Genesis 37-39, Psalm 13, Matthew 13
Genesis 37 – 39
Today, we embark on one of the great stories of the Bible – the story of Joseph, whose name means “may God add (other sons).” Years ago, I took our middle daughter, Marguerite, on a trip to London, where I had a series of meetings with Church leaders. She was wonderful and sat through many meetings, knitting or reading a book. Each evening, I took her out to dinner, and we went to the theater several times.
There was a limited selection of plays and musicals suitable for a 12-year-old girl. One evening, we went to buy tickets to Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, which was the longest-running musical in London at the time. “Oh that piece of….,” said the discount ticket salesman, using a cuss word. His sales pitch was not encouraging.
When we entered the theater, I spotted an empty balcony. It was not a good omen. Shortly, before the show began, they announced changes in several key performing roles. The musical did not start on time. Finally, an announcement was made that Joseph, the star, would not be played by the usual lead but was being replaced by another actor. We seemed destined to watch a terrible show. What turned out, however, was a magnificent musical that my daughter and I will always remember.
The story of Joseph and his brothers upon which the musical is based is a story with which everyone who has siblings can identify. There is jealously, boastfulness, anger, pride, divided loyalties, favoritism, revenge and forgiveness. It is the very stuff of which our daily lives are constructed.
The story speaks for itself and does not need a lot of explanation. Despite having had his name changed by God in Genesis 23 and 35, Israel is still referred to by the author of this section of Genesis as “Jacob.” Being the youngest son of his old age, Joseph is the apple of Jacob’s eye.
Joseph was 17, and he was a shepherd, like his father and his mother, and like Moses, David and many other biblical figures that were to follow him and attempt to serve the Lord faithfully. Joseph was doted on by his father, who had a special coat made for him. His siblings recognized their father’s favoritism and despised Joseph for it. Meanwhile, Joseph stayed close to home, assisting Bilhah and Zilpah, like his father has done for his grandmother, Rebekah.
Joseph was a dreamer, and he dreamed that several dreams that cast him in a leadership role with the rest of his family subservient to him. His brother’s scorned him when he shared his dreams. Even his father rebuked him. Dreams, however, play a powerful role throughout the Bible. We would be wise to pay more attention to our dreams for surely God can speak through them to us.
Joseph’s brothers plot to kill him, but Rueben, Jacob’s firstborn, and perhaps most responsible son, negotiates to have Joseph thrown in a pit, rather than outright killed, because he knew that he could later rescue his youngest brother from the pit.
Judah, Leah’s fourth-born son, whose name means “praise” in Hebrew, suggests selling Joseph to a caravan of travelling Ishmaelites (Gen. 37:25), who are referred to as “Midianites” in Gen. 37:36. Ever shrewd like his father, Judah recognizes the opportunity to make a profit. He also seems to wrestle with his own conscience as he seizes upon a middle way of dispatching Joseph without ending his life, “…for he is our own brother, our own flesh,” notes Judah. So, Joseph is sold for 20 pieces of silver.
Joseph’s precious robe is then dipped in the blood of a slaughtered goat. Surely, there is a sacrificial image here. The torn and blood-soaked robe is shown to his father, Jacob, who is devastated. “…I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning,” laments Jacob. (Gen. 37:25) How could children play such a cruel hoax upon their father? Yet, these are the sons of Jacob, the great deceiver. Surely, he has trained them well.
Chapter 38 abruptly interrupts the story. Back when I worked as a newspaper, a good copy editor often saved me when I had a paragraph or two completely out of place in an article that I had written. Here, we find an entire story inserted that has little to do with the story of Joseph and his brothers.
This chapter and the stories that it tell could bear much analysis. I am not a biblical scholar, but careful exploration of this story could be interesting. It begins in a most unusual way when we read that Judah married a Canaanite woman named Shua. In Gen. 38:3-4, we read that she bore him a son named Er and then a second son named Onan, which means “power” or “wealth.”
Two verses later, we read that Judah arranged for his son, Er, to marry Tamar. Surely, time has flown by quickly. Er was evil in God’s sight and so “…the Lord put him to death.” (Gen. 38:10) We are given no indication of what Er did to merit God’s wrath.
