Dreams and schemes (Gen. 37.3-8, 17b-22, 26-34; 50.15-21; Luke 6.35) [sermon 09-25-2016]

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September 22, 2016 by jmar198013

Manuscript of my sermon for Sunday, September 25, 2016. Latest installment of our fall series, “The Faithfulness of God in the Hebrew Scriptures.”

Texts are Genesis 37.3-8, 17b-22, 26-34; 50.15-21; and Luke 6.35.

An audio link is embedded below for those who would rather listen.

Joseph’s royal robe

Last week we met Abram—later renamed Abraham. God brought Abram to the land of Canaan, and promised the land to his descendants. When we left Abram, he was still childless in Canaan, but he trusted God’s promises. The story this week also begins in the land of Canaan, and focuses on Abraham’s great-grandchildren. And one of his great-grandchildren in particular, Joseph.

If you grew up in Sunday school, with the classic Bible stories, you probably learned all about Joseph’s coat of many colors. Or if you’re from Alabama like me, you learned it from a Dolly Parton song.

So all your life you’ve imagined Joseph running around in this rainbow of patchwork, and his brothers being all jealous in their beige tunics. But now the newer translations have gone and ruined it for us by saying that Jacob made his son Joseph a long robe with sleeves (NRSV); or simply, a long robe. So Joseph’s robe was a bit bigger than his brothers’? That’s all? Thanks for pouring cold water on one of our most treasured Bible stories, modern translators!

The NIV is a newer version that may give us us a better idea of what was really going on with Joseph’s robe. It says: Now Israel—that’s Jacob—loved Joseph more than any of his other sons, because he had been born to him in his old age; and he made an ornate robe for him.

Here’s why the NIV goes that direction. There’s only one other time this contested phrase appears in scripture, and that’s 2 Sam. 13.18-19. There, we’re told that King David’s daughter Tamar was wearing an ornate robe, for this was the kind of garment the virgin daughters of the king wore. That’s the same phrase used for the robe Jacob made for his favorite son. Whatever this robe or coat was, it was a sign of royalty. So here’s what the coat meant to Joseph’s brothers: Jacob wanted his son Joseph to rule over the family after Jacob died. [1] Even though Joseph was only seventeen years old when our lesson today began, his special robe “would indicate that Joseph is management, not labor.” [2] Jacob has made his teenaged son the heir to the family business.

By the way, Joseph had eleven brothers, and ten were older than him. The rule back then was that the oldest son was supposed to lead the family after the father died. So it’s only natural that when Joseph’s brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of his brothers, they hated him and couldn’t even talk nicely to him.

The word translated hate here is not just a word about a strong feeling. One biblical scholar I’ve read puts it this way: “this kind of hate is like pulling a bowstring taut—it has no purpose unless an arrow is then unleashed.” [3] This kind of hatred is a tension that usually ends in violence. So when the Genesis storyteller shares with us that Joseph’s brothers hated him, that lets us know right away that they’re planning on doing something bad to him. We know Joseph’s life is in danger.

The story of Joseph is a story of dreams and schemes. His father Jacob was always a big dreamer; and he was a born schemer. Even the name Jacob means something along the lines of: You’re pulling my leg! Jacob has big dreams for Joseph, and Joseph gets caught up not only in his father’s schemes, but in those of his older brothers.

A tale of dreams and schemes

It would seem that if you pamper a child enough, and then put a royal robe on him, sooner or later he’s going to actually believe he’s a king. Young Joseph began dreaming about his authority. And he had absolutely no problem telling his brothers all about it.

Our readings today shared one of Joseph’s dreams. Just listen to what he tells his brothers. Listen to this dream I had. When we were binding stalks of grain in the field, my stalk got up and stood upright, while your stalks gathered around it and bowed down to my stalk.

Joseph knows his brothers hate him. He’s not just a naive boy innocently relating a strange dream. He’s a severely spoiled young man rubbing it in that daddy loves him best. So it should come as no surprise to hear that they told him off: “Will you really be our king and rule over us?” So they hated him even more because of the dreams he told them.

Joseph’s story is a tale full of dreams and schemes.

Here’s something that wasn’t in our readings today, but you should know about. Gen. 37.2 tells us that Joseph worked with his brothers tending their father’s flocks. And that, Joseph told their father unflattering things about them. The wording that’s used there is basically the ancient Hebrew equivalent to: Joseph was a snitch. The language our storyteller used passes judgment on Joseph’s actions. His brothers may not have always done the right things; but Joseph’s tattling wasn’t good, either. You can distance yourself from something you find disagreeable without smearing the person you disagree with. So says the wisdom offered later in the Hebrew Bible: Whoever derides their neighbor has no sense, but the one who has understanding holds their tongue (Prov. 11.12 NIV).

