True Hope in Our Dysfunction – Genesis 37
When I think of my family growing up, all I can think of is our dysfunction without Christ. My dad drank and was verbally and sometimes physically abusive. Yet we were so involved in church and everyone looked to us as “the model family.” I remember, looking back, often wondering, where is God in all of this? Thankfully, now I can stand in front of you to say that God was in the middle of it all. As we close out this year, you might be wondering the same thing. Our families might still have a lot of dysfunction. Our hearts might still have a lot of dysfunction. Even our lives might feel dysfunctional. Is there any hope for us?
Yes! I don’t know if any of those will change for you in 2015, but one thing I do know: God will be in the middle of it wanting to redeem it.
I love the last few chapters in Genesis as it details how the God of grace can take a dysfunctional family complete with a spoiled brat, a father who plays favorites, malicious, deceiving and murderous brothers to reconcile them, taking tangled threads of hate and jealousy and weave it into a great story of God’s big story; a family from whom the Messiah will come and save the world.
Can God do miracles with messed up people? The Gospel tells us the answer with a resounding “yes!” Let’s start with this:
- God’s purposes will prevail even with dysfunctional families (vv.1-11)
Gen. 37:1 sets the stage up for the remainder of the book. Jacob has probably been back in the Promised Land for a decade or so. On the surface, this family is large, it is prosperous and it is established. However, on the inside, it is a family that is about to erupt into chaos. Here comes the most messed up family on the face of the earth. And it happens to be God’s own people. Let’s look at some of the dysfunction here.
Let’s talk about Jacob (also called Israel) first. He is the leader of the clan. He, who should know better, Israel, loved Joseph more, the text says in Gen. 37:3. Favoritism has a long pedigree in Jacob’s family. Isaac loved Esau more than Jacob, Rebekah loved Jacob more than Esau, and most pertinently Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah (25:28; 29:30). Joseph is the firstborn of his first love Rachel and so Joseph is the now the emotional center of his dad’s life. You would think he would learn after all these years, but before we judge him, how quickly have we changed sin patterns in our own lives?
Jacob gives Joseph this fancy coat. Some translations call it “a coat of many colors.” Another translation says, “richly ornamented.” Andrew Lloyd Webber had a musical once called Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. However, to call it a fancy “multicolor coat” is probably not a good translation. Most scholars favor something more along the line of a full-length coat or a long-sleeved coat.More on this in a second.
It was an expensive coat. It was fancy. It was nice and only Joseph got it. Jacob lavished money on Joseph in a way he didn’t give any of the other children. And where your treasure is there is your heart right? So Joseph is the source, the central source of joy and love in Jacob’s life. These two are always together, always laughing and Joseph is probably always getting a new present from his father. And the result of that is: this favoritism poisoned his entire family system.
But look at more dysfunction. The brothers are seething with hatred while this favoritism is going on. Notice in Gen. 37:4,5 and 8, the words “hatred” is used. It is a growing, building hatred, born out of jealousy of their little brother. When Joseph is two years old, no one is going say anything. Maybe not even when he is 5 or even 10. But now it has been 17 years of favoritism. Bitterness starts to brew like a volcano ready to erupt. Notice in Gen. 37:4: “..could not speak peacefully to him.” If you did not greet a person in that culture, it was a way to say, “We don’t want you in this group.” So Joseph never got any “hellos” or “goodbyes” or “Good mornings.” Even if Joseph tried to talk nicely to them, they ignored him. And hate is growing among the brothers.
This, my friends, is the covenant family. These are supposed to be God’s people. This is the family through whom God will bless the nations. This seems like a hopeless triangle: favorite boy—foolish father—furious brothers. By the way, God is not mentioned at all in this chapter, but He is everywhere! He is in the midst of all of the dysfunction.
Loved ones,don’t ever think your family is only messed up family and that your family is too screwed up for God to work. Your family may be in the pits, but there is no pit where the love of God is not deeper still! Listen to Eugene Peterson:
A search of Scripture turns up one rather surprising truth: there are no exemplary families. Not a single family is portrayed in Scripture in such a way so as to evoke admiration in us. There are many family stories, there is considerable reference to family life, and there is sound counsel to guide the growth of families, but not a single model family for anyone to look up to in either awe or envy.
