As we have been studying the family of Abraham over the last few months, you might have noticed a few patterns emerge.
All three generations of women struggled with barrenness and then were blessed with children.
All three patriarchs go on some kind of journey.
And, as we see in our passage today, every generation had serious problems with sibling rivalry.
Patterns like these are important to notice-both in Abraham’s family and in our own.
There is a movement within family counseling called Family Systems Theory. This theory argues that the behavior of people is just as motivated by their social systems-family, friends, work-as by any psychological problem and that the best way to treat a person’s problem is to examine the system in which they live. Often a problem that presents itself is actually a symptom of a larger problem in the family system itself. By examining patterns in your immediate family, and even patterns that presented themselves two, three, four generations back, a person can gain enormous insight into their current behavior and problems.
The identified patient is the person in a family about whom other family members are worried. Say, for example a teenager has become withdrawn and started drinking to excess. The teenager would be the identified patient. A family systems therapist would involve the entire family in counseling and it may very well turn out that the problem originates with parents who are fighting a lot and who, themselves, turn to alcohol as a release. Without treating the whole system, the problem would not be solved. Occasionally, this identified patient can also become the family’s scapegoat. Rather than seeing a family member’s behavior as a call to examine the system, the family blames the individual for all the family’s problems.
Since we are introduced to three generations of the Abrahamic family, they are a wonderful laboratory for us to explore family systems theory.
In today’s passage Joseph is definitely the scapegoat.
When we meet Joseph in this passage he is seventeen years old. Remember Joseph is the 11th out of 12 brothers-and the firstborn of Rachel’s two children. The text reveals that Joseph is Jacob’s favorite son and that his brothers resent this about him.
Our lectionary conveniently leaves out the part of the story where Joseph really gets under his brothers’ skin. Joseph has a series of two dreams. Now, according to the text these are not dreams or a vision from God, just dreams. After the first dream, he rushes out to the field, where his brothers are all working their tails off and says something that sounds roughly like this:
“Hey! Hey you guys! Guess what? Wow, are you guys already up? Well, I’ve just been sleeping in a little and I had the craziest dream! I dreamt we were binding sheaves of wheat in the field and then YOUR sheaves of wheat started bending down to MY sheaves of wheat! Isn’t that funny!” Our identified patient has a serious case of enormous-ego-itis.
The brothers did not care for the image of deference in Joseph’s dream, and so did not appreciate him recounting another dream days later. This time the conversation went something like this: “Hey! Guess what? I had another crazy dream! This time the sun and the moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me? How about that?”
Oh, Joseph is pushing buttons right and left. Even his father, Jacob, gets annoyed and rebukes him.
A little while later, Jacob sends Joseph out to the field to check on the brothers who are tending the sheep (Remember Rachel’s nice sheep?) Now, the brothers are working hard and dressed appropriately. Joseph, on the other hand, is dressed to the nines, wearing the ornamented tunic his father has given him. This tunic is the visual symbol of how much more Jacob values Joseph than the other children. Imagine if your father gave your sibling a new BMW for college graduation, when you were given a set of suitcases. Joseph’s cloak makes his brothers feel terrible. Joseph’s cloak makes his brothers feel angry. Joseph’s cloak makes his brothers feel murderous.
And so, the brothers decide to rid themselves of this family scapegoat that, they think, has caused so many problems for them. Reuben, the responsible firstborn, convinces his brothers to throw Joseph, alive, into a pit, rather than killing him. And then, all of a sudden a group of Ishmaelites arrive and the brothers (or a group of Midianites–the editing is funny here) sell Joseph to them.
Now, who are the Ishmaelites?
The Ishmaelites are the descendents of Ishmael, who was exiled with his mother Hagar by Sarah, Joseph’s great-grandmother. So, Joseph is being exiled and sold to the family that was exiled from Joseph’s family three generations previously. See what I mean about family patterns being significant? The connections boggle the mind!
We have found another family pattern-that of exile. Ishmael and his mother are exiled, Jacob is sort of exiled and now Joseph is exiled.
This is a family that cannot deal with dissent and conflict in a healthy way. Instead of fighting matters face to face, this is a family that sends away the scapegoat, the “problem”. If Reuben had been even more concerned about what was going on in his family, and if they lived 4000 years later than they did, instead of compromising on selling his brother, he might have invited everyone to sit down with a family systems trained therapist and have the family look together at this pattern of exile. They might have gone out and interviewed members of Esau’s family and found out what their experiences of conflict had been like. They might have asked their dad how it felt to have to run away after stealing Esau’s birthright. They might have asked the living mothers-Leah and the two maids-what it was like to fight for the attentions of Jacob and ask them why Jacob seemed to favor Rachel so much.
And in the midst of those conversations, they might have come to understand all the factors that shaped their father’s choices and favoritism. They might have learned how Jacob’s betrayal of his brother haunted him every day until he and Esau reconciled. They might have realized that their problems were not Joseph’s fault, but a result of a long and complicated family history. They might have even included Joseph in on the conversation and hoped that the knowledge of his family’s history might humble him a bit.
In our own lives, if we want to understand why we keep dating the same kind of person, or why our parents never seemed to understand us, or why our little brother just can’t hold down a job, doing some investigative work with our family of origin may be extremely helpful.
All that family and emotional work is great for us, but good family connection and understanding just ruins a narrative! Where would the Sopranos have been if Tony had just sat down with his mother and worked out all their issues? What fun would Batman be if Bruce Wayne came to peace with his father’s murder? The television show Brothers and Sisters would not exist if it weren’t for generations of bad behavior and miscommunication!
And, of course, if Joseph had not been exiled, Joseph never would have moved to Egypt and had his great adventure. And next week we’ll see that even without a single hour of family therapy, Joseph and his brothers still managed to have a spectacular reconciliation.