By Rev. Cynthia L. Simmons
Based on: Genesis 37-1-4, 12-28
Family therapists – people who make their living helping families in trouble determine and change the behaviors and patterns that are leading to dysfunction – would have a field day with the families in the book of Genesis. Consider, for example, Abraham and his descendants. Abraham has two sons – Ishmael, whose mother is Hagar, the servant of Abraham’s wife Sarah; and Isaac, whose mother is Sarah – but he hardly treats them the same. Because Sarah is afraid her son will lose out to his older brother, she tells Abraham, Cast out this slave woman with her son, for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac. And Ishmael and his mother are banished to the wilderness.
In the next generation, Isaac plays favorites with his own sons, preferring Esau over Jacob. But Isaac’s wife Rebecca loves Jacob more and helps him to dupe Isaac into giving Jacob the blessing that is due Esau as the first-born. And Jacob follows in his parents’ footsteps, making it clear that he favors his second wife, Rachel, over his first one, Leah.
And then there is Joseph – the inheritor of generations of family dysfunction. Jacob loved Joseph best because he was “the son of his old age” and Jacob showed his favoritism by giving him a fancy robe. Needless to say, this did not endear Joseph to his brothers. But Joseph didn’t help his own case, either. He was a bit of a snitch, happy to spy on his brothers when they were away from home, and then report back to dear old Dad.
As our reading today begins, Joseph has already made one negative report of his brother’s activities, and they probably expect the same result the next time he shows up. And to make matters worse, in the verses our reading skipped over today, Joseph has been having dreams in which his family bows down to him, and he is happy to share these dreams with everyone.
So it’s not at all surprising that when Joseph arrives at the place where his brothers are pasturing their sheep, the brothers decide this is the perfect time to get rid of this annoying little pest: Here comes the dreamer. Let’s kill him and throw him into one of the pits and say he got eaten by a wild animal. Let’s see what comes of his dreams then! Now, one brother – Reuben – objects and proposes that they just throw Joseph in a pit and leave him there, thinking that he can come back, rescue Joseph, and take him back to Jacob.
Perhaps Reuben hopes to curry favor with his father by returning to him his favorite son. But Reuben’s plan falls apart when a caravan of traders passes by and the brothers can’t pass up this opportunity to rid themselves of Joseph while making some money in the bargain. And in the ultimate irony, the people who buy Joseph are Ishmaelites: descendants of the child that Joseph’s great-grandfather Abraham exiled to the wilderness.
Now, the brothers have to have known that what they were doing was wrong and that it would bring much pain to their father. So how could they act this way? After all, before they sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites, they threw him in a dry pit, planning to leave him there, and then sat down to lunch. How could they be so callous? This is where it helps to look at the original Hebrew text. Our English translation says that the brothers conspired to kill Joseph, but the Hebrew verb here could also be translated as they caused deceit to themselves to kill him. In other words, they deceived themselves into thinking they were justified in their actions. And the basis of their self-deception was fear.
Joseph’s brothers are afraid, because what if Joseph’s dreams are true? What would this mean for their future? Jacob had already sown seeds of toxic competition in his favoritism of Joseph and the brothers knew Jacob had cheated his own brother, Esau, out of the blessing due to him as the first-born. So, the brothers hardly had a good role model in their father, and they were understandably worried about what would happen to them if Joseph continued to rise in status.
Joseph’s brothers were trapped in what writer Parker Palmer calls “they myth of scarcity.” In their worldview, indeed in their experience, life was a zero sum proposition and if one person rose, that meant inevitably someone else had to fall. So the brothers probably convinced themselves that their actions were simply a matter of self-preservation. Maybe they even told themselves that Joseph had brought about his own downfall through his arrogance. And, after all, they didn’t kill him when they had the chance – they just removed him from their lives.
This story, of course, is thousands of years old and represents a much more primitive society than the one we occupy. But, unfortunately, this kind of zero-sum thinking is still with us today. In her book White Fragility, author Robin DiAngelo recounts an occasion when she was addressing a group of employees in a workplace where she and a Black colleague had been hired to lead a dialogue on race: A white man is pounding his fist on the table. As he pounds, he yells, “A white person can’t get a job anymore!” I look around the room and see forty employees, thirty-eight of whom are white. Why is this white man so angry? (White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, p. 1.)
I would bet this man was angry because he was scared. In his worldview, opening up opportunities to those who have been excluded in the past felt like a threat to his position in society, his security. Sure, his current workplace was almost exclusively white – but would a future workplace look the same? And would there still be place for him at the table if more people were seated there?
