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The Theology of Causality or Trying to See How God Works

August 9, 2020

We are back in Genesis for this week’s online service. Listen for the Word of God as it speaks to you today.

READ Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28

I can’t tell you how much I want to talk to you this morning about the documentary hypothesis and the work of biblical scholar Julius Wellhausen. Now I know what you’re thinking… what?!? Take my word for it… this passage from Genesis is such a great example of seeing how different traditions were woven together in the development of this book in the Bible. I don’t know if you noticed in the reading how there is the main thread of the story… but the details don’t line up. The teacher in me is just screaming to be let loose… project the passage up on a screen and use different colors to highlight the different traditions to show how they are woven together like… say… a coat of many colors.

But I won’t. No matter how much I’m dying to scripture geek out on you… I won’t. I’ll be good. I promise.

Instead let’s first talk today about Jacob… and his sin of favoritism. If sin is disconnect… if sin is brokenness… then the sinful effects of Jacob’s favoritism and preferential treatment of his son Joseph… can clearly be seen in that his other sons’ level of anger and resentment are to the point of murder. They don’t just dislike Joseph. They hate Joseph… and if we read beyond the verses we read this morning… the reasons are many. Jacob’s sin of favoritism goes back to his own family and the broken relationships there. His father favored his brother Esau. His mother favored Jacob. They plotted and they schemed against one another and… what’s this… the level of anger and resentment raised itself to the point of murder in that family. In our reading last week, that’s what Jacob still feared after years of being apart from his brother Esau… that Esau still wanted him dead… that his past… and all those actions that helped him to get what he wanted… all those actions that put Esau down so that Jacob would have an advantage… all those actions were going to catch up to Jacob. A reckoning was at hand. Yet, in that story… instead of getting what he deserved at the hands of Esau… Jacob received mercy and forgiveness. A bit of unearned grace came his way.

But unfortunately, even after Esau’s forgiveness… Jacob… as this story is being put together… Jacob doesn’t learn his lesson and he repeats the sin of favoritism with his own children.

It also doesn’t help that at this point in the story… Joseph is a bit of snot. While I was writing this… that seemed like the best descriptive word for him that I could think of. Whether he would admit it or not… Joseph’s character is tainted by being the favorite. He’s not blind to the privilege and preferential treatment he receives. With his fancy coat… whether you want to imagine it as being of many colors or as the NRSV puts it… a long robe with sleeves… you can imagine Joseph in all his seventeen year old smugness. Of course his brothers hated him. In the verses we skipped over… Joseph tells them about these dreams he has where his family would one day bow down to him… where his favoritism would bring him even more preferential… or according to his dreams… referential treatment. If he’s been treated this way all his life by Jacob, I’m sure Joseph feels all this is normal. Perhaps there isn’t even a thought of deservedness… it just is. Isn’t that the way we stay blind to our own privilege and preferential treatment. It’s just the ordinary everyday way things are so I don’t see anything else.

So yeah… Joseph is a bit of a snot. He’s not out with his brothers working… tending the flocks… he’s sent out to police them… to report back to Daddy what bad things are being done. Cause you know that’s why he’s sent… that there’s already this suspicion… there is already this assumption of guilt even before he gets there. And how many times has Joseph… in his long, colorful robe with sleeves… how many times has he snitched on them already. His brothers don’t trust him. They know that he’s going to find something wrong… no matter what… no matter how small or how minor… to tell Daddy about. Then they will have to hear one more time how wonderful Joseph is… and how rotten they are. There will be punishments or whatever. Again… because that’s how the sin of favoritism works. It convinces us that our favoritism is justified… that there is reason and cause… and deservedness of why this one is better than that one.

The sin of favoritism… whether it is in a family… or played out in the larger society… the sin of favoritism brings brokenness to relationships… it fractures and foments resentments and hatreds and all those little biases and prejudices that add fuel to the fire. It creates this self-replicating system that gets hotter and hotter. His brothers see Joseph coming and they say… let’s kill him.