Adam and Eve are no sooner out of the garden than their children get in a fight. Shem, Ham, and Japheth are forced to devise a strategy to hide their father’s drunken shame. Jacob and Esau are bitter rivals and sow seeds of discord that bear centuries of bitter harvest. Joseph and his brothers bring changes on the themes of sibling rivalry and parental bungling. David is unfortunate in both wives and children—he is a man after God’s own heart and Israel’s greatest king, but he cannot manage his own household.
Even in the family of Jesus, where we might expect something different, there is exposition of the same theme. The picture in Mark, chapter three, strikes us as typical rather than exceptional: Jesus is active, healing the sick, comforting the distressed, and fulfilling his calling as Messiah, while his mother and brothers are outside trying to get him to come home, quite sure that he is crazy. Jesus’ family criticizes and does not appreciate. It misunderstands and does not comprehend. The biblical material consistently portrays the family not as a Norman Rockwell group, beaming in gratitude around a Thanksgiving turkey, but as a series of broken relationships in need of redemption….”
We serve a God who takes messes and turns them into miracles. These stories are not to show you examples to be or not be like, but remind you that we all need redemption desperately. We all need God to intervene. God is doing a million things we cannot see in every situation. And as you are looking hopelessly at your family situation, remember this dysfunctional family in Gen. 37. God can answer prayers better than we can even ask. God’s purposes prevail even with the worst of family dysfunction. Secondly,
- God’s purposes will prevail even with our dysfunctional hearts (vv.1-11)
It is one thing when we see how hopelessly dysfunctional our families are, but sometimes life is in the pits because we are overwhelmed at how hopelessly dysfunctional our own hearts are. Let’s look a little closer at Joseph. He is Rachel’s firstborn. He has a full brother in Benjamin, who was born as his mother died in childbirth. Rachel, his mother was his father’s favorite wife. When Rachel died, Jacob passed on the favoritism of his wife to her son, Joseph.
Moses never really overtly says anything bad about him, but we can see he has issues here. He is 17 years old. He is technically an assistant to his brothers Dan, Naphtali, Gad and Asher. These are the boys of his maid-servants turned into wives. What is the first thing we hear of Joseph? He is a tattletale.
The word “report” by itself denotes “news slanted to damage the victim.” He would not just tell on them, but exaggerate what they did. It is like if Annabelle drew a line the wall and Abbie comes to us and says, “She drew all over the house!” Except Joseph here wants to harm and destroy any good that his father might show to his brothers, lest he lose that favored status.
Now to make matters worse, the guy has this fancy coat. Most cloaks were sleeveless, because the sleeves would get in the way of work. This is why we say, “Roll up your sleeves,” when we mean, “Get to work!” Imagine if a factory worker walked into work wearing a long mink coat. What is he doing? Well, it’s weird, but he is making a statement: I am superior (or at least thinks he is). I am management, not labor. So if he is wearing this long-sleeve coat around, smiling at everyone who is working hard as he walks by, you can imagine how the brothers must have felt. Moreover, in other contexts, a robe like this meant he was royalty. It was the rich garment of a ruler and not what the well-dressed shepherd needed out in the fields. He is crowned here and then acts like it.
Then to make matters even worse, Joseph, has these dreams, but he foolishly uses it to exaggerate and give himself a sense of his own superiority. God was working, as we know these dreams would come true, but the problem was that instead of being humble and reflective about it (like Mary in the NT), he kept talking about it. Notice they hated them more, “for his dreams and for his words” in Gen. 37:8. This means Joseph is talking about it all the time. He is bragging about it. There is not a conversation where he didn’t mention it.
