The following sermon was preached at saint benedict’s table on Sunday August 9, 2020.  The service was live-streamed from our empty church building because of COVID-19. You can read or listen to it here and you can also find it anywhere you listen to podcasts. During these unusual times, you can join us Monday-Friday for Evening Prayer at 5pm and at 7pm on Sundays for live-streamed liturgies on our church’s FB page.  The links to help you connect with me directly on social media can also be found on this website.


May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable and pleasing in your sight O God, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Last week’s reading from Genesis ended with a cliff hanger: Jacob made elaborate preparations to meet his brother Esau, a brother he hasn’t seen in over twenty years. A brother who wanted to kill him, but the reading stops before we find out if their reunion was positive, or deadly.

Today’s reading opens with “Jacob settled in the land where his father lived…” so clearly we’ve skipped over some of the story. (37:1).  First of all, you may recall that Jacob received a new name in last week’s reading, Israel, but here he is referred to as Jacob.  Both names will be used interchangeably in the next few chapters.

A lot happens in the chapters the lectionary skips over. When Jacob and Esau meet, it turns out that Esau’s anger has cooled and Jacob is welcomed home.  We also get stories of the birth of Jacob’s youngest son, the deaths of Rachel and Isaac, and two difficult stories about rape.

They are hard stories, and the lectionary skips over them but scripture itself includes them. Genesis doesn’t hide from us the fact that Jacob’s family is one filled with conflict and disfunction. Bilhah receives only a few sentences but Dinah’s story has an entire chapter dedicated to it. It’s a chapter that should contain a trigger warning but it’s also a chapter that allows many, many women to see their own experiences reflected in scripture.

But we are going to stick fairly close to the lectionary today. And when today’s passage opens, Jacob’s family has settled in Canaan.

Jacob does not treat all of his children equally, which is interesting.  Jacob’s parents played favourites, Jacob was his mother’s favourite, Esau his father’s. He knows the damage this can cause and yet he repeats the pattern. He makes it clear he has a favourite, Joseph, and to make sure that everyone knows that Joseph is his favourite he buys him a special coat.

We all know about this coat right?   Joseph’s amazing, technicolour dream coat?

“It was red and yellow and green and brown
And scarlet and black and ochre and peach
And ruby and olive and violet and fawn.. and so on.”

Or was it.  A coat of many colours is a great prop for a Broadway musical, but that’s not how it’s actually described in Genesis. The translation we read from tonight just says, “a long robe with sleeves.” (3)

The Collegeville Commentary says, “the actual meaning of the Hebrew word is uncertain: translations include a long-sleeved garment, one with many colours or special ornamentation, and one that reaches to the floor. (115)

So what do Biblical scholars do when they are not sure what a word means? They try to determine the meaning based on context and they also look to see if the word is used elsewhere and if that can provide some contextual clues.

Biblical scholar Austen Hartke[1] found that the word used to describe Joseph’s special garment (ketonet passim)  is also used in 2 Samuel 13:18.  In that verse, Tamar’s clothing is described using the same word as Joseph’s but 2 Samuel also includes a description of the garment.  We are told that Tamar is dressed this way because, “this is how the virgin daughters of the kings were clothed in earlier times.”

Wait. So Jacob gave Joseph a piece of clothing that was typically worn by the virgin daughter of a king? A garment tied to a specific gender and economic status?

Austen explains, “So what are we to make of the fact that this garment, the ketonet passim, is worn by only two people in the Bible: Joseph and Princess Tamar?  Theologians have been chewing this one over for hundreds of years and coming up with all kinds of answers. Some believe that the outfit must really be a gender-neutral children’s garment (but how do we understand the gender and status explanation in Tamar’s story then?), while others think that maybe men’s and women’s robes were so similar as to be indistinguishable (but then why the fuss over properly gendered clothing in Deut. 22:5?) In the end, all we know for sure is that this apparently beautiful and luxurious garment that serves as a mark of distinction for the virgin daughters of the king is the same garment with which the patriarch vested his favourite son.  If this is the case, the alienation and abuse Joseph receives at the hands of his brothers makes even more sense. As a person assigned male at birth, but who dresses in clothes associated with women, Joseph fails to measure up to expected gender expressions.” (68-69)

I suspect that Jacob’s children always knew that Joseph was their father’s favourite, and maybe they also always knew he was different but the coat made it impossible to ignore these things. The coat made what was implicit, explicit.  And we’re told that, “when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.” (4)

It’s not Joseph’s fault that he’s the favourite, but he doesn’t do himself any favours either.  He’s a tattle tale. We’re told that he went out with his brothers to care for the animals and returned home and gave Jacob a “bad report” about them. (2)

And that’s not all, Joseph keeps telling his brothers about his dreams – not his hopes and plans – his literal dreams, in a time and place where people took dreams seriously. Dreams which are fairly easy to interpret as saying Joseph is better than his brothers and will one day rule over them. (5-10) Our reading tonight jumped over these verses, but essentially, in addition to being their Dad’s clear favorite, and tattling on them, Joseph keeps telling his brothers that, according to his dreams, he will one day rule over them.

