Joseph’s Dysfunctional Family

March 13, 2022 / No. 4132M

Today we begin a series of messages on the life of Joseph. If you have your Bible with you, we will be looking today at Genesis chapter 37 verses 1 through 11.

The story of Joseph is perhaps one of the most well known and loved in Scripture. I remember as a child being fascinated by the characters and the plot, the crisis and the resolution, in this story. It is an amazing story.

There are three main lessons for us to learn from the life of Joseph.

The first thing we learn is that God is sovereign over all things, including evil, in such a way that He directs all things to serve His purposes and to serve the good of His chosen people. The story of Joseph is, perhaps, the greatest illustration in the Bible of the truth of Romans 8:28, which says that “all things work together for good to them that love God.” At the end of this story, in Genesis 50:20, Joseph says to his brothers, “ye thought evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring to pass as it is this day, to save much people alive.” God is at work here to preserve His people, to produce the nation of Israel, and to fulfill His promise to send the Savior, Jesus Christ.

The second thing we learn from this story is that God in His covenant faithfulness works in families. Earlier God’s promise to Abraham was that His covenant would be with Abraham and his seed after them, in their generations. The family of Joseph is, to say the least, dysfunctional. In these verses, there is a seething hatred between family members that erupts in a murderous spirit. And yet, God is pleased to work, in a marvelous way, by His grace, to bring salvation to this family. There is so much for us to learn from this family, for our families. We are going to see that especially today, in this first message.

The third obvious lesson for us in Joseph’s life is the lesson of faith and godliness. We learn this from Joseph himself. I do not say that Joseph was perfect or sinless, but there is something extraordinary about him. We are used to seeing the Bible characters, warts and all. Think of Abraham, Moses, Gideon, Eli, David, Solomon, Peter, and many more. The Bible does not hesitate to tell us about their sins. But, when we come to Joseph we have to search the Scriptures very closely to find anything blameworthy. That is even true of these introductory verses in which Joseph reports the evil of his brothers, and shares his dreams with them. Some are very critical of him for this, but the Bible says nothing to indicate that his motives were anything but pure. The sin described here is in Jacob and in Joseph’s brothers. And going beyond this passage, we see in Joseph a patience, a trust, a diligence, and a love that is unsurpassed in Scripture. There are lessons for all of us to learn from this, especially for the young, for Joseph was a young man.

The verses that we look at today introduce us to Joseph and his family who are the main players in this history. This family is in crisis. It is dysfunctional. There is a seething hatred between the family members.

Joseph is introduced to us as a 17-year-old boy who is sent out to watch his father’s flocks with four of his brothers.

Earlier in Genesis we learn that Joseph is the 11th of twelve sons born to Jacob. These sons are not all from one wife, but from four wives, Leah, Rachel, Bilhah, and Zilpah. Of these four wives, Jacob’s favorite is Rachel, and for many years while the other wives bear children, Rachel is barren. Then, finally, Rachel gives birth to Joseph, and he becomes his father’s pride and joy, his favorite.

The brothers that Joseph works with are the sons of Jacob’s concubines, Bilhah and Zilpah, the wives at the bottom of the list. We can be sure that these men see and resent the special place that Joseph has in his father’s affection. Besides this, favoritism is never good for any child. Children are sinners, so when they are the objects of special treatment, the result is a sense of superiority, of self-importance, and of self-righteousness. Even if these were not the attitudes of Joseph’s heart, we can be sure that his brothers perceived it this way, especially when Joseph reported their evil deeds to father Jacob. “Here is the little favorite, and now he’s become Daddy’s little tattletale.”

Perhaps Joseph can be excused here, for his higher duty of faithfulness to his father, to his brothers, and even to God. His report was true. The brothers were evil. The words, “evil report” in verse 2 indicate that this was a report Joseph heard from others about them. They were renowned for their wickedness. Away from father Jacob, out in the fields and the surrounding villages, they became known as evil men; perhaps thieves and fornicators and partyers and drunkards. Maybe out of concern for them and for the reputation of God’s people in Canaan, Joseph reports this to his father.

