Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Shiphrah and Puah and Miep

When I first heard about the Stockholm Syndrome, I thought it might describe the stresses of a Swedish elementary school.

In fact, the term refers to a 1973 bank robbery in Stockholm in which hostages became emotionally attached to their captors and defended them after nearly a week in captivity. The syndrome, described by psychiatrist Nils Bejerot, was cited a year later when heiress Patty Hearst, after being kidnapped, bound and raped by the Symbionese Liberation Army, changed her name to Tanya and blithely joined the band of hippy cutthroats.

Maybe that’s not exactly what’s happening in the fifth grade, but I can remember instances when my teacher seemed more like a subjugator than an educator.

Mrs. Seymour was not the best teacher in the Morrisville-Eaton school district, but she was the strictest disciplinarian. Her morning roll calls hummed so quietly that we could hear the muffled chaos in adjoining class rooms. Mrs. Seymour kept order by using her hand as a weapon of mass destruction. She believed in corporal punishment and she could slap kids silly.

She had two favorite targets: an African American girl and a boy with huge ears. The girl usually caught the teacher’s hand when she turned from a whispered conversation with the girl behind her and the sharp slapping sound made the hair stand on our heads.

I would hear the girl sobbing as Mrs. Seymour walked away but I was afraid to turn around and look at her. She was the only child of color in the room, so it wasn’t hard to discern Mrs. Seymour’s problem with her. I don’t know what bothered her about the big-eared boy. Maybe she thought he was funny looking. She would slap him without warning and he would look stunned, protecting his cheek with his elbow.

Of course I knew it was abusive behavior but I never mentioned it to anyone, not even Dad, who was a teacher in the same building. At 11, I thought nasty teachers were a rare but unavoidable fact of childhood and I did my best to keep conflict to a minimum. I made a tactical decision never to associate with the weeping girl or the stunned boy. Mrs. Seymour was nice to most of the other children in the class. Long before we knew what the Stockholm Syndrome was, I greedily accepted her affection and occasional hugs.

It’s not a happy memory and it’s not even an unusual experience. Most of us had toughening moments on the Serengetis of our playgrounds and we try not to remember the details. We learned very early how difficult it is to stand up to abusers and bullies.

That's what makes it all the more remarkable when we discover people who have the courage to take that stand. Judged by the behavioral standards of the Genesis patriarchs, two characters introduced in the first chapter of Exodus are exceptional:

The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, "When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live." But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. Exodus 1:15-17.

It’s impossible to exaggerate the courage of these two women, and equally difficult to emulate it.

Shiphrah and Puah were members of an oppressed class whose daily survival depended on their ability to stay out of the way, avoid attracting attention and do what they were told. Pharaoh, the undisputed monarch of a vast empire, was worried that the enslaved but prolific Jews would soon outnumber his army. He decided to thin their ranks by killing the boy babies. It’s unclear if he gave the order to other midwives, or how many of them decided to get along by going along and smothered the babies between their mothers’ legs. But we do know that Shiphrah and Puah defied Pharaoh and let the boy babies live.

They lied to Pharaoh and told him the Hebrew women delivered their babies before they could get to them, and Pharaoh, a unique blend of ruthlessness and dumbness, let them go. But Shiphrah and Puah had no reason to count on official stupidity to protect them. When they defied Pharaoh, they expected to die. They chose to die rather than carry out an order they knew was wrong. Their survival was an unexpected miracle.

It’s a little surprising that Shiphrah and Puah are such minor characters in our Sunday school lessons. Their courage and faithfulness transcends all whose stories were told in Genesis, and sets the stage for the dramatic events that will follow in Exodus.

They are pivotal figures whose roles were noted but not fully acknowledged by the writers of Exodus, who were of course male. With a little more insight, Exodus would have opened with the lines, “Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not notice Shiphrah and Puah, lowly Hebrew women who would soon outsmart him and ignite the long fuse to revolution.”

Shiphrah and Puah set the gold standard for defending the powerless against bullies and tyrants. Almost all of us get a chance to take stands similar to theirs, even if on a smaller scale. All of us would like to think we would have their courage to stand up for others. But when you look at the history of the world, you quickly realize how rare were Shiphrah and Puah.

