There’s something curious about the birth of a giraffe. Gary Richmond happened to be at the zoo at just the right moment to witness the strange and amazing interaction between mother and newborn. He was standing next to the animal keeper, Jack Badal, with a lot of questions. There was the mother giraffe, standing while giving birth. The calf’s hooves and head were already visible.
“When is she going to lie down?” Gary asked Jack. “She won’t,” he answered. “But that’s a [ten foot drop to the] ground! Isn’t anyone going to catch the calf?” “Try catching it if you want,” Jack responded, “but its mother has enough strength in her hind legs to kick your head off.”
Soon the calf hurled forth, and landed hard on his back. The infant giraffe laid where it fell, almost motionless. No more than a minute passed and then something totally shocking happened. The mother kicks her baby. She booted her own little one hard enough to send it sprawling head over hooves.
"Why'd she do that?" Gary asked. "She wants it to get up," answered the zoo keeper. Somehow, the newborn giraffe knew what his mother wanted and haltingly struggled to rise. But after a few feeble tries, it gave up, sinking back to the ground.
Boom! A second hearty kick from the mother rolls the young one over several more times. The calf again tries to prop itself up again on its God-given stilts, and finally manages an upright stance. Gary Richmond marveled at what he was beholding, charmed by the sight of this fledgling giraffe.
But then suddenly, unexpectantly, something happened that took Gary’s breath away. Almost as soon as the calf gained stability in its upright perch, the mother kicked it off its feet! This time the zoo keeper, Jack Badal, didn’t wait for the question. He simply explained, "She wants it to remember how it got up," Jack explained. "In the wild, if it didn't quickly follow the herd, predators would pick it off."
[Illustration Source: Adapted from the story by Gary Richmond, "It's a Jungle Out There," found in Men of Integrity (12-15-2004)]
I think I have something in common with that baby giraffe.
- I’ve been kicked off my feet before.
- I have been kicked while I was down.
- I have been kicked by the very ones from whom I expected kindness.
Can I get a witness? All of us have moments when we’re carrying on with our life, working our plan, trying to keep our head above water, and we get side-swiped by circumstances or side-lined by harsh people. How we respond in those moments reveals the truth about what we really believe about God, and profoundly affects both our inner and outer world.
This morning, we’re doing to drop in on Joseph at 17-years of age. As we open to Gen. 37:3, Joseph’s life is good and his future looks bright! But he is about to be kicked off his feet. He is about to be kicked hard while he is down. And the ones doing the kicking are his own family. But somehow, Joseph managed to avoid the very thing that had consumed his brothers—the emotional stronghold of bitterness. Somehow, Joseph faced trauma and the high-jacking of his dreams without becoming bitter; for his brothers, there is a very different story. There’s something deep here for us all. I take you now to…
Scene One: “The Emotional Matchstick of Jealousy”
Eph. 4:31 commands us to get rid of all bitterness. This word for bitterness literally refers to something so acrid and poisonous that it blisters and kills those possess it.
Biblically, bitterness is anger that has seethed until it hardens into a rebellious, vengeful conclusion. An unforgiving spirit lets anger take hold: anger over circumstances, anger at your spouse, at your children, your pastor, your employer, your friend—you fill in the blank… Anger is embraced and coddled and rehearsed, all the while quietly taking over your life. You feel entitled to hate someone, justified to desire their ruin, and energized to seek their downfall. Take a look at the primary fuel that lit an inferno of vengeance toward Joseph: jealousy.
1. Jealous of His Relationship, v. 3a-4.
Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his sons, because he was the son of his old age…(Verse 4 adds that) when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him and could not speak peacefully to him. Joseph was Jacob’s favorite. There are several things that contributed to this. Joseph was Rachel’s firstborn, Jacob most beloved wife. Rachel had died about a year before, so it is natural that Jacob would transfer his affection to their son. And v. 3 reports that Joseph was born late in Jacob’s life, giving this old man a special joy.
Rightly or wrongly, Jacob cherished Joseph in ways he hadn’t shown to his other sons, and Joseph was hated for it. Tell me, is there someone in your life who has a quality of relationship that you lack and its eating at you? He’s going out with the girl you really like. She’s getting married and you’re still single. She’s the favorite in the family. He’s the boss’ lap dog. Everytime you think about that person, bile rises. Hear me: you’re on your way to bitterness.
2. Jealous of His Position, v. 3b.
"And he made him a robe of many colors."
Every child who hangs around a church long enough hears about “the coat of many colors.” But there’s a back-story to this fancy tunic that you need to know. Back in Gen. 35:22, we are told that Reuben, the oldest son lay with Bilhah his father's concubine. Because of Reuben’s gross immorality, he lost him not only his father’s favor but all his birthrights as the first born son.
The Bible makes clear that Jacob exercised his fatherly privilege and chose to appoint his firstborn son by Rachel as his heir. (See John 4:5 for reference to the land Joseph inherited) He skipped his other nine sons and selected the youngest at that time. The symbol of the birthright was a special tunic. The Hebrew words in v. 3 used to describe this coat or tunic suggest that it was richly ornamented, but the most important detail the Hebrew gives us is that it was long-sleeved and extended to Joseph’s ankles.
You say, “Okay, so what?” Well, the tunics worn by working men in that day were sleeveless and stopped at the knees. A long-sleeved, tailored garment was worn by a manager, someone who had been put in charge, and was therefore exempt from the work himself. So the coat was a symbol of position. When Joseph’s brothers saw him in that coat, it was a sign of their father’s choice to make Joseph preeminent over them.
