Behind Door Number 3 – Free Joseph

Slave Market in Zanzibar, Tanzania
Monument to the Slave Market in Zanzibar, Tanzania. Photo credit: "Irene2005"

Jacob settled in the land where his father had lived as an alien, the land of Canaan. This is the story of the family of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was shepherding the flock with his brothers; he was a helper to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives; and Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father. Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves. But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him….

Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock near Shechem. And Israel said to Joseph, “Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem? Come, I will send you to them.” He answered, “Here I am.” So he said to him, “Go now, see if it is well with your brothers and with the flock; and bring word back to me.” So he sent him from the valley of Hebron. He came to Shechem, and a man found him wandering in the fields; the man asked him, “What are you seeking?” “I am seeking my brothers,” he said; “tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock.” The man said, “They have gone away, for I heard them say, ‘Let us go to Dothan.’“ So Joseph went after his brothers, and found them at Dothan. They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him. They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.” But when Reuben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.” Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him” —that he might rescue him out of their hand and restore him to his father.

So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the long robe with sleeves that he wore; and they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it. Then they sat down to eat; and looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels carrying gum, balm, and resin, on their way to carry it down to Egypt. Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers agreed. When some Midianite traders passed by, they drew Joseph up, lifting him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. And they took Joseph to Egypt.
– Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28

The second and third paragraphs bring together two versions of this story. In the first, Reuben gets to be the one to save Joseph’s life. In the second, Judah gets to be the “hero.” But neither brother is a beacon of light here. Reuben is a crass opportunist, hoping to be the one to gain advantage over the others by “proving” his loyalty to their father in the act of delivering his favorite back safe and sound – except then it all goes wrong. Judah’s appeal is not much better. What kind of moral argument is: “Let’s not kill him, since he’s our brother, let’s just sell him”?

And don’t let the story’s opening justify what these brothers did. Trying to argue that Joseph somehow deserved what he got for being so uppity doesn’t cut the mustard. They sold him as a slave. Period. The story ought to be the occasion for us to think about how we have sold out our brothers (and sisters), and how we desperately try to rationalize our choices to do what we know is absolutely unconscionable. If you want a three point sermon, you can focus on three typical rationalizations:

  1. They deserved what they got. Sometime in the past, someone brought a bad (false) report about us or someone close to us. They upset the family’s (read also office’s or church’s or nation’s) sensibilities. They were too insolent, offensive, snooty, proud, or ambitious. So, we had to do what we had to do.
  2. I was just doing what was necessary to get ahead. See a need, fill a need. Joseph doesn’t want to die, Jacob wants his son back. I can persuade them to hold off, and then I can leverage that into a better deal down the road. It’s not just back door deals in business and politics.
  3. It was the lesser of two evils. Except that most of the time, we tell ourselves that we are choosing between two evils, when those two evils aren’t the only options. You didn’t really have to choose between one or the other. You could have chosen door number 3 – free Joseph. The average is the enemy of the good.

I’m not trying to make you feel bad. I’m just saying that if we can learn anything from this, it’s that no matter how you try to make it seem right, or justify it later on, selling someone out is still selling them out. And selling out always comes at a catastrophic human cost.

Today there are more people in slavery worldwide than at any time in history, as many as 27 million. They make the cocoa that goes into your Hershey’s chocolate bar. They make your Converse All-Star shoes. They are forced into the sex “industry” and to wage war as child soldiers. Their lives are no happier than the children memorialized in Zanzibar. We can tell ourselves that there’s nothing we can do. But that’s a rationalization, too. To do nothing, and to say nothing, is to be one of the other 9 brothers in this story, who are never mentioned by name, who said nothing, who went along to get along, and did nothing to stop the unconscionable from happening.

I wonder how many preachers will have the guts to say something about it this Sunday. What will you say? What will you do?