Joseph: Favoritism, Jealousy, And Dreams

2 These are the generations of Jacob.

Joseph, being seventeen years old, was pasturing the flock with his brothers. He was a boy with the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives. And Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father. 3 Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his sons, because he was the son of his old age. And he made him a robe of many colors. 4 But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him and could not speak peacefully to him.

5 Now Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers they hated him even more. 6 He said to them, “Hear this dream that I have dreamed: 7 Behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and behold, my sheaf arose and stood upright. And behold, your sheaves gathered around it and bowed down to my sheaf.” 8 His brothers said to him, “Are you indeed to reign over us? Or are you indeed to rule over us?” So they hated him even more for his dreams and for his words.

9 Then he dreamed another dream and told it to his brothers and said, “Behold, I have dreamed another dream. Behold, the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” 10 But when he told it to his father and to his brothers, his father rebuked him and said to him, “What is this dream that you have dreamed? Shall I and your mother and your brothers indeed come to bow ourselves to the ground before you?” 11 And his brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the saying in mind.

INTRODUCTION

Welcome to the final section of Genesis, chapters 37-50, the story of Jacob’s youngest son, Joseph. It is another fascinating recap of the life of another son in the line of Abraham. This one is interesting for several reasons; perhaps chief among them is that it poses a familiar question: which child of the chosen son would become the chosen son? With Abraham’s children, Ishmael and Isaac, the question was answered quickly. So too was the question with Isaac’s sons, Esau and Jacob. In both cases it was the younger child through whom the promises would continue. That Jacob chose to take two wives made the matter more complicated. Would the child of the promise come from Jacob’s first wife, Leah, or his second and favorite, Rachel? And then which of the multiple sons of each woman would it be? Given the fact that Jacob’s story takes up the rest of Genesis, we might imagine that it would be him, Rachel’s child. As we’ll see, God did choose Joseph to accomplish much for His people. And yet, in the end it would be Joseph’s half-brother, Leah’s forth born, Judah, through whom the Messiah would come.

We don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves, though. Our passage for this morning begins with the tenth and final toledot, the story of “the generations of Jacob”. In particular, as I just mentioned, it is the story of one of Jacob’s sons, seventeen-year-old shepherd boy, Joseph. In this passage alone he is a reporter of evil, the singled-out favorite child of his father, hated by his jealous brothers, and a dreamer of God’s dreams. This passage serves as a sort of introduction to the Joseph story as the favoritism, jealousy, and dreams that are introduced here will all play a significant role in the drama as it continues to unfold.

The main thing for us to see this morning is that God’s plan of rescue through covenant faithfulness continued on. Sometimes it would continue on quietly, and sometimes miraculously, but no matter what things looked like on the outside, God’s faithfulness could not be stopped. And that is really good news for you and me as well. Joseph’s hope is our hope—that God would remain true to His promise to rescue a people for Himself. That God was perfectly faithful to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and the covenant He made with them, gives us every assurance that He will be perfectly faithful to the New Covenant He’s made with us through the blood of Jesus Christ. Let’s pray that God would help us trust even more in His faithfulness today, in light of His perfect faithfulness back then.

JOSEPH’S CHALLENGING RELATIONSHIP WITH HIS FAMILY (2-4)

We were introduced to Joseph near the end of chapter 35. Tragically, his mother, Rachel, died giving birth to him. He was Jacob’s twelfth, and last son. Seventeen years had passed since that passage and this one. We’re reintroduced to him as a teenager working among the animals with his brothers from Leah and Rachel’s servants.

2bJoseph, being seventeen years old, was pasturing the flock with his brothers. He was a boy with the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives.

After this brief description of the scene’s backdrop, things quickly took a turn for the worse.

And Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father. 3 Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his sons, because he was the son of his old age. And he made him a robe of many colors.

In a family environment that had several built-in challenges (12 sons from four women, two wives and two servants, with the favorite wife having passed away), it probably didn’t take much to for trouble to surface. And yet, there are two things mentioned in vs.2-3 that would have strained even the most stable family.

