Sunday, 13 August 2017

Why Reuben Doubted (Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28)

(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on August 13, 2017, Proper 14)

Jacob’s Lopsided Love

Genesis could just have as well have been titled “Family Feud.”  Nearly every one of its stories features conflict on the home front—between husband and wife, mother and maidservant, one brother and another.

Today’s episode finds us moving from one generation to another.  The last several weeks we followed the story of Jacob as he struggled first with his brother and then with his father-in-law.  Today we meet Jacob’s sons, among whom the next conflict brews.  There’s responsible Reuben, the firstborn, who has the oldest brother’s sense of duty.  There’s Judah, the mischievous and mercenary middle child, always asking what’s in it for him.  And then there’s Joseph.  The baby.  The child of Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel.  Daddy’s favorite.

A curious fact about the father Jacob: he “loves” more than any other character in Genesis.  First he loves his wife Rachel more than his wife Leah.  Now he loves Joseph more than any of his other sons (37:3-4).  This, I believe, is the key that unlocks today’s story.  There is much that the narrator leaves unsaid.  But if we consider Jacob’s lopsided love, his favoritism, much becomes clear.

First, it explains Joseph, who comes off a little like a “spoiled” child in today’s story.  For not only does his father favor him; he knows it.  He tattles on his brothers.  And then to add insult to injury, he tells them about his dreams in which they are bowing down to him.  Joseph flaunts his favor.  It is no real surprise when we hear that the brothers “hate” him and cannot find a good word to say to him.

Not only does Jacob’s lopsided love help to explain Joseph and how his brothers feel about him.  It also helps to explain how brothers like Reuben and Judah feel about themselves.  For they are not sons of Rachel, Jacob’s beloved wife.  Not only do they grow up less loved than Joseph.  They also see that their mother is less loved than Joseph’s mother, Rachel.  How could they not feel like second-class sons?  Their dad prefers their brother Joseph to them, and he prefers Joseph’s mother to theirs.  It is only natural that Joseph should feel superior, and they resentfully inferior.

Reuben Runs Off Script

Let’s fast-forward, then, to the drama in today’s episode.  Joseph’s brothers are pasturing their father’s flock.  Where is Joseph?  Not under the hot sun with them.  Already we can imagine their anger.

Jacob eventually suggests to Joseph that he go check on his brothers in the field.  He won’t stay and work, of course.  He’ll just bring back a report.  And by now we can guess as well as the brothers what kind of report this tattletale bring back. 

So Joseph wanders out after his brothers.  While he is still at a distance, his brothers start talking.  “Here comes the dreamer.  How about we put an end his dreams?” (cf. 37:19-20).

They begin scheming.  But it’s not long before the oldest—responsible Reuben—butts in.  The storyteller says that when Reuben heard all that his brothers were saying, “he delivered [Joseph] out of their hands” (37:21).  Now if the story ended there, we would simply assume that Joseph was saved.  That’s what it means to be delivered, right? 

According to some ancient rabbis, this is the pivotal moment in the story.  They read this sentence very literally—Reuben delivered Joseph out of their hands—and then point out the obvious contradiction.  Reuben did not deliver Joseph.  Sure, he keeps him from death, but he does not save him from the mercenary machinations of Judah.  Joseph ends up sold into slavery.  So what’s happened?  Why does the story mislead us, telling us Reuben “delivered” Joseph?

The rabbis suggest a delightful solution.  It’s not the story that has made a mistake.  It is Reuben.  God called Reuben to deliver Joseph.  Responsible Reuben intended to deliver Joseph.  But at the moment of truth, Reuben ran off script.  He did not deliver Joseph.  Why?  He doubted himself.  The rabbis lament his hesitation: “If Reuben had only known,” they say, “that the Holy One…would write of him, ‘And Reuben heard and delivered him out of their hands,’ he would have picked Joseph up on his shoulders and carried him back to his father.”[1]  In other words, if Reuben had known that God believed in him, was counting on him, had gone so far as to write his deed in the book of life—if he had known this, he would have indeed delivered Joseph.

