By: Brian Harris
In his profoundly insightful book Not in God’s Name, Jonathan Sacks asks how it was that Joseph’s brothers planned to kill him.
Fratricide is a pretty extreme response, desperately over the top even if Joseph was a tad irritating, so how had it got so badly out of hand? Reflecting on Genesis 37:18-20 Sacks notes that the brothers’ murderous conversation starts when they see Joseph at a distance, and their talk soon dismisses him as an arrogant dreamer, someone very different to them. Goodness, his colourful coat emphasised that. What a pretentious prat, wearing that cloak wherever he went to emphasise that he was daddy’s favourite. Sacks sums it up – because of Joseph’s distance and difference murderous thoughts took hold of their hearts.
Distance and difference – the two D formula for stereotypes, prejudice and disaster. Keep people at a distance and you only see them in the blurriest of outlines. It’s then easy to perpetuate myths about them. “Have you heard about them? They are…”
It’s so different when you let people get close. Then you discover that when they are cut, they bleed. You might notice their silly sense of humour or their disarming humility. You spot their wildest hopes, and become aware of their deepest sorrows. Like you, they have unfounded fears and awkward lapses. Like you, they can be hurt, and like you, they might sometimes behave badly – and at other times show astonishing kindness. When we allow people to get close, well, they get close, and we see things very differently.
How Distance Escalates Division
But Joseph is not close when his brothers plan to kill him. He is there in the distance as an annoying object. They can speak about him, but he is too far away for them to speak with him. That is always a formula for disaster – speaking about people but not with them. Perhaps they thought they already knew him. After all, it is not as though they had never spoken. Oh my – they certainly remembered his bragging recollection of his strange dream. So fanciful, predicting a day when they would be bowing down to him. And talk about disrespectful. How dare he think he was better than them. Here they are doing the real work for their father – tending his flock – while Joseph is being molly coddled at home. Their anger escalates as they spur each other on. Murder is soon on the agenda. Distance puts you at great risk.
So does difference. Joseph simply was different. If you were his parents, Jacob and Rachel, you loved that about him. I’m sure he was quirky and funny and loved dressing up – which is probably why Jacob gave him that disastrous gift of a coat of many colours. Jacob meant no harm by giving Joseph that special garment, but oh the damage it caused. So much jealousy… Joseph was clearly seen as the favoured one, and that can place you in a dangerous spot. Much wiser to blend in, to be a little blah, another little vanilla photo copy of everyone else.
Joseph: Distant and Different
And so because Joseph is in the distance and different, murder finds its way onto the menu. In the end they settle for selling him as a slave – perhaps when he got closer and they saw his actual terror and how frail and vulnerable this teenager really was – well perhaps, just perhaps, they felt a stab of compassion. Now that they could see him up close, was he really that bad? Better to let him pass his days as a slave than in the grave. That would certainly stop him from being different. After all, no one more anonymous than a slave.
There are many ways to understand the tragic but eventually triumphant story of Joseph. So much hatred. So many wasted years. So many regrets. And the thread running through – distance and difference. But in the end, every barrier is broken down, for as Joseph notes in Genesis 50:20, what his brothers had intended for evil, God had worked for good.
Such a remarkable story – and pertinent today. What would happen if we allowed those who are distant to come close, and those who are different to widen our horizons?