First, the text tells us that Joseph told his father that his co-shepherd, half-brothers were doing something wrong. We aren’t told what Joseph claimed they did, or even with certainty whether or not he was telling the truth. We’re only told that he gave a bad report of them to Jacob. Unless his brothers were among the humblest around (which we find out quickly that they were not), this wasn’t likely to do anything to raise their esteem for Joseph (which we also find out quickly that it didn’t).

Second, because Joseph was from Rachel and his last child, Jacob loved Joseph more than the rest of his sons. What’s more, consequently, Jacob showed favoritism to Joseph (even as he had Joseph’s mother). It is strange that Jacob would do this given how divisive the favoritism of his parents had been in his own childhood and life, but he did it nevertheless. Again, it would take a special kind of humility for this not to light a fuse of conflict. And again, the four brothers didn’t have it, and so it did light a fuse of conflict.

4 But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him and could not speak peacefully to him.

It’s perhaps understandable that Joseph’s brothers hated him for telling their father about their misbehavior, but it’s somewhat strange that they were angry with Joseph for their father’s favoritism. Strange or not, it was 11 against 1 among Jacob’s sons. We’re left wondering if and how the 11 would take out their hatred on the 1. It seems clear that something was brewing. In fact, as we’re about to find out in the next two scenes, it’ll get worse (Joseph will do even more to stir his brothers’ ire—these four along with the seven others) before it gets better.

Before we move on, however, it’d be good to ask ourselves two questions that this text raises. Are you ever more upset about getting your sin found out than you are about the sin itself? And have you ever felt jealousy toward someone because they appeared to be more blessed than you?

The textual indications are that Joseph’s brothers had done wrong and that it was right for Joseph to tell their father. I imagine the temptation for many of us is to see ourselves in Joseph. We’ve probably all felt the sting of getting blasted for trying to do what’s right. And yet, I think it would be best for most of us to see ourselves in Dan, Naphtali, Gad, and Asher because of how prone we still are to wander into sin.

Again, then, let me ask: are you ever more upset about getting your sin found out than you are about the sin itself? Do you ever spend more time upset that someone would accuse you of sin than you do prayerfully considering whether or not there is some truth to what they’ve said? Is a person who calls you out on sin more likely to leave the encounter feeling beat up or encouraged by you ?

Grace, I’d like to challenge all of you to consider carefully what I’m about to say. The plain teaching of the Bible is that we ought to make it as easy as possible for our brothers and sisters in Christ (especially members of our church) to come to us if they suspect even a hint of sin. Consider a few Proverbs in this regard.

12:1 Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates reproof is stupid.

13:18 Poverty and disgrace come to him who ignores instruction, but whoever heeds reproof is honored.

15:5 A fool despises his father’s instruction, but whoever heeds reproof is prudent.

15:32 Whoever ignores instruction despises himself, but he who listens to reproof gains intelligence.

(See also Galatians 6:1; 1 Timothy 5:20; Matthew 18:15; James 5:19-20; Luke 17:3; Hebrews 12:11)

Let’s pray that anyone who comes to us in this way would do so carefully, graciously, humbly, and kindly, but let’s pray that they would come. Let’s work toward making them glad that they did even if they are not perfect in their approach or in their assessment. And let’s ask God to help us care more about walking in righteousness than in comfort.

Likewise, since our LORD commands us and love compels us, let us be a people who are willing to go to one another even if it might mean an unpleasant experience. (If you are a member, you’ve already promised to do so.) Let’s be slow to criticize and quick to encourage, let’s work hard to avoid vengeance and put on compassion, but let’s also cast aside fear of man and truly love one another by saying hard things when necessary.

Likewise, where we might be inclined to imagine ourselves as Joseph (enduring hardship simply for having received some blessing we didn’t even ask for), it’s probably best to ask ourselves the question Bilha and Zilpha’s sons should have asked themselves: Have you ever felt jealousy toward someone because they appeared to be more blessed than you? To do so is to sin in at least two ways. First, it is a sin to covet what someone else has (Luke 12:15). And second, it is a sin to forget the LORD’s promise that whatever measure of Grace that God gives you is the exact measure that is best for you (2 Corinthians 12:9). Let us therefore be reminded from this text to rejoice in the blessing of others and be content in our own.