Wanting to insure that Er’s lineage continues and that Tamar, would eventually have children to care for her in her old age, Judah arranges for his second son, Onan, to father an offspring with Tamar. This practice was later mandated by Jewish law.
Onan half obliges and has sex with Tamar, but each time he does so he spills his semen on the ground. He has the joy of intercourse without the responsibility of continuing his brother’s lineage. In response, we are told that “What he did was displeasing in the sight of the Lord, and he put him to death also.”
Two things are important to note here. First, God is portrayed as quick to seek vengeance. We either do what God and authority figures tell us or we die. Part of what biblical scholars, clergy and those who help others to read the Bible must do is to restore God’s reputation in the Old Testament. The two biggest issues that I have encountered in assisting people read the entire Bible is that they are shocked by the amount of violence in it and by the varying portrayals of God in the Old and New Testament.
Many have said to me, “I really like the God of the New Testament. He is gentle, loving and forgiving, but the God of the Old Testament is angry, wrathful and quick to punish. Do we worship one or two different Gods?” At first, I was somewhat shocked to hear this question posed, but it makes sense. The portraits of God in the Old and New Testaments differ greatly. Clearly, God is portrayed in the Old Testament as being more violent, less patient and quicker to see vengeance.
My own personal view is that this comes from humans projecting onto God things that the writers of the Bible wanted people to believe about God. They viewed God as the universal enforcer punishing and killing those who violated laws or failed to worship their God. Over time, human understanding evolved and biblical writers realized that God was the ultimate source of love, healing and forgiveness and never actively destroys or harms people.
Much has been written on this topic, but the ultimate litmus test is to read through the New Testament and develop a fuller comprehension of God and let this guide us as we read through the Old Testament. This is why it is always good to read portions of the Old and New Testament together each day.
Hence, I do not believe that God exacts human life such as we read in Genesis 38: 7 and 38:10. These particular accounts were written by humans, and they do not accurately reflect the nature of God. What they do remind us of, however, is that if we sin significantly, there is always a price to be paid, and either we or others will suffer as a result of our sins.
The second point is that Onan did not fulfill what Judah commanded him to do and what Jewish law would later mandate. The Roman Catholic Church has used this text to oppose birth control and to forbid masturbation. I believe that this is a serious biblical misinterpretation. According to the Roman Catholic Church, God intends for each human sperm to have the capability of producing a child.
Hence, a teenager or a man who masturbates is violating God’s desire that each sperm is intended solely for human reproduction. Likewise, if a man and woman have sex and use artificial means to prevent impregnation, they are countering God’s divine will. This horrific theology has produced tremendous guilt, overpopulation and the birth of children who could not be provided for or who were unwanted.
Here, sandwiched within the great saga of Joseph, we discover a story that has greatly impact the world but has been grossly miss-interpreted by the Roman Catholic Church as well as many conservative Protestants. Today, we must challenge faulty interpretations of the Bible such as these while holding onto the great benefits of the Bible and the wisdom that God’s Word offers us each day.
The great blessing of Anglican theology is that we use what is classically called the “three-legged stool,” relying upon Scripture, tradition and reason to produce our theology. Some would also add human experience as a fourth leg to the stool, which I believe is strongly merited.
Hence, we begin by asking, “What does the Bible have to say about this subject?” We next ask, “What has the Church taught about it, especially as revealed by the Church Fathers and those theologians of the first five centuries?” Finally, we ask, “What does human reason teach us about this issue? Reason implies not only logic, but biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, anthropology, psychology, psychiatry, human developmental studies, technology, law, economics, etc.
Finally, it is wise to ask, “What does human experience reveal to us?” If we are debating issues about women or children, homosexuals, impoverished persons or persons of different races or religions, does it not make sense to speak directly to these people and listen to their experiences of life?
In beginning with Scripture, then examining the Church’s traditional teaching, and then applying human reason and listening to the experiences of others, Anglicans believe that we are more likely to discern the truth and discover a more balanced comprehension of matters that are crucial for daily living.
