Let’s work backward this morning and start with the bones of Joseph being buried in Canaan several hundred years after his death. We can read in Joshua 24:32 “And Joseph’s bones, which the Israelites had brought up from Egypt, were buried at Shechem in the tract of land that Jacob bought for a hundred pieces of silver from the sons of Hamor, the father of Shechem. This became the inheritance of Joseph’s descendants.”
Why was Joseph at the end of his life in Egypt so insistent that his bones be carried back to Canaan and buried in Shechem? I think we’ll see after we look at the story of his dreams in Genesis 37. Jacob had a complicated family to start with. All the sons by his two wives and their handmaidens must have made for a very competitive household. We know that because from the very beginning Rachel and Leah were ruthless in their rivalry. No doubt it continued after all the children had been born and right up to the time of the deaths of Rachel and Leah. Jacob’s whole life was marked by rivalry for his attention and his both encouraging it and being frustrated by it. He played people against each other.
Of course, it didn’t help that he openly loved Joseph more than all the others. It doesn’t say he disliked the other brothers or his daughter. I think that might have been easier to handle. It says he loved them some but Joseph more. They were not unloved but simply loved less. They were constantly comparing themselves to him and not measuring up. They could see that. It was not something they suspected but something that was obvious to everyone and Jacob made no bones about it.
Moreover, it was not love that was based on anything Joseph did to earn it. Not love because of any special characteristic of Joseph. It was love based on the fact that he was born when Jacob was old and so Jacob doted on him. His ornate robe was not a reward based on performance but merely on his being born to his father’s favorite wife Rachel when he was old. The robe did not get passed around. He kept Joseph close and around the house while the others were at work and only sent him out to come back with reports. Reports that made the brothers look bad. In other words, in an ironic way, he set him up for failure and rejection from the beginning. Some people think it was unwise of Joseph to tell the brothers and his parents about his dreams. They think it was partly pride and a mark of being spoiled by Jacob. I’m not so sure. I think it was probably naive on his part and a failure to recognize how deeply his brothers hated him but not pride.
It was, to my mind, much like Samuel’s dream in 1 Samuel 3:
The Lord came and stood there, calling as at the other times, “Samuel! Samuel!”
Then Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”
And the Lord said to Samuel: “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make the ears of everyone who hears about it tingle. At that time I will carry out against Eli everything I spoke against his family—from beginning to end. For I told him that I would judge his family forever because of the sin he knew about; his sons blasphemed God, and he failed to restrain them. Therefore I swore to the house of Eli, ‘The guilt of Eli’s house will never be atoned for by sacrifice or offering.’”
Samuel lay down until morning and then opened the doors of the house of the Lord. He was afraid to tell Eli the vision, but Eli called him and said, “Samuel, my son.”
Samuel answered, “Here I am.”
“What was it he said to you?” Eli asked. “Do not hide it from me. May God deal with you, be it ever so severely, if you hide from me anything he told you.” So Samuel told him everything, hiding nothing from him. Then Eli said, “He is the Lord; let him do what is good in his eyes.”
Samuel simply told the truth and, fortunately, Eli accepted it without threat or anger.
Look at an incident later in Joseph’s life. He is interpreting the dreams of the cupbearer and the baker in prison. He tells what he sees with the same frankness. ”When the chief baker saw that Joseph had given a favorable interpretation, he said to Joseph, “I too had a dream: On my head were three baskets of bread. In the top basket were all kinds of baked goods for Pharaoh, but the birds were eating them out of the basket on my head.”
“This is what it means,” Joseph said. “The three baskets are three days. Within three days Pharaoh will lift off your head and impale your body on a pole. And the birds will eat away your flesh.”
Now the third day was Pharaoh’s birthday, and he gave a feast for all his officials. He lifted up the heads of the chief cupbearer and the chief baker in the presence of his officials: He restored the chief cupbearer to his position, so that he once again put the cup into Pharaoh’s hand— but he impaled the chief baker, just as Joseph had said to them in his interpretation.”
Do any of you watch Doc Martin? Here is a description of his character. “His gruff and to-the-point manner with no filter means the character has absolutely no bedside manner. He is a rule follower and isn’t nuanced. This means the character does not handle situations sensitively, either socially or medically. He has no friends, not for lack of trying on the people of the village’s part. His empty social life doesn’t bother him. He is single-minded, once on a track, he is like a bloodhound on the trail, nothing can make him give up. His main saving grace is that he can diagnose like nobody’s business and he is never medically wrong.”
I’m not saying that Joseph had symptoms of Asperger’s but telling the truth of what he saw was not a problem for him and, of course, not everyone was impressed with his being that way. I imagine he was surprised by their reaction.
We have other examples of especially gifted individuals stating the obvious or asking the question that others will not. Look at David when he is sent by his father to check on his brothers. It’s not a dissimilar situation.
