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We learn from this verse how prejudice shuts us up to one particular view of a man the view which is most distasteful to us, and upon which we persuade ourselves, we can remark with the justice of injury and anger. Joseph was the child of his father's old age, the idol of the old man's heart, the light of the household, and yet his brethren had got one view of him to which they could never close their eyes. He was nothing to them but a dreamer of unpalatable dreams, a seer of visions which more or less impaired their own dignity and clouded their own prospects. It is the same today. Envy never changes. Prejudice never modifies into a virtue. To-day we do not like the dreamers who have seen visions which involve us more or less in decay and inferiority. It is not easy to forgive a man who has dreamed an unpleasant dream concerning us. We cannot easily forgive a man who has founded an obnoxious institution. If a man has written a book which is distasteful to us, it is no matter, though he should do ten thousand acts which ought to excite our admiration and confirm our confidence; we will go back and back upon the obnoxious publication, and whensoever that man's name is mentioned that book will always come up in association with it. Is this right? Ought we to be confined in our view of human character to single points, and those points always of a kind to excite unpleasant, indignant, perhaps vindictive, feelings? The world's dreamers have never had an easy lot. Do not let us imagine that Joseph was called to a very easy and comfortable position when he was called to see the visions of Providence in the time of his slumber. God speaks to men by dream and by vision, by strange scene and unexpected sight, and we who are prosaic groundlings are apt to imagine that those men who live in transcendental regions, who are privileged occasionally to see the invisible, have all the good fortune of life, and we ourselves are but servants of dust and hirelings ill-paid. No: the poets have their own pains, the dreamers have their own peculiar sorrows. Men of double sight often have double difficulties in life. Do not let us suppose that we are all true dreamers. Let us distinguish between the nightmare of dyspepsia and the dreams of inspiration. It is not because a man has had a dream that he is to be hearkened unto. It is because the dream is a Parable of Heaven that we ought to ask him to speak freely and fully to us concerning his wondrous vision, that we may see farther into the truth and beauty of God's way concerning man
"Come now therefore, and let us slay him, and cast him into some pit, and we will say, Some evil beast hath devoured him: and we shall see what will become of his dreams" ( Gen 37:20 ).
After this profound scheme no doubt there would follow a chuckle of triumph. The thing was so lucky in its plan, in its seasonableness, in its practicability; it seemed to meet every point of the case; it made an end of the whole difficulty; it turned over a new leaf in the history of the family. Let us understand that our plans are not good simply because they happen to be easy. Let us understand that a policy is not necessarily sound because it is necessarily final. In the case before us we see both the power and weakness of men. Let us slay, there is the power; and we will see what will become of his dreams, there is the weakness. You can slay the dreamer, but you cannot touch the dream. You can poison the preacher, but what power have you over his wonderful doctrine? Can you trace it? Where are its footprints? Ten or twelve men have power to take one lad, seventeen years of age, to double him up, and throve him, a dead carcase, into a pit. Wonderful power! What then? "And we will see what will become of his dreams." A word which perhaps was spoken in scorn or derision, or under a conviction that his dreams would go along with him. Still, underlying all the derision is the fact that, though the dreamer has been slain, the dream remains untouched. The principle applies very widely. You may disestablish an institution externally, politically, financially; but if the institution be founded upon truth, the Highest himself will establish her. If we suppose that by putting out our puny arms and clustering in eager crowds round the ark of God, we are the only defenders of the faith and conservers of the Church then be it known unto us that our power is a limited ability, that God himself is the life, the strength, the defence, and the hope of his own kingdom. The principle, then, has a double application; an application to those who would injure truth, and an application to those who would avail themselves of forbidden facilities to maintain the empire of God amongst men.
"And we will say, Some evil beast hath devoured him." It is convenient in life to have even a beast that you can lay the blame upon. Life would be to some of us very insipid if we could not blame somebody for every evil word we say, and every evil thing we do. "Some evil beast hath devoured him." We are unkind to beasts. No beast can be so bad as a bad man. There is no tiger in the forest that can be so savage as a pitiless mother. There is no wolf that ever came down upon a fold that can be so awful in passion, in malignity, and in evil deed, as a man who has lost self-control, and is carried away by his lawless passions.
