makes his brothers even more jealous by sharing a dream in which they all bow down to him. So they dump Joseph into a pit, sell him into slavery, and make their father think his favorite is dead. Two chapters later Joseph has done well for himself in Egypt, but when his master’s wife fails to seduce him, she has Joseph thrown into prison. But his skill with dream interpretation helps Joseph become one of the most powerful men in that ancient kingdom. Eventually, he is reconciled with his brothers and reunited with his father. Years and years later, when the Israelites leave Egypt, they bring Joseph’s bones with them and finally bury him in the land promised to his ancestors.

You’re in the middle of a sermon series on Stories of Hope. If you want to see hope embodied, just look at Joseph. No matter how painful his past, no matter how dire his present, no matter how precarious his future, Joseph trusts that God is with him. “Whatever [Joseph] did,” we’re told, “the Lord made it prosper” (Gen 39:23). Even the pharaoh of Egypt recognizes that there is no one else “in whom is the Spirit of God” (Gen 41:37). A man who loses everything gains all of it back, and more, until he fulfills the dream that started the whole story.

And he’s not just great; he’s good. Joseph’s hopeful response to suffering hones in him all the traits that Paul commends in 2 Cor 6: purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness, love, truthfulness, and the power of God (vv 6-7). No wonder that it’s Joseph, not any of his older brothers, who joins their father, grandfather, and great-grandfather in Hebrews 11’s litany of men and women of faith.

In fact, some early Christians thought Joseph sounded a lot like someone else with a J-name. In the 4th century, the great Turkish preacher John Chrysostom said that Joseph suffering at the hands of his brothers previewed Jesus suffering at the hands of humanity. Jesus not only took flesh and dwelled among us, said Chrysostom, but “[became] our brother…” A brother we crucified.

But here’s the twist: while Joseph may have prefigured Jesus and gave his name to Jesus’ earthly father, the Messiah is not descended from Joseph. Quiz #2: Which of Jacob’s sons is the ancestor of Jesus?

It’s Judah, the fourth son of Leah and Jacob. Judah came into the world in joy, with his mother crying out “This time I will praise the Lord” (Gen 29:35). But then there’s silence. In fact, we don’t hear from Judah for another eight chapters, until he speaks at the beginning of our story for today. So let’s rewind to ch. 37 and go back through our story — making Judah the central character instead of Joseph.

We can only assume that Judah helped strip Joseph of his beautiful robe and throw him in the pit. Now, Reuben has told Judah and the others not to harm Joseph, but I can tell you from personal experience that younger siblings don’t always obey the #1 child in the pecking order. And keep in mind that these are violent men: not long before, a man named Schechem had raped their sister; so two of the brothers, Simeon and Levi, killed not only Schechem, but his father and every other man in their city. But Judah has something other than murder on his mind. He notices some merchants passing by, looks down at Joseph in the pit, and sees a business opportunity: “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” (Gen 37:26-27). (Note that these descendants of Isaac sell their brother to descendants of Ishmael — again, there’s a theme here.) What Judah says seems horrifying to us, but apparently this argument is convincing to Jacob’s boys: they sell Joseph — for less silver than Judas later receives for selling out Jesus — and break their father’s heart rather than admit what they did.

I don’t know what you think about Judah at this point: he’s not Cain, but he is cruel, callous, and conniving, willing to sell his own flesh and blood into bondage. And things are about to get worse. Before we get pick up the story of Joseph, we get the one chapter of Genesis dedicated to Judah — a chapter we Christians tend to skip. The short, PG-13 version of Genesis 38: God strikes down one of Judah’s sons for being wicked; his wife, Tamar, is handed down to Judah’s next son, whom God strikes down for not giving her a child. Twice-widowed, Tamar disguises herself as a prostitute and seduces her father-in-law. Judah is ready to have her burned to death before realizing it was actually his fault. Continuing a family tradition, Tamar has twin sons: Perez and Zerah.

When next we hear from Judah, he’s starving to death. Famine has swept the ancient Near East. But thanks to Joseph’s careful planning, Egypt has plenty of food in reserve. So almost all of Jacob’s sons head there to buy grain. They get what they need from Joseph, but he holds Simeon hostage until the rest return with their youngest sibling: his baby brother Benjamin. Jacob can’t bear to lose his only living reminder of Rachel, but Judah steps up and takes responsibility for Benjamin’s safety.