The brothers and the armies of Israel line up every morning to shout at the Philistines but no one has the courage to actually go against them or Goliath. David sees the situation and says, “What will be done for the man who kills this Philistine and removes this disgrace from Israel? Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?” Not such a good thing to say to your brothers who are pretending to fight.
How do they respond? “When Elian, David’s oldest brother, heard him speaking with the men, he burned with anger at him and asked, “Why have you come down here? And with whom did you leave those few sheep in the desert? I know how conceited you are and how wicked your heart is;”
None of us like to be embarrassed like that. None of us like someone telling us that one day he will rule over us. Joseph’s dreams do not say he will be the first among equals but that the whole family will bow down to him in recognition of his superiority. Everyone, including his doting father, is put off by it. His brothers only hated him more while his father kept the thing in mind. There are many ways to interpret that but for me I believe that Jacob knew first-hand the power and reality of dreams and somehow against all the evidence of Joseph’s death later he must have held on to some small hope that the dream would be true and he would see Joseph again one day. It stayed in his mind. Paul says about Abraham, “Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed” and I think that might have been true for Jacob as well.I think I know how the brothers feel about Joseph. Remember the old phrase, “Who died and left you in charge?” We all respond to someone thinking of themselves as superior in the same way. We want to put them in their place – and sometimes that leads to violence. We don’t just want to teach them a lesson. We want to get rid of them completely. It’s especially true when we believe they have no right to think of themselves as above us or they do not deserve the talent they have been given. Why should God choose Joseph who has shown no talent other than causing trouble for his brothers?
If you’ve seen the play or movie “Amadeus” you will remember the irrational jealousy of the court composer Salieri sparked by the genius of Mozart. Mozart is unpolished, crude, disrespectful, and boorish while Salieri is disciplined, and studious but without Mozart’s talent. Instead of recognizing the young man’s gifts, Salieri shakes his fist at God and mutters: “From now on we are enemies, You and I. Because You choose for Your instrument a boastful, lustful, smutty, infantile boy and give me only the ability to recognize the incarnation. Because You are unjust, unfair, unkind I will block You, I swear it. I will hinder and harm Your creature on Earth as far as I am able. I will ruin Your incarnation.”
There is something in all of us that wants to say, “I am as good as you.” We believe that all men are created equal by our Creator and are offended by those who act otherwise. In “Screwtape Proposes A Toast” by C.S. Lewis, the senior devil says about this part of our nature:
No man who says I’m as good as you believes it. He would not say it if he did. The St. Bernard never says it to the toy dog, nor the scholar to the dunce, nor the employable to the bum, nor the pretty woman to the plain. The claim to equality, outside the strictly political field, is made only by those who feel themselves to be in some way inferior. What it expresses is precisely the itching, smarting, writhing awareness of an inferiority which the patient refuses to accept. And therefore resents. Yes, and therefore resents every kind of superiority in others; denigrates it; wishes its annihilation. Presently he suspects every mere difference of being a claim to superiority. But that is a mere by-product. What I want to fix your attention on is the vast, overall movement towards the discrediting, and finally the elimination, of every kind of human excellence — moral, cultural, social, or intellectual. . Let no man live who is wiser or better or more famous or even handsomer than the mass. Cut them all down to a level: all slaves, all ciphers, all nobodies. All equals.
And that is exactly how the brothers felt about Joseph. It is how Cain felt about Abel. It is how David’s brothers felt about him. In Psalm 69 David writes: “I have become a stranger to my brothers, an alien to my mother’s sons. Out of envy they have ravaged me.”We know the rest of the story, don’t we? The brothers plot to kill Joseph but even then it is a comedy of confusion. They want to kill him but don’t. They want to leave him in the cistern to die but they don’t. Reuben, the oldest and the one who should have been most offended and threatened by Joseph’s dreams, is the only one wanting to save him. They eventually have second thoughts about killing him because he is their own flesh and blood. Finally, with Joseph in the cistern, they sit down for a meal. They see an opportunity to get rid of him and make a profit so they sell him as property to a caravan of Midianite traders.
So, why does he insist on being buried in Shechem when God eventually takes the Israelites out of Egypt hundreds of years later? Why would you want to rest in a place with that many bad memories? I think it is this.
Shechem is the beginning of the worst days of his life. Shechem is the time of his life that is the darkest. He is literally at the bottom. His brothers hate him. He barely escapes with his life and is then sold into slavery. Everything is bleak and hopeless. Yet, he returns to the place that will forever remind his descendants of that. It is not a pyramid in Egypt. It is not a monument or even a memorial. It is unmarked and invisible even today. They can say, “This was our father’s darkest moment and God was faithful. It was at the lowest point in his life that God intervened and made him a great man.” If it was true for him then it can be true for us. Maybe we need to make the trip back to our own lowest moments and remember how God pulled us out of the pit and in ways we could not then understand began to make us who we have become.