JOSEPH’S FIRST DREAM (5-8)

Again, with all of that as a backdrop, the next two scenes only add fuel to the fire.

5 Now Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers they hated him even more. 6 He said to them, “Hear this dream that I have dreamed: 7 Behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and behold, my sheaf arose and stood upright. And behold, your sheaves gathered around it and bowed down to my sheaf.” 8 His brothers said to him, “Are you indeed to reign over us? Or are you indeed to rule over us?” So they hated him even more for his dreams and for his words.

There is nothing subtle about the meaning of this dream. That is made clear by his brothers’ interpretation and resulting increased anger. In other words, this story gives no indication that Joseph gave an interpretation of the dream, but it does indicate that everyone knew what they meant. Joseph, the last born and favorite son, the one with an added measure of his father’s love and a special coat, went to his brothers to tell them that according to his dream they would bow down to him and serve him.

As of yet we don’t know whether this was a God-given vision or just an ordinary, meaningless dream. For that reason, in relaying the dream to his brothers, it’s hard to tell if Joseph was extremely naive or courageous. Was he truly that oblivious to the hatred his brothers already had toward him and the likelihood of this increasing it, or was he so certain that the dream was from God that he didn’t care? Either way, as we’ll see as we move through the next few chapters, telling his family about this dream (and the next) only served to amplify their disdain and willingness to do him harm.

JOSEPH’S SECOND DREAM (9-11)

Without any transition, we’re brought to the final scene and a second dream. We don’t know if this was the next night or the next week or the next year. All we know is that Joseph had a second dream that he couldn’t keep this one to himself either. Again, notice that we’re not told whether or not this was from God and there’s no indication that God told Joseph to relay the dream to his family. Nevertheless…

9 Then he dreamed another dream and told it to his brothers and said, “Behold, I have dreamed another dream. Behold, the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” 10 But when he told it to his father and to his brothers, his father rebuked him and said to him, “What is this dream that you have dreamed? Shall I and your mother and your brothers indeed come to bow ourselves to the ground before you?” 11 And his brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the saying in mind.

Once again, the meaning of the dream is clear and incendiary. Joseph would rule his family and they didn’t like it.

The only difference between the dreams (other than the symbols used) is that in this second dream, not only his brothers, but also his parents were to bow down to him. His brothers grew more jealous, but his father is pictured as more measured and thoughtful. Jacob did rebuke him, but it’s clear that he wasn’t sure what to think (keeping the saying in mind). Surely Jacob knew better than anyone that his God was capable of this and more.

The fact that it was basically the same dream is generally understood to suggest that it was certain. Joseph would later interpret a pair of similar dreams for Pharaoh and part of his interpretation was that, “the doubling of Pharaoh’s dream means that the thing is fixed by God, and God will shortly bring it about” (41:32).

Therefore, what was on their minds already through their father favoring Joseph and giving him the special coat, was here reiterated through a dream—Joseph was above them. Once again it seems that a lack of remembering family history caused faithless anger. The line of blessing had for the previous two generations gone to the youngest son as well. Their great-grandfather Abraham (at God’s insistence) chose his second born, Isaac, over the firstborn Ishmael. And their grandfather, Isaac, chose his second born, Jacob, over the firstborn Esau. Yet it seems that the 11 older brothers expected a different result from their heavenly and earthly fathers.

Herein is also a reminder that being the object of God’s choice is the path to ultimate blessing for sure, but also, often, increased hardship in the short term. We are to be faithful to God regardless of the response of others. By God’s grace, this passage both puts this principle on display and gives us a reason for accepting it.

That God spoke through dreams adds yet another item to the list of the things God is sovereign over. It would be a worth-while exercise to read back over Genesis to this point and make a list of everything God is explicitly said or shown to be in charge of. As your list grows, so too ought your confidence in God’s ability to perfectly keep His promises. And as your confidence in God’s promise-keeping ability grows, so too should the amount of hope you put in God. It is because God is consistently described not only as the creator of all, but also as the sovereign ruler of all that He created, that we are right to trust wholly/entirely/fully in Him—even if others hate us for it.