Why Joseph? Why are you doing this Joseph? He is a tattletale and on top of it he is an arrogant, self-focused, self-exaggerating spoiled brat. Even his father was getting kind of surprised and trying to encourage his son to calm down about this. Jacob had dreams too before that came true, but he kept them in his mind, which Joseph should have done. But instead, look at Gen. 37:11. Notice the word jealous. This idea here is the idea that they were filled with a violent jealousy. There was a rage of envy that was going to spill out in destructive action.
Now you have another obstacle in the plan of God: yourself. God is going use Joseph to save his family from famine, but also dysfunction. However, what we see by the end is that God will use all of this to save Joseph…from Joseph. Joseph will be a loving, compassionate, humble and wise ruler by the end of Genesis. As he’s bragging he has no idea how God will bring these dreams to pass. He is blind to his own heart. There is no exaltation without humility, Joseph, and he will learn it the hard way.
Now you look at Joseph here and you wonder, how in the world is God ever going to grow this guy? His head is so big he can float like a hot-air balloon. Sometimes we look at our own heart like that. My heart is so dysfunctional. The same sin patterns get a hold of me. The same relationships in my life keep wearing me out. The sad part is that we probably only see 4% of our sin, if that much. Yet Jesus died not just for the 4%, but for all of it. That tells you that He is far more committed to us than we are to Him. And God knows exactly what each of us need to grow.
John Ortberg says, “God always knows just what each person needs. He had Abraham take a walk, Elijah take a nap, Joshua take a lap, and Adam take the rap. He gave Moses a forty -year time out, he gave David a harp and a dance, and he gave Paul a pen and a scroll. He wrestled with Jacob, argued with Job, whispered to Elijah, warned Cain, and comforted Hagar. He gave Aaron an altar, Miriam a song, Gideon a fleece, Peter a name, and Elisha a mantle. Jesus was stern with the rich young ruler, tender with the woman caught in adultery, patient with the disciples, blistering with the scribes, gentle with the children, and gracious with the thief on the cross. God never grows two people the same way. God is a hand-crafter, not a mass-producer.” I like that. God is a hand-crafter. He doesn’t work off a template. With His own hand, He will lead you. He knows what you need and what conditions are necessary for you to grow. God is committed to our sanctification. His purposes will prevail. Lastly:
III. God’s purposes will prevail even with a dysfunctional life (vv.12-36)
We have seen God’s purposes prevail in the midst of dysfunctional families and even the dysfunctional heart of Joseph. But what happens when your life becomes dysfunctional? Where is God in all of that? As we shall see, God is right in the middle.
As we pick up the story in Gen. 37:12, we find that the brothers are all working away from home. Notice Joseph is not with them. He is at home. Why? Because where else would he be? He can’t get his coat dirty right? He’s with daddy. So the brothers are at Shechem, fifty miles north. So he sends Joseph to go check on them.
But in taking the long journey (probably four-five days) and in Gen. 37:18, the text says, “they saw from afar.” How do they know from a distance that it is Joseph? The long robe, of course, with the long sleeves. This is where you are wondering, “Why wear this Joseph in the wilderness?” It’s like wearing a tuxedo to a Bears game. The only intention to do something like this is to bring attention to himself. He’s advertising his superiority. But to the brothers, it’s like waving a red cape in front of a raging bull. Seeing that hated robe is enough to make their blood boil. And they suddenly realize that they are in the middle of nowhere and this would be a perfect place to get rid of their arrogant brother and his big dreams.
Notice once again, they are scheming. It’s in their blood. They are going to kill him and throw him into a pit and tell their father that an animal did it. The reality is that these brothers are worse than animals. This is Cain and Abel all over again. Reuben says, “Let’s throw him into this pit.” Another word for pit is “cistern,” which were shaped like a bottle, with a small opening in the top, and often covered with a stone. They range from 6 to 20 feet in depth. Providentially, it had no water, so Joseph will not drown in it, but without water, it made a nice grave. Notice when Joseph arrives, it does not take much time for these brothers to act. They dethroned the royal son (see 37:3) and exposed him to the chilly cistern. This is awful. Joseph must have been fighting, swinging his arms trying to run away. How dysfunctional must a family get that with unity they can plot to kill their own flesh and blood?