The story of Tamar and Judah continues to take a fascinating twist. Truly, this is great literature, which makes the reader ponder about the nature of the humanity. The story of Joseph then resumes in chapter 39, when Joseph becomes the target of his employer’s wife, Potiphar. Despite doing no wrong, he is falsely accused and imprisoned. The story is engaging, and it’s hard not to want to read through it in its entirety. Feel free to continue reading.
The key take away from this psalm is the tension found between the despondent author and the hopeful believer, who does not allow adversity to extinguish the flame of faith that guides him and offers hope.
The author asks God three questions. How long will God forget me? How long must I suffer? How long will my enemy triumph? Rather than succumbing to despair, the psalmist concludes by noting,
But I trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
because he has dealt bountifully with me. (Ps. 13:5-6)
What is critical to note here is that the author has trusted in God’s “steadfast” or hesed love, as it is called in Hebrew. This is the kind of love needed to keep a covenant. When you feel as though you are all alone in your marriage, work or life, holding down your best while others are not doing their part, steadfast love is the kind of love that continues to hang in and carry on. Steadfast love is a love borne of commitment, determination, faithfulness and perseverance.
Verse 5 begins in the past tense. “But I trusted in your steadfast love…” (Ps. 13:5) When we trust in God’s love each day, we make deposits into a spiritual bank account, like a holy 401K, which we can draw upon in the future, especially when we go through great challenges and adversity.
As a result, the psalmist can anticipate the future with hope and say, “…my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord.” He paints a picture of a brighter tomorrow, knowing that God “…has dealt bountifully with me.” God has been steadfast, and if we, too, are steadfast, the future will once again be bright. We can trust that with all of our heart.
Scholars generally agree that Mark’s Gospel was the earliest gospel to be written, dating it between 60 – 70 A.D. Matthew’s Gospel is generally believed to have been the second gospel to be written. Scholars date it around 70 – 110 A.D., with most scholars believing that it was written by at least 90 A.D.
Why did Matthew sense the need to write a second gospel, if the Gospel of Mark already existed? There are many reasons. Among the reasons why Matthew felt the need to write his own gospel include 1) he was writing to a different audience and a specifically Jewish audience 2) he had some stories and material available that Mark did not possess and 3) the earliest versions of Mark’s Gospel omitted the resurrection appearances of Jesus.
In addition, Mark portrayed the disciples as somewhat of a bungling group of individuals. If the Church was founded on these 12 men, later writers thought it vital to portray them in a better light. Hence, Matthew paints of portrait of brighter, more adept disciples, who are quicker to understand what Jesus is saying.
Clearly, understanding parables is a challenge for they can be understood on a variety of levels. Vast writings exist about Jesus’ parables. Hence, a parable is a living thing that cannot be easily summarized for all time. Few if any of them lend themselves to a single interpretation. We must wrestle with a parable like Jacob wrestling with God (Gen. 32:22-31) in order to discover what it is saying to us today.
Jesus told nearly 40 parables that are found in the gospels. Not all of them are told in each gospel. Luke’s Gospel, for example, tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son and the Unjust Judge, which are found in none of the other gospels.
One of my mentors, John Claypool, used to describe a parable as a picture which captures our attention and as we carefully study it the picture becomes transformed into a mirror, and we see ourselves in it. I have found this image to be very beneficial as I read the parables.
The first person introduced in the parable is generally its subject. Hence, when we read in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, “There was a man who had two sons…” The “father,” rather than the sons, is the focus on the parable. In the 13th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel we discover nine parables. The most important of these is the first parable, which is known as the Parable of the Sower.
In some ways, it is a parable of the entire Christian life, and it speaks to everyone who regularly reads the Bible. Here as elsewhere Jesus uses images from daily life to convey eternal truths. On this occasion, great crowds are attracted to him. So, he climbs into a boat and sits down, while the crowd stands on the beach. Speaking from the boat, Jesus’ voice travels across the water and can be heard better than if he stood on the shore and addressed the large group.