Now… his brother Judah… and here’s where it gets a bit confusing because of that blending and weaving together of different traditions… which I wasn’t going to talk about… but which is still really cool and if you go back and read these verses yourself you will see… anyway… his brother Judah has a conscience attack and decides maybe rather than killing Joseph… they can sell him off into slavery to these passing Ishmaelites and be done with him. While it may not be murder, it is still a stripping away of Joseph’s humanity… reducing him to a thing… to a commodity. It’s taking the sin of favoritism and going to the full other end of the spectrum. Really turning it on its head by stripping Joseph of the value he’s been given.

In the other tradition, it’s Reuben who has the pang of conscience… who can see where their plans of murder… or leaving Joseph in the pit to die… where that escalating sin will take them. How it will break their father’s heart. How it will further divide and destroy the family. In that tradition, Reuben plans to go back and save Joseph… but he’s too late because some passing Midianite traders find the boy in the pit and they sell off Joseph to the Ishmaelites without the brothers’ knowledge. Or maybe the Midianites sell him in Egypt to Potiphar. The details are confusing… which I could explain to you using the documentary hypothesis… but I promised I won’t… not in this sermon at least.

So… following the details of either tradition… the brothers still take Joseph’s coat and tear it up… soak it in goat’s blood… and go back and break their father’s heart with the lie that a wild animal must have gotten him. Sin is disconnect… brokenness… two words that describe this family well.

Now… I know what you’re thinking. Even as you are individually watching this at home… I still know what you are thinking… like I would know if you were here in the pews. You are thinking… but wait… doesn’t this all work out to the good in the end. Doesn’t all this sin and brokenness work out because without this event… Joseph never gets to Egypt. And if Joseph never gets to Egypt then he wouldn’t have had all those other adventures that finally land him as a person of importance in Pharaoh’s court… so that when a terrible famine happens in Canaan and Joseph’s family goes to Egypt looking for food… Joseph wouldn’t be in a position to save them and bring them all down to Egypt.

The theology of causality… or the art of trying to see how God works. Maybe that ought to be the title of this odd sermon. Yes, the story works out in the end… but does that mean sin is a tool God uses to do God’s will? Or do we perhaps like to think that as a way to justify our own embracing of sin to do our own will? I like the flaws in these Old Testament characters because they reflect our own flaws. Even as God is with them… even as God makes everlasting covenants… those covenants are always with these flawed human beings who succeed at rising up to God’s challenges in some ways… and fail spectacularly in other ways. A lot like us. I think it comes down to how manipulative do you believe God is at achieving God’s will… which itself is specific to certain events taking place… or how much you believe that God is with us in our journey of sin and righteousness… God’s will not being a specific outcome or event, but a spirit of grace and justice and righteousness… where God’s will is more of a vision for creation to be realized rather than a series of events in time and space.

A little mind trippy isn’t it? Makes you wish I had maybe decided to teach you about Wellhausen instead.

Jacob had the sin of favoritism and look at what it created for his family. But what if he had been able to overcome that sin… realized it in himself, saw what the disconnect and brokenness was causing in his family… was able to work toward righting the wrong the best that he could. Surely that wouldn’t have upset God’s plan would it? Surely God could work with a family more united… more bound together by love rather than torn apart by hate. Surely the murderous hate of Joseph’s brothers wasn’t needed to enact God’s will? Can God work good from evil. With God nothing is impossible. Maybe the better question is can God perhaps work something better from good?

Saints, unlike Jacob who failed to learn the lesson when God showed him grace through Esau’s actions… we are called to live toward God’s righteousness as shown through Jesus Christ. A righteousness defined by a spirit of grace, mercy, love, forgiveness. A righteousness where favoritism in all its forms is revealed to be the sin that it is. As Peter declared in Acts… “I truly understand that God shows no partiality…” As Paul writes in Romans… “There will be anguish and distress for everyone who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality.” That is the righteous principle we are to live towards… that is the good that we pray that God will make better. Amen.

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