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November 16, 2008

Our Family Tree:  Joseph and the Meaning of Dreams

Genesis 37, 39-41


Clare and I returned from yet another trip to Nashville, Tennessee, last night.  We do not anticipate making another trip right away, but we do have a packed suitcase by the front door, just in case.  Hudson, whom many of you know, Betsy’s favorite cousin, helped us move, as did several divinity school students.  I have learned that divinity school does not teach furniture moving.  It took us a while to get items moved, and a few pieces of furniture were scratched.  Most of it came from the Salvation Army though.

I decided I would take the moving crew for a sandwich.  While we were eating, Hudson chuckled, “Reserve the Saturday after Thanksgiving just in case Betsy decides to move every two weeks.”  We do not anticipate that happening, but we are ready just in case.  I want to thank you again for your prayers and your many expressions of kindness and love.  They mean so much to us. 

The message today, the story of Joseph, is very important.  We will consider that narrative, beginning in Genesis 37 and continuing to the end of the book. 

We learn through that story how the people of Israel went into the land of Egypt and how the sons of Jacob become the twelve tribes of Israel.  I saw these tribes beautifully depicted by the Jewish artist Marc Chagall on stained glass windows in a synagogue at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem.  This story really sets the stage then for what is next in the revelation of God, the Book of Exodus. 

You remember how the issue of favoritism affected Jacob’s family.  Jacob and his mother, Rebekah, were at odds with Isaac and the older son, Esau.  Deceit ran rampant in that family.  The younger son won out over the older son.  The same was true in Isaac’s family.  Isaac, the younger son of Abraham and Sarah, won out over the older Ishmael.  You remember the scheming and conniving between Jacob and his father-in-law, Laban, who tricked Jacob into marrying Leah.  Leah and the concubines bore his first ten sons.  Rachel, Jacob’s preferred wife, was slow to conceive but finally gave birth to two sons, Joseph and Benjamin.  In Jacob’s family, we see favoritism among his twelve sons. 

Joseph is the favored son for Jacob, symbolized by a coat of many colors that has been made famous.  Maybe a better translation is that the coat, which had long sleeves touched the ground.  This garment would not be worn by a field hand, a lumberyard worker, or a sheetrock loader.  This coat was made for leisure.  The older ten sons know that Jacob favors Joseph and does not expect him to tend the flocks or work the fields.  Joseph has a life of privilege, so the coat itself becomes a symbol the of resentment and animosity in this family. 

Another cause of the brothers’ bitterness is the fact that Joseph has dreams.  He even has the poor taste to tell his dreams before breakfast.  One dream he reveals to his brothers involves eleven sheaves of wheat bowing down to the sheaf that he himself had gathered.  The second dream involves a constellation, consisting of twelve stars in the sky.  Eleven stars give deference to the one star that is brighter than the others.  That star, of course, is Joseph’s. 

Joseph’s brothers interpret dreams by looking at them psychoanalytically, analyzing them as Sigmund Freud would.  According to the biblical way of interpretation, dreams foretell the future.  We see instances throughout the Bible.  Dreams are like a divine revelation, a theophany from God, a prediction of what is to come.  As this story unfolds, we find out that Joseph’s two dreams actually do prophesy the future.  The older brothers, however, interpret these dreams as a symbol of Joseph’s arrogance.  Maybe he was arrogant.  I suppose he put that coat on and strutted a little bit.  He may have even assumed an “in-your-face” posture. 

Jacob sends Joseph to find his brothers who are in the fields tending flocks.  Joseph, wearing his fine coat, travels several days before finally locating them at Dothan, a place three days from Hebron.  As the brothers watch this favored son approach, resentment, animosity, and hatred well up within them.  They begin plotting to kill him. 

A cooler head prevails.  Reuben, the oldest, decides that killing Joseph is not the best action to take.  Instead, they capture Joseph and keep him in a pit, probably a dry cistern.  While Reuben is inexplicably away from the other brothers, a caravan of Ishmaelites, descendents of Ishmael, approaches.  The fourth son, Judas, suggests, “Let’s just sell him as a slave.”  The others concur; so Joseph, the grandson of Isaac, is sold to this passing caravan and taken to Egypt. 

The brothers then hatch a plan.  They cover Joseph’s coat with blood before returning it to their father.  Thinking an animal has killed his favored son, Jacob deeply grieves over the loss.  Some would ask, “Why should he grieve the loss of one son when he had twelve?”  It does not matter how many children you have.  When you lose one, it hurts.  I understand how Jacob felt when he heard his son was dead.

Potiphar, the head of the guard in Egypt, goes to the slave auction, looking for a slave to work in his home.  He sees this young Hebrew man, clearly intelligent and well built.  Potiphar must have surely paid a good price for Joseph.  I want to call your attention to Chapter 39:2-3, a passage that comments on the Joseph’s life after he has been sold into slavery.  “The Lord was with Joseph and he prospered, and he lived in the house of this Egyptian master.”  Here you see Joseph, always like cream, rising to the top. Potiphar realizes “that the Lord is with him and that the Lord gave him success in everything he did” and assigns Joseph to a position of great responsibility. He makes Joseph his attendant in charge of the household, and he entrusts to Joseph’s care everything he owns, including the care of all of his property and the management of his finances. 