He tells them about a farmer. “Listen!,” begins Jesus. We are wise to remember that the Latin root for the word “listen” means both to hear and to obey. “A sower went out to sow,” says Jesus. (Matt. 13:3) Hence, the parable is about a profligate farmer, who casts seed carelessly in all directions.
Some seed falls on the hardened path, where the birds will devour it. Other seed falls on the rocky ground, where there is little soil, and it grows quickly but is soon scorched by the sun. Other seed falls among the thorns, where it grows and is soon choked. Some seed falls on the good soil, where it brings forth a magnificent harvest. “Let anyone with ears listen (or obey),” notes Jesus. (Matt. 13:9)
The parable essentially instructs us about reading God’s Word. Hence, it is vital for understanding what we are doing. Unlike Mark’s Gospel where Jesus turns in perplexity and says, “Do you not understand this parable?” (Mark 4:13), in Matthew Jesus does not scold the disciples nor do they reveal their ignorance. Rather, Matthew has Jesus explain his parable, but only to the disciples.
For the disciples had previously asked Jesus why he spoke in parables. He responded, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.” Clearly, Jesus is working first and foremost with an inner circle of leaders, whom he shall shape so profoundly that they will become the foundation of the Church. Many will benefit from his ministry. Scores will be healed. Thousands will glean wisdom from his teaching and preaching, but it is the handful of disciples with whom he devotes most of his time who will ultimately transform the world.
In Matthew 13:18-23 he therefore explains the Parable of the Sower to his disciples. He notes that when we receive God’s Word but do not understand it, Satan or “the evil one” will “snatch away what is sown in the heart.” (Matt. 13:19) There are definitely demonic forces that seek to corrupt us and derail us from following Jesus. These powers distort the image of God within us.
God’s Word is a powerful thing, but it has much competition. We can say that we do not have time to read God’s Word. We can lazily argue that it does not make sense to us. We can resist God’s Word because we do not want to heed its message. Pleasure, power, pride, temptation, sin and success are just a few of the things that threaten to prevent God’s Word from taking deep root within us.
Jesus speaks of people who receive the Word of God, find great joy in it, but do not let it transform their life. Hence, the Word is quickly forgotten, and the person moves on to other things. Others receive the Word, but are stifled by fear, anxiety or stress. It therefore yields no fruit in their lives.
There are others, however, who receive God’s Word, let it take deep root in their life, nurture and obey it and carry out what it asks of them to do. These persons are transformed and bear the incredible fruit of peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, which Paul speaks about in Galatians 5:22. This is the ultimate goal of God’s Word.
Jesus’ parables have an eternal quality to them. While fewer people devote their lives to farming each year, all of us can appreciate the imagery used by Jesus when he speaks about a mustard seed, wheat and weeds, yeast, buried treasure, fine pearls and a net thrown into the sea to catch fish.
“The kingdom of heaven is like…” notes Jesus in Matthew 13:44-48, telling three parables in quick succession. Jesus strives to show us what the kingdom of heaven resembles so that we who are formed in God’s image can take our part in the unfolding of God’s kingdom.
The prophet Isaiah is once again quoted, “This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet…” (Matt. 13:35) Jesus has a clear self-image, which is defined from Scripture and the words of Isaiah and the psalmist. Jesus knew whose he was, where he came from and where he was going. For now, the disciples, the crowds and all of us must listen carefully to his parables and obey what we hear so that we can find our place in the kingdom of God.
But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty. (Matt: 13:23)
Try not to study the Bible as something objective “out there.” The Bible is God’s Word revealed to us. We need to read it subjectively at first in order to let the Word of God breathe boldly into our lives.
How do you best receive truth from others? Do you appreciate when someone speaks directly to you about a concern or offers a clear criticism, or do you prefer a gentler and less direct approach? How does Jesus communicate truth? Does he do so directly or indirectly? How is it received?
Gracious God, your truth surpasses all understanding. Keep us humble. Help us never to forget that you are a Holy Mystery. Prevent us from trying to contain your infinite being within our finite minds. May we stand in awe of you. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania