DOES GOD PLAY FAVORITES?
(Joseph Part 1)
23So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the long robe with sleeves that he wore; 24and they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it. 25Then 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. 26Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? 27Come, 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. 28When 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.
(Genesis 37:23-28, NRSV)
“Who do you love more, me or Susan [my sister]?” I was young when I asked my mother that question. Always a wise woman, my mother answered, “We love you both the same.” Which blew my mind—I was clearly the superior child! A few years later I asked my mother if my IQ was higher than my sister’s. Still a wise woman she answered, “Your IQs are virtually the same…and you both have good IQ’s.” These days I wonder what was behind those questions. Could it be that since I was the younger child I felt the need to keep pace with and even surpass my older sibling? I don’t remember feeling competitive with her, but obviously on some level I did. Ah, sibling rivalry!
According to a 2009 article on parental favoritism in Psychology Today, “The consequences of parental favoritism are what you might expect…Disfavored children experience worse outcomes across the board: more depression, greater aggressiveness, lower self-esteem, and poorer academic performance….And it’s not all rosy for the favored children either - their siblings often come to resent them, poisoning those relationships. Many of these consequences persist long after children have grown up and moved out of the house. People don’t soon forget that they were disfavored by their parents, and many people report that being disfavored as a child continues to affect their self-esteem and their relationships in adulthood….Children’s well-being is highest when parents exhibit no favoritism toward anyone, even higher than the well-being of children who are favored by their parents. This disparity may occur because favored children have to contend with sibling hostility, or perhaps because families that practice favoritism tend to be dysfunctional in other ways. Nearly all parents worry about whether they play favorites. But even when parents vow to treat their children equally, they soon find that this is just not possible. Every child is different and parents must respond to their unique characteristics appropriately….The best parents can do is stay aware of any differential treatment they give and try to be as fair as possible.”
In today’s scripture lesson, Joseph, famous for his “amazing technicolor dream coat,” is sold into slavery by his jealous brothers. The back story here is very important. To better understand the vicious sibling rivalry, we need to see how their father, Jacob, played favorites with Joseph, thus alienating his other sons.
Eugene Peterson tells the story like this: 2…Joseph, seventeen years old at the time, [was] helping…his brothers in herding the flocks. These were his half-brothers actually…And Joseph brought his father bad reports on them.
In other words, Joseph was a tattletale, and no one likes a tattletale! The story continues…
3-4 [Jacob] loved Joseph more than any of his other sons because he was the child of his old age. And he made him an elaborately embroidered coat. When his brothers realized that their father loved him more than them, they grew to hate him—they wouldn’t even speak to him.
Jacob is at fault here for doting on Joseph, at the time his youngest son and the child of his favorite wife, Rachel. Yes, Jacob even played favorites with his wives. The story continues…
5-7 Joseph had a dream. When he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more. He said, “Listen to this dream I had. We were all out in the field gathering bundles of wheat. All of a sudden my bundle stood straight up and your bundles circled around it and bowed down to mine.”
8 His brothers said, “So! You’re going to rule us? You’re going to boss us around?” And they hated him more than ever because of his dreams and the way he talked.
9 He had another dream and told this one also to his brothers: “I dreamed another dream—the sun and moon and eleven stars bowed down to me!”
10-11 When he told it to his father and brothers, his father reprimanded him: “What’s with all this dreaming? Am I and your mother and your brothers all supposed to bow down to you?” Now his brothers were really jealous; but his father brooded over the whole business.
At this point I have to wonder if Joseph was intentionally needling his brothers. The way I learned the story in Sunday School, Joseph was innocent of any malintent. Rereading the story today, it seems like Joseph is rubbing his brother’s faces in his exalted status. The irony of course is that the dreams do in fact come true years later when Jacob’s brothers come to Egypt groveling at Joseph’s feet for food, only they do not know it is their long lost brother at first. We will continue with this part of the story next Sunday. Today’s story continues…
12-13 His brothers had gone off to Shechem where they were pasturing their father’s flocks. [Jacob] said to Joseph, “Your brothers are with flocks in Shechem. Come, I want to send you to them.”
14 Jacob said, “Go and see how your brothers and the flocks are doing and bring me back a report.”…So Joseph took off, tracked his brothers down, and found them in Dothan.
18-20 They spotted him off in the distance. By the time he got to them they had cooked up a plot to kill him. The brothers were saying, “Here comes that dreamer. Let’s kill him and throw him into one of these old cisterns; we can say that a vicious animal…[killed] him. We’ll see what his dreams amount to.”
21-22 Reuben [the eldest] heard his brothers talking and intervened to save Joseph, “We’re not going to kill him....Go ahead and throw him in this cistern out here in the wild, but don’t hurt him.” Reuben planned to go back later and get him out and take him back to his father.
23-24 When Joseph reached his brothers, they ripped off the fancy coat he was wearing, grabbed him, and threw him into the cistern. The cistern was dry; there wasn’t any water in it.
