Sunday, March 6, 2011

Jacob's Sons Lie to Jacob


Dr. Martha Edwards, a psychologist, is Director of the Developing Child and Family Program at the Ackerman Institute; she is a specialist in the “favored child syndrome” field and in her practice deals with favored children, un-favored children, parents who make those calls, and the whole family damaged and derailed by parental favoritism of one child over another. When she begins working with a family hurting from the results of this unhealthy syndrome, one of the first facts she attempts to ascertain is why this parent-child behavior pattern has happened. The favored child may be favored by one or both parents in a two-parent household; or, less healthily, each parent may favor a different child. In a two-parent, two-child home, at least each child has someone to favor her or him. If there are more than two children, the problems for the un-favored child or children could be worse. She or he realizes that neither of two possible parents makes her or him the favorite. How did this begin? Why does this continue?

Dr. Edwards says that the most common reason is that the child who becomes the favored child has a temperament easier to deal with than the un-favored child or children, and of course what is easier to deal with varies greatly from one parent to the next. Similarly, the favored child’s natural way of approaching life is more admired by the parent who favors her or him than is the case with the un-favored child or children. For example, a parent may admire the spunk of a child who is a take charge kind of person in the making while not admiring passive people, especially whiney ones, even if one of those people is that parent’s own child; now the parent in this case may be a take charge person who likes that personal trait, or the parent may be one of those passive, whiney types who hates that trait in herself or himself and, rather naturally therefore, in her or his un-favored child or children.

Some other reasons one child might be preferred over her or his siblings is the child’s gender. There have been and remain cultures around the world who, for example, favor male children over female children. This was clearly the case in the Hebrew and Jewish cultures that produced the Hebrew Bible and gave a foundation to the values of Jesus and his earliest followers too.

I was in seminary with a missionary kid whose parents had served on Africa before being brought back to the United States to work in an administrative role at the mission board. The African culture in which he’d been raised favored males, regardless of where they came in the birth order. He was the baby of the family, the third child born after two sisters. How much the family allowed John to be favored wasn’t known outside the family; maybe not at all. Still, there were frequent jokes, at least they sounded like jokes--you know how that works, about the favored son thing in many social gathering with this lovely family.

In China today, infant girls are imperiled. To control population, each married couple is permitted by the government to have one child and one child only. Because a son is of greater value to the family in terms of societal influence and moneymaking potential, parents prefer a son who can make them proud during his growing up years and then take care of them in their old age in a country where there is no social service support for aging parents; if anyone is to take care of them, it will have to be their child. The wealthy aren’t as troubled about care in old age as they are able to save enough money to see that they will be taken care of in their golden years; even so, they prefer a son.

What this has led to, tragically, is the willingness of some families to murder a baby girl at or soon after birth so the parents can try again for a male child. You’re already thinking about the most logical problem with this mentality. Men can produce children on their own; females, if for no other reason, are necessities.

There were some experimental approvals of certain families being allowed to have two children for observation to see if this 30-something year old policy was still functional. The Chinese government decided that it was, so in about 2009 the law was extended at least another decade.

Kids want and need to think of their parents as on their side no matter what, but that’s not always the case. Obese children who suffer ridicule away from home, especially at school, come home to parents who may not ridicule them, but who certainly favor their trim or toned siblings. Small-minded parents may also favor the child with few or no adolescent acne issues over the poor kid who has to struggle with the physical and emotional ravages of acne.

When no obvious reason for favoritism of one child over another is evident, Dr. Brown goes on a search for circumstances of the favored child’s birth. A parent who loses a parent to death shortly before a child is born may favor that child over the others simply because she or he is a reminder of how joy can follow sorrow. A child who is born premature but who survives against the odds may be a favored child from there on out. In exactly the same way, a child who struggles through an illness and makes it, may well be the favored child of one or both parents simply because the parents realize how closely they came to losing that precious child to this world.

A child who is born after the parents thought they couldn’t have children any more, especially if that child comes along a little later than most parents have kids, may be a favored child. And why not, that child is living proof that the father is still kicking in the lovemaking department, and the mother feels a little bit like super woman to be told post-menopause that some feisty little egg went and got herself fertilized after all eggs were supposed to be gone or retired. Those parents may quickly lose those boosts to their vanity after 17 consecutive nights with no all night sleep.

If parents begin having marital problems, Dr. Brown has discovered that the child who is least like the spouse about to be kicked to the curb may quickly, suddenly became the favored of child of the parent who wants to be rid of a spouse who is much more like another child who just as quickly, suddenly becomes un-favored.

