Sibling Rivalry, Part III
3 Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children because he was the son of his old age, and he had made him a long robe with sleeves.[Y] 4 But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.—Genesis 37:3-4, NRSV
Through my mother, I have two siblings, both girls. One is my elder and the other my junior. I often tease each of them that I waded and lived in the shallow end of the affection pool, while each of them was spoiled rotten in the deep end of the affirmation and affection pool. It’s not that I was not loved. Quite the contrary, I was, and so were they. It’s that I made comparisons at times, which proved to be unhelpful, subjective, and untrue.
Still, I’ve never forgotten when my youngest sister received from my stepfather (her natural father) a red and white pleather (imitation leather) coat. It was shiny and bright, and no one else was permitted to touch it, though all of us could see it hanging in the closet off of the living room and admired it. While I may not have admitted it then, I can admit it now; I was envious of my younger sister. She enjoyed favored child status in our household. She was the youngest by several years, possessed good hair (my stepfather was Creole from Louisiana by way of St. Louis, Missouri), and was fair skinned, which was highly valued by my stepfather’s siblings and other relatives, who were also fair-skinned Creoles and who played the pigmentocratic game (the lighter you are, the better you are treated and more opportunities afforded). However, what convinced me that she was the child with preferred status was the fact that most of my clothes and some of my older sisters were from the Salvation Army, while my youngest sister’s were almost always new. Such a disparity registered and left an imprint of envy on me, although I never acted on nor voiced it. I loved and yet love my youngest sister.
I understand how Joseph’s brothers might have felt “some kind of way” when they watched their father dote on Joseph in ways Israel never did on them. Despite the fact that Joseph was the next to the last child and was born when Jacob(Israel) had far more material resources with which to spoil Joseph, his brothers believed Joseph was the favorite not simply because he was the youngest but, more importantly, he was the son of the wife Jacob really loved, Rachel (See Genesis 29:15-35). Jacob bought Joseph a coat of “many colors” (see Genesis 37:3, KJV), long length and sleeves (Genesis 37:3, NRSV; Think “Maxi” coat of the 70’s in a world of mini coats.). With the coat he had given Joseph, Jacob gave his other 10 sons incontrovertible evidence of the favorite status which Joseph enjoyed and flaunted. After awhile, their envy spoiled and morphed into hatred, which was often expressed in oral jabs, the tendency to exclude him and be rude to him. What awful dynamic set up by a dad who played favorites with his sons–not to speak of his daughter, Dinah, who the text omits!
Have you ever been either the beneficiary of favoritism or the seething spectator of it? Or worse yet, have you ever practiced favoritism? For example, did you ever treat one parent like the hero and the other like a zero? One sibling like Cinderella and the others like the wicked step sisters? Or, perhaps you were Snow White amongst the seven dwarfs–that is, vertically challenged homies. What about on your job? Do you cry, “Foul!”, when you watch your male peers or your white subordinates welcome to events you only hear about through the office grapevine, but to which you are never invited? It would appear that some working class whites in Middle America and the South felt as if people of color, women, and the elites–whoever in the hell they are–were favored and that they were frozen out for eight years of the Obama Administration. How else might you account for how they overwhelming voted for Trump, who voiced a brand of bigotry, nationalism, and isolationism not heard since the days of Joseph McCarthy?
I don’t like favoritism. We must fight against it as much as possible. Still, we might have to accept favoritism as a fact of life. At the same time, perhaps we can see it as an opportunity. Maybe we can learn to do as Joseph did: Reinterpret our privilege in light of God’s sovereign purpose–an opportunity to spotlight others and leverage our status to hold doors open for others, who might otherwise never be deemed valuable, skillful, and productive. Who knows? God does not endorse the pervasive, undeniable practice of favoritism, but I believe God does finds a way to use it to further the “beloved community”, where everyone is valued, loved, and supported. In fact, the Apostle Paul reminds us that God wants us all of us to to be “…blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in a perverse generation, in which [we] shine like stars in the world…(Philippians 2:14-15, NRSV)”. The question is: Can God trust you, if you are favored, to be faithful to God and helpful to others?