Favoritism - Genesis 37
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There’s an old story, used be told by a minister named Clovis Chappell 150 years ago, a story of two paddleboats. They left Memphis at about the same time, traveling down the Mississippi River to New Orleans. As they traveled side by side, sailors from one boat made a few remarks about the snail’s pace of the other boat. Words were exchanged. Challenges were made, and the race began. Competition became vicious as the two boats roared through the Deep south with their cargo. One boat began falling behind, not enough fuel. There had been plenty of coal for the trip, but not enough for race like this. As the boat dropped back, a clever young sailor took some of the ship’s cargo and tossed it into the ovens. When the sailors saw that the supplies burned just as well as the coal, they fueled their boat with the material they had been assigned to transport. They ended up winning the race, but arrived empty handed. In our lives, God has entrusted cargo to each of us as well. Friends, family, children, spouses. Our job is to do our part in seeing that this cargo reaches its destination. Yet when the program takes priority over people, people often suffer. How much cargo do we sacrifice in order to achieve the number one slot? How many people never reach the destination because of the aggressiveness of a competitive captain?
Today is the start of a brand new sermon series called Dreams of Desolation, and we are going all the way back into the Old Testament, traveling with the nation of Israel in their journey into Egypt and then out again. It’s part of a larger series that we’re going to come back to throughout the year called “There and Back Again.” Actually, to give you a little peek behind the curtain – this year, coming out of COVID-19, in a lot of ways it really feels like we are rebuilding the church. And so for the next year, little bit more than a year, we’re are going to be following two origins stories. In the New Testament – we’re reading the book of Acts and checking out the birth of the early church. In the old testament, we’re following the birth of the nation of Israel as they go from a family with twelve sons and grow into the twelve tribes of a country. Lots of rebuilding and revival language because that’s what we’re going to need as we rebuild our church.
And so we begin in Genesis chapter 37. Now before we dive into the story we need a little bit of background to help us understand. And the background for this particular chapter is deep family disfunction. And when I say that, I mean DEEP family disfunction. Alright, how many of you have family that you are embarrassed to talk about? So I have a theory that every single family is super messed up, but nobody admits it and so we all just sit there in our lonely island thinking our family is the only crazy one in the world. Everybody else seems so normal, but secretly we have all the weirdos at thanksgiving. Like young people, we all have like that crazy uncle or grandparent and every time you hang out you’re worried their going to launch into one of their bizarre theories. Or for the older generation, I think every single one of you probably has a nephew or grandkid or even great grandkid, and you just look at the way they live life or the decisions they make, the dancing their doing for strangers on ticky toc and the only word for it is “baffling.” But here’s the thing – Jacob puts you all the shame. Okay, compared to Jacob and his crew, your weirdest family members are like Leave It To Beaver Perfect. When I get done telling you about these weirdos you are going to feel so good about how messed up your family is. Yes, maybe Aunt Mildred threatened the mailman with a shotgun because she thought he was a secret government agent – but at least I don’t have Jacob’s family.
To give you a little insight into the mess, you gotta back up to chapter 29 when Jacob gets married. So broad strokes, here’s how it went. Jacob meets this girl Rachel, and he’s like – she’s perfect, I want to marry her. Dad says, “Ok, you work for me a couple years and I’ll give you my daughter.” Rachel had an older sister Leah, Jacob has no interest in Leah. Does not want to marry her. Day of the wedding comes, Dad brings LEAH to Jacob’s tent. And it must have been super dark or something, because the next morning Jacob rolls over and it’s not the wife he’s expecting. Why is Leah in my bed? Laban, the dad, says “Oh, well if you want Rachel – you have to work more, for me.” So Jacob works for Laban another seven years and then gets to marry the wife he actually wanted. So he’s married to these sisters, but it’s super obvious that he’s only in love with one of them. Which, let’s just think for a second how Leah must feel in this situation. Stuck with a husband who loves your sister, but doesn’t love you. Just awful.
