Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Joseph and the Many-Colored Family System


Because my colleague and his wife had a baby (Congrats, y'all!), I'm preaching both weekday services this week, and that usually becomes my blog writing for the day. That feels unfortunate since the lessons for Sunday are really fabulous. I have a lot more to say about them than I can say in a Sunday-morning sermon, and, if I don't find time to put it into words in blog posts, there's a good chance the sermon will end up wandering from one vague realization to another without ever actually making a point. So, this is a brief bonus post for today.

One of my favorite family-systems stories from the Bible is the story of Joseph and his relationship with his father and his eleven brothers. We read a bit of that story in the Track 1 OT lesson this Sunday (Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28). There are a few details in this passage that let us see what's going on behind the scenes, and it's worth noting them for our own edification.

For starters, notice how the episode begins--with seventeen-year-old Joseph bringing a bad report of his older, adult brothers to his father. (Note, of course, that Benjamin is younger than Joseph, but I'm lumping him in with the rest for the purpose of this post.) No one like a tattle-tale, and that's especially true when the tattle-tale is doted on by his father: "Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves." Parents are not supposed to play favorites, but Jacob (a.k.a Israel) does. He loves Joseph to the point that his preferential love becomes the source of hatred that the other brothers have toward Joseph: "But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him." So angry were they that they couldn't even speak a decent word to him.

Later in the story, we see that Joseph, sent out to find his brothers, can't even figure out where they are on his own. Jacob says to Joseph, "Aren't your brothers our working near Shechem? Quit hanging around the house; go join them." Then, we see how inept he is. "He came to Shechem, and a man found him wandering in the fields; the man asked him, 'What are you seeking?' 'I am seeking my brothers,' he said; 'tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock.'" A man found him wandering in the field. That sounds like something my children do when it's time to get ready for school--wander around upstairs aimlessly until someone else comes along and says, "Hey! What are you doing?" Remember, he had eleven brothers, and, being as rich as they were, they must have had a gargantuan flock of sheep. If he were any kind of shepherd worth a damn, he could have found them on his own.

But he's the baby of the family. He's been taken care of his whole life. He has been doted upon and provided for. The attitude of the arrogant brother is unforgivable, but the crime of the ten brothers (excepting Reuben) is even worse, yet the crime of the father seems to be worst of all.

It's hard to be independent when you're the twelfth child of someone's old age--the youngest except for one. It's hard to have balanced relationships with siblings when your parents openly prefer you. It's hard to be well-adjusted when an authority figure keeps heaping privilege upon your shoulders.

Sometimes the system is as responsible for a person's behavior as the person himself. That's not an excuse, but it is an explanation. And it helps me to remember that people are conditioned by the systems they are in. My paternal grandfather was the youngest of a very large family. It may have been frustrating to his wife and children when he failed to take the lead in a moment of crisis, but how could he? Our job, therefore, is to think systemically, to recognize the power of systemic influences, to note how we and those close to us are conditioned by those systems, and to attempt to differentiate ourselves from those around us. That doesn't always mean detach, but it does mean to recognize the forces that are at play so that we can participate in the system without being controlled by it. Otherwise, our story becomes a soap-opera not unlike that of Joseph and his family.

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