Confronting a wrong, or forbearing judgment, are both actions a true king can rightfully choose. Tattling to daddy to make yourself look better is not.

Joseph’s dreams of ruling were not only from his own ambition. They were also God’s dreams for Joseph’s life. But Joseph is not yet the leader his father Jacob wants him to be. And certainly not the one God needs him to be.

Seemingly oblivious to how badly his older sons hate Joseph, Jacob sent him to check on them. Joseph, after all, was Jacob’s trusted informant. His brothers were tending the flocks way out in Dothan, and you could see for miles and miles out there. So they could see him coming from a long way off. And his brothers quickly began to scheme against him.

The brothers said to each other, “Here comes the big dreamer. Come on now, let’s kill him and throw him into one of the cisterns, and we’ll say a wild animal devoured him. Then we will see what becomes of his dreams!”

Like I said—this is a juicy tale of dreams and schemes.

Who saves your life from the pit?

At first Joseph’s brothers had schemed together to kill him and hide the body. But a couple of them begin to think better of it. So they launch their own private schemes to rescue him.

The oldest boy, Reuben, protests. “Let’s not take his life … Throw him into this desert cistern, but don’t lay a hand on him.” We are told that Reuben secretly intended to save Joseph from them and take him back to his father.

Now, you might be tempted to think that Reuben was a softy—the only one among the brothers who had a conscience. That he heroically stood up to his brothers and saved Joseph’s life. But if that’s what you think happened, you’d probably be wrong. Reuben’s motives were probably incredibly self-serving.

See, back in Gen. 35.22, this had happened: Reuben went and slept with Bilhah his father’s secondary wife, and Israel heard about it. When Reuben slept with his father’s wife—his stepmother—it probably wasn’t simply a matter of a cub having a romp with a cougar. He wasn’t just gratifying his personal lust in a gross way. Taking your father’s wife was a bold act of challenging his authority. Later on, when David’s son Absalom staged a coup against his father, he did the same thing, with all ten of his father’s secondary wives.

It’s highly likely Reuben saw a threat to his position in the family, because Jacob favored Joseph. So taking his father’s wife was a scheme to reassert his priority in the family. However, it seems that this plan backfired. Jacob didn’t even blink—at least not right away. We know from later scripture that Jacob took away Reuben’s birthright, and gave it to Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh. But I’m giving too much away!

In light of all that, Reuben’s actions regarding Joseph looks like a scheme to get back in dad’s good graces. If he rescued the favorite son, he might be restored to favored status himself. In fact, when Reuben returns to fish Joseph out of the cistern and—behold! there’s no Joseph!—his response is rather self-centered: The boy’s gone! And I—where can I go now? Reuben sees only a lost opportunity.

It was Judah who came up with a scheme to be rid of Joseph without having his blood on their hands, and at the same time turning a profit off him. What do we gain if we kill our brother and hide his blood? Come on, let’s sell him to the Ishmaelites. After all, the Ishmaelites were distant cousins. It was all between family, right? So they sold Joseph to some Ishmaelite slave traders, who in turn deposited him in Egypt.

Many generations later, the Psalmist would celebrate God, who saves your life from the pit, and crowns you with faithful love and compassion (Ps. 103.4). The truth is, it wasn’t Reuben, or Judah, or even those Ishmaelite slave traders who saved Joseph’s life by lifting him up out of that pit. We’re going to see that it’s really our faithful God who did it. Because that’s who God is. The one who saves us from the pit.

How did Joseph get into that pit? His dreams and schemes got him there. His father’s dreams and schemes got him there. His brothers’ dreams and schemes got him there. But God pulled him out, because God had dreams and schemes of his own. Not only for Joseph, but for his father and brothers and all the generations that would follow.

God’s dream, God’s scheme

While Joseph is on his way to Egypt, his brothers are hatching another scheme to explain his disappearance to their father, Jacob. His brothers took Joseph’s robe, slaughtered a male goat, and dipped the robe in the blood. They took the long robe, brought it to their father, and said, “We found this. See if it’s your son’s robe or not.” They leave Jacob to connect the dots himself, and their little scheme succeeds. He recognized it and said, “It’s my son’s robe! A wild animal has devoured him. Joseph must have been torn to pieces!” A few chapters earlier, Jacob had tricked his blind old father Isaac into giving him his older brother Esau’s blessing. He’d used Esau’s favorite clothes and the hide of young goats to deceive his elderly father (Gen. 27.15-16). Now his sons are using Joseph’s robe and the blood of a goat to deceive him. Jacob believes that all of his dreams for Joseph have been torn apart. His grief as an old man is the wages of a lifetime of scheming.

