Dreamers, Bullies and the Pit

Proper 14A/Ordinary 19A/Pentecost +8

August 7, 2011

Genesis 37: 1-28

Psalm 105: 1-6, 16-22, 45b

Matthew 14:22-33

Dreamer, you’re a stupid little dreamer …

Well you know you had it coming to you.

Now, there’s not a lot I can do.

– “Dreamer”, Supertramp

 They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then … we shall see what will become of his dreams.”

– Genesis 37:19-20

The wonderful thing about the Hebrew Bible is that it shows the families of the Biblical patriarchs up close, warts and all.  These are people who would be completely at home on the set of the “Jerry Springer” show.  They are completely, woefully human, and yet God manages to work with them anyway.  The good news is that there’s hope for the rest of us as well.

This week’s dysfunctional family is Jacob’s large brood of four wives, 12 boys and one girl.  Just like his father, Isaac, Jacob had his favorite – Joseph – “because he was the son of [Jacob’s] old age” (Gen 37:3).  Joseph was the first son of Jacob’s favorite wife, Rachel, who – though beautiful – was barren for a very long time.  She later died in childbirth giving birth to her second son, Benjamin.  Ancient Hebrews considered the first child of a woman who had been previously barren (the “one who opens the womb”) to be a special child, destined for greatness.  Needless to say, this did not go over well with Joseph’s brothers, who “hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him” (vv.4).

Owen Jones. 1869. "Joseph and His Brethren"

Apparently, Joseph did not have very good social skills, either, because he made the mistake of telling his 11 brothers about a dream he had where “my sheaf rose and stood upright; then your sheaves gathered around it, and bowed down to my sheaf” (vv.7).  His brothers quickly got the message, saying “Are you to have dominion over us?” (vv.8).  The result was that “they hated him even more because of his dreams and his words” (vv.9).

The brothers hated Joseph so much that they eventually plotted to kill him as they saw him coming toward them in the fields where they were pasturing their father’s flock.  Luckily, the eldest brother, Reuben, persuaded them to merely throw him into a pit, thinking that perhaps he could rescue Joseph later.  The brothers saw a caravan of Ishmaelites in the distance, upon which middle brother Judah got the bright idea to sell Joseph into slavery for 20 pieces of silver (foreshadowing Judas who later betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces).  The reading ends with Joseph being carted away to Egypt in slavery.  So much for Biblical family values.

Owen Jones. 1869. "Joseph and His Brethren"

Lest we think that this scenario is extreme, a British survey of 40,000 households recently discovered that all is not well with the modern family either.  The study found that sibling bullying is both widespread and serious:

–        50% of children age 11 to 15 are involved in sibling bullying within their home;

–        Between 16%-20% are involved in bullying several times a week;

–        The likelihood of sibling bullying increases with the number of children in the family; and

–        Middle children are more likely to be involved in bullying behavior[1]

These results held true, regardless of family income or location.  In addition, children most likely to be bullied – either by family members or peers – tend to be dreamers and loners who:

  • Do not get along well with others
  • Are less popular than others
  • Have few to no friends
  • Do not conform to gender norms
  • Have low self esteem
  • Are depressed or anxious[2]

There appears to be something about dreamers that inflames the predatory impulse of potential bullies (familial or otherwise).  African American commentator Luke A. Powery draws parallels between Joseph’s dreaming and other more recent dreamers: “[The brothers’] hatred only increases temperature when Joseph begins dreaming … of a different distribution of power within his family. Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream, and when he dreamed many hated him for his dreams, because he had a prophetic vision for change”[3]  The US government’s “Stop Bullying’ website (www.stopbullying.gov) states that bullying is characterized by an intentional imbalance of power, aimed at controlling the victim through repeated verbal, social and physical abuse (or the threat thereof).  Power is the name of the game, and dreams of liberation threaten that power.

It would be very easy at this point to fast-forward the Joseph story to its end, where he eventually becomes a trusted an advisor to the Pharaoh, and his family migrates to Egypt whereupon he reconciles with his brothers.  We can glibly say “See?  God meant it all for a purpose.”  To do that would be to miss the message of Joseph’s dreaming.  We are meant to have rechem (Hebrew: compassion) for Joseph in his suffering and betrayal.  We are meant to remember the points in our own lives and the lives of others where we have been bullied and cast into the pit for our dreams.  We are meant to reclaim our dreams of change and redemption, and to defend the dreams of others.

So what are we to do if we are currently in the pit, surrounded by bullies (child or adult)?  The obvious therapeutic answer is to get help – there are a number of websites devoted to ending bullying at school and in the

Robin Jensen. Contemporary. "Jesus Took Peter by the Hand"

workplace.  Actually taking the steps to get help, however, can feel treacherous and overwhelming.  Like the disciples in the Gospel reading, we may see our Savior – Christ the Liberator – walking on the stormy waters to help us, only to respond by screaming in fear.  Like Peter, we may take the first brave steps out of our battered boat toward help, only to sink again under waves of fear, denial and self-doubt.

It is only at the point that Peter begins to drown that he genuinely reaches out for help[4] – and the hand of the Redeemer is there for him.  Sometimes it takes until the oxygen is about to be cut off for us to genuinely begin to fight for our lives – to get help, speak up and make lasting changes.  When we do, the chesed (Hebrew: unconditional love) of God will be there.  Let us pray for those who need help, and for ourselves if we are the ones in need.

[4]  It was pointed out by my partner – an expert swimmer – that drowning people often do not cry out, because their lungs are already starting to fill with water.  Consequently, many instances of drowning happen with people close by, because they do not think the drowning person is in distress.  This fact makes the point about getting help even more important – sometimes we may be the help that someone who is sinking needs, even he/she may not know it.

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