Jacob's most beloved son was clearly Joseph; the Bible tells us as much in so many words. Joseph had a special coat of many colors that his father got for him, and all you had to do was ask any of the other eleven who was the favorite and they knew; it was Joseph. This is because he was the firstborn, and for a long time, the only-born son of the beloved Rachel.
As if that's not a hard enough pill to swallow if you're one of the less-favored eleven, Joseph had a tendency to dream...and to not be quiet about it. We know that it was these dreams that finally pushed his brothers over the edge. It was the dreams, and Joseph's inability to keep quiet about them, that drove his brothers to want to kill him, although they pulled back and decided just to sell him into slavery instead.
But there's something interesting about how Joseph shared his dreams...and how he came to be sold into slavery...that isn't apparent on the surface, though it is plain in the text. We have to pay attention to what we're reading to catch it.
A number of brothers are listed as the audience for Joseph's sharing. When he tells his dream, the Bible tells us exactly which brothers he was talking to - they are his brothers by concubine, by slave. They are not his brothers by wife, neither by his mother nor by his step-mother/aunt Leah; they aren't named here. The brothers that are named when Joseph is telling his dreams about his brothers bowing down to his greatness are brothers that, by all social structures, he was actually greater than.
Of course the son of a wife is greater than the son of a concubine, even if he is younger. Of course the son of a beloved wife is especially grater than the son of a slave. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure that out, so when Joseph is telling these brothers about these dreams, it's not that bold of a statement. And it's not really news.
What makes it news is when the sons of the concubines tell, apparently, the sons of the wives, for whom Joseph's claim is a bit more audacious (even though they know he's the favorite - in their minds, he may be the favorite, but that doesn't mean he's the best).
Just a few short verses later, when his brothers are plotting to kill him and then deciding after all to sell him, it's his brothers by wife that are named as the schemers, not his brothers by concubine.
Most of us miss this. Most of us read the names, read the identifier "brothers," and just think simply that his brothers heard his story and sold him into slavery. But there's a whole dynamic of relationship revealed here if we pay attention to which brothers are named in each scene. It doesn't mean the others aren't present, necessarily, but it does mean that it's important to notice how the brothers are socially arranged.
The claim Joseph makes from his dreams is the least bold claim he can make in the context; he truly is greater than the brothers he tells. But it's his brothers by wife who are the most brazen; they're the ones who make a fateful decision regarding his life.
It's interesting to think about how this dynamic may be true in our own lives as believers, particularly as we related with brothers and sisters in the church and those outside of it. I'm not going to spoil your fun on that one; just think about it for awhile.
Oh, and there's another interesting dynamic in this slave trade. More on that tomorrow.