The famous phrase is from Genesis is inscribed on the tomb of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Atlanta.
But there’s another phrase from the same chapter that not only clinches the dysfunction of Joseph’s brothers, but informs only-children what it’s like to have siblings.
“But when his brothers saw that their father loved Joseph more that all his brothers, they hated him and could not speak peaceably to him.” (Genesis 37: 4)This particular passage, like the sagas of Cain and Abel, Jacob’s battles with his brother Esau, the parable of the prodigal son, and others, is easier to understand if you have siblings. The rivalry is natural. And while most sibling encounters don’t lead to fratricide, many sisters and brothers who have pulled back from one another’s throats could paraphrase Chris Rock: “I don’t approve of brothers killing brothers – but I understand.”
I was the oldest of four brothers and a sister and while I spent my teen years wishing I was a Kennedy, I now realize that to outsiders, we looked like a black-and-white sit-com. “The Adventures of Elmore and Mary”. “Leave it to Paul”. “Dad knows best.” Even our daily dialogue, recalled decades later, sounds like it had a laugh track.
Scene: 14-year-old Philip is in his room typing letters to his political idols while Dad has drafted Larry and Jim to help him hang tools on the garage wall.
Dad: I can’t find the stud. Where’s the stud?
Jim: He’s upstairs typing. (Laughter. Applause.)
Early pictures of the Jenks sibs capture us in our sibling detente. The portrait above was taken by Mr. Nickel who was also a high school English teacher and a colleague of Dad’s at Morrisville-Eaton Central School. Dressed for photographic posterity, the boys are flaunting bow-ties and Susan is wearing the frilly little dress Mom waited through five long pregnancies to buy. The card table on which Susan and Paul are perched was the field of many pitched battles when Mom hosted the bridge club.
I spent two glorious years as an only child. Alone and adored in the tiny apartment over Flora Cramer’s house on Main Street in Morrisville, I couldn’t have been happier. Early snapshots show me sitting on Dad’s lap, chewing on his pipe, or sitting bathed by sunlight in a bay window, watching bulldozers on Main Street in 1947. I even enjoyed the luxury of an imaginary friend only I could see, but whose ectoplasmic form was mysteriously captured on film while I stood nearby. (See the red circled figure, for which I offer no explanation.)
As any only-child knows, having one’s parents to one’s self is an Edenic experience. It was only after the fall that siblings Cain and Abel began competing for parental attention and Cain killed Abel. Looking back, I think Cain had a reasonable defense. God liked Abel best and praised him at Cain's expense. “The Lord said to Cain why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin in couching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” (Genesis 4:6-7) Just the kind of condescending, parental preaching no child can bear.
My brother Larry was born almost exactly two years after me. I was too young to be aware of any Cain-like hostilities toward him, but these animosities are often unconscious and revealed in family tales told decades later. One of my favorite relatives was often reminded by her mother that when she was a toddler, she reacted poorly to the usurpation of a baby sister. “What shall we do with Sissy today?” her mother asked her. “We could drown her,” she suggested.
My own sibling resentment was more passive, and both Larry and I have told this story many times. I’m not sure how old we were, but Larry had just started crawling. We were still living in the apartment and we must have been “rambunctious” (one of Mom’s favorite words) because Flora the landlady often knocked on our door to ask Mom to keep the noise down. Those ominous visits would unnerve Mom, but rarely deterred me as I took advantage of my superior ambulation to chase Larry with objects he found terrifying, such as a serpentine enema hose I found in the bathroom.
One day, when Mom left the apartment for a few moments – probably to apologize to the landlady for the noise – Larry and I were playing in the bedroom. There was a tall, narrow dresser in the room and I enjoyed pulling out the drawers to use as steps so I could climb to the top. Larry, not old enough to attempt such a journey, would watch longingly as I giddily ascended. As I sat on the top of the dresser this particular morning and looked down at Larry looking up at me, I had a sudden inspiration. I scurried back down the creaking drawers, opened the bottom one, and pushed Larry into it. Noticing how perfectly he fit in it (once all the underwear and lingerie had been tossed out), I pushed the drawer shut.
Larry was not whimpering. He likes it! Hey, Larry! Exhilarated, I scurried to the top of the dresser to declare my domain. Before I reached the top, the dresser began to topple forward. I jumped to safety, but the dresser fell on its face in a pile of its former contents. All the drawers made exhaling sounds and closed under the weight.
I wish I could say this was the last time in my life that an action of mine had unexpected consequences. I was beginning to surmise that what had happened was not good and I might be in trouble. The feeling did not go away when I heard my mother’s footsteps outside.
More than sixty years later, I can only wonder what was going through my mother’s mind. “I will only be gone a minute. What can happen in a minute?” She must have heard the muffled crash of the dresser as she came through the door.
I can’t remember the expression on Mom’s face, but given that she had a progressive cornea deterioration disease that would take away her sight, she must have questioned the fuzzy scene before her. The tall dresser was now prone in a pile of socks, panties and boxers on the floor. I was standing calmly beside it.