While Jacob falls into a pit of grief over Joseph, in Egypt Joseph finds himself back in his own pit again. He rose to prominence in the household of an important Egyptian official. But when his master’s wife falsely accused him of attempting to rape her, Joseph was thrown into prison. Once again, we turn to the Psalmist for insight into what happened to Joseph in this new pit he’s found himself in because of someone else’s schemes:

Joseph’s feet hurt in his shackles;

        his neck was in an iron collar,

    until what he predicted actually happened,

        until what the Lord had said proved him true.

The king sent for Joseph and set him free;

    the ruler of many people released him.

The king made Joseph master of his house and ruler over everything he owned,

    to make sure his princes acted according to his will,

    and to teach wisdom to his advisors. (Ps. 105.18-22)

Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, needed someone to interpret his dreams for him. He found out that Joseph, down in the royal dungeon, could do that. Dreams had helped land Joseph in the pit; and now dreams would be his way out, too.

The Pharaoh was the Lord’s hand to once again save Joseph from the pit.

Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Know this: I’ve given you authority over the entire land of Egypt.” Pharaoh took his signet ring from his hand and put it on Joseph’s hand, he dressed him in linen clothes—a new royal robe!—and he put a gold necklace around his neck (Gen. 41.41-42).

Jacob’s dreams for his favorite son have come true. Joseph is now in a king’s household, wearing a royal robe. But Jacob’s schemes haven’t put him there, and Jacob isn’t there to see it. Not yet. God had his own dreams and schemes for Joseph. And not just for Joseph’s sake, either. For the good of Jacob’s entire family, and all their descendants.

God has his own dreams for you, too. And his own schemes for your life—to save your life from the pit, and crown you with his faithful love and compassion. But God’s dreams and schemes for your life don’t end with you. Our faithful God wants to take your life and make you a blessing for others. As we shall see, this is exactly what God was doing with Joseph.

Working all things together for the good

Eventually Jacob and all Joseph’s brothers reunite with him in Egypt. They come as refugees when a severe famine strikes the land of Canaan. God used the famine as his way to bring the family back together. Because Joseph had instituted a program of grain storage, his family can survive and thrive in Egypt. God had used their selfish dreams and twisted schemes to save them. Because God was faithful to the promises he made to Abraham. And also because God has his own dreams for redeeming the entire human family, and Abraham’s descendants play a vital role in God’s scheme to save us all.

After their old man Jacob died, Joseph’s brothers feared for their safety. After all, they were now immigrants in a land where he was royalty. And they had been so careless with his life. They had said: Come on now, let’s kill him … Then we will see what becomes of his dreams!

And they did see what became of his dreams. And so do we. Joseph’s brother’s threw themselves at his mercy. His brothers wept … fell down in front of him, and said, “We’re here as your slaves.” Here they were, all bowing before him. Just like he’d dreamed they would.

I bet when Joseph had that dream, he imagined that he’d be so fulfilled, seeing his hateful brothers finally groveling at his feet. But that’s not what happened. No—he was weeping, too! And in a tender moment of healing forgiveness, he saw that his dreams were always God’s dreams for him. And God’s dreams for him were dreams of mercy and salvation for others. So Joseph said:

You planned something bad for me, but God produced something good from it, in order to save the lives of many people, just as he’s doing today. Now, don’t be afraid. I will take care of you and your children.

Here we find what makes God God. What makes God the faithful God he is isn’t that he keeps bad stuff from happening to us. It’s that he can—and does—make beauty from ashes. He weaves even our shattered dreams into his scheme of redemption. That’s what makes God God. Brother Paul famously put it like this in one of his letters: We know that God works all things together for good for the ones who love God, for those who are called according to his purpose (Rom. 8.28). That doesn’t mean that the evil things we do or suffer are good. It means that God can—and does—rule over his universe so that even our most painful or shameful experiences are used for his glory and our good—and the good of others.

In our Gospel lesson today, we heard Jesus tell us to love your enemies, do good, and lend expecting nothing in return (Luke 6.35). We can do this when we trust that God is working everything together for our good. When we trust that God is faithful to produce good even from the evil our enemies plan for us. Indeed, it may even save our enemies. That’s what happened for Joseph’s brothers.

And isn’t that exactly what God was doing through the cross? Jesus’ enemies were full of selfish dreams and wicked schemes when they crucified him. But then God raised him from the dead, and God saves the many through his risen Son. Jesus’ enemies planned something bad for him, but God produced something good from it.

But would we really expect any less from our faithful God?

[1] Bruce K. Waltke and Cathi J. Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 500.

[2] John H. Walton, Genesis, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 662-63.

[3] Claus Westermann, Joseph: Eleven Bible Studies on Genesis (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 7.


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