A Family of Many Colors
The Twenty-second Sunday After Trinity
A Family of Many Colors
Years ago, an Oklahoma farmer named Joe had three sons, Jim, John and Sam. No one in the family ever attended church or had a moment to devote to God. For what seemed an eternity, the local pastor and others in the community tried to interest Joe in the church. No dice.
Then came the day a rattlesnake bit Sam, the youngest son, while he was out mending fence. Joe called the town doctor out to the farm. He did all he could for Sam but by the time he arrived the venom had moved well into the young man’s system. The outlook was dim.
What was left to do? Farmer Joe called the pastor. He hurried on out and as soon as he had sized up the situation he began to pray:
“O wise and righteous Father, we thank Thee that in thy wisdom Thou didst send this rattlesnake to bite Sam. He has never been inside thy church and it is doubtful that he has, in all his years, ever prayed or even acknowledged thy existence.
“We pray that if it is in accordance with thy will for Sam to survive, this experience will prove a valuable lesson for him and will lead to his genuine repentance.
“And now, O heavenly Father, wilt Thou send another rattlesnake to bite Jim and another to bite John and a really big, mean one to bite the old man? Lo these many years we have done everything in our strength to show them their need for Thee, but all in vain.
“It seems all our extended and concerted effort was worth less than the momentary work of a single rattlesnake. If rattlesnakes is what it takes to arrest the attention of this family and turn them to their need for their Savior, by all means send them more rattlesnakes.
As we arrive at the Joseph story that consumes the remaining chapters of the Book of Genesis, you’re thinking that’s a rather harsh way for a pastor of God to behave. Where’s the mercy? Where’s the compassion? Where’s the forgiveness?
That’s what I thought when I first heard the story, too, but taken in the light of the Joseph saga it doesn’t sound extreme in the least. As a youth, Joseph is a bit too big for his britches. God uses a contemptible act of betrayal by his brothers, a slanderous accusation by his master’s wife and many years in a dark, dank dungeon to mold him into a man useful for the divine purpose.
And God never once apologizes. Maybe His ministers should pray for plagues of snakes.
This is an excellent spot for me to re-issue my exhortation to you to read the Bible in context. Several years ago, before my Anglican epiphany, I was an elder in a congregation of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Houston.
An acquaintance of our pastor, who was a member of another church in the area, designed a program he called “Through the Bible in 90 Days.” We latched onto it and it fell to me to teach it. We were the third church to use it, as I recall. In short order it took off and churches all over the country, even entire denominations, including our own, and overseas churches as well were rolling it out.
And for good reason. I took five groups through it and it was a blessing to me to watch light bulbs blink on around the room in every one of them. There’s much to be said for reading the Bible slowly and meditating along the way. There’s something to be said, too, for moving through it quickly and uncovering the connections that have been there all along.
Jesus was a Jew, and we will not understand Him or His gospel without a grasp of the Jewish Scriptures. Paul was a Jew, and when we arrive at his letters with those Old Testament books fresh in our minds we gain insight into why and how he used so many references to them.
This is why we study the catechism as well. Doing so helps us take the teachings on sin and salvation and mercy and grace or whatever the topic from Pentateuch and Prophets and Gospels and Epistles, pull them together and examine them as a whole.
In so many cases, the Bible gives us an unembellished account without value judgment and invites us to draw the sense of it out of the context. We have seen Jacob wrestle with God, who changes his name to Israel, for he will be the father of this new nation, who will be God’s covenant people.
He has 12 sons by four women, two of whom are his wives. Can this family arrangement be God’s design? Surely not, for God has long since commanded that a man cleave to his wife and become one flesh with her. The level of dysfunction speaks to His people’s rebellion and His power to use them in His perfect plan despite their disobedience.
The Joseph narrative begins in Genesis 37 with Joseph’s dreams, in which he lords it over his brothers, and their plan to kill him, which eventually turns into a plot to sell him for profit.
His brothers use Joseph’s fabled coat of many colors, dipped in goat’s blood, to dupe their father into believing his favorite son has died. Joseph arrives in Egypt, where he lands in the service of Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh’s guard.
Then the scene shifts abruptly to Judah, another of the 12 sons, and Tamar’s scheme to finagle what she has coming from him. She is married to his eldest son and, when he dies, to Judah’s second son, who also dies when God strikes him down, as He had his elder brother.
Very few widows held bachelor’s degrees in this time. A young one, in particular, needed a man for support, and custom demanded that an unmarried younger brother step in and beget sons, who would then be responsible to provide for their mother in her last years. This principle would be enshrined in the law of Israel.
Recall the story from the gospels in which the leaders of the Jews try to trip Jesus up with the tale of the woman who was married to seven brothers, each of whom died. I can’t imagine the last few tied the knot with her with much enthusiasm.
Judah felt the same way about Tamar. He promises her his third son, who is not yet of age, but has no intention of keeping his word. She traps him with a ruse in which she plays a prostitute. He finally snaps to his own despicable behavior, confessing that Tamar is more righteous than he, but Tamar never comes under condemnation, either from the narrator or herself.
This episode appears entirely out of place, plopped down here in the middle of the Joseph story, but the context says otherwise. Joseph is the quintessential good guy. After the prideful indiscretions of his youth he morphs into that rare biblical character, a man of untainted faithfulness, both to God and to his fellow man, notably including his brothers who have wronged him so grievously.