“What happened?” Mom asked.
I looked at her quizzically.
“What did you do?”
“What made the dresser fall over?”
Then, more urgently: “Where is your brother?”
I was too young to know that the answer to that question had already been scripted in the bible, so I stuck to my story. I shrugged.
At this point Larry, who may have been shrewdly silent while waiting to see if he was in some kind of trouble, decided it was time to whimper.
My mother looked stunned, and at first I thought it might have been the dresser itself that was whining. Not understanding what was happening, Mom’s eyes darted around the room to see where Larry’s voice was coming from.
“Where is he?”
I shrugged again, but thought it not inconsistent with my testimony to put my thumb in my mouth and nod toward the bottom drawer.
As soon as she grasped what had happened, the power of a protective lioness surged through her veins. With unnatural strength, Mom pushed the heavy dresser on its side and pulled open the drawer. Larry tumbled out unharmed and, so far as I could see, unruffled. Compared to being chased with an enema hose, he probably thought snuggling in the warm recesses of a piece of furniture was no big deal.
I can’t remember what happened after that – whether Mom muttered something about just waiting “until your father gets home” or whether this sibling confrontation resulted in punishments or consequences. But it does remind me that when it comes to sibling relationships, anything is possible.
My siblings and I were alternately loving and rowdy, forgiving and aggressive and always competitive for attention. We got into loud fights and vicious wrestling matches that led to the parental prime directive: don’t bleed in here. When the three youngest members of our blended family engaged in the same loud confrontations in Port Chester, my spouse Martha – an only-child – was appalled and thought there must be something wrong with them. But as one-of-five, I knew better. The sibling rivalry was normal. All too normal.
The story of Joseph and his brothers begins in Genesis 37, and it’s not a pretty one. Joseph, the youngest of Jacob’s large brood of sons – remember Jacob, the dirty rotten scoundrel who stole his brother’s birthright? – is his father’s favorite. “Jacob loved Joseph more than any of his children, because he was the son of his old age,” goes the story (Genesis 37:3). You can’t be an only-child and understand why that’s a dangerous dynamic, but it also helps to be old. I’m 65, and a miracle baby at this stage of our lives would certainly attract my attention. I would probably spend the rest of my life staring at him with my mouth open.
This is probably what happened to Joseph, and both he and his brothers noticed that their old man was constantly staring at Joseph with his mouth open. And Joseph began to get the idea that he was special. His father lavished him with gifts, including the famous robe of many colors – actually “a long robe with sleeves” if the correct translation is used – and Joseph proceeded to make several tactical errors that must be explained by the fact that his frontal lobe had not developed. He had dreams that sheaves representing his brothers bowed down to his sheaf and, stupidly, he told his brothers about it. The dreams continued, and “his brothers were jealous of him.” (Genesis 37:11) They plotted to kill him but, out of mercy or guilt, they sold the boy to Midianite traders for 20 shekels of silver. The Midianites took Joseph to Egypt. In a breathtaking act of sibling cruelty, they killed a goat and smeared the blood of Joseph’s coat so Jacob would think the boy was dead.
The story has been told in many forms for millennia. All us bible scholars know that Joseph’s ability to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams rescued him from bondage and enabled a stunning rise to power in Egypt. This development provides the best scene in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat by Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice, where the Pharaoh of Egypt is portrayed as an Elvis impersonator. (Donny Osmond’s Joseph is as good an illustration as any as to why his brothers wanted to kill him.)
But the fate of Joseph and his brothers is yet to be told, and the Common Lectionary wants us to stop reading here today. Imagine Joseph in shackles, humiliated and rejected, in the hands of a Midianite caravan en route to Egypt. What happens next? It’s a lectionary cliff-hanger.
Now, back to my own band of sibs. We turned out all right. As time passed we grew up and began our own families in various parts of the country. We eventually evolved into occasionally mature and often nurturing human beings who love each other and wish we had more opportunities to see each other. Growing up in Elmore and Mary’s place may not have been easy on Mary and Elmore, but we survived. And looking back on it, the memories are happy ones.*
And one of the benefits of growing up as competitive siblings is that when we read the story of Joseph and his brothers, we don’t have to Google bible commentaries to understand what is happening. We know. We lived it.
Perhaps very few of us would have sold our most annoying sibling into slavery. But it would have crossed our minds.
And the grace we hold in common is that the God who watched over Joseph and brought him from slavery to salvation is the same God who brings order to our own lives. The God who guided Joseph’s brothers from murderous dysfunction to ultimate reconciliation is the same God who watches over us all.
Fraternal love may not be instinctive, and it’s not always the sort of thing we can accomplish on our own. But with God’s grace, siblings can transcend their natures. With God’s grace, we can emerge from the Jungian tumult as sisters and brothers together.
* Larry is a retired architect and brilliant still-life artist in Denver (see https://www.instagram.com/larryjnx/). Jim is a semi-retired physician in Saranac Lake, N.Y. Paul is an electrical engineer in Saint Cloud, Fla. Susan is a healthcare professional in Newton, N.C.