When I was younger and in elementary school, I used to get through my English and grammar homework by the skin of my teeth. I didn’t study all that hard or memorize things – in order to write grammatically correct sentences, I pretty much went with the strategy of writing down what “sounded right”. If a sentence I read or wrote down “felt wrong”, I would tweak it until I felt better. And about 85% of the time, it worked every time. I still stick with this strategy because I feel like I can mostly trust myself and my intelligence. If something feels right or makes sense to me, then it probably is. This is a largely harmless assumption to make when it comes to 5th-grade grammar. Things get a bit more dicey when this rule is applied to, well, life, especially life in Bethel with Jacob’s family, as we can see in Genesis 37.
Although unbothered by external enemies, the sons of Jacob’s living wives are still able to find someone to direct their negative energy at – Joseph, the son of Jacob’s late wife, Rachel. Though not the youngest, Joseph got the bulk of the attention in the family because he was Jacob’s favorite. Jacob set Joseph apart, making him special clothes (verse 3) and otherwise making it very plain to his other sons that they were second-class citizens in that household. Understandably, Joseph seems to take advantage of his situation. He acts almost as if he is in charge of his brothers, reporting on them to his father (verse 2) as if they were children or subordinates, rather than grown men. Things get worse when Joseph has and shares two dreams that seem to reinforce the idea that he was the most eminent son, the one who should be respected above all others, even bowed to.
It is almost no surprise, then, when Jacob’s other sons have had enough. They get a chance to take their revenge one day when Joseph has to come to them while they graze the flocks away from home. There is no greater manifestation of the deep pain and hatred the brothers have been feeling than the fact that they decide to remedy their situation by taking their own brother’s life. Thankfully, the plot doesn’t get too far. One brother, Reuben, the one who slept with his father’s concubine, suggests instead that they shake Joseph up by throwing him into a pit. Yet this is only a temporary solution.
While sitting just a few yards away from their imprisoned half-brother, Jacob’s other sons hear something off in the distance. Time passes, and soon the sound of driven animals and men shouting gets closer and closer. It’s a caravan. Judah gets an idea. They can be rid of their interloping, tattletale brother forever by just selling him to the caravan. This way, they don’t directly get blood on their hands. It’s a win-win.
With Reuben absent, the rest of the young men agree, and together they sell Jacob into slavery for just twenty silver shekels. They cover up their crime by taking Jacob’s special robe, covering it with animal’s blood, and bringing it to their father as if they had found it in the wilderness. There’s no way Jacob could have seen this coming, and he mourns the loss of his favorite son, having no idea what Joseph was going through that very moment. He was being sold to Potiphar, the Captain of the Guard of Pharaoh, king of Egypt.
The Treasures Within:
A Dark Path
This story is heartbreaking. To willingly and knowingly force your blood relative into harsh slavery, slavery that would likely kill that person within a few years, requires the mind to be in such a dark and terrifying place. It’s almost unimaginable. Yet, throughout this story you can see the natural progression of the emotions that these men went through. These boys were deprived of the love of the man who they’d looked up to and admired and fiercely loved for their entire lives. Joseph’s dreams only twisted the knife because they seemed to indicate that there might be a good reason for their father to love him more. Could Joseph actually be better than them? The thought must have been sickening. No wonder they turned into monsters.
The brothers weren’t the only wrongdoers. Joseph was bratty and prideful, evidenced by the way he treated his brothers in verse three. Yet even this makes sense. His father treated him like a king. Of course he had a prince complex! We could point our fingers at Jacob for being so cruel in showering affection and attention and love on just one of his children, but even this traces back to something we can understand. Jacob was madly in love with Rachel. He served Laban for fourteen entire years to be with her. Her death broke his heart. Benjamin, her other son, probably reminded him very strongly of that pain, while Joseph would remind him of his late wife’s virility and health and youth. He clung closer still to Joseph because of who his mother was.
The bad decisions of each of these individuals had a natural and obvious source. Their emotions were so strong. Their hearts urged them farther and farther down the paths they had been set on. They couldn’t resist giving in to and validating what they felt and eventually, it broke them.
A Soft Whisper
When life hit them, these men reacted. Their hearts were their guide. They kept whispering to them, reminding the brothers that this favoritism was not fair and that somebody needed to show Joseph his place if his father wouldn’t. Jacob’s heart whispered to him, pointing out how when Joseph turned and looked at him just now, he looked exactly like his mother and that he really was better behaved than his siblings. Joseph’s heart whispered to him, telling him that his father was a smart man and no way he would give him all this attention and responsibility if he didn’t really, truly deserve it. Their hearts talked and these men listened. But they shouldn’t have.
It feels natural to trust ourselves. We hear over and over, everywhere we go: “listen to your gut” or “follow your heart” or “trust your instincts”. It sure sounds right when a Disney princess sings it, but God’s word declares the exact opposite. He says in Jeremiah 17:9 that our hearts are “deceitful” and “wicked”. We can’t trust them. We can’t listen to them. So often, what they tell us to do is wrong. So often, the things they whisper to us, the things we want to hear, will lead us down the exact wrong path if we listen. What makes sense in our own heads or what seems fair to us can be misleading. Feelings misled not just Jacob’s sons but Jacob himself, a man who had been through so much with God. Are we any less likely to be deceived by our emotions? This story serves as a warning to us – we can’t listen to our hearts. They are all too often filled with lies.
God’s Message To Us:
“Do not trust yourself. Trust Me.” We put so much stock in what we think we feel and what we think we know. We trust ourselves way too much and I don’t think there’s one of us that cannot think of an example of a time our self-trust backfired hugely. We simply don’t know it all. The only reason we haven’t all set ourselves on fire yet is because there is Someone Who does know it all. There’s nothing Jesus can’t help us through. There’s no guidance better than His. There’s no One more eager to come to our rescue. There’s no One better to talk to, no One who will understand us more thoroughly. Our own efforts are never going to lead us right – we have to put complete and total trust in God. It’s scary to trust Someone we cannot see, Someone Who we don’t fully understand. But if we just give it a try, if we just taste and see how good God is, I know we’ll be blessed by what we find.
What do you think? What went through your mind as you read this chapter of the Bible? What was God trying to convey to you through this passage?