[Joseph’s brothers] had the long robe with sleeves taken to their father, and they said, ‘This we have found; see now whether it is your son’s robe or not.’ He recognized it, and said, ‘It is my son’s robe! A wild animal has devoured him; Joseph is without doubt torn to pieces.’ Then Jacob tore his garments, and put sackcloth on his loins, and mourned for his son many days. All his sons and all his daughters sought to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted, and said, ‘No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.’ Thus his father bewailed him.”
When my father was dying of cancer, my grandmother’s agony was intense and unremitting. She once said to me, “I would do anything to take Dave’s place. I would rather die than watch my son die. No parent should have to experience the death of a child.” My years as a pastor and a friend confirm what my grandmother said to me. The loss of a child is one of the most painful experiences in all of life.
Thus, I read the closing verses of Genesis 37 with sadness and wonder. I am sad for Jacob, who is grieving what he believes to be the death of his son Joseph. And I wonder how Joseph’s brothers could allow their own father to feel grief they knew to be unfounded.
The context for today’s Bible passage is a familiar story. It begins with Jacob’s loving Joseph more than his other sons. Their hatred of Joseph was accentuated by his dreams of their bowing down to him. So, when Joseph visited his brothers when they were quite a distance from home, they hatched a plan to get rid of him. At first they planned to kill him. But then they sold Joseph to some Ishmaelites, who took him to Egypt. The brothers, who had Joseph’s distinctive coat, dipped it in goat’s blood and presented it to their father. He concluded that Joseph had been killed by an animal. Jacob mourned for many days. How did Joseph’s brothers respond? Verse 35 explains: “All his sons and all his daughters sought to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted.”
This is a deeply unsettling verse. For a moment, imagine that you are one of Jacob’s sons. You see your father grieving deeply over the death of Joseph. You know that, in fact, Joseph is not dead. Yet, you stand by your father, seeking to comfort him, but not sharing with him the truth that he would most want to hear. You go along with the ruse of Joseph’s death, even though you know how much it is breaking your father’s heart.
What can explain such extraordinary behavior? What kind of son would treat a father this way? Only a son whose heart has been hardened by hatred. Joseph’s brothers hated Joseph, and, in a way, their own father, for such a long time that they had no compassion left for their father.
Hatred can do similar things to you and me. Whether we hate someone in our family or our workplace, whether we hate our enemies, local or global, allowing animosity to dwell in our hearts will ultimately harden them. We will lose our capacity for compassion, our ability to love even those who are close to us. As fallen people who can hate others, we need the wisdom of Jesus to set us free: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mark 5:43-44).
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:
Have you ever experienced hatred that hardens hearts? Have you seen it in those around you? In your workplace? In your family? Perhaps even in your own heart?
If we have been deeply hurt, what will keep us from hating those who have wounded us? How can we love our enemies, as Jesus instructs us?
Gracious God, once again I thank you for the blunt honesty of Scripture, for showing us how Joseph’s brothers were so hard-hearted in relationship to their own father, not to mention Joseph. We see how hatred can make us less compassionate, less loving, and ultimately less human.
Help us, we pray, not to let hatred wall us off from others. If we have been hurt, we ask you to heal us. If relationships are broken, we ask you to mend them. Only you, Lord, can help us to love even our enemies. By your grace may our hearts belong to you. In your tender care, may they be filled with love and be open to others, even those who have wronged us. Amen.