Monday, September 13, 2010

Jacob Mourns for Joseph - Genesis 37:33-36

Then he examined it and said, “It is my son’s tunic. A wild beast has devoured him; Joseph has surely been torn to pieces!” So Jacob tore his clothes, and put sackcloth on his loins, and mourned for his son many days. Then all his sons and all his daughters arose to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted. And he said, “Surely I will go down to Sheol in mourning for my son.” So his father wept for him. Meanwhile, the Midianites sold him in Egypt to Potiphar, Pharaoh’s officer, the captain of the bodyguard.

Can you imagine holding your beloved child’s coat in your hands and believing your son or daughter will never wear a coat again? I can’t. On the ninth anniversary of 9/11, I was listening to the various tributes being paid. Many of us live with a memory of that day. A good number of us fear the future as a result. But nothing compares to the feelings of a parent whose loss haunts him or her inside every day in the here and now. How does one live with that? Yet, many do and there but for the grace of God go many of us.

Jacob identifies the coat as Joseph’s and accepts as fact (“surely Joseph has been torn to pieces”) his son’s death by a wild beast. I do not know what I would have done if I were one of the brothers. Would I have thought that this was less painful for my father than telling him the truth? A good question to ask is whether or not the others told Reuben the truth. We have no knowledge of that. So, at best we have nine brothers knowing he was sold and on his way to Egypt, we have Jacob thinking an animal killed him, and we’re not sure what Reuben actually believed. And then of course there is Joseph, not knowing what lay ahead.

Jacob, as Reuben did earlier, tears his clothes as part of his mourning. And to that he adds putting sackcloth on his loins. This, along with throwing dust on one’s forehead, was a common means of mourning for the ancient Hebrews. As a father, his mourning went much longer and all the comfort of his sons and daughters did not help. I believe that this reference here to ‘sons and daughters’ refers to not only his children (we know Jacob had one daughter for sure, Dinah) but also to his grandchildren.

In actual fact, the text says Jacob ‘refused’ to be comforted. I have often wondered how a person actually gets to the point that he refuses to be comforted. What drives us to refuse ‘comfort’ even in a time of sorrow? Is it regret? Is it loss of hope? Is it guilt? What is it? Whatever it is, that is not the way God wants it to be. Jacob’s refusal to be comforted was so intense that he believed he would die a mourner. We need to be careful that our loss and its associated mourning which is normal do not cause us to be hardened for the rest of our lives. For by doing so, we may totally miss any future blessing that God may have in store for us. A good example is one who mourns for the loss of a beloved spouse. However, if they became so hardened by such loss, they may miss the blessing God has in store for them with a godly second marriage.

We may also wonder how Jacob’s family could have tried to comfort him with any sincerity. Some may feel he should have been able to sense their deception. However, when one is so hardened in his mourning and refuses to be comforted, he/she often misses the clues that may indeed bring back some hope or joy in their life. Instead, Jacob not only believes that he will die mourning, but in a sense, the utterance is an expression of a subconscious desire to go where his son is. And for the ancient Hebrews, this was indeed Sheol, the place of departed souls. Only there, with his son Joseph, would he find comfort. What a sad state of affairs, to view our life like that following a loss of a loved one. Where is our God? Where is Jacob’s God? I learned early in life that in circumstances like that, God has not moved or hidden Himself. He is always where He was and will be. It is us that have changed our position.

Jacob had a choice but he continued to mourn. This portion of the text ends by informing us that, in the meantime, the traders who bought Joseph sold him to Potiphar, the captain of Pharoah’s bodyguard. The significance of that is great. He was sold into the highest household of the land. And not only that, he was sold into that part of the household that was very close to Pharaoh. The plot does indeed thicken. But you can be sure that God had an amazing purpose for all of this. Just as He has for what happens to you and me.

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  1. Anonymous10/1/14 00:31

    Ken have you ever suffered the loss of a spouse or child? I am curious to hear, because it is easy to wax elegant when one has lived a linear faith.

    1. Dear Anonymous: I have suffered the loss of my son's first child after being able to hold him in my arms and kiss him and pray for him while God gave him to us for six hours. Yes, my friend, I have suffered that kind of loss. There's nothing linear about my faith or experience as I have also been to Africa where I have seen death and its impact up close. Blessings to you. Ken.