During the Holocaust, the Gestapo offered small rewards to citizens who turned in hiding Jews: a bottle of schnapps, a bag of sugar, a carton of cigarettes and occasionally a handful of deutschmarks. It doesn’t add up to 50 pieces of silver, but to many trying to survive in the stark deprivation of wartime, it was temptation enough.

Tens of thousands willingly followed orders comparable to Pharaoh’s command to kill Jewish baby boys. Those who reported Jews to the Gestapo received minor gratuities, but if they had failed to do so they could be shot or dragged outside their houses and hanged. Thousands who followed the model of Shiphrah and Puah to save Jews from certain death paid with their own lives.

We know some of the names of those who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. Miep Gies (pictured above), who died at 101 in January 2010, is the woman who hid Anne Frank, her family and friends in an unused room over an office building in Amsterdam. It was Gies who rescued Anne Frank’s diary when the family was betrayed and arrested in August 1944. Anne’s father, Otto, the sole survivor, published the diary in 1947.

Gies, who would have been summarily executed if police had known of her complicity in hiding the Franks, believed it was worth the risk. Television interviews reveal a woman with a distinctly non-heroic demeanor. She was small and soft-spoken and her ability to disappear into a crowd may have helped save her life. It was only in a figurative sense that she stood tall, like Shiphrah and Puah.

Toward the end of her long life, Gies wrote, “I stand at the end of the long, long line of good Dutch people who did what I did or more – much more - during those dark and terrible times years ago, but always like yesterday in the hearts of those of us who bear witness. Never a day goes by that I do not think of what happened then.”

Persons who stood in that long line of good people were Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who saved an estimated 90,000 Jews in Hungary by granting Swedish passports, setting up safe-houses, and distributing food and medical supplies. Jan Karski was smuggled into the Jewish Ghetto in Warsaw and reported what was happening to President Roosevelt and other world leaders.

Too, Cardinal Archbishop of Lwow (Count Andreas Szeptycki) ordered that the clergy reporting to him act to save Jews. Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, a founder of the Polish resistance, organized an underground organization comprised mostly of Catholics to save Jews.

It’s no coincidence that so many of the righteous gentiles who risked their lives for their fellow human beings were Christians.

One of the remarkable phenomena to emerge during the period was the Confessing Church, a reaction to the pro-Nazi German Christian Movement that embraced Martin Luther’s anti-Semitic statements and de-emphasized the Old Testament.

When Hitler embraced the movement, the Confessing Church arose and declared the Nazis to be heretical. Some of the leaders of the Confessing Church, such as Martin Niemöller or Heinrich Grüber, were sent to concentration camps. While Grüber and Niemöller survived, not all did: Dietrich Bonhoeffer was sent first to Tegel Prison, then to Buchenwald concentration camp, and finally to Flossenbürg concentration camp, where he was hanged.

Throughout history there have been Shiphrahs and Puahs who have risked their lives to stand as a barrier between the powerful and the weak. And, like Shiphrah and Puah, “they feared God; they did not do as the King … commanded them” (Exodus 1:17). They recognized an authority far above the powers and principalities of perfumed Pharaohs and ranting dictators.

Pharaoh’s power was dazzling and limitless. The Nazis were evil on a scale that drains the imagination. They were all archetypal bullies against which all other bullies pale.

Usually, the forces we are called to confront are not as awesome. Racist fifth grade teachers. Homophobes who shout “God hates fags” at soldiers’ funerals. Islamaphobes who think Muslims are the enemy and yell vile threats at Muslim children. Xenophobes who think 11 million undocumented people living in the U.S. should be arrested, deported, or deprived of basic protections under the law. Ecclesiophobes who hate the churches for accepting and welcoming everyone – everyone – into the fellowship of Christ.

We often encounter individuals or groups who don’t believe God loves everyone, or that Jesus accepts everyone. What do we do when we hear these people say hateful, bullying or merely ignorant things about the people they don’t understand?
My approach is to be passive-aggressive. Not wishing to get involved, I listen silently and politely to the rants of ignoramuses. But I write nasty blogs about them later.

The lesson of Shiphrah and Puah is that we have to take a stand when evil is afoot. And the lesson of the Gospel is that we don’t have to keep silent about it. God has given us the authority to speak out.

Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." And Jesus answered him, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. (Matthew 16:16-20)

Jesus (in the non-apostolic view) is not addressing Peter alone.  He is addressing all who confess him. Jesus calls you and me individually, and all of us together, to be the bedrock on which the church is built. And along with that comes the keys to the kingdom, the authority – and the responsibility – to speak God’s truth.

Shiphrah and Puah took a courageous stand to speak God’s truth in action, even if it meant their lives. Jesus bids us to take similar stands. Because he has anointed us

to bring good news to the poor … proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18).

Whenever tyrants or bullies or ignoramuses bid us to do evil, or to stand aside silently while they taunt and threaten the weak and powerless, Shiphrah and Puah have shown us the way. And Christ gives us the authority and, God willing, the courage to act.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Who was that masked man?

If it hadn’t been for Sid Caesar, I wouldn’t know that Joseph’s reunion with his brothers is one of the funniest schticks in the bible.

“And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it ... Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, while Benjamin wept upon his neck. And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them.” (Genesis 45:2; 14-15a.)

Call me insensitive, but the scene is hilarious. It’s set up like a spoof of This is Your Life on Caesar’s TV comedy program Your Show of Shows (1950-1954). Caesar plays Al Duncey, a man in the audience who is unwillingly pulled to the stage by Carl Reiner to have his life examined on national television. (Yes, kids, Ralph Edwards actually did have a show like that, but it was never as amusing as Caesar’s send-up.)

The riotous episode reunites Duncey with his long-lost Uncle Goofy, played by Howard Morris. Their reunion is so emotional that it frustrates Reiner’s efforts to move the show along. Caesar and Morris weep and embrace and embrace and weep and can’t keep their hands off each other. Finally, as Reiner insists it’s time to move on, Caesar carries Morris to a chair. But still sobbing convulsively, Morris climbs on Caesar’s back and howls as Caesar awkwardly drags him to back stage. But as additional guests are introduced, Uncle Goofy leaps into the huddles of reunited relatives, all of them blubbering copiously.

Okay, it gives me pause that I can recall the details a 58-year-old TV show but can’t remember the skeleton on last night’s Bones. Be that as it may, once you see that scene, I dare you to read about Joseph and his weeping brothers without snickering. I try to be piously reflective, but all I can see are these big hairy dudes, their desert burlap soggy with tears, climbing over each other to embrace their gilded brother whose Egyptian mascara is streaking down his cheeks. It has all the homoerotic energy of a Worldwide Wrestling Federation bout. I love it.

Granted, the intent of the story is not so much to amuse as to remind the reader that God is the God of history, and that the brothers’ scheme to sell Joseph into slavery was brought to naught. In the dramatic moment when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, he tells them not to feel bad because their dastardly scheme was God’s doing, not theirs.

“So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and Lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt.” (Genesis 45:8)

It’s a little difficult, in the second decade of the 21st century, to accept the concept of God as the governor of history. The Holocaust, Stalinist genocides, endless wars, chronic human hatred, AIDS, cancer, xenophobic excesses, 9/11, bad things happening to good people, all make it hard to explain to our children how God watches over us and keeps us safe. In the late 20th century, evidence of God’s presence was so rare TIME asked, “Is God Dead?” and artists and writers began to insinuate the theme into their work. Prior Walter, the angel-designated prophet living with AIDS in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, expresses his anger that God has gone missing:

“He isn’t coming back. And even if he did … If He ever did come back, if He ever dared to show His face, or his Glyph or whatever in the Garden again...if after all this destruction, if after all the terrible days of this terrible century He returned to see...how much suffering His abandonment had created, if He did come back you should sue the bastard. That's my only contribution to all this Theology. Sue the bastard for walking out. How dare He.”

Not everyone believes God has abandoned creation, although theater audiences generally applaud Prior Walter’s bitter complaint.

But even if the God-in-history angle takes some sorting out, the central character Joseph remains intriguing. He is a classic literary conceit: the person with issues who, for whatever reason, disappears for a long period of time and reappears at a dramatic moment to save the day. The conceit often includes an element of mystery, a secret identity, or a masquerade. Joseph the shepherd boy disappears and, for all practical purposes, is lost to history. Then, when he is all but forgotten but when it matters most, he reappears as a person of great power.