“You can have this robe! I will tell dad to love you more! No more dreams I promise. I’m sorry! Don’t keep me in here! Help me! Get me out of here!” But the brothers are set in their ways. And without a conscience.Notice “then they sat down to eat” in Gen. 37:25. When the brothers retell the story in Gen. 42:21, we find out Joseph was screaming to them in distress. What callous indifference they show here. While their brother is in a pit, left to die, abandoned to death, all you can say is, “Can you pass the ketchup?” Providentially, just as they were eating, here comes some merchants heading to Egypt. Life is horrible right now for Joseph, but every single thing here was all part of God’s greater plan.
How is Joseph feeling now? I am sure he is full of fear. What were you worried about when you were 17? Getting your driver’s license? Getting into the right school? Joseph, stripped of his clothing, thrown into a cistern, pulled out of a hole, strapped to the back of a camel and now wondering, “Will his dad ever come for him?” Life is not working like he thought it was going to.
Joseph in his wildest dreams (and he had some wild dreams) never could have thought life would turn like this. Where is God in all of this? Tim Keller says, “God never speaks. God doesn’t do any thing. God’s never even referred to. God seems to be utterly, absolutely, completely absent. You’re going to have trouble finding in these chapters of the book of Genesis in which God seems to be completely absent. But that’s the artistry of the author. Because though God seems to be completely absent on the surface, He must’ve been managing down to the minutest details every little thing that happened: all the chaotic things, all the awful things, all the terrible things, all the things that seems to make no sense. But every single one of them had to happen. He was arranging things for the salvation of His family.”
At this point, we wonder, But why? Why does it have to happen like this for Joseph? Why so brutal? I could think of a better way. For example, just as the brother’s throw Joseph into the pit, some giant angel could have suddenly appeared and he who could’ve looked at everyone, and everyone would have fall to the ground. He then says, ‘I come from the Lord. And you, (looking at Joseph), you are a spoiled brat! And you brothers, you’ve become bitter and resentful, and a murder is about to happen here. I’m here to stop it. And then he brings Jacob there and says you, you old man, you fool, didn’t you learn anything from showing favoritism? And now you’ve ruined everybody’s life, and don’t you see what are you doing?” And it would have been just like “Touch by An Angel,” because everybody at the end was saying, “I see”. And then they hug each other saying, “I’m so sorry.” Roll end credits.
But you know what? The fact of matter is, if an angel shows up and tells you about your faults, it won’t work. Nobody ever learned about their faults by being told, they have to be shown. Life has to show you. And I want you to know that nobody actually learns that “God loves you” by being told. They have to be shown.
God’s love is active in the hiddenness, absence and in His silence, just as much as it is in the dramatic and open ways He works. His silence does not mean His absence. Look what happens to Joseph in the last verse. Joseph is going to end up near an officer of Pharaoh. I’m sure while this is going on, Joseph is very confused, disillusioned, depressed and alone. But God was doing a million things he could not see.
One of the things that I dread to do is to take my daughters to get their shots. Last year, my oldest Abbie was 6 and my youngest Annabelle was 3.5 when I took them to get flu shots. Annabelle told us she doesn’t want to go first. She was going to be the selfless kind younger sister and allow her older sister to get her shot first. This was a bad idea. There we are sitting in the doctors office and in comes this nurse with like a 30 foot long needle. I am sure in my kids eyes that needle looked like 300 feet long. Abbie, my oldest, takes it like a pro in her thigh, but as soon as Annabelle sees that needle go in, she starts freaking out. She’s trying to run out of the office, I’m grabbing her, she’s throwing her arms and legs all over the place. I felt like I was trying to hold down an octopus. Then it’s her turn. She’s strong, man! The nurse is telling me that I have to keep her still. I’m like, “I’m trying!” I have to put all my effort into holding down each body part of hers. I felt so sad. Part of me was thinking, “This feels like abuse. Am I bruising her? Am I hurting her?” She’s screaming. I’m trying not to cry. Then it’s over. I let her go. She jumps off my lap.
