How would you describe your family? My description might go like this: Dramatic. Quirky and Creative. Outdoorsy and Eco-friendly. Open books. Welcoming. (I have to laugh as Teen adds: “Zookeepers!” With twelve pets and four people living in approximately 1600 square feet, our home often feels like a small zoo).
Same question, different audience: How do you describe your family in the secret regions of your heart and head? What might you say if you could shake the shame, if you were free to share the sins holding hostage the generations of your family? Everything you said before would still be true, but typically there is so much more to the story than we speak out loud.
Fortunately we can turn to stories to see families just as bad—and often so much worse—than our own. The Bible depicts Joseph’s family as a flat-out mess. His grandfather Isaac (Genesis 26) and great-grandfather Abraham (Genesis 12) were prone to lying. His father Jacob (encouraged by his grandmother Rebekah) was a dirty cheater (Genesis 27).
Each had redeeming qualities, of course. They were faithful and unfaithful, saints and sinners. Their sins were their own and they got played by others, at least wrapped up in the complicated family-dynamic mess.
Joseph’s father Jacob fell head-over-heels in love with Rachel, so much so that he worked hard labor for seven years to earn her hand in marriage. He got cheated, however, and found himself married to Rachel’s older (and less attractive) sister, Leah. He married the girl of his dreams within days, but had to work yet another seven years before he could leave with his brides.
Next came baby problems: Leah had four babies before Rachel had one, so Rachel gave Jacob her handmaiden (repeating the family drama of Sarai giving maidservant Hagar to Abraham, resulting in Ishmael’s birth—Genesis 16), who had some babies. Leah couldn’t be outdone, so she gave Jacob her handmaiden as well: more babies. Finally Rachel has one baby (Joseph) and then another (Benjamin), and she died in childbirth with Benjamin. [I have one husband and two sons (see “dramatic” in my family description) and cannot begin to imagine three “extra wives” + all their strong-willed sons… Egads! Oh, and yes, there were at least two daughters: Dinah gets a name (and a terrible story—Genesis 34); and Genesis 37:35 mentions “all (Jacob’s) sons and daughters.” These poor women living in an unabashedly patriarchal society…].
Jacob’s beloved Rachel has died, and Joseph is Rachel’s firstborn son. So Jacob plays favorites, symbolized by the coat of many colors he gave his newly beloved, setting Joe apart as favorite and as white-versus-blue collar labor. Joe plays right into the family drama by snitching on his brothers’ bad behavior and naively sharing his (prophetic) dreams about his family bowing down to him.
Joe’s brothers retaliate by conniving against and betraying their brother; profiting on his “death” (would you sell your brother into slavery?) while lying to one another—Reuben would have rescued Joe from the cistern had he had the chance, and then what?—before they feign to comfort their father, grieving his son’s bloody death by animal. Aren’t those brothers animals? And can’t you sympathize with their feelings a smidge, if not with their actions?
Hard stop: Genesis 37 doesn’t explicitly mention “GOD.” Joseph’s dreams point to God—dreams in the Bible always signal prophetic interruption—and yet, no mention of God Himself. And doesn’t that also feel true? Sometimes our families are so down-right messy and we feel like God has absented Himself.
I believe it was St. John of the Cross who coined the phrase “dark night of the soul,” when it feels like God stops answering, has turned His phone to silent, maybe not just busy but uncaring. Individuals feel it—faithful and faithless—and so can families. I can point to several periods during which my family experienced God’s silence. Where did He go? Doesn’t He care?
Joseph’s crazy mixed-up family gives me hope. It may seem God was absent, the circumstances definitely seemed overwhelming, and yet God was at work. God orchestrated bad events to bring about good outcomes, in Joe’s case, salvation for not only Egypt but Israel as well. Those who betrayed became those who were saved.
Today our church family observed communion. After I have prayerfully received the elements, one of my favorite times of each month happens when I prayerfully watch as my church family receives the elements. Today I reflected on family. After ten years in this church, I know so many family stories: parents who’ve lost children, children who’ve lost parents, spouses separated by divorce or death.
So many heartaches of so many varieties. And yet these people have been–not perfectly, but still–faithful. As a church family, we have an extra level of support for our nuclear and extended families. We offer one another God’s grace and love and strength in the good times and the hard. God’s family is a gift to our families, one of the ways God cares for our families. He cares for the individuals in families. He works, despite our mess, to produce salvation and receive glory. God is good—all the time!
Share briefly about your siblings and where you fall in the family order.
Read Genesis 37.
Describe Joseph’s family and its dynamics (where Joe fell in his family, his relationship with father/brothers, etc).
What do you learn about Joseph from these stories?
Where do you see God in Joseph’s early stories?
How do you think Joseph felt when his brothers turned on him? Do you imagine his dreams gave him hope as his life took a dramatic turn?
Have you endured a messy family situation during which it felt like God was absent? How did you handle it?
What helps you to hope in God when life is hard?
Why do you think God allows families to be so complicated?
Share something you think you have done well in your family, whether family of origin or current family.
What role does God play in your current family?
What is Jesus saying to you through this study, and how will you respond?
Pray for your family and for families you know, that we will hope in God at all times.
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