August 20, 2023
Genesis is a crash course in family systems.
Family systems is one of the core lens I use to view life. We see it on display here with Joseph reconciling to his brothers.
To recap the story: Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers. He heads to Egypt where he is the chief servant to Potiphar, Pharoah’s head of security. He is falsely accused by Mrs. Potiphar and ends up in jail. Jails back then didn’t have health standards. This would have been miserable conditions. Little to no light. Maggoty food he had to fend off rats to eat, if they remembered to feed the prisoners at all.
Joseph’s knack for interpreting dreams lands him in front of Pharoah who then puts him in charge of preparing for the upcoming famine. “Joseph, Pharoah’s number two. Egypt looks to you.” The famine is what places his brothers back in his life. The brothers come for food. They don’t recognize Joseph. Joseph sneaks a cup into Benjamin’s pack to make it seem like Benjamin is a thief. Here’s family systems at play.
Bowen Family Systems Theory states that you aren’t just an individual, but an individual with a history, a story that has been given to you by your own family system. This story is not taught but caught in the day-to-day living. I never remember my mom or grandparents sitting me down and teaching me “this is how you love another person. This is how to be in community. This is how to be a friend.” I caught these lessons by watching them live as they did the same with their parents and so on before them. This system is both nuclear as well as generational.
Simply put: Your family is an emotional unit. It is the nature of a family that its members are intensely connected emotionally. What systems training does is have you map out the nature of these relationships to reach a better understanding of self–-what your buttons are and why, how to remain connected and in relationship without becoming too dependent or too isolated. Joseph is showing his family history of trickery in his dealings with his brother. Maybe “trickery” is the wrong word. There’s some guile, a slight of hand, some sly subterfuge that Joseph is doing. This goes back to Abraham.
Abraham who rescues Lot. Abraham who encounters the Pharoah who saw Sarah’s beauty, so Abraham poses as her brother. He somehow walks out with even more possessions than he started with. Abraham who sends his son Ishmael away, and who almost sacrifices his son Isaac. Abraham was a smart and cunning guy. He was tricky. He had to be to survive.
Isaac was less tricky. He was on the receiving end of almost being sacrificed. Isaac, whose name means laughter, had a sad story. He became absent in his life. He loved his wife Rebekah. Rebekah was the active one in their story. She took an active role in Jacob tricking his older twin Esau out of his inheritance.
Jacob, the trickster. Also known as Israel. He walked with a limp after wrestling with God. Israel who deceived his father and brother only to be deceived himself by his uncle Laben. After all this, Jacob had 13 sons. He seemed to only love one, Joseph. Joseph, whom the other brothers hated and plotted to kill. They dehumanized him. Sold him into slavery instead.
Here is the family system of cunning and trickery. It’s a mess. There are patterns in the mess. When we take time to address them and examine them, they shine out. We can then figure out if these coping mechanisms are serving us or not.
I believe each of us carry family patterns around. We are messy. When we enter into community, we are messy. Nothing is cut and dry, there’s always a deeper mystery and sometimes we discover what it is. Often though, we are too busy, and pattern recognition takes time and awareness.
I was trained in Family Systems through my seminary and the UCC Pension Boards’ Next Generation Leadership Initiative. I was skeptical when I first heard about it until I heard this story from a teacher.
Our teacher uses Family Systems to consult with churches in conflict. He gets a call from a pastor. “I feel like I’ve been hit by a train” were the first words out of the mouth of this pastor. My teacher is hired and starts digging and finds that the first pastor, way back in the 1800s, on the first Sunday the church was to worship, was hit by a train and died. He continues to research and finds that sometime in the early 1900s, a pastor’s family is on their way to this church when they are hit and killed by a train.
Two events in the life of the congregation. Two events long forgotten until they were uncovered decades later. Those events were still in the congregation. The congregation never dealt with those feelings, so they never left the system emotionally. They were still in there for more than 100 years and these feelings lead that pastor in 2008 to say, “I feel like I’ve been hit by a train.”
Life is messy. Community is messy. The Bible is messy. There are patterns. History might not repeat, but it rhymes.