Modern literature is full of such characters. The ones we knew when we were children were Superman and the Lone Ranger. Both mythical heroes shared with Joseph a violent banishment from everything they knew. They wandered in an uncertain wilderness and eventually emerged with amazing powers and indisputable moral authority. Superman was a refugee from a shattered planet who wandered the known universe before arriving on earth, where his super strength and moral authority were virtually messianic. (See Messiah in Blue Tights from an earlier era of Little Scrolls, below.)

The Lone Ranger was a virtuous lawman whose band of Texas Rangers was massacred by the Butch Cavendish gang and who lay dying in the sun until his loyal indigenous associate and life companion Tonto nursed him back to health. Long after Cavendish was no longer around to recognize him as the ranger he couldn’t kill, he wore a mask as a sign of moral authority and justice for all.

There are also interesting Jungian twists on the story of people who, like Joseph, disappear and later reappear with a different image. There are legends in many cultures about soldiers who go away to war and are not heard from for years, until they mysteriously reappear and resume conjugal relations with their startled wives. One such tale was told in the 1993 film, Sommersby, starring Jody Foster and Richard Gere. Jack Sommersby (Gere), a surly and somewhat abusive man, leaves his farm to fight for the Confederacy and never returns. That’s okay with his wife (Foster), who manages very well on her own. But then a man strongly resembling Jack and claiming to be him shows up unexpectedly. He looks like Jack, but there’s something wrong with him: he’s nice. Is he an imposter? And if he is, why does he know so much about Jack’s past life? It’s a mystery and, for those still planning to get the DVD, I won’t reveal the ending. But the story is very Joseph-like: he’s here, he’s gone, he’s back – and he’s very different.

My favorite Joseph character in literature is Jean Valjean, the central figure in Victor Hugo’s massive 1862 novel, Les Misérables and, more recently, lead tenor in the Broadway opera of the same name.

The full story of Jean Valjean is too complicated to be told here, and the musical drastically abridged it, but literati who made it through the novel know he was born of poor parents in tiny French village. When he was a child, his parents died. One suspects Hugo is not trying to be funny, but the story goes that Jean’s father, also Jean Valjean, falls out of a tree and his mother, Jeanne Valjean, dies of milk fever. Jean is raised by his sister Jeanne Valjean, but hard times fall upon them and young Jean steals a loaf of bread so they can live.

It’s at that point that Jean, like Joseph, disappears from familiar surroundings. Like Joseph, he is forced into the insidious form of slavery maintained by the French penal system. Assigned prisoner number 24601, his sentence for stealing a loaf of bread is five years. Adding penalties for bad behavior, he’s in the clink for 19 years.

When he is finally released, Valjean is taken in by Bishop Myriel, a kindly only man in the town of Digne. But Valjean steals the bishop’s silver and runs off. When police capture him and return him to the bishop, Myriel pretends to scold Valjean for not taking the silver candlesticks as well (“Would you leave the best behind?”). Chastened, Valjean turns away from temptation and commits his life to God.

When we see Valjean again in the musical, he has evolved from hardened criminal to the virtuous mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer. Just how that happened is voluminously detailed by Hugo, but for theater-goers it’s enough to gauge the dramatic ascendency from prisoner to chief executive. It’s not unlike the rise from slave to Pharaoh’s first minister.

For the rest of the story, Jean Valjean’s life is full ups and downs: he risks his life to protect prostitutes and an escaped prisoner, among others, and when his identify is discovered by police Inspector Javert, he is forced to go into hiding with Collette, his adopted daughter whom he has rescued from a life of poverty and abuse. It’s all in the book, and much, much more.

But at the end of the story, Valjean can look back on his life and know that God has brought him from a life of poverty and crime to positions of power and opportunity that he has used in love to protect the weak, the poor, the young, the oppressed and the disempowered. I defy anyone to hear without weeping the song in the final scene of the musical:

Take my hand
And lead me to salvation.
Take my love,
For love is everlasting.
And remember
The truth that once was spoken:
To love another person
Is to see the face of God.