When parents play favorites with their children, both the favored and the un-favored children suffer. The un-favored children feel the rejection of being inadequate. She or he isn’t inclined to like self and will frequently, therefore, fall into patterns of low self-esteem and may easily become depressed. A child who doesn’t feel favored by a parent may lose for life the possibility of healthy self-esteem.

Being a favored child may not be a picnic, says Dr. Brown. She or he may feel guilty, knowing that one or both parents favor her or him over the siblings the favored child loves. The favored child also gets the unwritten and unspoken message that in order to stay in that favored slot, and it does have its rewards, there are standards to be upheld. This is to say, once the favored child displays traits or behaviors not on the approved list, she or he can fall from grace faster than the rich lawmakers in this country can come up with yet another reason the poor really should have no rights at all.

The only real way to avoid this pattern is to avoid homogenized approaches to parenting. Each parent must have a special, individualized, and somewhat private relationship with each child so not only are there family activities, but also there are times when a parent spends time with one child at a time, doing that child’s favorite activities and living out undivided attention to that child for this slice of time. If there must be family votes taken from time to time, each child must have a chance to express her or his opinion without interference or ridicule from any other family member. When the vote is taken, the majority must rule. We parents must never pretend to empower children only to yank the power with which we appeared to bless them right out from under their feet.


If you happened to be here last week, or if you read the sermon or listened to the podcast, you know we ended our story of Jacob on a sad as well as an unresolved note. Jacob had lied to his elderly, blind father, Isaac, and gotten by with it, to his financial benefit.

I’m not a karma guy myself, but I will just point out that in today’s story the tables are turned. Not one of Jacob’s sons lie to him, but ten of the twelve lie to their father. Some would say this is the conclusion to the story last week that seemed to have no real conclusion.

Regarding the lying of children, adult children, to their father in a culture where respect of parents was an integral part of religious law, some would say, “Law or no law, he had it coming. He through an elaborate scheme, which his mother helped concoct, took advantage of his father’s age and disability expressly for reasons of greed and selfishness.” Some would say, “What goes around comes around.” Some would say, “Karma’s a witch.” Some would say, “Que sera sera.” Some would say, “There’s only another half an hour left in this Gathering.”

The etiology of the big lie before us today was a favored child dynamic in Jacob’s household. Jacob’s two younger sons, numbers eleven and twelve out of twelve, Joseph and Benjamin, were born to him by his favored wife, Rachel, who died giving birth to baby Benjamin. Both Joseph and Benjamin were favored children because of who their mother was. Benjamin was the baby in the family, and the older brothers understood how the last child often is babied. Joseph was next to last, though, and all he had going for him was his mama. Perhaps the favored treatment of Joseph had begun before Rachel’s death, before Benjamin was born. Maybe Rachel herself had urged it along. Whatever the reason, Joseph was the pomegranate of his father’s eye.

Coddling was one sign of Joseph’s favored status. The division of work responsibilities among the sons was another indication that the older sons simply weren’t held in the same high regard as was Joseph. Then, there was the blatant, unbalanced gift giving. Joseph got the nicer gifts; parents, sensible and fair parents, know very well that there must be great similarity in the value and visual appeal among gifts given to a family of children. Children will notice if one sibling gets a nicer gift.

Interestingly, or oddly, enough, depending on your point of view, the lightening rod for the brotherly hatred of Joseph was a special garment that Jacob bought for Joseph. Some translators along the way misinterpreted what the writer of Genesis was trying to describe. The coat--it was actually an indoors garment, not an outdoor garment for weathering the elements--was taken by translator after translator to have irked the brothers because it was brightly colored and beautiful to look at. In reality, and I notice that Sir Andrew Lloyd Weber has still not changed this in his musical despite my many letters to him. He still calls his musical, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat.” The garment, alas, was not multicolored; chances are, even nomadic leaning women didn’t wear multicolored garments. If someone in a household were going to wear them, and if the various dyes were available to people on the move or at least ready to be on the move with little notice, they likely would have been used in women’s clothing, not men’s.

The thing about the infamous garment of Jacob’s favored son, Joseph, was its long sleeves. The long sleeves were a blatant, visual reminder that Joseph didn’t do outdoor work. Any tasks assigned to him, if there were any, were inside chores. The older ten brothers had short-sleeved garments, necessities and not gifts at that, showing any observer that they did the outside work. They herded the sheep in the relentless sun. They traveled from huge pasturing area to huge pasturing area to care for the sheep that kept the father wealthy knowing once the money was all divided up at his death it might be nothing to laugh at, but they weren’t going to be wealthy enough to lean back for the rest of their lives and rely on servants to get the work done. Older sons consigned to sweaty, sometimes dangerous, outdoor work; baby Benjamin; and Daddy’s pet in his long-sleeved, indoor only toga.

