Joseph is a dreamer, and in the way of ancient people takes his dreams very seriously. For example, he dreams that his brothers’ sheaves of wheat all gathered around and bowed to Joseph’s sheaf. Or that the sun and moon and eleven stars all gathered around and bowed to him. He is also a dreadful skite and so he wastes no time telling his brothers and father about it - and they of course correctly discern that Joseph’s dream suggests he thinks he is going to lord it over them. Which means that Joseph brings some of the consequences of today’s story of extreme sibling rivalry on his own head. But you and I know, because we have heard this story before, that in this case the dream is what drives the action, and the dream comes true in the end. The dreams of Joseph turn out to be the leading of God.
Things in our tale have moved along a little - Jacob is now settled back in Canaan a respectable distance from Esau, who has taken his own extended family a bit farther down the line for a bit of elbow room. Jacob is - well, let’s call him a gentleman grazier - his sons having taken over the hard work of pasturing the herds amongst the indigenous people of the land that he occupies. In the chapters we have passed over we learn amongst other things that Jacob has fallen out with his eldest son - with Reuben, the first son of Jacob’s first wife Leah.
If you think modern families are complicated they don’t have anything on this one. The first two of Jacob’s sons, Reuben and Judah, are born to Leah, then Leah’s maid Zilpah bears the next two sons, Gad and Asher, then Leah bears four more - so that’s eight as well as a daughter on that side of the family. Then the favoured wife Rachel gives birth to Joseph, Rachel’s maid Bilhah bears two sons then finally Rachel bears the youngest, Benjamin, and dies in childbirth. There is the small matter of the rape of Dinah, the daughter of Jacob and Leah, and the subsequent massacre of the indigenous inhabitants of the land perpetrated by the sons of Zilpah, and as I said Jacob effectively disowns his eldest son and by implication the whole of Leah’s side of the family which means Joseph - the eldest son on Rachel’s side - becomes the heir.
Are you following this so far?
As we rejoin the story this morning Joseph is 17, so he is younger than his brothers but by the standards of the day no longer a child, and his father has put him in charge. He has a special coat - the Hebrew is not clear with some versions describing it as a multi-coloured coat though it more likely means a coat with long sleeves - unlike the short-sleeved or sleeveless jerkins the outdoor workers wore. It carries the connotation of rank - the next time in the Bible we come across this word it is a royal coat worn by the daughter of King David. Joseph, in other words, is a white-collar worker, an overseer, what today we would disparagingly call a suit. And he lets his brothers know he is the boss, making sure as I said at the beginning, that he tells them his favourite dreams.
It seems to the others that Joseph is rubbing their faces in it. Even his father Jacob thinks he has gone too far - but you and I know because we’ve heard this story before - that’s exactly how it is going to turn out. So the decades-long story of family conflict that in the chapters deemed unsuitable for reading in church has already included incest, rape and murder, we are heading inevitably towards fratricide, the killing of a brother and a sad echo of the original murder east of Eden. Except - Joseph is a dreamer. And the dream, in this story, is everything, or as Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman puts it: "in this story the dream sets its own course…And in the end, the dream prevails over the tensions of the family" (Brueggemann, Genesis, 298-99).
The irony of course is that the brothers decision to do away with Joseph - and Reuben’s well-meaning but ineffectual attempt to save him - eventually will result not only in Joseph’s elevation at the right hand of Pharaoh in Egypt, but the rescue of the whole family and the future of Israel. Sold into slavery, Joseph is going to be the saviour of his people and yes, you and I already know his brothers will be grovelling to him.
It raises questions, doesn’t it, about how God works in the world, and the tension between God’s plans and ours. Joseph’s dreams turn out to be the dreams of God, that humbly persist throughout the generations and weave their way through the self-serving plans of men and women. If we believed in an interventionist God who moves things and people around like chess pieces and always gets his own way then this story with its dark and violent themes raises a few problems - like, is God responsible when human beings oppress one another? But this story also puts paid to the idea of a God who does nothing, but just observes from a distance and maybe loves us helplessly - because it speaks to us of a God whose yearning for goodness and mercy persists through generations and seeps through the cracks of our self-serving schemes. I think that the way God creates and goes on creating us is by infiltrating us with the possibilities of wholeness and enticing us towards our own best selves.
But in today’s episode I find myself most interested in Reuben, the eldest son who betrayed his father and who plans to rescue his brother - but is unable to make good on his best intentions. Admittedly the circumstances are more extreme, but Reuben might remind each of us of ourselves, when we mean well but don’t follow through and so we stay silent. Our courage fails, or we were waiting for just the right moment, which never came? How does God’s plan work out through us when we mean well but do nothing?
We see a similar picture in the Gospel, between the God of mastery and power and the God who humbly entices us towards goodness. The story of Jesus walking on the Sea of Galilee, whatever its historical or factual foundations, is an echo of the very first chapter of Genesis, the second verse of the Bible that pictures the spirit of God moving over the face of the chaotic waters of pre-creation. Exhibiting mastery over the darkness and the chaotic waters of the famously violent Sea of Galilee is something only God can do - and so this story is revealing the secret of who Jesus really is. This is how the story would have been heard by any of Matthew’s Jewish listeners to his gospel. But for our purposes the most interesting thing about the story is how Jesus relates to Peter.
Like Reuben, Peter’s good intentions always out-run his ability to follow through. Easily the most human character in the Gospel, and the easiest for us to relate to because, let’s face it, Peter is every one of us. He wants to follow Jesus, he wants to be wherever Jesus is but when it comes down to it - he lacks courage, his faith is not strong enough. And so, invited by Jesus to join him strolling on the surface of the stormy ocean, Peter promptly sinks. Instead of seeing in the one approaching him across the turbulent water the goodness and mercy of God, and trusting that all will be well, Peter is overwhelmed with fear by the storm and the wind.
And Jesus addresses Peter with the famous phrase - you of little faith, why doubt me? Maybe you hear that as Jesus being disappointed in Peter, admonishing Peter for his lack of faith - but I think that isn’t the case at all. I think that this phrase reveals Jesus’ deep love for Peter, and Jesus here is commending Peter as one who, after all, does have a little faith. Jesus knows Peter better than Peter knows himself, Jesus knows Peter is going to fail at bigger and more important tests than this one, but he also knows the goodness of Peter’s heart. You who have a little faith, and a little courage.
In the story that lies ahead, Reuben will play a significant role in the reconciliation of his family - although it will be the forgiveness of Joseph that finally heals the cycle of family dysfunction and the twelve brothers together bury their father, the old scoundrel Jacob, in the land of Egypt. Peter, as we know, will continue to put his foot in his mouth and chicken out when the going gets tough - if God loves scoundrels and upstarts we take comfort in the fact that God also loves us, when we wish we were braver or more consistent disciples. Like us, Peter has a little faith - like us, he will play his part in the great story of God’s love for the world.