Something is stirring within selfish Judah… So when Benjamin is threatened with slavery, Judah responds with his longest speech in Scripture: a heart-rending plea that Benjamin be spared, for the sake of their aging father. Let me “remain as a slave to my lord in place of the boy,” he begs Joseph, “and let the boy go back with his brothers. For how can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? I fear to see the suffering that would come upon my father” (Gen 44:33-34). Joseph is so moved that he weeps — loud enough to be heard over in the pharaoh’s palace — and finally reveals his identity to his brothers. Shaken but reunited, the whole family settles in Egypt, including Jacob, who lives to see his beloved Joseph again.

Icon of Judah
17th c. Russian Orthodox icon of Judah as king – Wikimedia

Before Jacob dies, he speaks words of prophecy over each of his sons. It doesn’t go well for the first three — Reuben gets chided; Simeon and Levi get cursed — but Judah gets a blessing almost as long as Joseph’s. In fact, Jacob sees that coming generations will not bow to Joseph, but to Judah, whom he describes as something like a king. That’s the last we hear of Judah himself, but eventually a descendant of his named David becomes the greatest king of Israel… and a descendant of David’s comes to proclaim the Kingdom of God, as the king of kings.

Judah’s story is also a story of hope. Not because he is righteous, but because God is redemptive. So while I pray that the story of Joseph is inspiring to any in this congregation who came here feeling lonely, abandoned, neglected, or resented, I hope that the story of Judah inspires all of us. Because I suspect that we’re more like Judah than Joseph.

Maybe you can’t relate to the story of Judah selling his own brother into slavery. (I don’t think I ever wished such harm on my brother… even that time when he smacked me in the head with a shovel.) But even if your family of origin is much less contentious than Judah’s, you’re still part of a frequently dysfunctional family: it’s called the Church.

Jesus told his disciples that “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister” (Mt 12:50), and early Christians started the practice of calling each other “brother and sister in Christ.” Indeed, our relationships with our spiritual siblings are often as meaningful as those we have with our flesh and blood — and just as prone to turning contentious and cruel.

Sibling conflict has defined the Church since its beginning. Think how often Paul tells his “brothers and sisters” around the Mediterranean to stop bickering with each other. Part of what I’ll talk about after worship is that our Pietist heritage makes Covenanters better than most at maintaining what Paul called “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” But right now our denomination is gradually tearing itself apart over the issue of human sexuality, as the majority is unwilling even to have an honest conversation with the minority. Your pastor put it well when he spoke at our annual meeting on Friday: “If we ignore this issue, if we stop talking about it, we will fail people in our churches and in our families.” It’s human nature not to want to talk about conflict, but we know from our own families that silence just aggravates resentment and deepens estrangement.

Worse yet, the family of the church does more than fight wars of words over theology and ethics. We siblings in Christ do significant emotional, spiritual, and even physical harm to each other. We no longer sell each other into slavery (though that’s not too far back in our history), but if you’re willing to listen, you’ll soon hear stories like Joseph’s from within the church: of women harassed and abused by men; of racism and xenophobia directed against Christians of color; of LGBT youth made to feel that God doesn’t love them.

What’s wrong with us? Why do we damage people we’re to love as brother and sister? Again, we’re Judah, more often than we’re Joseph. We’re more likely to be envious than envied, selfish than selfless, abusive than abused. We need to be forgiven, at least as often as we need to forgive.

But if we’re willing to repent, there is hope. Let the story of Judah hold up a mirror to our own lives, so that we can see the ways we resent and exploit each other — and the ways that our God of mercy is nonetheless working in our lives, and through our lives, to bring healing and wholeness to individuals, to families, and to the world he loves. Throughout this story, God works through Judah in ways that he can’t begin to recognize. By forcing his own brother into slavery — and then by offering to enter slavery himself — Judah sets in motion a story of liberation: the Exodus. By having unwanted children with his unloved daughter-in-law, Judah starts a family tree that branches out to David and then Jesus himself.

So take hope. For by the transformative power of grace, God uses the dysfunctional family that is his church to accomplish abundantly far more than we can ask or imagine.

God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, of Joseph and Judah,
our help in ages past and our hope for years to come –
let us not accept your grace in vain
but, in honesty and repentance,
to love each other as sister and brother,
that the family of your church may experience healing
and restore wholeness to a broken world.