Because the older sons didn’t make it all the way home for dinner every evening, depending on their herding locales, this didn’t happen every night, but certainly every time they all sat down to a meal together, Joseph, intentionally or not, was pouring salt into open, emotional wounds, always wearing his long-sleeved garment to meals and making sure to call attention to the long sleeves when he was trying to pass one of his brothers the dinner bread. “Reuben, the bread hasn’t made it around to you; let me pass it--OOPS, almost got my sleeve in the olive oil...can’t let that happen, can we, Daddy?” Jacob smiled, and the older ten brothers seethed.

To make matters worse (could they be worse in terms of family dysfunction?), Joseph started having these dreams, and he interpreted them to build himself up and suggest that his brothers just didn’t measure up to him. That is to say, Jacob held him in special esteem because he deserved it. He was, in fact, better than his ten older brothers. It would have been one thing to have the dreams and keep the interpretations to himself or share the interpretations just with his father, but no, no, no. Joseph waited until his brothers had trudged from a long day or a long period of several days of herding sheep, sweaty and exhausted, that Joseph would drone on about his dreams of superiority while his hungry brothers tried to maintain enough of an appetite to take in some much needed nourishment.

There were two dreams Joseph said he dreamed that, when he interpreted them, made his brothers irate at him, which by this point didn’t take much. In the first dream, Joseph and his brothers were in the field binding grain into sheaves. His brothers started dying laughing when Joseph told them this dream. Joseph had never worked outdoors a day in his life. He wouldn’t know a sheaf from a sheik. In any case, when the binding of sheaves was nearing completion, Joseph’s single sheaf--that’s all he’d been able to manage even in his own dream of self-aggrandizement. Each of his brothers had bound several bushels of grain into sheaves. Joseph’s single sheaf, in the dream, stood up, and, lo and behold, all the sheaves his brothers had bound bowed down in honor of Joseph’s sheaf. The obvious interpretation was that the day was coming when he would have dominion over his brothers.

“Stupid dreamer,” they called him. He seemed to be forgetting that there would come a day when Jacob would die, and the law of land would give his firstborn, Reuben, something like half of his estate, dividing up the other half among the eleven younger brothers. Reuben couldn’t wait for that great day. Finally, his rightful superiority over Joseph would be reestablished.

There was another dream, a little more complicated to interpret. In this second dream, the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to Joseph. Oh, brother! Joseph’s implications of what this dream promised made even his utterly devoted father angry with him. Jacob, his father, was the sun. The moon was Leah, the mother of several of the other brothers, still living. The eleven brothers were same eleven, including young Benjamin, who had bowed down to the sheaf of Joseph in the first dream.

As dinner was breaking up, and each member of the family going in her or his own direction, some of the brothers began to say to each other, “This is enough. This is WAY more than enough. This kook is over the top by now; he has got to go. We have to find some way to get rid of this pompous dreamer if we ever expect to have any kind of real life again.”


One day when the ten older brothers were a distance from home and couldn’t get back home for nourishment, Father Jacob sent Joseph to take food to them. He seemed happy to have taken on that task, but when the brothers saw him coming, the ten of them were in agreement that this was the perfect opportunity to get rid of him. Several of the ten were so angry they agreed without discussing the matter that the thing to do was to put their kid brother to death; only because of the intervention of Jacob’s firstborn son and Joseph’s oldest brother, Reuben, was Joseph spared from murder at the hands of his own brothers--a group re-creation of the Cain and Abel story. Reuben said, “He’s a jerk, and has worked my last nerve just as he has each of you; but he’s our brother. We can’t kill our brother no matter how much we hate him, no matter how much he gets on our nerves. There’s a pit over there; let’s throw him in the pit and let nature take its course without the shedding of any blood.”

On the surface, leaving someone to broil under the sun’s rays without food or water seems more cruel than instant death, but there’s a hint in the story that Rueben had in mind finding a way to keep Joseph from dying and getting him back roughed up but not harmed to the father who loved him so much.

The one thing all brothers are agreed on is ripping that infernal long-sleeved robe off of him before tossing him in the pit. Then, they sat down to lunch--the lunch, by the way, that they wouldn’t have had if not for Joseph. While eating, they saw a band of Ishmaelite merchants coming their way on camels. The brothers had another idea, a profitable idea, which would keep Joseph alive at least as long as he was in their sight. They sold their brother as a slave to the Ishmaelite merchants.

Reuben seems not to have been in on the sale. He returns from somewhere, maybe a pit stop, to find Joseph, and he rips his garments, which was one sign of mourning or intense regret in their culture.