That truth once spoken – to love another person is to see the face of God – is the real message in the story of Joseph and his brothers. Despite all the angry, cruel and resentful baggage they are carrying, they still find it possible to love each other. That’s a major miracle, and it enables all the brothers to see God’s face as they gather in Pharaoh’s pristine palace.

It was not, as Joseph told his brothers, God who made them sell their little brother into slavery so many years before. His brothers committed that sin on their own. It can’t be blamed on God.

Nor is the story of Joseph and his brothers a confirmation that God controls the events of history. Evidently, in the fallen world in which we live, God has designated that responsibility to a flawed humanity.

So maybe it’s not history, per se, that God controls. What God controls are the hearts and minds of the individuals who make history. Earlier in Genesis, when Joseph first recognized his brothers after years of separation, he had the power to arrest them, torture them and execute them. But God spoke to his heart, and that potential vindictive history – so common in our time and in all times – never happened.

It is the God of love, not the God of history, who is introduced to us late in the book of Genesis. Love changes everything. And when the brothers repented of their cruelty, their jealousy and their sins and decided to love each other, history was changed forever.

And they knew it had changed because, when they least expected it, they could see the face of God.

Pictured above: Clockwise from top left: Clayton Moore as the Lone Ranger; Colm Wilkinson as Jean Valjean; George Reeves as Superman; Joseph and His Brothers by Francois Pascal Simon Baron Gerard; Sommersby with Jody Foster and Richard Gere.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Messiah in Blue Tights

Man Of Steel swoops into theaters June 14. Directed by Zack Snyder. Starring, Henry Cavill as the Man of Steel, Diane Lane as Martha Kent, Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent, Amy Adams as Lois Lane, Michael Shannon as General Zod, and Russell Crowe as Jor-El.

It has been 34 years since the Superman legend was revived by Christopher Reeve. In1979 we needed to be persuaded,  “You will believe a man can fly,” and the fairly primitive special effects of the era knocked our socks off. We suspected Chris Reeve was suspended in air by wires, but why couldn’t we see them?

In the three-and-a-half decades since the debut of Superman The Movie, 3D digital special effects and quadraphonic sound have advanced exponentially. The grandchildren of those of us who packed theaters in 1979 now smile indulgently that we could have been so impressed. Those of us who sit through Man of Steel this weekend may well depart with scrambled brains and nosebleeds.

But if you were among those who saw Chris Reeve bring the man of steel to life, let’s pause to remember what a mystical event it was.

For many of us it was so mystical, in fact, that it reminded us of another famous story.

I saw Chris Reeve fly when I was editor of The American Baptist Magazine, and I was so impressed that I devoted my December 1979 editorial to a celebration of both stories.

Here’s what I thought then:

Even a Sunday school dropout would recognize the plot: 
A wise, all-knowing father in the sky looks down on the earth. He sees a torn and primitive planet badly in need of help, and he sends the world his only begotten son. 
The son, whose miraculous arrival on earth is heralded by a star in the heavens, learns the virtues of working with his hands from his adopted earthly dad. The lad grows in the favor of his friends, even as he begins to notice that he has powers and abilities far beyond those of mere mortals. 
Then, the boy senses that his time has come, and he departs to the barren wilderness for a time of testing. While meditating in the wasteland, the spirit of his other-worldly father prepares him for the mission to come. 
Finally, transfigured and self-assured, the young man returns to society, which stands in awe of his miracles, his goodness and his power. Only the forces of evil stand in his way, and these forces launch a never-ending struggle against him … 
Movie makers recognize a good plot when they see one, and this particular storyline, despite its familiarity, has found a new vehicle. Superman has proven to be a critical and popular success. 
Unfortunately, Superman opened in first-run-theatres two weeks before Christmas, just as the television networks were broadcasting their own special programs about the coming of that other messiah, Jesus. Anyone whose knowledge of messiahs is restricted to what is shown on screens will have to conclude that the messiah in the manger is no match for the messiah in blue tights. 
The Jesus of the tube is a fairly one-dimensional and distant character whose ice-blue eyes look through people and who has a penchant for talking at clouds rather than to crowds. People keep their distance from him as if they thought he had some benign form of leprosy, but otherwise treat him with the same deference Philadelphians reserve for Frank Sinatra. 
For the most part (NBC’s Jesus of Nazareth being a rare exception) the Jesus of the tube never sweats, never smiles, and never relates to people as if he has the slightest idea what it is like to be the human beings he has come to save. 
Superman, on the other hand, is a perfect balance of just-folks humanity and all-powerful being. In the skillful portrayal of actor Christopher Reeve, the man of steel performs his miracles with a casual warmth. Even after he has single-handedly saved a portion of humanity from destruction and resurrected the dead – two singularly messianic acts – he is as human and as approachable as your next door neighbor. Moreover, Superman’s alter-ego, Clark Kent, is a kind of a bumbling Everyman who gets hung up in the same revolving doors and waits for the same never-arriving elevators as us all. Superman is one god who knows what it is like to be human. 
Nevertheless, it is not difficult to isolate those things which Jesus offers but Superman doesn’t. Superman doesn’t offer to reconcile the world with his father – there’s not even evidence Jor-El is mad at us. More important, though Superman is a nice guy who obviously wants to be liked, he certainly doesn’t claim to have the words of eternal life. Superman can only save you if you fall out of a building. 
On balance, despite the fact that people who haven’t darkened a church doorstep in years are flocking to see Superman, Jesus is the superior messiah. The question is: if it came down to the ultimate competition, would Jesus or Superman win the Academy Award? 
For those who have had a personal experience with Jesus, there would be no contest. 
For those unchurched people who rely on movies and TV shows for their knowledge of messianic figures, however, I think the competition would be a bit stiffer. Those who seek Jesus only on the screen are not likely to find him, They will only find a plastic figure seeking to portray a God to whom we cannot relate – and Superman will be a preferable alternative. 
But dramatists and actors who portray Jesus ought to learn something from the screen portrayal of Superman. People are fascinated by Superman not because he is super, but because he is a super being who acts human. He is no aloof, unapproachable person who is removed from the aches, pains and emotions of humanness – and that makes him all the more super. 
But the same is true of Jesus. The messiah who reconciles the world to God is no celluloid automaton who performs special-effects miracles. Jesus transforms history not because he is a distant God with no ties to humanity, but because he is God in human flesh: a human being capable of pain, perspiration and laughter. It is the power of his godliness which saves us, but it is the warmth of his humanness which attracts us to him. If he were merely God without laughter or tears, he would not be so humanly appealing or even, in literary terms, so unusual. But he is a wonderful savior because he is not merely God – he is one of us. And that is awesome indeed. 
It may be that television, with its infatuation with melodrama and special effects, is not capable of portraying the real Jesus. It would be a helpful start, however, if the TV Jesus were portrayed as being a little more human. 
That would be an important step toward making him more godly.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Joseph had it coming

“Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him.” Genesis 37:19-20)

The famous phrase is inscribed on the tomb of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Atlanta. But there’s another phrase from the same chapter of Genesis that not only clinches the dysfunction of Jacob’s family, 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.)

I looked for a picture of the five of us kids together and had to cut and paste. The black-and-white portrait looks like it was initially discarded by the photographer, Mr. Nickel, who by day was a teaching colleague of Dad’s. Seated from left, I’m the one with evil eye, Jim is in the striped Charlie Brown T-shirt gazing into a distant future, Larry is happily day dreaming about Ann Margaret (or he should have been) and Paul is studying the photo optic mechanics of the SLR camera. In part to avoid exacerbating sibling issues, I added a picture of baby sister Susan. In living color as well as in her Little Miss Sunshine stage, Susan is modeling Christmas pajamas. Actually, the sibling issues began before Susan was born when Mom began preparing us boys for a new member of the family. Paul held resolutely to his demands: “I want a doggie.”

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 above, 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.

I don’t recall having fratricidal impulses when I first met Larry – and I should interject here that Larry is a retired architect, writer and an active member of Calvary Baptist Church in Denver. I don’t encounter his quiet wit and unconditional affection often enough. But perhaps it was not always so.

When I close my eyes, I can actually remember this: 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, my favorite being 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 form 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?”

I shrugged.

“What made the dresser fall over?”

I shrugged.

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. One of my favorite versions is the musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat by Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice, where the Pharaoh of Egypt is portrayed as an Elvis impersonator. 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, as I mentioned earlier, is a retired architect in Denver. 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 Orlando, Fla.