Then, there’s this weird competition. Back in this time period, one of the greatest desires of women was to have children. That gave them value and power and status in that society. If you could give your husband sons, you were a good wife. Now God saw that Leah was not loved, so he blessed her with sons. Rachel had no kids, but Leah had four sons. Now Rachel saw that she had no kids, and so she said to Jacob, “here’s my servant Zilpah. Have babies with her, and they’ll be like my kids.” So Zilpah has two sons, with Jacob. Then Leah responds and says, “oh yeah? Well here’s my servant Bilhah. Have babies with her and they’ll be added to my list of sons. So Bilhah has two sons with Jacob. Then Leah has two more sons. Now, I want you to see that all of these problems come from the fact that Jacob loves one wife and doesn’t love the other. It’s almost like all these Old testament stories of polygamy are actually arguments against polygamy. Like, there’s never a moment in the Old Testament where it says, “hey this guy had a lot of wives and it worked out super awesome for him.” It’s always miserable, it’s always drama, it’s always conflict. Jacob has six sons with Leah, two with each servant, and none with Rachel. Anybody feeling better about their disfunction? Then, finally – Rachel has a son named Joseph. She actually has two sons eventually, she dies in childbirth with her final son Benjamin – but he’s not in the story yet.
So we walk into chapter 37, with this family where everybody kind of hates everybody else. Jacob has twelve sons with four women who compete for his attention and love. [read v.2-4]. Well that didn’t take long. Verse 2, Joseph is a tattle-tale who rats out his brothers. Verse 3, dad loves him the most and gives him an ornate robe, a special gift that nobody else gets. Verse 4, shockingly the brothers all hate his guts. [read v.5-8]. Joseph has this dream, “you’re all going to bow down to me.” And I want you to see that phrase at the end, “they hated him all the more.” This comes up over and over. To recap – Joseph is a little snot-nosed tattle tale, daddy’s favorite who gets special gifts, and add to that delusions of grandeur. When I was a kid reading this story I don’t remember wanting to side with the older brothers. But so far? I’m not going to lie, I kinda sympathize with the older brothers. [read v.9-10]. He has ANOTHER dream! And this time, even dad’s like – “dude, what are you even saying?” And this final dream was just the last straw for these brothers. So then the story shifts to the brothers plotting what they’re going to do. How do we get rid of the brat?
And so really the whole rest of the chapter is the brothers going through a series of plans. Plan A, Plan B, Plan C. First they figure, let’s kill him. Grab him, take his stupid coat, and kill him. But then one of the brothers, Reuben (who made great sandwiches), said, “ehhhhhh, how about plan B.” Let’s just drop him down a well, and leave him there instead. Then we don’t have his death on our hands, he’s just gone. So they go with Plan B, verse 23, [read v.23-24]. Then, after they’ve taken care of Joseph, they sit down to have a meal – because, of course, revenge makes ya hungry. And while they’re eating, probably Reuben’s sandwiches, a caravan of foreigners comes through. Ishmaelites, come from Gilead and heading to Egypt. One of the brothers, Judah pipes up, “how about plan C? we’re not going to kill him, leaving him in the well is no good – how bout we sell him?” So they sell Joseph to the Midianite merchants on their way to Egypt. And the chapter concludes with the coverup and mourning. [read v.31-36]. Ornate robe is all ripped up and covered in blood – what else could Jacob think, and so he mourns. Meanwhile, Joseph arrives in Egypt and we’ll pick up that story next week.
Sometimes I read the Old Testament, and I get a little stuck. Like, I read this chapter and I wonder – what on earth am I supposed to do with this? Every scripture I look for two things. What can I learn about God? And what can I learn about loving my neighbor? And I struggled with it a little bit this week, because this story is so dysfunctional, they’re so awful to each other. And then I remembered – not all the stories in the bible are the good examples. Like, sometimes folks will say, “well they did it in the bible, so that makes it okay” and you should not listen to those people. The bible is FULL of bad examples. Especially in the history section. Real history is not just the good stories, not just the heroic stories. Real history is just the stories that happened, good and bad – and the bible has them both. Stories of people who are just the worst. And sometimes, like today, the reason we study them is to see the contrast between humanities garbage, and God’s glory. Jacob, the dad, destroyed his family with his favoritism. He favored Rachel over Leah. He favored Joseph over his brothers. And that sort of lop-sided love caused jealousy, division, hatred, and ultimately he made his favorite son’s life a lot harder.
