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On Scripture: Our Dysfunctional Families

Before I knew God, I knew Joseph.

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If you grew up in the 80s, like I did, there’s a decent chance that your earliest knowledge of Joseph’s story came through a local high school or community theater production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. That musical (by Broadway legends Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice) playfully (and rather faithfully) tells the story of a young boy, the favorite son of the patriarch Jacob, who sets in motion both a family and a geo-political drama by flaunting his fashionable coat. As a youngest child, I loved the story—I fancied myself as the favorite son, destined for greatness, who would one day be like Jacob, irresistible to the ladies. There is a time in life when each of us is made up of ego needs and delusions of grandeur.

Returning to Joseph’s story now, a bit later in life, I see layers of depth not there before. As an adult, I have watched how childhood sibling rivalries age: hardening into chasms of emotional remove; sharpening into bitter arguments over the course of medical care for aging parents; or softening with maturity into deep appreciation for our sibling’s unique gifts. Parents (I am one now, too) read the Joseph story through the eyes of Jacob and see in him our inner turmoil: chronic anxiety about the well-being of our children and our role in their lives. When my children rise up in anger, I would punish them… if I didn’t instantly see my own short temper. When one of them becomes frustrated by a complex situation, they reveal a family tree full of micromanagers. Every parent is Jacob, imperfectly apportioning love and discipline, wondering (if not praying): “God, did I give my children my best… or my worst?” I ask every day for God to bless my family and to help me be a good father. And most days, truth be told, I can’t tell if God is even paying attention.

God is confoundingly hidden in this story. The Joseph story is longer and more complete than that of any other patriarch or matriarch. Less a collage of fragments, it is a whole work of art. Yet it is almost completely without God, who was the driving force in the lives of the men and women before and after Joseph. Abraham, Moses—even Jacob—would do nothing without God. The story of Joseph hardly mentions God. Is God hiding amidst the chaos?

What is not hidden—what is on full display—is a family conflict of legendary proportions. Joseph, second youngest son of Jacob, was born to his beloved wife, Rachel. But Joseph has no mother—she has died in deep sorrow. Jacob, perhaps compensating for Rachel’s absence, lavishes Joseph with love and invests in him his hope. Jacob’s overt favoritism is embodied by the extravagant coat he has given young Joseph to wear, a coat with “sleeves that touch the ground,” a coat that evokes royalty.

Joseph wears his privilege too proudly. Oblivious to the fact that his older brothers despise him, he shares with them two vivid dreams. In each, the world revolves around Joseph—the world bows down to serve him. The brothers, seeing already the writing on the wall—that they are passed over for Jacob’s favor, seethe at his arrogance.

Then, commanded to go find his brothers at work in the fields, Joseph walks into a trap they have laid, but he has prepared. At the last minute they hold back on killing their brother (sibling cruelty may have its limits), and choose instead to sell him into slavery. They take the coat—the object that represents all that is wrong in their family—and they smear blood on it, and return it to Jacob, remaining silent while Jacob is consumed by the vision of his beloved boy being eaten alive by animals. The passage ends with Jacob in agony, believing that his son—his dream, his hope—has been ripped from the world and is no more.

Surely, some who preach on this story will lift up the power of dreams. Dreams are romantic, efficacious, and holy in our culture. From the positive psychology anthem “Dream the Impossible Dream” to the prophetic oracle of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream,” no one wants to refute the importance and power of dreams.

But the dreams in this story are an earthquake that exposes tragic faults:

  • Jacob, who never felt his father Isaac’s genuine love, instead steals his father’s fortune and blessing from the hands of his own brother.
  • Joseph’s brothers are born into a family where love is never evenly apportioned, where every day’s dawn brings new expressions of resentment between parents; they grow up in homes where the warmth of parental approval is rare and the chill of disdain breeds bitterness.
  • Joseph, a little brother who is loved too much, who gets away with too much, spoiled, a tattler, a son who acts like the sun; a child with greatness inside, who never knows if his greatness comes from a blessed nature or an unhealthy nurture.
  • God, the Great Parent, whose blessing is conferred upon a family who seems unworthy of such a gift; God, whose face is nowhere to be seen, whose voice is nowhere to be heard, absent even when the child of the promise—and the promise itself—is given up for dead.

At the end of this portion, Jacob, like Rachel before him, cannot be comforted. The loss of Joseph is hell, made worse by the truth that this hell is partially of his own making.

No one I know comes from a perfect family. And while no family I know is like Joseph’s, every family is weakened by the things that weakened Joseph’s: generational dysfunction, parents working out their unresolved issues in the lives of their children, and by love unevenly—even unfairly—apportioned. Here’s another thing true of most every family I know: in the midst of family struggles, it’s hard to tell if God is even paying attention.

Whatever the situation with your family—whether you are Joseph in the pit, a brother standing on the edge looking down, or Jacob, receiving back the bloody coat that you never should have given—this story asks… no, it pleads with you to trust. Trust that God’s silence in your family is not the same as God’s absence. Trust that God has chosen this family to be the bearers of God’s blessing, not only for this family, but for your family, and for the whole world.

Before we know God, we know our family. Could it also be that to know our family, in all of its wounds and deep faults, is also the way to know God?

Reverend David Lewicki has been co-pastor of the North Decatur Presbyterian Church in Decatur, GA since 2010. The church is strongly committed to social justice, peacemaking, and the education and formation of disciples of Jesus. David studied at Yale University and Union Theological Seminary in New York. Prior to entering the ministry, he was a nonprofit professional working in the fields of youth and community development. David has appeared on Day1, CNN, and CNN’s Belief blog. He blogs at ministerslife.blogspot.com and tweets at @dlewicki. He is married to the Rev. Beth Waltemath and has two children, James, 7, and Margaret, 4.

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Bible Study Questions

1. ‪Make a special family tree called a Genogram. What does it teach you about your own family history?

2. Make a genogram of the family system in Genesis. What does it teach you about the role of family in the story of God's relationship with God's people? Where else in the Bible do we see family histories? What can we learn from them?

3. ‪What are the different family models present in your faith community? Are there certain families who seem to find it easier or harder to participate in the life of your community? Why?

For Further Reading

Jennifer Senior's book on modern parenting, "All Joy and No Fun"

Andrew Solomon's book on parenting "complicated" children, "Far From the Tree"

The Changing Face of the Modern Family

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