This passage marks the beginning of the story of Joseph and his brothers; a story that occupies the final quarter of the book of Genesis. It is in the context of promises that God made to Abraham of innumerable descendants and blessing to come to the world through one of his descendants. The inheritance of this promise has been a central theme and will continue to be so. At each stage it has created family animosity and has been passed down to the younger of two siblings (Isaac over Ishmael and Jacob over Esau). This time it is more complicated still because Jacob has twelve sons (with four different women)!
God Works In the Mess
As we are introduced to the family in verses 2-4, we see some seriously messy family dynamics. Jacob clearly had favourites among his sons and Joseph was the golden boy. We are told outright that Jacob love Joseph more than the others because Joseph was born when Jacob was old and was the Son of Rachel, the wife Jacob loves who it had seemed for a long time was barren. This favouritism led to Jacob gifting Joseph an ornate cloak as an expression of his love (in 33:2 it also led him to hiding Joseph behind his brothers in a dangerous situation so Joseph would be protected while the others were in harm’s way).
Jacob’s favouritism is not excusable but it is perhaps explainable by his own upbringing, where he was favoured by his mother but his brother was favoured by his father. This in turn may come from Isaac’s own experience of acceptance from his parents whilst his brother Ishmael was sent away. Often messy experiences can perpetuate themselves and create devastation through multiple generations (1 Peter 1:18 has a lot of application here).
In response to Jacob’s favouritism we do not see his sons cover themselves in glory either. In verse two we hear that Joseph brought his Father a ‘bad report’ of his brothers. He is stirring up trouble and trying to make his Father see them in an even worse light (perhaps to preserve his status as ‘favourite’). Note, the phrase ‘bad report’ in this context also contains the idea of ‘false report’. It is not that Joseph is telling on his brothers for things they have actually done, but rather he is sharing stories about them that are false.
The response of the other brothers is seen in verse 4. They hated Joseph and were hostile to him in their speech. Whilst their grievances may be legitimate their actions do nothing to make the situation better and instead makes things a lot worse.
The point of all this background on the family is simply to recognise what a messy situation this is. As the story unfolds we will see God at work and his promises will advance through what he does in the lives of these people. This is encouraging as we consider our own lives. Whatever the circumstances we are in and whatever difficult dynamics may be present in our families, this does not put God off. He enters into our mess (seen most clearly in Christ incarnating into our world) and works in even the most difficult of circumstances that we find ourselves in.
God Gives Dreams
In verses 5 and 9 we see Joseph given two dreams by God. Both of these dreams have a similar theme and are designed to reinforce one another. In one of them the brothers are working in a field and their sheaves bow down to his. In the other, the sun and moon and eleven stars bow down to Joseph. These dreams play a significant role in the story and they are both fulfilled and subverted by the end of the Joseph narrative.
Before going too far into the content of the dreams, it is worth making the simple point that God speaks and one of the things that he uses to do this is dreams. In both the Old and New Testaments we see God speaking through prophetic words and pictures, through dreams in the night, through impressions on our hearts. It is important when this happens to ‘weigh’ things as we want to be sure it really is God speaking, but we should be open to God revealing himself in this way.
In our congregations there are many who have things that God has spoken to them about or stirred their hearts about in one way or another and this is a great moment to affirm and encourage those things.
The Importance of Humility
The dreams that Joseph was given were perhaps not the easiest for his brothers to hear, particularly in light of the already tense relationships in the family. The way Joseph went about things once he had the dreams didn’t help. He could have kept things to himself and held the dream as a personal encouragement as his brothers were mistreating him, or he could have sought to work on the relationship to find an appropriate moment to talk about things with them. Instead he blurted the dream out in a way that was tactless, self-exalting and had no purpose other than to score points over his brothers.
There is a place for both godly ambition and humble service, and these things should belong together. When we have God-given dreams and ambition but no humility then we end up like Joseph, rubbing others the wrong way in the name of what ‘God has said’ and doing more harm than good. Without the dreams and ambitions we can sometimes be purposeless and miss what God is calling us to do for the sake of his kingdom. Both matter but character and humility are of the greater value. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13:2, “If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.”
How Does It Point to Jesus?
Jesus is the fulfilment of the Joseph narrative. The promise of the seed who would bless the world was fulfilled in him. He is rightly the one to whom every knee will bow and yet he came with utmost humility and rather than rubbing his exaltation in our faces he chose instead to take the lowest place and serve, even submitting himself to death on a cross.