25-27 Then they sat down to eat their supper. Looking up, they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites on their way from Gilead, their camels loaded with spices, ointments, and perfumes to sell in Egypt. Judah said, “Brothers, what are we going to get out of killing our brother and concealing the evidence? Let’s sell him to the Ishmaelites, but let’s not kill him—he is, after all, our brother, our own flesh and blood.” His brothers agreed.
28 By that time the Midianite traders were passing by. His brothers pulled Joseph out of the cistern and sold him for twenty pieces of silver to the Ishmaelites who took Joseph with them down to Egypt.
29-30 Later Reuben came back and went to the cistern—no Joseph! He ripped his clothes in despair. Beside himself, he went to his brothers. “The boy’s gone! What am I going to do!”
31-32 They took Joseph’s coat, butchered a goat, and dipped the coat in the blood. They took the fancy coat back to their father and said, “We found this. Look it over—do you think this is your son’s coat?” Notice here how they say to Jacob, not our brother’s coat, but your son’s coat.
33 He recognized it at once. “My son’s coat—a wild animal has eaten him. Joseph torn limb from limb!”
34-35 Jacob tore his clothes in grief, dressed in rough burlap, and mourned his son a long, long time. His sons and daughters tried to comfort him but he refused their comfort.
Yes, Jacob had daughters, who knew? I’ve known this story over 40 years and never knew that Joseph had sisters. Given the patriarchy of the times, I guess we should be glad that they were mentioned at all. The story continues with Jacob saying…
“I’ll go to the grave mourning my son.” Oh, how his father wept for him.
36 In Egypt the Midianites sold Joseph to Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officials, manager of his household affairs. This is where the story stops for today (The Message, Genesis 37:2b-14a, 17b-36).
Parental favoritism for the younger son is a theme in the Book of Genesis, as is the older son’s desire for revenge. What makes this theme even more troubling is that God plays favorites. In the story of Cain and Abel, God accepts Abel’s sacrifice while rejecting Cain’s offering. In a fit of jealousy, Cain murders Abel and later utters the famous question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Abraham had two sons, Ishmael by Sara’s servant, Hagar, and his younger son, Isaac, by Sara. In Genesis 22:2, God describes Isaac to Abraham as “your son, your only son, the one you love,” despite the fact that Ishmael is Abraham’s elder son. Lest we wonder where Jacob learned how to play favorites, he grew up in a majorly dysfunctional home. Jacob’s elder twin, Esau, was his father’s favorite and Jacob was his mother’s favorite. Things were so twisted that Jacob’s mother helped him steal the birthright from his gullible brother and his elderly blind father. A few verses later, God doesn’t seem to care that Jacob stole the birthright and affirms the conniving shyster with the dream we know as Jacob’s ladder.
What are we to make of a God who apparently plays favorites in the Hebrew Bible? First, those who compiled the stories of ancient Israel believed that God played favorites, after all, they were the chosen people. Second, in the Book of Genesis, God is not some remote ethereal being. Rather it is as if God is a character participating in the stories, though a character they should not question or second guess. Third, humanity’s understanding of God evolves throughout the Bible. Where the God of Genesis played favorites, by the time we get to Jesus, God is a God of love and grace. Early on in the Book of Acts, the apostles, who were Jewish, believe that only Jews could become faithful followers of Jesus. When the Apostle Paul comes on the scene, he contends that Gentiles, non-Jews, can also be Christians. Peter argues strongly against including Gentiles until his mind is changed through a heavenly vision.
Does the church believe that God plays favorites? Historically, yes and some still do. The ancient Roman Catholic Church, which at the time was the only church in town, believed it was the only way to God. Starting with Martin Luther, the Reformers disagreed, often arguing that their new church was the only way to God. Our Pilgrim and Puritan forebears believed that they alone knew how to please God and later reap God’s heavenly reward. Those of us who grew up in hardcore Evangelical congregations were often taught that our churches were the only sure path to God’s heavenly realm.
So does God play favorites? God does not favor America over every other country. God does not favor one gender over another. God does not favor one race over another. God does not favor one sexual orientation over another. Dare I say that God does not favor one religion over another? In my book, God judges all of these and all of us by one standard—love. That’s it. Love. Where there is love there is God, for God is love (I John 4:8).
So does God play favorites? Maybe, if we believe that God favors everyone equally! AMEN.
Written by Rev. Jimmy Only
March 19, 2017
The Congregational Church of Manhasset, New York (UCC)
Creative God, Artist of the universe, you delight to shape the world in beauty and harmony. You invite us to participate in the balance of creation. You lead us in the path of wisdom as our experience unfolds. You help us learn from difficult situations. We acknowledge even our most well intended endeavors lead to unintended consequences. Help us when things go awry. Be our hiding place and our refuge in times of distress. Heal us, O God, from wounds of the body, the mind, the heart, the soul.
Through Jesus Christ our brother and friend we pray. AMEN.
This prayer was adapted from http://www.ucc.org/worship_worship-ways, Year A, Lent I