Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

Could it be they were embodying the generational strife they were born into?

Landscape with Elijah and the Angel by Gaspard Dughet.
"Landscape With Elijah and the Angel," by Gaspard Dughet; licensed under CC0.

August 13, 2023

Alternate First Reading
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Commentary on Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28

Let us consider the circumstances of this text. Joseph’s father, who loves him, sends him out to see how his brothers are doing pasturing their flocks. His brothers hate him, firstly because he is the favorite of their father, and perhaps secondly, because he is not a brother to them from their own mothers. 

Joseph’s father Jacob, had sons with four wives: Rachel, Leah, Zilpah, and Bilhah. If you remember from Genesis 29, Jacob originally wanted to marry Rachel, but her father tricked him into marrying Leah first. And in their fight to bear sons for Jacob, both sisters made Jacob conceive children with their maids. Rachel bore Jacob no children until after Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah had between themselves given birth to ten sons. When Rachel finally conceived, she gave birth to Joseph and Benjamin, and she died giving birth to her second son. So the beloved and favorite wife of Jacob died after giving him two sons, the oldest of which was Joseph.

The sons out pasturing the flocks were the sons of Zilpah and Bilhah, and the birth story of Jacob’s children tell the origins of their animosity towards one another. The sons of Zilpah and Bilhah surely felt their father’s favoritism towards Joseph, the son of his beloved and deceased wife, Rachel. With all of the animosity and turmoil surrounding the birth of these men, is it no wonder that they hate each other? Is it no wonder that Joseph already dreams of his brothers bowing down to him, since he has the affection and favorite status of his father? 

The drama and dynamics of one generation can lead to dysfunction in the next. Indeed, it is not just the competitive circumstances around their birth, but that their own father treated his brother deceitfully when they were growing up, with Jacob stealing the blessing Isaac intended for Esau and taking his birthright. The multi-generational family fighting and trauma leads us to wonder whether what was playing out on the fields of Dothan was really just about their own feelings; could it be they were embodying the generational strife they were born into?

It is so important that we take care of our relationships in the present, so as not to pass on feelings of ill-will to our descendants. What kind of practices and habits of relating to our siblings did we pick up during our formative years? What kind of internalized feelings and attitudes did we inherit from our parents? Unpacking these forms of bad inheritance is essential as we try to raise children who can be kind towards one another and to those they consider outside the family.

So as we look at the mistreatment of Joseph at the hands of his brothers—stripped of his robe, thrown into a pit, and then sold into slavery—we should also put this situation in the larger context of the “sins of the father” or “iniquity of the parents” as it is translated in the New Revised Standard Version (Exodus 34:7). Theologically, the idea of children being cursed because of the bad behavior of their parents is troubling and fraught. But psychologically, what we know from recent studies is that psychological trauma can be passed down from one generation to the next through chemical markers on the genes.

If family trauma can be passed down from one generation to the next, how can we stop this cycle from repeating itself? 

The text points to one possible response: to leave the original family environment. While in the case of Joseph, he was forced to leave behind his father and brothers, we know from the larger context of the stories in Genesis that this eventually turned out well for him. Gaining distance and space from the harmful environment may have helped him to make different decisions and to allow some of the traumatic responses within himself to heal. 

Healing from the dynamics of family trauma can take years. Indeed, it is years before Joseph sees his brothers again, this time from a position of power, and he does not want to reveal himself to them right away (Genesis 42-45). Instead, on first sight, he “treated them like strangers and spoke harshly to them” (Genesis 42:7).

In the intervening chapters (Genesis 42-44) until Joseph reveals himself to his brothers in Genesis 45, he has several interactions with them that speak of his conflictual reactions to seeing his brothers again. He puts them in prison for three days, then forces them to leave behind one brother in order to return home and bring back with them Benjamin, and yet also gives them the food they came for and returns their money to them (without their knowledge). So on the one hand, he is still very angry, and on the other hand, Joseph shows them mercy. 

This inner conflict speaks to the challenge of healing from deep childhood wounds and family trauma. Yet ultimately, Joseph longed to reconnect with his family. In the text for next week’s lectionary, we see the emotional reunion and the beautiful speech by Joseph of how he has made sense of his life’s tragedies. What they intended for evil, God intended for good. 

Next week’s lectionary text is not the last in Joseph’s interactions with his brothers—when their father dies, there is another time when the brothers fear Joseph’s retribution. There, he speaks the powerful words “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people” (Genesis 50:20).

This kind of integrative meaning-making happens when we can accept the pain of the wounds of suffering, and also see what positive contributions we have made in the world. Joseph did not have to deny the pain of what his brothers did to him to heal. By God’s grace, he was able to see how the misfortune and injustice he experienced led him to a position of power and privilege where he could bring healing and justice to many people.