One Act of Mercy

By David Baumann

A Reading from Genesis 37:12-24

12 Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock near Shechem. 13 And Israel said to Joseph, “Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem? Come, I will send you to them.” He answered, “Here I am.” 14 So he said to him, “Go now, see if it is well with your brothers and with the flock; and bring word back to me.” So he sent him from the valley of Hebron.

He came to Shechem, 15 and a man found him wandering in the fields; the man asked him, “What are you seeking?” 16 “I am seeking my brothers,” he said; “tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock.” 17 The man said, “They have gone away, for I heard them say, ‘Let us go to Dothan.’” So Joseph went after his brothers, and found them at Dothan. 18 They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him. 19 They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. 20 Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.” 21 But when Reuben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.” 22 Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him” — that he might rescue him out of their hand and restore him to his father. 23 So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the long robe with sleeves that he wore; 24 and they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.

Meditation

Jacob’s pattern of favoritism finally erupts into fiery rage. When Joseph tells his brothers about his dreams of them bowing to him, he does damage beyond repair. Now his brothers refer to him as “that dreamer.”  For 17 years, his brothers have longed for the love of their father, a love they thought they had before Joseph was born. They won’t get it now by killing Joseph, but they are beyond reason; their filial anguish explodes in a hopeless craving for what things were like — or what they thought they were like — before.

We also see that Joseph has been outside of the “brotherhood” all his life. He probably suffered tremendously himself, perhaps without recognizing it. The 10 brothers graze their father’s flocks — responsible, necessary work — but Joseph is kept back from it; he does, however, wear the coat that shows his favored status. To him, it is probably a glorious sign of pre-eminence; to the brothers, aloofness and arrogance. We see another side: it is a sign of his isolation, maybe of his loneliness.

We are given zero details about the shocking encounter when the brothers “stripped him of his robe” and threw him into a cistern. At that point, everything changed for ever — for all of the sons and for Jacob as well. Soul-shattering suffering is ahead for all. The only redeeming element in this account is the counsel of Reuben, the oldest of the sons. He shows true leadership, mercy, and maturity in his commitment to prevent Joseph from being murdered and his nine other brothers from becoming murderers. In the economy of God’s omniscience and mercy, one single act proved to be essential to the fulfillment of Joseph’s dreams, the survival of them all, and God’s promise of the salvation of the world. Let us not underestimate the effects of even our small actions today, or the wideness of God’s mercy.

David Baumann served for nearly 50 years as an Episcopal priest in the Dioceses of Los Angeles and Springfield; he retired last year. He has published nonfiction, science fiction, and short stories. Two exuberant small daughters make sure he never gets any rest.

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The Diocese of Kigezi – The Church of the Province of Uganda
All Saints Church, Chevy Chase, Md.

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