Judah, like the other brothers, will grow in grace over time. Meanwhile, we will come to see God continuing to work through all manner of men. Like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob before him, Judah is a deeply flawed man, yet it is through him and not righteous Joseph that the Seed of the woman will pass. Is that Seed not called the Lion of Judah?
It will be his son by his daughter-in-law posing as a prostitute who keeps the Seed of righteousness alive. Is there nothing God cannot do?
And while Tamar never gets busted for her vile deception – for the bad treatment she suffered does not justify her shameful shenanigans – we get all the commentary we need in the next chapter. There, Joseph emerges as a paragon of virtue, spurning the advances of Potiphar’s wife even though his chaste behavior lands him in the dungeon.
His righteousness is the mirror that exposes her deceit and bad-girl adventurism for what they are.
But if we want to scoop all the marrow out of the Joseph story we must look farther afield still. In the divine project, God’s covenant people are to be a light to lighten the gentiles, a people set apart for the purpose of revealing the Creator to all of His creatures.
The sons of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob should be seeking revelation from God in their pursuit of serving as a blessing to all the nations. Instead, they turn viciously on the one who receives that revelation through his dreams. Joseph might have sounded arrogant at the time but there’s no denying that in the end his brothers did bow down before him.
He bears the sign of God’s covenant, for his many-splendored coat reflects the rainbow God put in the sky after the flood, when He promised Noah He would never again visit judgment upon the earth by water.
Jacob and his sons would never depart their safe haven in the land of milk and honey, but God sends Joseph ahead to Egypt, the realm of the gentiles, where he rises to a position of such prominence that he is blessing Pharaoh and his subjects even to the point of salvation. Like Daniel who will come after him, he is adopted into a gentile nation and becomes a mighty influence for Yahweh within it.
Through Joseph, God makes covenant with Pharaoh, and we find another inflection point where the Lord’s emissaries can fulfill their purpose of making Him known among a great pagan nation — if only they will.
In time, God sends a famine that forces Joseph’s brothers to venture into Egypt in search of food. Jacob follows, and by Joseph’s efforts with Pharaoh’s blessing Israel becomes established in the greater world.
Genesis ends with the brothers who had rejected the favored son restored to the good graces of their father – but in a gentile kingdom. Had not God tasked Adam with pushing out the boundaries of the Garden of Eden until it covered the world?
Now Palestine, the new Eden, has stretched out into the world and gentiles have been converted. Pharaoh worships Yahweh. The Abrahamic Covenant has been fulfilled – for now.
But even now we have not exhausted the wider meaning of the Joseph story. Let’s pull back a little more and widen the lens again.
In God’s economy, one need not be in the line of Christ to be a type of Christ. Like Moses of the tribe of Levi, Joseph offers a glimpse of the Lion of Judah who will appear those many centuries later.
Joseph’s brothers enter into a conspiracy to betray him. Does this sound familiar to you? “Then one of the twelve, called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, ‘What are you willing to give me if I deliver Him to you?’ And they counted out to him thirty pieces of silver. So from that time he sought opportunity to betray Him” (Matthew 26:14-16).
Joseph endures mocking from his brothers:
“Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered the whole garrison around Him. And they stripped Him and put a scarlet robe on Him. When they had twisted a crown of thorns, they put it on His head, and a reed in His right hand. And they bowed the knee before Him and mocked Him, saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ Then they spat on Him, and took the reed and struck Him on the head. And when they had mocked Him, they took the robe off Him, put His own clothes on Him, and led Him away to be crucified” (Matthew 27:27-31).
Joseph suffers because of his brothers’ envy:
“And at that time they had a notorious prisoner called Barabbas. Therefore, when they had gathered together, Pilate said to them, ‘Whom do you want me to release to you? Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?’ For he knew that they had handed Him over because of envy” (Matthew 27:16-18).
Joseph’s brothers scoff at the revelation he receives from God through his dreams:
“And they put up over His head the accusation written against Him: THIS IS JESUS THE KING OF THE JEWS. Then two robbers were crucified with Him, one on the right and another on the left. And those who passed by blasphemed Him, wagging their heads and saying, ‘You who destroy the temple and build it in three days, save Yourself! If You are the Son of God, come down from the cross.’
“Likewise the chief priests also, mocking with the scribes and elders, said, ‘He saved others; Himself He cannot save. If He is the King of Israel, let Him now come down from the cross, and we will believe Him. He trusted in God; let Him deliver Him now if He will have Him; for He said , ”I am the Son of God.”’ Even the robbers who were crucified with Him reviled Him with the same thing” (Matthew 27:37-44).
Joseph’s brothers justify themselves by sparing his life and selling him into slavery instead:
“Pilate said to them, ‘What then shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?’ They all said to him, ‘Let Him be crucified!’ Then the governor said, ‘Why, what evil has He done?’ But they cried out all the more, saying, ‘Let Him be crucified!’ When Pilate saw that he could not prevail at all, but rather that a tumult was rising, he took water and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, ‘I am innocent of the blood of this just Person. You see to it’” (Matthew 27:22-24).
Joseph forgives his own who treat him with such unimaginable cruelty:
“Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do’” (Luke 23:24).
And St. Paul reports of our Lord:
“Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:5-7).
Beloved, Advent will soon be upon us. As we contemplate the coming of our Lord, let us think back on righteous Joseph, who points the way to Him. Was it not Joseph who said:
“But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive” (Genesis 50:20). Amen.