The Difference It Makes When Someone Believes in You

Why did Reuben doubt himself?  The story does not tell us.  But do you remember what we observed earlier?  That so much of today’s story is explained by Jacob’s lopsided love for his wife Rachel and his son Joseph? 

Maybe Reuben doubts himself and hesitates at the crucial moment because he lacks his father’s love and affirmation. 

It’s remarkable what a difference it makes when someone loves you and believes in you.  I’ve noticed this in the smallest of things, like the way I become less and less self-conscious in public if I’m with a good friend, or the way I played my best soccer when I had a coach who believed in me.  Perhaps you’ve had similar experiences.  When someone believes in us, it makes a big difference.

The tragedy of today’s story, then, happens not only when Joseph gets sold into slavery.  It happens much earlier, when Reuben grows up without the full love and affirmation of his father.  It is a tragedy that comes full circle, when responsible Reuben knows the good thing to do but does not do it.

What Reuben Did Not Know, We Do Know

If only Reuben had known, the rabbis say.  If only he had known that God believed in him, had so far as written down his deed in the story, then he would have done it.

The difference between Reuben and us, is that we do know God believes in us.  Even if we have lacked the love of our father or our mother, we trust that we have an even deeper love.  There is a beautiful line in the Psalms: “Though my father and mother abandon me, the Lord will take me in” (Ps 27:10).[2]  And in today’s gospel, we see that Christ has more faith in us than we have in ourselves, that if only our faith matched his we would walk strong amid the storm.

It is a tragedy when like Reuben we live without the love and affirmation of others, and especially when that means we doubt ourselves in pivotal moments.  It is a tragedy when it is written of us one thing, but we do another.

But our stories are not finished.  We are not tragedies.  The good news of Christ is that God loves us and affirms our goodness, that where our earthly fathers and mothers might fail, our heavenly one does not.  What a difference it makes when someone believes in us.  When the one who brought the universe to life, believes in us.  When the one who is writing our story, believes in us. 

What Is Being Written of Us Right Now?

I wonder: what is being written of us today?  Where are we like Reuben hovering between intention and deed?

The events that happened at Charlottesville have me hovering right now.  I find myself asking: how should I respond to such violence, such racism, such a wound in our nation?  I must begin in my own heart.  I say I am not a white supremacist.  But I live in a world where white is supreme.  And I have enjoyed the privileges of whiteness.  I have inherited a world that grants me advantages and denies them to others, that looks unsuspectingly on me and suspiciously on others, that believes in me but not in others.  Today’s scripture asks me: What will I do about it?  Maybe I will doubt and dilly-dally, like Reuben, feeling that something should be done but not doing anything.

But why doubt when God loves us, when God believes in us, when God is writing down our deeds right now?  Maybe God is not writing something as heroic as Reuben delivering Joseph and carrying him home on his shoulders.  Maybe God is writing down smaller things like more welcoming eye contact with folks whom we would normally avoid, more conversations with strangers, more listening.  Maybe God is writing down some uncomfortable realizations.  Some uncomfortable changes.

Whatever God is writing of us, know this. What held Reuben back, no longer holds sway.  We are loved.  May we live like it.


God who has more faith in us
Than we do in ourselves,
Who affirms our good intentions,
Who goes so far as to write them down
In the story of our life:
Reach out to us
Where doubt drags us beneath;
Give us faith
To turn good intention into good deed.
In Christ, who encourages us. 

[1] Vayikra Rabbah 34:8.
[2] Much of this homily—the portrait of Reuben’s character and the pastoral invitation to reflect upon where our love comes from—reflects the interpretation of Reuben offered by Jonathan Sacks in his chapter “The Tragedy of Reuben” in Genesis: The Book of Beginnings (Covenant & Conversation Series; New Milford, CT: Maggid, 2009), ebook loc. 4142- 4273.

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