"And Reuben said unto them, Shed no blood, but cast him into this pit that is in the wilderness, and lay no hand upon him: that he might rid him out of their hands, to deliver him to his father again" ( Gen 37:22 ).
We must not be harsh upon Reuben in this connection; although the Reubens of society are often difficult men to deal with. Instead of coming right to the front and speaking the decisive word, they avail themselves of some intermediate course, so that their very virtue becomes diluted into a kind of vice. When a man has not the courage of his convictions, his convictions may even become a temptation and a stumbling-block to society. Reuben's intention was good, and let all due credit be given to every man who has a good intention: a merciful object in view. No one of us has a word to say against such a man. But there are times when everything depends upon tone, precision, definiteness, emphasis. I am not sure that Reuben could not have turned the whole company. There are times when one man can rule a thousand. A little one can put ten thousand to flight. Why? Because wickedness is weakness. There is more craven-heartedness among bad men than ever you can find among men who are soundly, livingly good. Is that a hard message to some of you? You know a very bold wicked man. Well, so you do; but that man is a coward. One day the shaking of a feather will cause him to become pale, and to tremble and turn round suspiciously, and timidly, as if every leaf in the forest had an indictment against him, and all the elements in the universe had conspired to destroy him.
Here is a call to us, most assuredly. We are placed in critical circumstances. Sometimes eight or nine men upon a board of directors have said that their plan will take this or that particular course. We believe that the plan is corrupt; we believe that it is wicked; displeasing to God, mischievous to man. What is our duty under circumstances such as these? To modify, to pare away, to dilute sound principle and intense conviction, to speak whisperingly, timidly, apologetically? I think not. But to meet the proposition with the definiteness of sound principle, and to be in that minority which is in the long run omnipotent the minority of God. It is not easy to do this. Far be it from me to say that if I had been in Reuben's place I should have taken a more emphatic course. We are not called upon, in preaching God's truth, to say what we should have done under such circumstances; but to put out that which is ideal, absolute, final, and then to exhort one another, to endeavour, by God's tender, mighty grace, to press towards its attainment.
"And they sat down to eat bread: and they lifted up their eyes and looked, and, behold, a company of Ishmeelites came from Gilead with their camels bearing spicery and balm and myrrh, going to carry it down to Egypt" ( Gen 37:25 ).
There are times when circumstances seem to favour bad men. Some of us are accustomed to teach that circumstances are the voice of Divine Providence. There is a sense a profound sense in which that is perfectly true. God speaks by combinations of events, by the complications of history, by unexpected occurrences. Most undoubtedly so. We have marked this. In many cases we have seen their moral meaning, and have been attracted to them as the cloudy pillar in the daytime and the fire by night. At the same time there is another side to that doctrine. Here in the text we find circumstances evidently combining in favour of the bad men who had agreed to part with their brother. They sat down to eat bread, perfectly tranquil, social amongst themselves, a rough hospitality prevailing. Just as they sat down to enjoy themselves with their bread, they lifted up their eyes, and at that very moment a company of Ishmaelites came from Gilead with their camels. What could be more providential? They came in the very nick of time. The brethren had not to go up and down hawking their brother, knocking at door after door to ask if anybody could take him off their hands; but at the very moment when the discussion was pending, and anxiety was at white heat, circumstances so combined and converged as to point out the way of Providence and the path of right. Then we ought to look at circumstances with a critical eye. We ought first to look at moral principles, and then at circumstances. If the morality is right, the eventuality may be taken as an element worthy of consideration in the debate and strife of the hour. But if the principles at the very base are wrong, we are not to sec circumstances as Divine providences, but rather as casual ways to the realisation of a nefarious intent. Let us be still more particular about this. I do not deny that these Ishmaelites came providentially at that identical moment. I believe that the Ishmaelites were sent by Almighty God at that very crisis, and that they were intended by him to offer the solution of the difficult problem. But it is one thing for us to debase circumstances to our own use and convenience, and another to view them from God's altitude and to accept them in God's spirit
"And Judah said unto his brethren, What profit is it if we slay our brother, and conceal his blood?" ( Gen 37:26 ).