The brothers appear, and Joseph resorts to his family system. He tricks them. Maybe he’s going to throw them in jail. Maybe he’ll visit upon them the pain they inflicted on him. But he is stopped when Judah begs for the life of Benjamin. Judah who sold Joseph into slavery. Judah whose face was the last thing Joseph saw as those Ishmaelites handed Judah 20 pieces of silver as they turned the key to his cage. It is Judah whose impassioned plea for Benjamin causes Joseph to break down.
Joseph resorted to his family system of how to handle conflict. You set up the other. But his brothers surprised him. They had changed. Instead of selling off the youngest to get out of an uncomfortable spot, they defend him. They offer their lives instead. Joseph tearfully reconciles.
It’s a good story. It has a happy ending. Not all of us get that. Here’s the genius of the Bible: there are so many ways to take this story. Where in your life were you Joseph? Where were you wronged? Where were you hurt by family or friend or coworker? Where did you have to decide if you would punish and hold a grudge or try to reconcile? Do you wonder if people can change? Then you know Joseph.
I think of the death of my father. I could hold the grudge and the pain of my estrangement against him. But I forgave him. I also thanked my mom for getting a divorce from him. It was the right call. I think I would be way more messed up if he was in my life growing up. Yet these past eight years getting to know my father helped me come to that place of healing. And y’all. You and your prayers and support and notes and stories about your own fathers… Thank you. You are integral to my healing. Thank you for coming closer to me.
I also think of the ways I have wronged. It’s very tempting to only see ourselves as Joseph. We can also be the brothers. I hate to bring this up, because there might be folks out there who kept the receipts of the harm I have done to them. Knowingly or unknowingly, I can also be the brothers. I might have dehumanized others. I have pushed folks into a pit through my words and/or deeds.
Genesis is reading me like a book. This is why I need religion. This is why I show up in church each and every Sunday. Genesis is not easy. Our tradition has hard parts. These things are here by design.
If I were left to my own devices, I would never ask certain questions. Many in our culture have chosen to construct a smorgasbord from various religious traditions. I know because I was there. I took meditation from the Buddhists, yoga from the Hindus, some songs from modern Christian radio, and intermittent fasting from the Muslims. These are gorgeous traditions, but we cheapen them by mashing them together. We’re only picking the candy and leaving out the most nutritional parts. There are depths to be sounded. They are in places that we wouldn’t look if left up to ourselves. To be clear: It’s okay, at least in my book, to take on other religions’ practices: don’t forget the hard parts, too.
For example: Buddhism is founded on the first noble truth that “Life is suffering.” Hindus talk about karma: reaping what you sow, both the good and the bad and from other lifetimes. The Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have the pesky doctrine of sin. Sin… that feeling of guilt or shame when we mess up. Sin… the Hebrew word meaning, “Missing the mark.” We intended this or we were aiming here, and instead we did this, we missed the mark. Anything that fails to honor God and love our neighbor as much as we love ourselves is missing the mark.
I am both Joseph and the brothers. So are you. We have been harmed and we have harmed others. If I have harmed you, I ask for your forgiveness. I forgive the harm done to me. Let us not be distressed or angry with ourselves for being both things: the victim and perpetrator. We are our triumphs and our failings. We are conviction and contradiction. I want to build a community that can handle both. For this is real life. And it’s a mess because we are a mess.
I believe there is reconciliation for those who are brave enough to do the work. There is still work to do. The brothers have learned to love Benjamin, they will have to learn to love Joseph. Joseph will learn how to accept their love and forgive them for not loving his younger self. Generational trauma isn’t healed from a hug. There’s healing in the process. There is healing for those who are brave enough to face themselves. For those tricky enough… that’s not the word… cunning… no… wise enough to navigate the realities of life. I believe there is forgiveness to be had as well as community and connection.
All this is to say what author Susan Cain wrote in her book, Bittersweet, “Take the pain you can’t heal and make it your creative offering to the world.” Take your pain you can’t heal and make it your creative offering to the world. With the help of God, I can’t wait to see what we create together. Amen.
 Introduced this concept in my 8th sermon: https://www.uccmedina.org/sermons/bubble-forth/ and 9th sermon: https://www.uccmedina.org/sermons/mess/ as the senior pastor at Medina UCC, Congregational
 See: Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat
Bibliography (AKA, if you’re interested in hearing more about family systems theory then please check these books)
Generation to Generation: Family process in church and synagogue by Edwin Friedman
The Origins of You: How breaking family patterns can liberate the way we live and love by Vienna Pharaon