In the mean time, the other brothers want to get on with their lives without Joseph around to keep them reminded of how un-favored they were in their father’s eyes in comparison to him. This is how the writer of Genesis told the climax to the story:

Then they took Joseph’s robe, slaughtered a goat, and dipped the robe in the blood. They had the long robe with sleeves taken to their father, and they said, “This we have found; see now whether it is your son’s robe or not.” He recognized it, and said, “It is my son’s robe! A wild animal has devoured him; Joseph is without doubt torn to pieces.” Then Jacob tore his garments, and put sackcloth on his loins, and mourned for his son many days. All his sons and all his daughters sought to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted, and said, “No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.” Thus his father bewailed him.

The older nine or ten brothers--we’re not sure if Reuben participated in the deception--lie to their father, but they do so indirectly. They dipped the robe they resented so much into goat’s blood, and the way the story is told we have reason to believe that they didn’t take the robe to their father but had that done by some third party. In any case, Jacob draws the only conclusion he can--that Joseph has been torn to pieces by a wild animal, and he braces to carry his heavy grief to his grave and to his shadowy life in the abode of the dead.

The sons are back in time to join their sisters in comforting or trying to comfort their father, but there is no comfort. The lie the brothers had told, either directly or indirectly, ripped out his old heart. We might have wished that being such a good liar himself he would have been able to recognize a lie when someone told him one, but that didn’t happen in this case. The brothers had a chance to relieve their father’s pain, but they played along, Reuben too by now, as if they could not rebut Jacob’s painful conclusion. They didn’t care enough about their father’s pain to stop it so they let the lie live on.

In a list I found on the importance of teaching children honesty, I found this one-line lesson: “Watch out for silent lies. When you know about a lie and keep quiet, the lie lives on.” Maybe we find ourselves in situations where we absolutely have not told a lie, but we keep the truth to ourselves when we see someone suffering as a result of the lie told to her or him. When we keep silent in that kind of situation, we become a part of the lying process, because we let the lie live even though we have the absolute power to replace the lie with truth and have the lie evaporate once and for all. Yet, often we keep silent anyway. That makes us liars too, doesn’t it? Not everyone agrees that it does. Miguel de Unamuno, though, has said eloquently, “At times to be silent is to lie.”

Pastor Martin Niemoeller, the German pastor in the generation of Dr. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, intellectually opposed Hitler long before he did anything about it. In other words, he along with numerous German intellectuals kept silent when they, like Bonhoeffer, should have spoken up to call Hitler’s multiple lies what they were. Bonhoeffer died for refusing to keep silent; he would not pretend to Germany or to the rest of the world that all was well in Hitlerland, and so he was hung just outside one of the barracks of the Flossenburg prison camp where he, with no ethnic attachment to Judaism in any way, was held. A few days later, World War II was officially over, but Bonhoeffer’s friends, colleagues, and admirers were permanently shaken up. Niemoeller at first supported what Hitler seemed to be about and only later was in that group of silent or relatively silent opponents of Hitler’s. When he would no longer keep silent, he too was sent to a concentration camp where he spend seven years, managing to stay alive.

He would later speak to the world this confessional warning since he had learned so painfully that not speaking up when one should--in his case allowing his silence to endorse Hitler’s death crusades--is equivalent to lying:

First they came for the communists,

and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,

and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews,

and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they came for me,

and there was no one left to speak out for me.

I think our story of grief-stricken old Jacob crying his eyes out and ripping his garments because of his sense of pain and loss, thinking that Joseph is dead, while nine or ten of his sons who know that isn’t true lack enough courage and integrity among the lot of them to break the silence and tell Jacob the truth. There was no proof that the slave traders who bought Joseph would treat him well and protect his life; that is to say, had he rebelled against them in any way, they might have killed him in anger. Still, Jacob was entitled to the truth and any hope that left him with.

I was glad this week that some out of work Republicans and some Republicans who are members of unions that participate in collective bargaining finally spoke up to their representatives in the House and Representatives and said, “We have to have jobs, and those of us who are not independently wealthy intend to remain affiliated with those who will go to bat for us management wants to take millions in perks while our children have no health care.” Bravo for those with the guts to speak up, even if the Tea Party revokes their teabags.

My dear friends, if being connected to the Jesus Movement doesn’t require us to speak up for the ostracized or the downtrodden, then it requires nothing of us at all and allows us to become a social club where talking about Jesus is polite and cute and quaint. But let us be sure we understand the penalty for our silence; if we fail or refuse to speak up for those who suffer and struggle, even if we don’t particularly like them, we have no ministry at all and no reason to exist under any umbrella that would cause others mistakenly to associate us with Jesus’ concerns and Jesus’ way of living.

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