But Jacob cannot be excused. Though the brothers were also wicked in their hatred of Joseph, Jacob was largely to blame for this. Verse 3 tells us, “Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children.” It is significant that the name used here is Israel, not Jacob. This is his new name from God. Here we have the transformed Jacob, the new man, not wrestling with God but dependent on God. And yet we find he is still a sinner, an indulgent parent.

This favoritism soon shows itself, as it always does when parents do this. Joseph is the son of his old age. These two become constant companions. They’re always together, conversing, holding hands, laughing, sharing secrets. And it becomes very obvious to the other children. On top of this, Jacob makes for Joseph a coat of many colors. What exactly this coat was, we don’t know, but the word used here seems to indicate two things about this coat. 1. It was not a single piece of cloth, but many pieces of cloth put together, and so it was an expensive coat. 2. It was a long cloak, not the kind that workers or shepherds would use, but the kind that royalty would wear. While his brothers had to “roll up their sleeves and work” Joseph was promoted by his father to management. And again, we do not know anything about Joseph’s motives here, but it seems that Joseph was quite willing to wear this coat, even though he knew that it was provocative.

How foolish of Jacob his father. Shouldn’t he have known better? Does not any parent know that this kind of thing breeds sibling rivalry? Should not Jacob have learned a lesson from his own childhood, when Esau was his father’s favorite, and he was his mother’s favorite. Could not he see the dreadful results this brought in his own family?

But you know, is not this exactly what we do, carry sins over from one generation to the next, and we are blind to it? I doubt that Jacob even realized what he was doing here. Probably he justified it. Yes, my father favored Esau, but that was different. He loved Esau for carnal reasons, because Esau liked the outdoors. I love Joseph because he’s a godly young man.

What we learn is that all of us need God’s grace to open our eyes to our own failures, and we need God’s grace to untwist the wreckage that sin brings. Who of us has a perfect family? Who of us are perfect parents? May God open our eyes to see how deeply sin affects our lives and our homes, so that hostility does not come into our homes. Oh may He work by His grace in our homes and families, and may He do it without the pain that Jacob had to experience.

Joseph’s brothers, and now not just the four of them, but the ten of them, observe this favoritism. Verse four tells us that “when they saw that their father loved Joseph more than all his brethren, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.” And in the following verses this hatred builds. Four times the word hate is mentioned, and each time it intensifies.

It starts in verse 4. They despise him, simply because of the favoritism and the coat—so much so, that they cannot speak a kind word to him. They cannot greet him in the morning. Literally, when they saw him, they could not bring themselves to say Shalom—peace. This sometimes happens in families. It can happen between a husband and a wife, between children, between grown siblings, between parents and children. Maybe this is true in your family. Sometimes it happens in the family of God, between believers. And very often the cause is hatred in our own hearts—we despise the brother, sister, husband, or wife. And here is a test of your heart: when you see that person, can you say, “Shalom,” Peace? If not, then perhaps your heart is not right.

So, first, they hate him because he’s favored. But this hatred intensifies. In verse 5, “And Joseph dreamed a dream, and he told it to his brothers, and they hated him yet the more.” This is how it happened. He comes to the breakfast table, they already cannot stand to see him, and he says, “Listen to my dream. We were working together in the fields, binding sheaves (a sheaf is a bundle of straw), and my sheaf rose and stood upright, and yours gathered around and bowed down to it. That was my dream.” He doesn’t offer any interpretation, but he does not have to, because the brothers already know what it means. They ask, “What’s this, little shaver, you really think you’re going to reign over us? You? You’re going to have authority and rule over us?”

And their hatred intensifies. At the end of verse 8, they hated him yet the more for his dreams and for his words. Now, it is not just because he is favored, but listen to him, he thinks he is something. Or so they reason. You can almost hear them. Later in the chapter (v. 19), they give him a new nickname, “the dreamer.” Here comes the dreamer.