It’s almost like Joseph wants his brothers to hate him.

And hate him they do.

So Joseph stays home with his father and the rest of the brothers go to Shechem where they “pasture their father’s flock.” (12-13)  Jacob asks Joseph to go and check on his brothers, and Joseph agrees.

Joseph’s brothers have been moving with the grazing animals and are further away from home than he expected. This distance will make it easier for the brothers to carry out their plans without being caught.

Joseph’s brothers spot him long before he arrives and as they are watching him approach, they decide to kill him saying, “Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.” (18-19)

Reuben however suggests a slightly different plan. Instead of killing Joseph, they could just throw him into a pit. And leave him.  It seems to me that the end result would still be the same -Joseph will die – and so I’m not sure why the brothers agree to this plan.

Perhaps they prefer the emotional distance that allowing their brother to die in a pit rather than killing him with their own hands allows. Or perhaps, in their anger, they prefer the additional pain and suffering this plan would cause Joseph. Not only would he die slowly, alone in a pit, he would also be denied a proper burial.

But whatever the reason, they agree to Reuben’s plan.

Reuben doesn’t want to kill Joseph. He only suggests this plan to buy Joseph some time. It seems that Reuben knows that he can’t stop his brothers from killing Joseph, 2 against 10 are really bad odds but he does think he’s capable of sneaking away from the group and getting Joseph out of the pit.

So Joseph meets up with his brothers, they strip his special coat off of him and throw him into a pit. We are given the additional details that this pit was empty and contained no water. (24)

And then the brothers go off to eat and while they are eating, Judah comes up with a new plan.  Why leave their brother to starve to death in a pit, when they can sell him and make a little money?  And that’s exactly what they do. They sell their brother to some passing traders for twenty pieces of silver and those traders take Joseph to Egypt. (28) This was a standard purchase price for an enslaved person between the ages of five and twenty. Joseph was seventeen.

It’s not clear where Reuben was during the time it took for Joseph to meet his brothers, be thrown into the pit and then sold into slavery, but when Reuben returns to try and rescue Joseph he discovers he is too late. (29)

Reuben tears his clothes in grief and returns to his brothers where he learns what happened to Joseph. He then resolves to keep the secret and participates in the rest of the plan with his brothers.

They kill a goat and take Joseph’s coat – the special one given to him by his father –  and dip it in the blood.  They return home and show the coat to Jacob, who recognizes it and assumes Joseph has been killed by a wild animal. (31-33)

Then the theme of torn clothing is repeated a third time as Jacob tears his own clothing, puts on sackcloth and we are told he “mourned his son for many days” and “refused to be comforted.” (34-35).

In the Ignatian tradition, there is a classic prayer practice called the prayer of imagination. This pray invites you to hear a Biblical story and imagine yourself as one of the characters.  It could be a main character, like Joseph, or a someone else, a figure in the crowd watching the events, one of the merchants who buys Joseph. Anyone. The idea is to enter prayerfully and imaginatively into the story and to encounter God in the process.

Can you find yourself in this story, and if so, where? Can you identify with Joseph? A seventeen year old kid who doesn’t fit in with his family? A family who hates his difference so much they do not care whether he lives or dies as long as they don’t have to deal with him anymore?

Can you find yourself in what it feels like to be alone in a pit? Feeling helpless, and hopeless?

Can you find yourself in Reuben, trying to save your brother while also avoiding conflict and failing at both? Or in that sense of having arrived a little too late to make a difference?  In that deep sense of “if only?”

Can you find yourself in Jacob’s grief at the loss of his beloved son?

Can you find yourself in the brothers’ fear of people who are different than you? Can you find yourself in their desires to wield their power and privilege in order to re-assert societal norms and the status quo?  In their desire to make themselves comfortable at the expense of someone else’s life?

This is where I find myself in the story today. Not in the voice of the brothers who came up with this plan or spoke loudly in favour of it, but rather in the brother who was too afraid to speak up and in their silence they implied that they agreed with the plan and in doing so, they allowed their brother Joseph to be sold into slavery.

This week I have been thinking about the ways I harm others with my silence. I have been thinking about my reluctance to speak up for what I know is right.  I have been thinking about all the times I disagreed with someone, but didn’t tell them, and so they were reasonably able to assume I agreed with their position.

It is scary to speak up. It is scary to be in a crowd and say “I disagree. This is wrong.” But it’s worth doing. Necessary even and so I’m beginning to gather my courage because ultimately, I want to be actively engaged in helping other people thrive, and I cannot do that if I stay silent when I know something is wrong.

Wherever you find yourself in this story as you mull over it this week, be curious about what God might be trying to show you, be gentle when this process touches wounds or deep pain, and be ready to be changed by what you discover.

In the name of the Triune God who creates, redeems, and sustains. Amen.


[1] Austen Hartke’s book “transforming” is exceptional both for its quality scholarship and his clear easy to follow writing style.  I highly recommend it.


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