The Frenemy Factor –
The Frenemy Factor
August 7, 2011
Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28
Put them together and you get … “Frenemies.”
A frenemy can be an enemy disguised as a friend. It can also be a close acquaintance who is a competitor or rival.
Think of Dwight Schrute and Jim Halpert in the television show The Office. Will Schuester and Sue Sylvester in Glee. Virtually everyone involved in the recent debt-limit negotiations in Washington, DC.
These relationships can be mutually beneficial, but they are also highly competitive and saturated with risk and mistrust.
The Bible is filled with frenemies, starting with the Book of Genesis. Think of Adam blaming Eve for giving him the fruit from the tree (3:12). Cain murdering his brother Abel (4:8). Strife between Abram’s herders and Lot’s herders (13:7). Animosity between Sarai and Hagar (16:1-6). The twin brothers Esau and Jacob, struggling together in their mother’s womb (25:22). Jacob prospering at his father-in-law Laban’s expense (30:25-43).
Notice how often these frenemies are members of the same family. A pastor named Thomas Mann took a look at these stories and said, “Genesis is a book about dysfunctional families.”
Amen to that. You may have heard that there was once a national conference for the children of non-dysfunctional families. One guy showed up.
When I take a look at my family tree, I see some frenemies. And they can be found throughout the families of the Bible as well. The frenemy factor becomes especially evident near the end of Genesis, when the twelve sons of Jacob fall into a bitter rivalry. Jacob loved one of his sons, seventeen-year-old Joseph, “more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves” (37:3).
You can easily imagine how this favoritism went over with Joseph’s brothers. Genesis tells us that “they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him” (v. 4).
There was no brotherly love in this situation. Instead, brotherly hate. They were frenemies.
This antagonism boils over when father Jacob — also known as Israel — sends Joseph to some distant fields, to see how his brothers are doing with the flock. The brothers see Joseph coming, and immediately conspire to kill him. But even within their ranks, they cannot come up with a unanimous opinion — brother Reuben convinces them not to kill him, but merely to throw him into a pit. So they grab Joseph, strip him of his precious robe, and throw him into a waterless pit.
Then they sit down to eat. That’s very, very cold. As Thomas Mann says, “Genesis is a book about dysfunctional families.”
As the brothers are munching their lunch, they see a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, carrying a load of gum, balm, and resin to Egypt. Brother Judah says, “Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” The brothers nod in agreement, draw Joseph out of the pit, and sell him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. And the traders take Joseph to Egypt (vv. 12-28).
What drives this exchange is the power of the frenemy factor. Joseph was their own flesh, but his brothers hated him. They were part of the same family, but resentful and competitive. In his book The Family and Pastoral Care, Herbert Anderson writes that “probably in no other context of human life does our sinfulness show as clearly as it does in the family.” Selling Joseph into slavery made perfect sense because their father loved him the best, and they despised him because of this.
Hate can make us do some outrageous things.
A few months ago, I read in The Washington Post (December 23, 2010) that psychologists who study hatred have found evidence that people are hard-wired to judge each other. The ancients were making personality judgments as far back as 1,000 B.C. One Greek philosopher identified 30 personality types, some of which were determined to be totally undesirable.
That pretty much sums up the opinion of the brothers toward Joseph: Totally undesirable.
We know this, because we do this. We make judgments of people all the time — coworkers, neighbors, classmates, strangers, friends, enemies, frenemies. Often, our judgments are harshest towards the people closest to us, because we resent or envy them. We label them totally undesirable and try to knock them down, in order to build ourselves up. “Hate can feel so good,” says journalist Monica Hesse. “It’s pure and clarifying.” But it’s also “a fast-burning emotion, and the residue it leaves is dark. Deep down, we know it’s corrosive.”
So what can we do, to quench the destructive flames of hatred? Water won’t do it, nor will foam, dry powder, or carbon dioxide. We cannot blow it out, nor can we smother it.
The only fire-extinguisher that will work is forgiveness.
Joseph discovers this many years later, after he has risen to power in Egypt. In a time of famine, people from neighboring countries come to Egypt to buy grain — including ten of Joseph’s brothers. They do not recognize Joseph, who is now governor over all the land. But Joseph recognizes them, and initially he treats them like strangers, speaks harshly to them, and accuses them of being spies (42:1-9).
I cannot blame him for doing this. Can you? After all, they had stripped him, thrown him into a pit, and sold him into slavery. That’s gotta hurt. In this case, the frenemy factor had definitely tipped toward enemy.
Joseph decides to test them by asking them to return home with a load of grain, and fetch their youngest brother Benjamin. He says, “Bring your youngest brother to me, and I shall know that you are not spies but honest men” (v. 34). They do this, and then Joseph reveals himself to them, saying, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life” (45:4-5).
Joseph discovers that there is a power a work in his life that is bigger and stronger than hatred. Although the brothers clearly intended to do harm to Joseph, God intended it for good — in order to preserve the people of Israel (50:20).
God transformed an act of hatred into love. He took a horrible sin, and used it to start a chain of events that would save a large number of people. And when Joseph sees that this has happened, he quenches the hatred between himself and his brothers with an act of forgiveness. Joseph realizes that the rule of God is much more important than his own rule as the governor of Egypt.
Through the power of God, the frenemy factor suddenly tips toward friendship.
Forgiveness can work as a fire-extinguisher today as well. You can use it when a coworker undermines you, a friend disappoints you, a classmate gossips about you, or a romantic partner hurts you. The truth about the offense must be named, such as Joseph did when he said to his brothers, “You intended to do harm to me.” But it is equally important to release them from the offense, as Joseph did when he spoke kindly to them and said, “Have no fear” (50:19-21). To tell the truth and release from guilt — these are the actions that can douse the flames of hatred.
The reason we can forgive each other is because Christ has forgiven us. When we come to the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper this morning, we will not be eating a cold and hate-filled meal like the lunch eaten by the brothers after they threw Joseph into a pit. No, we’ll be eating a meal that contains the love of Christ for us, and his promise of forgiveness. In his gift of the cup, Jesus says, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, shed for you and all people for the forgiveness of sin.”
In most cases, forgiveness is private. But it can be very public. In June of last year, the city of Detroit was focused on an amazing performance in a baseball game between the Tigers and the Indians. A pitcher for the Tigers was throwing a perfect game, and needed to get just one more out in order to become the 21st pitcher in the history of Major League Baseball to pitch one. Then the umpire made a horrible mistake. He incorrectly declared that a batter from the Indians was safe at first base, ruining the pitcher’s perfect game.
The crowd at the ballpark began to boo, and for a moment the umpire was the most hated man in America. And it was not just baseball fans who despised him — the umpire hated himself. “I did not get the call correct,” said the 54-year-old ump, with tears in his eyes. “I took a perfect game away from that kid.”
The frenemy factor was tipping toward enemy, but it did not stay there for long. The umpire had made a bad mistake, but he was not a bad guy. He apologized to the pitcher, the apology was accepted, and the two men hugged.
Suddenly, the flames of hatred were extinguished, and two potential enemies were reconciled. Baseball fans discovered that hate is not the only emotion that feels pure and clarifying — forgiveness does as well.
A pitcher and an umpire discovered this. As did Joseph and his brothers. We can do the same.
Forgiveness has the power to turn frenemies into friends. Amen.
Mann, Thomas W. “’All the families of the earth’: The theological unity of Genesis,” Interpretation, October 1991, 341.
Anderson, Herbert. The Family and Pastoral Care (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 97.
Hesse, Monica. “The people we hated in 2010,” The Washington Post, December 23, 2010, www.washingtonpost.com.