Then, maybe it is the next morning, he has had another dream (v. 9). And here he comes again, “Listen, I have had another dream. Behold, or amazing, the sun and the moon and the eleven stars bowed down to me.” And after he has told his brothers, he goes to find his father and tells him too. Jacob is angry, and he rebukes his son. Maybe, it is the first time Joseph is rebuked by his father. This is more than Jacob can handle. Understand, this was patriarchal society, and respect for the father figure was built in. Part of why Joseph’s brothers hate him so much is that they dare not disrespect their father. Fathers did not bow down to their sons. So, Jacob rebukes his son, “shall I and thy mother and thy brethren indeed come to bow down ourselves to thee to the earth? Joseph, don’t talk like that!”

And again the hatred of the brothers intensifies (v. 11). His brethren envied him. Envy is a form of hatred that resents and begrudges another. Envy wants the other person out of the way. Get out of my life! I hate you because you have what I want!

Was this hatred justified? Perhaps we want to excuse it, and say, What do you expect? After all, look what has happened? It is what Jacob and Joseph are doing that caused all this. Too often, that is how we will excuse our own sinful behavior in our relationships. “Yes, I’m mad at my wife, but look what she did.” But what another has done against us, even if it is sinful, is never an excuse for our sin. Here, I want to contrast these brothers to Joseph. Later, when their hatred explodes and they sell him, we never read that he despised them or rebelled against God. Jesus says, “If your brother smite you on one cheek, turn to him the other also.” As believers, we must be willing to suffer wrong, following Christ, who when He was reviled, He reviled not again, but gave His back to the smiters. That is the grace we need to be able to live in our families with one another, sinners with sinners.

No, this hatred was not justified, not in the slightest. And what makes that very obvious is that God’s hand is moving, very obviously, in these events. When we look at the life of Joseph, we see nothing miraculous. He does not receive bread from heaven to keep him going, he is not led by a cloud. In many ways it is very ordinary. Joseph perseveres through the unknown.

But here, in these verses, at the very beginning, God speaks. God sends these dreams to Joseph. And when God sends a dream, He does it so that the dream can be announced. Joseph, here, is a prophet, one who receives special revelation from God. These dreams are a testimony against Joseph’s brothers. In verse 8 they hate him for his dreams. That is different from hating him for his coat. The coat came from Jacob, but this, this was from God, it was prophetic. And these brothers are not ready to embrace God’s purposes for them and their family. So their hatred is a rebellion against divine revelation. They despise God, in the end.

Do you know, that whenever we despise another person, we too are really hating God’s purposes for us? God will put people in your life who are difficult for you to love. God puts them there! And He says, Love them. Pray for them that despitefully use you and persecute you. It does not matter who that is. God brought them into your life, God caused the paths of your lives to intersect. What are you going to say about God’s purposes? Are you going to hate Him for them?

God sent these dreams. These brothers determined evil against Joseph. Later they will remember both the dreams and the evil that they committed against Joseph. What they do here is sin, and it cannot be excused. Neither can ours.

But Jacob sees the hand of God here (v. 11). After he rebukes Joseph, we read that he observed what Joseph had said. He thought about it. Could there possibly be something in this? Has God sent these dreams? Jacob will keep these dreams in his memory, to see what God meant by them.

And so will Joseph. These dreams, the voice of God to him, will be his strength through two decades of silence from heaven. Joseph in faith will cling to them, because he trusts God, and because he knows that God in His sovereign providence has a purpose in all that will befall him. May we, who have received so much greater and clearer revelation, also have that kind of faith in God.

Let us pray.

Father, we look forward to digging into the scriptural account of the life of Joseph. We are thankful for the Scriptures and the fullness of the revelation of Jesus Christ in them. Give us hearts to believe, we pray, for Jesus’ sake. Amen