Potiphar even extends Joseph’s responsibilities to include the well being of his wife, who is a piece of work.  She could be one of the characters on the show Desperate Housewives.  She might well have been neglected because her husband is a busy man.  She has an eye for this young, handsome Hebrew slave.  While her husband is away, she is a temptress.  When Joseph resists the temptation at every turn, she resorts to flat-out seduction.   As the old saying goes, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.”  Rejected, she decides to undo Joseph and grabs him by his coat.  In his integrity, he pulls away from her, leaving his coat behind.  You have heard that clothing makes a man.  Once again, Joseph’s clothing gets him in trouble. 

When Potiphar returns home, his wife shows him Joseph’s coat and says, “This is Exhibit A.”  You get the idea that Potiphar must have known a little bit about her shenanigans.  He could have had Joseph killed but puts him in jail instead.  Potiphar must have known that his wife, not Joseph, is responsible. 

Chapter 39, Verse 21 reveals another turn of events in Joseph’s life.  “The Lord was with him; he showed him kindness and granted him favor in the eyes of the prison warden.”  The cream, Joseph, rises to the top again.  The warden trusts Joseph so much that he puts him in charge of managing the entire jail.  Serving as a slave in Potiphar’s house and being a prisoner entrusted by the warden gives Joseph the administration experience he needs for a job that will come later.  Joseph certainly has the great gifts of organizing and administrating.  God is preparing this young man who has enormous ability. 

The prisoners under Joseph’s care start confiding in him.  First, the butler who served as a wine steward for Pharaoh, has a dream, which Joseph interprets.  Joseph tells the butler, “You are going to be restored to your place of responsibility in Pharaoh’s court in just a matter of days.”  The baker, also in prison, is impressed by Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams.  He, too, has had a dream.  Joseph tells him, “I hate to break it to you, but you are going to hang in three days.”  Just as Joseph had predicted, the butler returns to his position as wine steward and the baker is hanged. 

Once released from jail, the butler forgets their friendship and Joseph’s role in foretelling the future until Pharaoh himself starts having dreams.  When nobody in Pharaoh’s court could interpret the dreams, the wine steward remembers, “This fellow down in the jail was pretty good at interpreting dreams.”  Joseph listens to the dreams and tells Pharaoh, “I can’t interpret your dream, but God can.  God is with me.”  Pharaoh has dreamed that seven skinny cows devoured seven fat cows and that seven thin, paltry sheaves of wheat “swallowed up” the seven plump sheaves.  Joseph interprets the dreams, revealing that the land of Egypt will have seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine.  He encourages Pharaoh to prepare for the years of famine by gathering and storing the grain.  On that basis, Pharaoh makes Joseph the secretary of agriculture.  Once again, the cream rises to the top.   

During the time that Joseph serves as a high official in Pharaoh’s court, he becomes more and more important.  He is really managing everything for Pharaoh.  During the seven years of plenty, Joseph sets aside grain for the coming years.  When the famine comes, people from all over the world come to Egypt to buy grain.  Two years into the famine, Joseph, located on the selling floor, sees ten men whom he immediately recognizes as his older brothers.  The brothers do not recognize Joseph because he has shaved his head and wears the clothing of the Egyptians.  Deeply moved and astonished to see them, he goes away by himself to cry. 

After the brothers purchase grain, Joseph bids them a good journey and asks if they have other family members.  When they mention Benjamin and Jacob, he reveals his plans to keep the brother named Simeon in jail until they return with the youngest son.  They are horrified, knowing that Jacob would never allow Benjamin to leave him.  Joseph really gives them no choice but to leave Simeon in an Egyptian jail. 

When they reach their home in Hebron, they discover that the money they had paid for the grain is in their sacks.  They break the news to Jacob that Benjamin must return to Egypt with them.  Just as they had expected, their father is distraught.  He basically says, “There is no way I am going to send Benjamin down there.”  He stands by that decision as long as possible; but the famine continues, and they eventually run out of grain.  He finally allows Benjamin to travel with the brothers back to Egypt. 

When the group returns to Egypt, Simeon is released from prison.  He looks no worse for the wear.  He looks just fine because he has received good care and food.  Joseph, whom they still do not recognize, invites them to a dinner in his home.  They are surprised when they arrive because the brothers are seated in their exact birth order.  Benjamin, the youngest, is seated at the place of least importance, just as it should be.  How would this Egyptian know their birth order?  Then when the food is brought out, Benjamin is served first and given a bigger helping than anyone else.  They recognize that whoever made these arrangements knows that Benjamin is one of the favored sons.   