Now I feel like the worst dad in the world. I am thinking that she probably will never speak to me again. Never let me take her anywhere. Never trust me again. I am trying to help her and protect her, but she must have felt like I was leading her to her death. So I am looking away for a few seconds and I can see her in my peripheral vision. She’s looking at me. She has a knife in her hand probably. She’s still crying. So I turn my head and look at her. She’s extending her arms at me, for me to hold her. She grabs on to my neck. I was amazed!
Why would she do that? Because all children know this. No matter where you lead them and how difficult a place that it might, I was still the only person who could comfort her. No matter how hard it is, my children know that they will always have a chance to grab on to their daddy’s neck. And no matter how life gets for you child of God, in the darkness, he says, “reach out for my neck. You’ll always have it!”
I don’t know if your dysfunctional family will get better this new year. But I do know there is a God will meet you right there in the middle of it who says, “Reach out for my neck and hold on.” We might think, “But you allowed this to happen!” But he says, “My ways are not your ways.” And in that moment we realize that the only who brought us there for His purposes is the only one that can comfort us in the middle of it. How do I know for sure God will meet you in your dysfunction no matter how bad it gets?
Well, think about this story. Why doesn’t God just abandon Joseph to die? Joseph surely deserves it! But instead, God continues to use him for His purposes? And how do we know God will work all things together for the good in our lives? We have proof. Centuries later, another came to his brothers, “to his own and they received him not.” Another one was sold for silver, and betrayed by the people closest to him. It was another one who was stripped naked, and abandoned to die, and who cried out in the dark, “Why?” And nobody heard. Nobody came. That was Jesus. But when Jesus Christ came, and the pit he fell into was vastly deeper than Joseph’s. And the cry of his dereliction was vastly greater. And his nakedness and his sense of abandonment was infinitely beyond anything that Joseph went through.
Jesus was the apple of His Father’s eye. He was robed with all status, love and affection of His Father, but He did not come showing it off, no in fact, here is the One who lost the Father’s coat, so you can be assured that you have it. Here is the One who lost the Father’s love, paying our penalty so we could know – in spite of our imperfect life – God loves us. Here is the One who died naked and exposed of all our sin so we can robed in His righteousness and grace. Jesus came voluntarily to be the savior of us all. Because when Jesus on the cross, He wasn’t just physically naked. He was stripped of His Father’s love. Do you know why? He was being punished for our sin, for all of our dysfunction. When He cried out on that dark day on the cross, He didn’t get His Father’s neck due to our sin, so that when we cry in our darkness, we can have it. He was shut out then so we can have access to Him today!
In Joseph’s story we see how God uses evil deeds of humans to accomplish salvation for a family, but through Jesus, God used the worst act of mankind in killing their Savior and turned it around as the greatest demonstration of grace and love this world has ever seen. Suffering all by itself can ruin you, but suffering plus an absolute assurance of love of God can turn you into something great, absolutely great. We don’t need answers beloved, we need assurance of God’s love. We need His presence. And the cross is our assurance of His love. And when you truly see that He has loved us that much, we can embrace suffering.
Wenham, G. J. (350).
Walton, J. H. (2001). Genesis. The NIV Application Commentary (662). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Peterson, Eugene (1994). Like Dew Your Youth: Growing Up with Your Teenager (110-11). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
Waltke, B. K., &Fredricks, C. J. (2001). Genesis: A Commentary (499). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Wiersbe, W. W. (1997).Be Authentic. “Be” Commentary Series (80). Colorado Springs, CO: Chariot Victor Pub.
Wenham, G. J. (352).
Ortberg, J. as quoted in http://zondervan.typepad.com/zondervan/2012/03/what-makes-you-grow-excerpt-john-ortberg.html accessed 21 September 2012.
Walton, J. H. (2009). Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary (Old Testament) Volume 1: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy (122). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Greidanus, S (2007).Preaching Christ from Genesis (350-51). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
Hamilton, V. P. (418).
Waltke, B. K., &Fredricks, C. J. (502).
Waltke, B. K., &Fredricks, C. J. (503).
Keller, T. Ibid.