(dysfunctional) Family Dynamics in the Old Testament (moving bit by bit forward in forgiveness and God’s grace)

Anne Lamott and her young son move from a house where their bedrooms were close together into a new house where their bedrooms are separated by two rooms and two short hallways.  Her son starts coming into her room in the middle of the night, curling up on her bed with his own blanket.  She tries to help him get back his confidence to sleep in his own room, but nothing works.  Eventually they come up with a solution.

“The first night, he put his sleeping bag and pillow right beside my bed, where our old dog, Sadie, could peer out at him tenderly.  The second night we moved his sleeping bag three feet away, to the foot of my bed.  The next night, he moved three more feet away.  On the fourth night, he made it to the door.  He slept there two nights before he was able to put his sleeping bag in the hall.  I kept the door open.

‘Are you okay?’ I called to him in the dark.

‘Yeah,’ he said, in his small but manly voice.

The short hallway to the living room took three nights to master.  Then there were four nights in the living room, as he crept overland closer to his own room, with four three-foot scootches, one stall, and one night where he had to drag his sleeping bag back three feet.  Sometimes he would call out, “Good night” again to hear my voice.  There was one valiant worried night in the hall between my study and his room.

‘See you tomorrow, Mom’

‘Love you, Mom!  Doing okay out here, Mom!’

A few times he called for me to come sit with him.  My nearness lifted him.  Sometimes grace works like water wings when you feel you are sinking.

And then, at last, he spent his first night in his spooky new room, bravely, on the floor.”

She says, “That’s me, trying to make any progress at all with family, in work, relationships, self-image: scootch, scootch, stall; scootch, stall, catastrophic reversal, bog, bog, scootch.  I wish grace and healing were more abracadabra kinds of things; also that delicate silver bells would ring to announce grace’s arrival.  But no, it’s clog and slog and scootch, on the floor, in silence, in the dark.

I suppose that if you were snatched out of the mess, you’d miss the lesson; the lesson is the slog.  I grew up thinking the lessons should be more like the von Trapp children: more marionettes, more dirndls and harmonies.  But no: it’s slog, bog, scootch.”

I’m a lot like Anne Lamott on this point, and delicate silver bells appeal to me too.  But the work of God’s grace in my life is very much like the scootch, and stall, and slog, and bog and scootch some more.  And then you look back and realize how far God has brought you during those scary nights in the dark on the floor.

The Old Testament is not about how people should be.  It is about how people are.  It is about how God continues to work in flawed and dysfunctional people, in flawed and dysfunctional political systems, in flawed and dysfunctional religious systems, and in flawed and dysfunctional families, even though we human beings do seem to make a mess of things.

Our sermon series on Genesis will continue today and conclude next week so that we can include the third generation of the story of the God of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob.

Before we look at the passage itself, I want to point out a phenomenon of the scriptures that one of my seminary professors referred to as “Tradition, Counter-Tradition.”  The scriptures present the traditional way of doing things.  For instance, there is the tradition of patriarchy, the idea that the father is in charge and everybody does things his way.  And then the scriptures present counter-tradition.  The woman subverts the way the father wants to do things, and engineers things to turn out her way.  So Abraham is the patriarch, but Sarah decides she wants Hagar and Ishmael sent out into the wilderness, and so out into the wilderness they go.   Tradition, counter-tradition.  Then in the next generation, Isaac is the patriarch, but Rebekah decides that she wants her favorite son to get the blessing, so she comes up with a way of tricking Isaac into giving the blessing to the other son, and she engineers things to turn out her way.  Tradition, counter-tradition.

We see this also in the ways that scripture talks about the tradition of primogeniture, in which the leadership of the family goes to the eldest son.  But in all three generations, scripture presents the counter-tradition.  Abraham’s eldest son is Ishmael, but the leadership goes to the younger son, Isaac.  Counter-tradition.  Isaac’s eldest son is Esau, but the leadership goes to the younger son, Jacob.  Counter-tradition.  Jacob’s eldest son is Reuben, but the leadership goes to the younger son, Joseph.  Counter-tradition.  As soon as you start looking for examples of tradition, counter-tradition in the scriptures, you can find plenty more on your own; they’re all over the place.  And while there are places where scripture seems to imply that the tradition is the will of God, there are also many more places where scripture seems to imply that the counter-tradition is the will of God.