A few years ago, Steve and I had the privilege of hearing both Shaun King, of the Black Lives Matter movement, and William Barber, the Black pastor who heads up the Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina, speak at the Chautauqua Institution in western New York. Both men made the point that when a society takes a step forward in terms of social development, there is always a backlash. And, according to both Mr. King and Rev. Barber, for many in our nation the election of Barack Obama – a Black man – as President was more than they could tolerate. If a Black man could be President, what else might a Black man be?
For people who believe life is a zero-sum game, the idea of minorities gaining new rights is threatening because they see someone else’s gain as their loss. They are like the county commissioner in Michigan this past week who reacted to a request to wear a mask with a racial epithet, and then said, I can say anything I want. Black Lives Matter has everything to do with taking the country away from us. (Washington Post, August 7, 2020)
And this zero-sum mentality shows up not only in how people resist racial justice, but in terms of equality for women, too. In fact, in response to the women’s rights movement, a counter movement of men’s rights activists has formed, believing that the efforts to enhance the rights of women have become toxic efforts to undermine the rights of men. (From the Mission Statement of “A Voice for Men”)
According to journalist Anne Karpf, the men’s rights activists see rights as a zero-sum game, as if there existed only a limited pool of them, and if women gain more, then men must inevitably have fewer. If women are now entering higher education in greater numbers than men, it must be because they’ve elbowed out the men. The shift from manufacturing to service jobs isn’t a macroeconomic and transnational trend but a plot by women – a “war on masculinity”. There’s even an International Men’s Day (and you thought there were already 365 of them?). https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/mar/08/gender-equal-international-womens-day men
And even more disturbing, some of the male supremacists have joined forces with white supremacists, doubling the toxicity.
Fear is a powerful force – it has been rampant in our country recently – and it is at the basis of the zero sum, scarcity mentality. But fear is not the basis of a Biblical faith. The Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, is the story of the people of Israel, so it naturally focuses on those descendants of Abraham whose line led directly to the people called Israel: Isaac, Jacob, and the sons of Jacob. But even though the Old Testament is the story of the people of Israel, it also includes stories of Abraham’s other descendants, although we often don’t know those stories. And those stories show that God’s economy is not based on a mentality of scarcity.
Yes, Abraham rejects Ishmael and Hagar, sending them out into the wilderness, but not until the Lord has assured Abraham that while Isaac is indeed the child to be seen as Abraham’s heir, the Lord will take care of Hagar and Ishmael, and will make a great nation of Ishmael, also – as he does. And while Esau is devastated at his brother’s treachery in cheating him out of the blessing due him as the first-born, crying Have you only one blessing, father? Bless me also, father!
And yet Esau, too, is blessed, even if not by Isaac. So, by the time Jacob and Esau meet up years later, Esau is doing just fine. In fact, he is doing so well that when Jacob wants to present him with gifts, hoping to head off Esau’s entirely justifiable wrath, Esau says I have enough, my brother. Keep what you have for yourself. And Jacob, astonished at his brother’s generosity, replies …truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God – since you have received me with such favor.
Life, as God intends it, is not a zero sum proposition; and if people are prone to accept the myth of scarcity, God holds out again and again the promise of abundance. We all benefit when instead of excluding people from the table, we extend the table to include more people. For example, not only was Black mathematical genius Katherine Johnson responsible for plotting the path for the first American in space, astronaut Alan Shepherd in 1961, but she was also responsible for double-checking the work of electronic computers before John Glenn took off to orbit the earth for the first time in 1962.
And when Apollo 13 got into trouble in 1970, Johnson’s work was crucial to getting the astronauts back to earth safely. What a tragic waste it would have been to exclude Ms. Johnson from the table because she was Black and female. And contrary to the fears of the men’s rights activists, men in egalitarian countries actually fare better than those in countries where women’s rights are suppressed. In fact, men in gender-equal countries are half as likely to be depressed, less likely to commit suicide, have around a 40% smaller risk of dying a violent death and even suffer less from chronic back pain. (Anne Karpf, ibid.)
For too long and for too many people, the way of the world has been a zero-sum game; and, like Joseph’s brothers, we can allow fear to lead us as individuals and as a society to do things that are not life-giving. But as scripture reminds us, perfect love casts out fear, and when we can admit to and refuse to submit to fear, then we can see that there is room for all at God’s table, and our call is to make sure there is room for all at our tables, too.