Following dinner, the brothers begin their return trip home with full sacks of grain, no payment required.  They barely get out of town when an Egyptian steward catches up with them and orders a search of their saddlebags.  Because a silver cup is found among the belongings of Benjamin, they know their youngest brother will be held as prisoner.  All brothers return to the court and plead on his behalf.  Judah even offers his own life as a replacement for Benjamin.  Again moved by his deep love for his brothers, Joseph discloses his identity.  This revelation both astonishes and terrifies the brothers.  They become worried about what will happen to them now.

Turn to Chapter 45, Verse 5.  Joseph reassures his brothers,


“And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you.  For two years now, there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years, there will not be plowing and reaping.  But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance.  So then, it was not you who sent me here but God.”


What a perspective for Joseph!   He can tell his brothers that everything that has happened to him is a part of God’s plan!  Joseph knows that God is with him at every step along the way. 

Chapter 48 offers a beautiful scene.  Jacob, who has traveled to Egypt, plans to bless the sons of Joseph.  Manasseh, the older son, sits at Jacob’s right hand.  He is to receive the favored blessing.  The younger Ephraim sits at Jacob’s left hand.  Think back to the blessing of Esau and Jacob.  Esau should have received the blessing; but Jacob, the younger of the two sons receives it.  What does Jacob, the son of Isaac, the one who displaced Ishmael, do before he blesses his grandchildren?  He crosses his hands, blessing the younger son ahead of the older one.  Ephraim becomes the name of one of the twelve tribes of Israel.

Once Jacob dies, the brothers fear that Joseph now is going to take revenge.  I want to give you the key verse in the entire story from the Revised Standard Version.  In Chapter 50, Verse 20, Joseph speaks to his brothers and says, “Don’t be afraid.  Am I in the place of God?  You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.”  The New Testament equivalent to that Scripture is Romans 8:28:  “All things work together for good to those who love God and who have been called according to His purpose.” 

Let me give you seven points to remember about family strife.  First, if we live in relationships to other people, and most of us do, we are just a heartbeat away from a crisis.  An emergency can happen at any time.  When people ask, “How are you doing?  How are your children?” you might answer, “For this five minutes, they are doing fine.”  We are always just a phone call away, an e-mail away, or a text message away from hearing something that will bring trouble and heartache into our lives.  We live always with the knowledge that everybody is subject to circumstances that can go wrong.  There are no exemptions.

Second, a crisis affects everybody in a family.  A family unit is like a spider web, a network.  Tugging on one strand will cause the whole web to shake.  Everybody bears some responsibility for dealing with the crisis.

Third, a basic principle of history applies to family strife, to any interpersonal conflict, to presidential elections, to war.  In any conflict, the first casualty is truth.  You cannot believe everything you hear.  You must use discernment and caution because truth becomes a casualty.

Fourth, you cannot keep a good woman or a good man down for very long.  People of strength, people of character, and people of strong faith certainly can be broken.  But those same people are resilient.  They can bounce back, not in their own strength, but in the strength of God.

Fifth, recovery and healing take a long time.  Joseph does not have an instant union with his brothers when he sees them for the first time.  He needs some time to deal with his emotions.  We, too, need to undergo a process of healing and reconciliation.  These wounds have to heal like any other wounds.  We have to know that even in the process of healing, we will continue to hurt. 

Sixth, many tears are shed in times of family crisis.  You may have heard the old Johnny Cash song that goes, “There were tears in the Holston River when Mother Mabel died.”  As Clare and I were driving across the Holston River yesterday, I sang that line of the song.  I am not a singer, but I can sing as well as Johnny Cash can.  Tears have been shed in the Cumberland River, the Caney Fork River, and the South Fork River.  Tears have fallen in the Holston River, the French Broad River, and the Pigeon River, as well as in the Pacolet River and Lawson’s Fork Creek.  When Erik died, Clare cried in the shower because she said it was not as messy.  Crying is a part of a family crisis. 

Along with those tears come surprising blessings and unexpected, unbidden, moments of great joy.  Yesterday outside of Crossville, Tennessee, we actually drove under a huge rainbow that arched across the road.  It was a perfect day for rainbows.  Later in the Smokey Mountains, we saw a double rainbow.  Blessings come as a surprise, even in the midst of much difficulty.

Finally, the most important abiding principle comes right out of the Bible in Genesis 50:20:  “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.”  You can have that perception only if you see things from a divine perspective.  You can only see things from a divine perspective if you are praying without ceasing.  Prayer has to be your constant companion.  You, too, can forgive, just as Joseph forgave his brothers.  Forgiveness is very difficult, though, if you are unable to see things from that viewpoint.

Look at the cross.  Look at Jesus.  He knew that what was happening there was God’s will, God’s intention.  Jesus could say, “Father, forgive them.  They do not know what they are doing.”  If you can see things from God’s perspective, you can understand that God can use what seems so evil for good.

Have you accepted the Lord Jesus as your Savior?  Have you made him the Lord of your life?  Accept Christ Jesus as your Savior. 


Kirk H. Neely

© November 2008

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