Each spring, Harvard Divinity School's Office of Ministry Studies organizes the Billings Preaching Prize Competition, an annual preaching competition open to second- and third-year MDiv students. The finalists delivered their sermons at the Wednesday Noon Service on April 10, 2019.
Below are the remarks of competition winner Jade Sylvan, MDiv candidate.
So Joseph went after his brothers, and found them at Dothan. 18 They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him. 19 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 shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.” 21 But when Reuben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.” 22 Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him”—that he might rescue him out of their hand and restore him to his father. 23 So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of the princess dress that he wore; 24 and they took him and threw him into a pit.
31 Then they took Joseph’s princess dress, slaughtered a goat, and dipped the dress in the blood. 32 They had the princess dress] taken to their father, and they said, “This we have found; see now whether it is your son’s dress or not.” 33 He recognized it, and said, “It is my son’s dress! A wild animal has devoured him; Joseph is without doubt torn to pieces.” 34 Then Jacob tore his garments, and put sackcloth on his loins, and mourned for his son many days.
You may have heard the story of Joseph before. He has his own musical. Usually in English his distinctive outfit is translated as a “coat of many colors” or “technicolor dreamcoat,” but if you look closer, Joseph’s clothing is much more interesting than a rainbow-colored duster. The Hebrew term for the garment is k’tonet passim, which literally means “robe of wrists and ankles” or a robe with long skirts and sleeves. This “robe with long skirts and sleeves” is only mentioned in two places in the entire Tanakh. First, here. Joseph wears the k’tonet passim. It sets him apart from his brothers, fuels their resentment of him, and it is ripped when he’s is shoved into the pit.
The other time k’tonet passim is mentioned is in 2 Samuel. Here, the k’tonet passim is worn by King David’s daughter, Tamar. The author of Samuel tells us that the k’tonet passim is the traditional clothing of a princess. After her own brother rapes her, Tamar rips her k’tonet passim in anger and despair.
I don’t think it’s useful to try to apply modern identity constructs of queerness or transness (or straightness or cisness) to ancient scriptural characters. We have very little idea what the sexuality and gender systems were like when this story was written. However, I think it’s significant that Joseph is wearing a feminine garment that ties him to another feminine character. Tamar is also abused by her family, and this abuse causes the family to crumble.
Queers, trans people, and women might feel a sad resonance in these connections. Often we are the ones without power in a family or social system, and oftentimes those in power, even those who are supposed to love us, attempt to abuse, discard, silence, or erase us.
Joseph is wearing the k’tonet passim when his brothers attack him and nearly kill him. They tear off his princess dress in spite before they try to remove him from their lives altogether.
It’s not incidental that the brothers throw Joseph into a pit. Pits are referenced repeatedly in Tanakh. Generally, being in a pit is on par with being in Sheol or the underworld. Pits represent non-existence, disenfranchisement, and social death. To be in a pit is to be unable to participate in society, family, the world.
By throwing him into this void of social death, his brothers are trying to erase Joseph. When they lie to their father, showing him the dress covered in goat’s blood, they are trying to rewrite reality, to blot their young sibling from the family.
But each of us has the ability to oppose bullies like these every chance we get. In the story, we see Reuben temper the worst inclinations of his brothers. He does this by using his privilege and position as one of the in-group. He interrupts the flow of hate and convinces the group not to kill Joseph.
It’s important that he steps in while the hate is still only plans—only words. By interrupting the flow of hate at its beginning, he is able to divert it before it becomes action. Even though he is not able to return Joseph to their father himself like he wanted, he saved his brother’s life.
How many times per day does each of us have the opportunity to be Reuben in this story? How often are we in the in-group where we are able to witness hate growing in words before it moves into actions? Do you risk social backlash like Reuben did? Or do you bite your tongue so you don’t interrupt the flow?
We can all be Reubens. We can correct a family member who believes harmful stereotypes about queer people. If someone at work makes a transphobic joke, we can tell them it isn’t funny. These interruptions add up, and they will keep some of the worst inclinations of hate from manifesting into violence.
It’s also important to note that one Reuben won’t stop violence completely. The brothers still throw Joseph into the pit, after all. But every interruption of hate adds up. We must choose again and again to interrupt, and encourage others to interrupt as well.
Joseph escapes the pit, but like many queer kids, his life does not get better immediately. He winds up being sold to Egyptians as a slave. He is sexually assaulted by one of his owners, and blamed and punished with imprisonment when he manages to escape being raped. Then finally we get to a happy-ish ending. Joseph, with his magical queer dreamer powers, becomes defacto king (or queen, maybe) of Egypt. He is reunited with his family, except now things are inverted. Joseph is the one with the power, and he shows his brothers the mercy that they denied him.
Oftentimes the Joseph story is told like Cinderella as a rags-to-riches type of thing. There are some parallels between Joseph and Cinderella—the pivotal pretty princess dress for one. But Joseph’s story doesn’t end “happily ever after.” I mean, true, he ends up queen of Egypt and probably has the fanciest princess dresses in all the land. Plus he gets reunited with his family and his brothers apologize to him—and every queer kid should be able to sit on a throne while jock bro Judah kneels in front of them and begs forgiveness for being such a jerk to them when they were kids. All in all Joseph dies old and relatively happy—at least in Hebrew Bible terms.
However, you can still follow the line of violence Reuben wasn’t able to stop. Joseph’s people are in Egypt, not their homeland. This fact sets the stage for much of the conflict, pain, and suffering that befalls the Israelites in the rest of the book. When you zoom out, you can almost trace the traveling and evolution of pain through the stories of the Tanakh. You can see the fractal webs of suffering that branch out from each lone act of violence.
I fear sometimes for the webs of suffering that branch out from the lives around me. When people who are supposed to protect you try repeatedly to erase you, it hurts, and that pain has to go somewhere. Sometimes this truth can make me feel hopeless. I love so many Josephs, and it’s impossible for me to protect them completely from the cruelty of the world.
We each have the ability to stand up to the mob of hate, even when it seems overwhelming. We can be vigilant in the spaces where we are in the in-group, and we cannot tolerate hate and bigotry toward Josephs, whether we know them or not. This may feel scary, it may bring the energy down, it may bring attention to you in a way that’s uncomfortable, but it also interrupts the flow of hate. If enough interruptions add up, it will save lives.
This week, notice when you are in the in-group. When you see hate begin to gain momentum in words, be they plans, or jokes, or assumptions, interrupt it. Let the Judahs know that what they’re saying, what they’re doing isn’t okay. Even if no one else is around to hear it, especially, if no one else is around to hear it, speak up. Joseph may not be there now, but he’ll be there later, and that’s when those words will become actions. It’s up to us to interrupt the flow of hate.
May we all act as witness and support for our Josephs as we move forward into this often terrifying world. May each and every one of us feel seen and loved in the fullness of our beings. May we reject efforts to erase our sacred beauty, to cast us down into the pit. May we continue, every day, to lift one another up.