The very brightest and luckiest idea of all. He touched human nature to the very quick when he said, What profit is it? And instantly they seemed to convict themselves of a kind of thick-headedness, and said one to another "Ah, to be sure; why, no profit at all. Here is an opportunity of selling him, and that will turn to the account of us all. Sell is as short a word as slay. Sell! that will get clear of him. Let us sell. Sell! we shall have no blood upon our hands. Then we shall, perhaps, have a couple of shekels a-piece, and throwing them up in the air an inch or so, and catching them again, hear their pleasant chink. This is the plan, to be sure. This is the way out of the difficulty. We are sorry we ever thought of shedding blood; we shake ourselves from all such imputations. Let us sell the lad, and there will be an end of the difficulty." Selling does not always take a man out of difficulty. Bargain-making is not always satisfactory. There is a gain that is loss; there is a loss that is gain. There is a separation that takes the hated object from our eyes, yet that object is an element in society and in life working, penetrating, developing and it will come back again upon us some day with greater power, with intensified poignancy; and the man that was driven away from us a beggar and a slave may one day rise up in our path, terrible as an avenger, irresistible as a judgment of God. Well, his brethren were content. Men even say that they enjoy a very great peace, and therefore, if circumstances are tolerably favourable, they say that, on the whole, they feel in a good state of mind. Therefore they conclude that they have not been doing anything very wrong. Let us understand that vice may have a soporific effect upon the conscience and judgment; that we may work ourselves into such a state of mind as to place ourselves under circumstances that are factitious, unsound in their moral bearing, however enjoyable may be their immediate influence upon the mind.
I am struck by this circumstance, in reading the account which is before me, namely, how possible it is to fall from a rough kind of vice, such as "Let us slay our brother," into a milder form of iniquity, such as "Let us sell our brother," and to think that we have now actually come into a state of virtue. That is to say, selling as contrasted with slaying seems so moderate and amiable a thing, as actually to amount to a kind of virtue. Am I understood upon this point? We are not to compare one act with another and say, Comparatively speaking this act is good. Virtue is not a quantity to be compared. Virtue is a non-declinable quantity. Comparing themselves thus they became wise. This kind of comparison has given place to the proverb that there is "honour among thieves." That is impossible. The thievish man will have a thievish honour. It is true still, and will ever remain true, that unless we can set our motives, purposes, intentions, in the full blaze of God's holiness, we shall become the victims of phrases, and be deluded by appearances. We debase circumstances into teachers of God's providences, which were meant to be warnings, threatenings, and judgments. Against comparative morality and comparative virtue, we are called upon to protest. I know how easy it is, when some very startling proposition has been before the mind, to accept a modified form of the proposition, which in itself is morally corrupt; and yet to imagine, by the very descent from the other point, that we have come into a region of virtue. When men say, "Let us slay our brother," there is a little shuddering in society. We don't want to slay our brother. "Well, then," says an acute man, "let us sell him." And, instantly, amiable Christian people say, "Ay, ay, this is a very different thing; yes, let us sell him." Observe, the morality is not changed, only the point in the scale has been lowered. When God comes to judge he will not say, Is this virtue and water? is this diluted vice? but, Is this right? is this wrong? The standard of judgment will be the holiness of God.
Now the brethren had to account for what they had done. They had to make out a case, and case-making is a very difficult business, where the morality is wrong. There is a good deal of stuccoing and veneering, angling and patching, and stitching and arranging to be done. We shall say some evil beast hath devoured him, we will dip his coat in the blood of a goat and say, Judge whether this be thy son's or no. Yes, men will one day have to account for the things which make up their life. "We will say," there is the point. Bad men have to argue upon what they were going to say. Bad men could never afford to be inconsistent and discrepant in their statements. Bad men have to get together, and rub off corners, and rectify angles, and agree upon methods of transition from this point to that point. Twelve honest men have never to get together that they may agree upon this statement and the next plan. They may go one after another and be judged alone, and each tell his own story. And when the twelve statements have been made, there will be little discrepancies, or points of inconsistency, yet all these admit of being wrought up into an impressive consistency, because the basis is true, and the intention of each witness is good. Forty or fifty bad men would never have written such a Bible as we have. It would have been a smoother Bible; there would not have been any apparent discrepancies and inconsistencies; it would have been an easy-flowing and consistent narrative. Observe, there is a consistency which is suspicious. There is a disagreement which is only the outcome of a healthy, loving, true, devout nature.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Genesis 37". Parker's The People's Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 7 / Ordinary 12