We are studying Genesis 37 for Sunday, September 6. This is the first chapter in the longer, familiar story of Joseph and his brothers, and for us it’s also the first installment of a four-part series of lessons on the whole story. [Some notes on the text are here.] Here are a few questions we might want to consider as we study this text:
The story begins with a formula announcing that this is a family story. Does this tell us anything about this story, or make a difference to the way we understand it? What difference? Why is that, do we think?
[We might want to think of one or two of our own family stories. When are those stories told? Why? Who tells them? Does anyone in the family try to keep them from being told? Do they have “points” or “lessons” or meanings in the family? Does any of this help us understand something more about the story of Joseph and his brothers?]
What impression(s) do we get of the family in this story? Of the character of Joseph? Of Jacob? Why? [For instance: can we pay attention to what is made explicit in the text, and what goes unsaid, and think about why the storyteller makes these choices?]
How do these characters, and their dynamics, seem to shape the story?
Would we describe Jacob as a loving father, based on what we know about him from this text? Why, or why not?
Would we describe Joseph as a loving son? A loving brother? Again, based on what we know about him from this text? Why, or why not?
Where do we see God, or the activity of God, in this story? What does this tell us about the way God works? Why is that?
What are our overall reactions to the story? What seems to contribute to those? [For instance, empathy with one or more of the characters; our own experiences, either as children or as parents or both; ways we have heard the story described or explained by others, like in church.]
What do our reactions to the story reveal about us? How do we feel about that? Why is that?
Our text this week highlights – as if this needed highlighting – how miserable and inadequate and false are the tired children’s message and sermon reductions of the Bible to “a roadmap” or “an instruction book” or “an owner’s manual.”
People haven’t been captivated by this story for the last four thousand years or so because it resolves into a simple moral signpost or commandment. For one thing, the advice we might distill seems pretty banal: Don’t annoy your siblings? Keep your more obnoxious dreams to yourself? Don’t play favorites with your children? Anybody could have told us that.
The rabbis have drawn additional instructional implications from the story. Even those don’t seem to be why, mainly, we read the Torah.
Instead, we read the Bible as the indispensable family story of these people’s encounter with this God, this God who is encountered and known – insofar as this God is known – this way, through and by means of this particular family story, this story of being and becoming the people whose identities and memories and purposes are inseparable from their involvement with this God, through and by means of this story, this drama. We read it because, in some unfathomable way, these are our people. And we read it to become, ourselves, these people: people, that is, whose identities and memories and purposes are inseparable from our involvement with this God, who is known – insofar as this God is known – in this story, and through this story, and by means of this story. We read it because it is our story, and also to make it our story. We read it to become people whose story this is.
Being and becoming these people has nothing at all to do with roadmaps or instructions or scheduled maintenance. But it has everything to do with love.