The other thing we notice as we look at the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is that over the course of these three generations, there are some themes that are repeated.  At first you might think this is a literary device, especially if you happened to be an English major, and there is some truth to that.  But if you happen to know someone who does research into genealogy, or if you simply observe real people and their families, you recognize that patterns repeating in families, generation after generation, is simply telling the truth about how people are.  The issues that were difficult in our family of origin are, nine times out of ten, the issues that are difficult for us.  The issue that is a life-long struggle for your next-door-neighbor may be no big deal for you, because that issue wasn’t a big deal in the family you happened to come from.

So we’ve seen that in this family sibling rivalry is a big issue.  We remember that in the first generation, Sarah insists that Abraham solve the problem by sending his son Ishmael out to the wilderness to die, along with his mother Hagar.  One might hope that Isaac would learn from this not to be biased toward one son over the other.  However, the issue repeats in the second generation, as Isaac loves Esau because he used to eat of his game, but Rebekah loves Jacob.

You will remember from the last few Sundays that we’ve looked at the ways Jacob finds what it’s like to be on the receiving end of betrayal as Laban tricks him by giving him the older sister Leah instead of the younger sister Rachel whom he loves, and Jacob gets to see the darkness of his own soul, and Jacob returns to his brother, in fear that half of his own children will be killed in retaliation for his treachery to his brother, and Jacob has the intensity of wrestling with the angel and telling the truth about who he is and receiving the blessing of the angel, and having the magnificent tearful embrace with his brother, and saying to see him is like seeing the face of God.

And it’s all very powerful.  And you would think, wouldn’t you, that Jacob has learned his lesson about how horribly damaging it can be to show favoritism to one son over the others.  And then Jacob turns around and does exactly the same thing with his own kids that his father did with him.  In the third generation, Jacob shows obvious favoritism to his son Joseph, and when Joseph is gone (Jacob thinks he is dead), Jacob shows obvious favoritism to his son Benjamin.  Joseph and Benjamin are the two sons of Rachel, so he is simultaneously carrying on into the next generation the sibling rivalry between the two sisters Rachel and Leah.  He even makes Joseph a special precious coat.  Most translations say a coat with long sleeves, but if you prefer the King James Version which says a coat of many colors, I’m not going to try to talk you out of it.  Either way, the point is that his brothers get a visual reminder of their father’s favoritism every time they look at Joseph.  His brothers dip the coat in animal blood and take it back to their father to explain Joseph’s disappearance.

Some of the biblical commentators I read take this as an example of having done something wrong, and then regrettably having to tell a lie to cover it up.  I suppose it’s possible that that’s all there is to it.  It seems far more likely to me, though, that the deep-seated resentment and anger that’s involved in coming that close to murdering your brother would extend not just to the favored brother, but would be resentment at the blatant unfairness of their father too.  My view is that their anger goes so deep that they want to get back at their father for this unfairness by making him think that his precious favored son is dead and his precious pretty coat is covered in blood.  And even though they wanted to get rid of their rival, even after they have removed him the situation doesn’t get any better, their father doesn’t give them any more love than he did before, in fact the situation gets worse as his grief makes him focus even more of his emotional energy on Joseph.  It really is extraordinary that this is the kind of family that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob chooses to work with.

When I was a new priest, I was talking to an older priest who was saying that the tough thing about The Church is that people bring in all their pathologies with them.  We all do, of course, myself included.  And looking closely at Genesis reminds us that God has been working through people who bring their pathologies with them ever since the beginning.  We don’t have to wait until we’ve got all our issues resolved before God can work in us; God can work with us even if we’re a mess.

So we discover a paradox here.  First, that family dynamics do tend to repeat across generations, and we are likely to inherit the issues and pathologies of our family of origin as well as their strengths, and there’s no need for this pattern to take us by surprise.

Second, that there can be scootching along by God’s grace.  In the first generation of brothers, Ishmael and Isaac are separated and never meet again.  In the second generation of brothers, Jacob and Esau, we get a long series of scootches, setback, scootch, waterwings moment, scootch, scootch, catastrophic reversal, scootch, scary night in silence alone, wrestling, arrival.  Scripture gives us one beautiful scene of their tearful embrace, forgiveness, and the exclamation that to see Esau’s face is like seeing the face of God.  They then go their separate ways in peace.  In the third generation, the scotch journey is a very long and painful one, but it leads to Joseph’s ability to give sincere, complete, and lasting love.

We will talk more about that next Sunday in the conclusion of our sermon series on Genesis.  In the meantime, even if you feel like you’re in a slog, or scared, or on the floor in the dark, God’s grace is at work.  Keep scootching.