Before I get to my conclusion, let me ask you a one more question raised by this text. If you are like me, dreams are not uncommon. I’ve had some doozies. The clearest one I’ve ever had involved me falling out of a window of a skyscraper to certain death. For the first half of my fall I was terrified. At the halfway point, however, my fear gave way to overwhelming excitement that I was about to be with Jesus. I was truly upset when I woke up and found out it wasn’t actually happening. Was that from God? Was I supposed to do something as a result?

In other words, how do we know if a dream is a revelation from God or bad pizza? And even if you know your dream is from God, how do you know what it means if it comes in symbols rather than straight forward commands? Joseph knew because God had given him a special gift—one that will play an even bigger role in the chapters to come. But how are we to know?

In answer, there are two things that we need to understand. First, this was a rare gift even in biblical times. In the several thousand years covered by the Bible, very few were given this gift. It was never the normal experience of the people of God to be given revelation through dreams. It did happen and it still happens at times (both good Joel 2:28; Acts 2:17 and bad Jude 8), but it was never meant to be common or expected.

The second thing we need to understand is that we are in a unique position in redemptive history. We are not in the same place as the people in biblical times. Among the differences is the fact that God has given us the completed cannon of Scripture as our ultimate authority. In simplest terms, this means that God may give you a dream, but you can only know if it is from God if it is consistent with the Bible. If you dream that you should share the gospel with your neighbor, you ought to do so, not ultimately because of the dream, but because that is a clear command from God in the Bible (Matthew 28:18-20). Conversely, if you dream that you should steal from your neighbor, you ought not to do so because the Bible clearly prohibits that (Exodus 20:15). God is still the God of dreams, but His Word, not our dreams, are our ultimate authority. There’s more to be said on this, but there’s not less.

CONCLUSION

Both Jacob and God were with Joseph in a special way. Jacob’s favoritism would lead to turmoil, while God’s would lead to both turmoil and the beginning of the next level of covenant fulfillment. Unless you’ve read further in Genesis, you’re wondering where all of this favoritism, jealousy, and dreaming will end up. You’ll have to wait to find out where it ends up in the Joseph story, but I want to close with a brief reminder if where it will end up in the greatest story.

One day, many years after the events of this story, another son of Jacob would be born. He too would be favored by His Father. He too would be first among His brothers. He too would be hated by his own as a result. He too would be given a special garment to put on. And he too would be handed over to His enemies in order to rescue His people.

Remember, Grace Church, Joseph’s story only finds its full meaning within the larger story of which it is a part. The larger story is that of God’s saving of a people through His one and only Son, Jesus. In many ways, the main point of the Joseph story and the OT as a whole, is to create the categories we need to make sense of how Jesus saved us and what He saved us from. To rightly read this story, then, we need to read it with Jesus in mind.

And that brings us to the next part of our service, communion. This too can only be fully understood in light of categories introduced in the OT. Joseph and his brothers would become the tribes of Israel. Not too long in the future these tribes would become slaves in Egypt. After many, many years of slavery God would miraculously rescue them by unleashing a series of plagues on the Egyptians, culminating in the killing of every first-born in Egypt. In order to avoid this fate for themselves, God instructed the Israelites to prepare a special meal and place the blood of a lamb above the door to their homes. Wherever God found these things He passed over the home and the firstborn in it. As you can imagine this was a source of amazement and wonder for Jacob’s children. God instructed them to continue eating this special meal and called it the “Passover Meal”. Centuries later, when Jesus came to earth, God’s people were still celebrating the Passover. It was at that meal that Jesus explained the full meaning and instituted what we call communion.

Far from an outdated, cast off, the OT is still an essential treasure trove for us. It is filled with awesome descriptions of God’s power and glory, His promises made and kept, His will, His saving work, and the background we need to make sense of His commands for the Church today—including communion. Let’s thank God for His amazing grace as we turn now to one particular form it takes.