So did someone else get that promotion you were in line for, and you’re ticked about it? Someone get elected to a position of influence in the church instead of you, and you’re feelings are hurt? Beware: bitterness is stalking you.
3. Jealous of God’s Favor, v. 5-11.
Verse 5 summarizes this section for us: Now Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers they hated him even more. In v. 6-8, Joseph tells his brothers that he dreamed about them. They were all in the field binding sheaves of grain when suddenly his sheaf rose up and their sheaves gathered around and bowed down. You don’t have to be brilliant to figure out the meaning of that dream, do you?
Verses 9-11 inform us that Joseph told a second dream he had, this time with different symbols, but with the same meaning. His dad heard Joseph’s dream and thought it was a joke, but his brother’s didn’t. Verse eleven reports that his brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the saying in mind.
Now here’s the point. If you’re little brother tells you about a crazy dream he has, you might poke fun at him or you might ignore him. But you don’t get jealous of him…unless you really believe God is speaking to him. They really believed that one day Joseph’s dream would come true. They believed God was speaking through their younger brother.
Ever feel like someone has a hot line with God that you’re missing? They’re the ones people turn to for counsel and flock to when they are teaching a class. And inside you, there is a quiet desire to see them knocked off their pedestal! Bitterness has your number, my friend.
For Joseph’s brothers, self-pity and jealousy and anger finally pushed them over a dangerous line. They were mad at their father for his favoritism. They were mad at God for the good things that were coming to their brother and not to them. There was only one way to get back at them both: they would take away the darling object of affection.
Scene Two: The Inferno of Bitterness
Verses 12-24 tell us how it all came down. Following his father’s instructions, Joseph tracked down his brothers, who were shepherding the flocks. It took five days journey to finally locate them. Verse 18-20 says that when they saw him from afar… they conspired against him to kill him. They said to one another, "Here comes this dreamer. 20 Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits. Then we will say that a fierce animal has devoured him, and we will see what will become of his dreams."
Reuben, oldest, intervened, convincing his brothers not to murder their brother but to throw him into an abandoned well nearby. You can see the scene in your mind as Joseph approaches, wear the tunic that was so offensive, and calling out greetings to them. All at once, they fell upon him, stripping the coat off his back and throw him headlong into a deep hole.
The dark deed was done. Now nature would take its course and they would not be directly guilty. Verse 25 reports that they then sat down to eat a meal. Nothing is said in Gen. 37 of any complaint by Joseph. But Gen. 42:21 reports that 22 years later, the brothers remembered this moment and confessed, Surely we are being punished because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen…
As Joseph wept aloud and begged to be spared nearby, they ate their meal of malice and drank their drink of deception. To make their revenge even more tasty, it just so happened that a caravan of merchants came by. Not only could they rid themselves of Joseph once and for all, they could make a profit from it. And so they sold him into slavery.
The finishing touches unfolded at home, when they gave their father the torn, bloody coat of many colors, leaving Jacob to conclude his son is dead, and plunging him into inconsolable sorrow.
Lessons from a Horror Story
1. Bitterness is really anger at God.
If God is ultimately in control of every circumstance that comes into our lives, then who am I really angry with when I rail against a situation or a person? I usually don’t realize it, but deep down I’m mad at God for what He has allowed, what He has done, or what He has not done.
2. Bitterness is a denial of the goodness of God.
Bitterness means you have abandoned Romans 8:28, you have given up on the providential goodness of God to rule and overrule the events of your life. If you are bitter at someone this morning, you have decided that God didn’t handle it rightly, so you will now take over.
3. Bitterness leaks out, poisoning others.
The book of Hebrews issues a warning for us all that goes like this: See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no "root of bitterness" springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled (Heb. 12:15).
4. Bitterness always affects other people.
Bitter roots, says Hebrews, cause trouble for and defile others. Bitter people, at the very least, will disrupt and unnecessarily trouble others. Or, in the worst possible effect, bitter people will corrupt others, staining and tainting their lives with the same ugly color that marks them.
5. Bitterness is non-discriminating with its targets.
Joseph was clearly his father’s favorite son. He walked with the Lord and God communicated something of Joseph’s future. All this drove Joseph’s brothers over the edge. But think about it: Was the favoritism Joseph’s fault? No, it was Jacob’s lack of wisdom! Were the dreams Joseph’s fault? Of course not. So why was Joseph the target of their hatred?
Because Jacob was their father and they needed him. And they knew they couldn’t battle God. So they picked the next best target as the scapegoat. Years ago, I learned that sometimes the venom people vent on you is not really about you—you’re just a convenient target. Remembering that can help you when someone’s anger doesn’t make sense to pray for them and return good for evil.
Fight bitterness with the mind of Christ. As Joseph lay in the bottom of that pit, he had his own invitation to bitterness. But he choose another path. The power to do so—to fight off self-pity and rejection, to deal quickly with anger, and to resist bitter resolves—came from simply trusting that God was greater than his circumstances, and was at work doing more than Joseph could track.
The Word of God arms us for this perspective. Eph. 4:26-27 tells us to be angry, but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your wrath, nor give place to the devil.
Romans 12:19-21 issues this command: Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, "Vengeance is Mine, I will repay," says the Lord. Therefore "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head." Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Phil. 2:3-8: 3 Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5 Have this mind in yourself, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, 8 he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.