Every now and again, I happen upon the Dr. Phil show. Unlike another daytime program, Jerry Springer, a show that seems to focus on the worst misdeeds of humanity and asks us to mock them, Dr. Phil positions himself as a Mr. Fixit of troubled families.
I usually cringe a bit at Dr. Phil’s approach, but I wonder if the complicated blended family of Jacob’s various sons might be helped if they went on Dr. Phil and had a little bit of his down-home therapeutic intervention.
Can you picture it? The show opens, as it always does, with a close-up of Dr. Phil, who looks into the camera and says “Blended families are always a challenge. Brothers who are angry at their half-brothers, fathers who favor one child over another, mothers who are jealous of each other, the Dr. Phil family we will meet today has all that and more. We’ll see what we can do to help this family love each other, or at least live together in peace.”
The commercial break ends, and now there are several young men sitting in chairs on the podium with Dr. Phil. The good doctor says, “These are several brothers. They’ve been charged with a terrible crime, selling their half-brother into slavery and lying to their father about his whereabouts. They say their actions were justified, that their half-brother is a show-off and daddy’s pet, and that he became so insufferable that they had to do something.”
Phil turns to the men. “Guys, why did you do what you did, selling Joseph to the Midianites?”
Reuben speaks up, “Dr. Phil, we were just sick of him. He told us he had a dream that we all bowed down to him. He got the best coat from Dad, who just gives him everything and agrees with everything he says. Joseph has disrespected our half brothers – the ones who were born of our mothers’ maids – and he has been a general pain in the…”
Dr. Phil interrupts. “So you thought you’d get rid of him.”
“Yes. We threw him in a pit. We thought about killing him, but we couldn’t bring ourselves to do it. So we sold him off to some traveling salesmen – we figured if we got him out of the picture, maybe Dad would share a little of the love with us, instead of giving it all to Joseph. And we even got a good price for him, so we had a little walking around money. Seemed pretty sweet!”
“So how’s that been working for you?”
“Well, we told Dad a fierce wild beast ate Joseph, and gave Dad that danged fancy coat, smeared with blood. And he was furious with us for not saving him, and just couldn’t stop crying and wailing and tearing his garments. So I guess it didn’t work out too well, since Dad is still not paying attention to us. He wants nothing to do with us right now.”
And the producer, that master of great timing, now cuts to a commercial.
Back again, and the boys are gone. There’s an older woman sitting in a chair now. She’s still beautiful, even at her age. Dr. Phil looks at her and gently says, ”this must be hard for you, losing Joseph.”
“Oh, Dr. Phil, you can’t imagine it. It was so hard for me to even have children, and now to lose this boy, so handsome and clever. It’s no surprise that his father dotes on him! He’s so much better than the other children my husband fathered.”
“Can you understand how that kind of attitude caused tensions between the boys?”
“It’s all their jealousy! It’s just like when their father wanted to marry me and got stuck with stupid Leah first. She was jealous that Jacob loved me more, and now these boys are jealous that Jacob loves Joseph more!”
“Sort of like how you were jealous when Leah got pregnant first?”
She looks crestfallen. “But my poor Joseph…eaten by a wild beast…it’s just too horrible…”
Dr. Phil angles his face so his words are directed partly at the now-weeping woman and partly at the camera. “Jealousy is contagious. Why not share love, rather than think that it is limited? Why not try to heal from this awful thing…”
Rachel nods, still sobbing.
And we cut to commercial break again.
We come back, and an old man is sitting in the chair. He looks as if his heart is broken beyond repair.
Dr. Phil softly says, “You miss your son, don’t you?”
“I made so many mistakes. I shouldn’t have shown that I loved Joseph more. I shouldn’t have given him that coat. I love all my boys, but Joseph was so special, so gifted. God is punishing me for my sins.”
“Jacob, perhaps God gave you a special son for a reason. Perhaps this boy was meant to do something that God didn’t tell you about, but you sensed his gifts.”
“But he’s dead!”
Dr. Phil pauses for dramatic effect. “I think your sons have something to tell you…come on in, boys. Come on in, Rachel.”
The sons of Jacob shuffle onto the stage. Reuben steps forward and say, “Joseph isn’t dead, at least we don’t think he is. There was no wild beast. We sold him to a trader passing through. He was a royal pain, and we had had enough of your favoritism. Dad, we couldn’t take that pompous little jerk any more. We had to do something.”
The old man ricochets between fury and joy. “He’s alive? He isn’t dead? You sold him? Oh dear heaven, I cannot believe this! What has Yahweh done for me, that I should have a second chance at holding my Joseph again? Oh my sons, I am so sorry that I drove you to this. Can you ever forgive me?”
The boys and their father embrace. Rachel simply looks stunned by what has transpired.
Dr. Phil turns to the camera and says, “This Dr. Phil family is on the road to healing. True, we don’t know where Joseph is. The boys still have to face the consequences of their actions. But these parents now realize how favoring one over another is not a healthy way to blend a family. Stay tuned for future episodes to see how this family continues to learn how to care for each other.”
This story, this Dr. Phil family, is a troubling one. Jacob made many parenting mistakes. Joseph’s brothers did a terrible thing. But something is happening here that is beyond psychotherapy and talk of rancor in blended families. Jacob, Rachel, Joseph, Reuben, they are all part of a long and complicated story of God using people to carry forward God’s work. We would simply talk about a dysfunctional family and leave it at that, but it’s more than that. Something strange and beautiful is happening, something that the players in the story cannot see in the moment. That’s the beauty of Scripture. We have the luxury of sitting here and seeing the longer view, the details of the picture as well as the whole mural. We can shake our heads at the brothers’ bad deed, we can say that Jacob needs some parenting classes, but we can also see that God is moving through the picture and guiding these people into great and marvelous things.
If we take nothing else from this story than the fact that God uses all sorts of messed-up and very human people to carry out God’s work, then we have learned something. But there is something more. God does work in us, and God does act in marvelous ways. We do not always see the whole picture, just as Jacob and the boys didn’t, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a whole picture there. God sees. God paints that picture. Some day we will see it all. But in the meantime, just knowing that there are stories like the one we’ve studied today will remind us of God’s constant presence and action in this world.