But, Jacob is not God. the love of God is so, so very different than the love of Jacob. The word we use for God’s love is UNCONDITIONAL. God’s love is without condition. He loves us while we are still sinners. He loves us in our brokenness. He loves us no matter who we are, no matter where we’ve been – through Jesus we are given the gift of God’s grace, unconditionally. So what I want you to remember today is that God replaces favoritism with unconditional love. And it’s such a simple teaching, but it is so hard for us to believe. Truth is, deep down in our hearts – we struggle to believe in unconditional love. Some of us walk around and we think, “I am not God’s favorite.” Christians have this terrible habit of trying to earn God’s love. Rather than resting in God’s love, being transformed BY God’s love, we turn it into this rat race of good deeds. We’re like Leah, if I just have enough babies then Jacob will love me. We’re like the older brothers, “if I get rid of the competition, then dad will love me.” But God’s love is not Jacob’s love. God’s love is deeper, and wider, and most steadfast than any love we can find in the dysfunctional families of this world. God replaces favoritism with unconditional love. And here’s the problem – God’s love for you is so different than anything we find in this world, we have so much trouble believing it. Like there’s just NOTHING to compare it to, because our world is full of favoritism. SO when I say, “God love you unconditionally” But what about my past? God loves you unconditionally. Okay, but what about some of the thoughts I have deep in my heart. God loves you unconditionally. Right, sure – but I mess up more than some of these other people in my church. God loves you unconditionally. Right, but I don’t have as many gifts as my little brother Joseph, I can’t do that much, I’m not impressive when you hold me up against some of my brothers and sister in church. When you compare us… - God loves you unconditionally. You don’t change yourself, and come to God and earn his love. You have to God, as you are, and let the steadfast, unchanging, relentless love of God wash over you and your doubts. Let God’s love get into your soul, let it fill up every crack and crevice of your doubt and push away every fear. God loves you unconditionally. It is the greatest, most satisfying love you can ever experience, head and shoulders above even the best love you can get from this broken and dysfunctional world. Friends, it is meant to be different in the house of God. In this place we do not find the best version of the world’s love. No, that’s not good enough. In this place we are meant to encounter a radical, divine love that is so powerful it can literally change our priorities, change our goals, change our very lives.
God replaces favoritism with unconditional love. And from that truth comes a challenge: Don’t be picky with your love. If God can change our lives with his relentless, unconditional love, we can take his love as a model for love in our lives. We can take this precious gift of love that Jesus demonstrates and hold it up as an goal to shoot for. We have seen the damage Jacob did to his family by loving some and not loving others, and we know this is not the way. So don’t be picky with your love. Don’t play favorites with family. Now this lesson applies to everyone – married, single, women, children – don’t be picky with your love. But men, I’m going to pick on the men for a second – because it seems pretty clear to me that just about all of this is Dad’s fault. Right? Jacob played favorites. Look at the way Jacob was messing around with all these women. Men, if you are married, be loyal to your wives. Love one wife fully. Let God’s love overflow from you into your marriage. You don’t need to be messing around having lots of kids with lots of women. In Jacob’s world that was totally acceptable, the culture said – this is totally fine, this is totally okay, but guess what? It was not! I don’t care if the culture says it’s no big deal. It’s a big deal. If you’re single, don’t be messing around with multiple women. Love one woman fully. If you’re with someone, and you’re living together, and you’ve got kids together, but you’re not committing – what are you doing? Respect the women in your life. Man up. Let your partner know she is valuable to you, she is worth all the love you’ve got to give. Let your wife know that she is loved, that you value her and honor her as the gift from God that she is. Men, if you have children, love your children. Equally. Invest in your children. Equally. Don’t pick one and play favorites. Come on, man. It drives me crazy, because it’s so simple and yet for some reason the modern world is okay with men being babies. Nobody asks men to step up anymore. But I’m gonna do it - Men, step up in your households. Love your wife fully. Love your children fully. And if you’re a single person – the rules don’t change. Let the unconditional love of God overflow from your life into the people around you. Don’t be picky with your love.
The story of Israel’s journey into Egypt and back again starts with deep family dysfunction. With favoritism and jealousy, with boasting and revenge and slavery and lies. But hidden in there, hidden in the mess is a simple truth – God has something better in mind. God replaces favoritism with unconditional love. And so I’ll leave you with this. May you, in your life, let the unconditional love wash over your doubts. Then take that love you have been given and bring that to your family, to your friends. Don’t be picky with your love. Amen.
 In the Eye of the Storm by Max Lucado Word Publishing, 1991, pp. 97-98.