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.
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.)There is photographic evidence that we weren’t always arguing. One 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. The inserted color portrait is baby sister Susan in her Little Miss Sunshine stage.
Actually, the sibling issues began before Susan was born when Mom began preparing us four 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, 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 water color artist in Oregon. 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, such a serpentine enema hose that made him scream.
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.
Later, when I entered the parenting business myself, 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 at their behavior and thought there must be something wrong with them. But as one-of-five, I knew better. Noisy sibling rivalry is normal. All too normal.
The story of Joseph and his brothers begins in Genesis 37, and it’s not a pretty tale.
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).
To understand that dangerous dynamic, it helps to be old. I’m nearly 68, 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 the kid with my mouth open.
This is probably what happened to Joseph. He and his brothers noticed that their old man was constantly staring at Joseph with his mouth open.
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 proving that his frontal lobe had not yet developed.
He had dreams that wheat sheaves representing his brothers were bowing down to his special sheaf. 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, cowardice, or guilt, they sold the boy to Midianite traders for 20 shekels of silver. The Midianites took Joseph to Egypt.
Then, in a breathtaking act of sibling cruelty, the brothers 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 sitcom 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 already know. We lived it.
Perhaps very few of us would have sold our most annoying sibling into slavery. Unless we were sure we wouldn’t get caught.
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 overcome the Jungian turmoil to which we are born and dwell as loving sisters and brothers together.
* Larry, as I mentioned earlier, is a retired architect in Tigard, Ore. 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.