Why do parents play favorites?
Why do parents grow up to do the very same thing their parents did that caused them pain?
The only answer I have is that human nature is just that – fallen human nature. Unless our natural inclinations are changed by God, we can’t break free of poor choices. Our fleshly desires and human frailties will get the best of us every time. And even when we do know God (and as New Testament Christ-followers, have the indwelling Holy Spirit), we are still susceptible to our human tendencies.
Genesis 37 introduces us to Joseph, who will take center stage as our main character for the remainder of this book. He is the youngest of eleven brothers, his father’s favorite, the “son of his old age.” You would think Jacob would be on guard against playing favorites. He knew from his own childhood experiences that when a parent favors one child over another it can lead to broken relationships between siblings, but here he is, openly showing partiality to Joseph. This was not just a case of treating Joseph like “the baby,” although that probably did happen when he was younger. By this time, Joseph is seventeen, and his father has singled him out by making him a varicolored tunic, a long robe (something which was probably outlandishly incongruent for a teenager). Joseph must have worn that robe with some sense of superiority and pride; it caused his brothers not just to dislike him, but to hate him (37:4).
Jacob sends Joseph out into the wilderness to check on his brothers. They “saw him from a distance;” he was sporting that brightly colored robe. Joseph already had a reputation as a talebearer, tattling on his brothers to his father. This was also after he had foolishly (perhaps immaturely) shared the dreams and visions about his brothers bowing down to him. As the brothers watched him approach, their dislike, hatred, and resentment simmered over into a plan to kill him.
The oldest, Reuben, wisely sees this is not a good plan. Of the ten, he is the only one who has some compassion for his little brother, and he convinces them to throw him into a pit instead of killing him. He has an ulterior motive; he intends to rescue Joseph and take him home. We’re not told why, but Reuben separates himself from the group for a time, and when he returns, he is distraught to discover Joseph has been sold into slavery.
Ten grown men conspire to trick their father into thinking Joseph is dead. They watch him mourn and even make a show of comforting him. I cannot imagine the guilt … the whispered conversations of “should we confess?” … the fear of what might happen if Jacob finds out what they did. They had to bury this event in their subconscious to go on with their lives, but as we will see later, none of them forgot it. Eventually, their sin would be found out.
We know how this story turns out; God uses this event to set Joseph on his path to abundance, honor, wealth, prestige, and position that will save his family’s life. The truth won’t come out for twenty-two long years, during which Joseph will suffer a great deal.
What’s our takeaway?
For me, this chapter is about parenting. While we are not responsible for every decision our children make (they have God-given free will just as we do), the choices we make have a direct impact on their character. We choose whether they feel loved, accepted, and honored with our words and actions. Favoritism and partiality will tear your family apart.
Jacob hadn’t learned from his own experiences. Obviously, his affections for Joseph were connected to the fact he was the long-anticipated and desired child of Rachel, the wife he loved the most. By the time Joseph came along, I’m sure they parented more like grandparents. But he had a choice. He could break the chain of “showing favorites” or continue this pattern. He didn’t make the wiser choice and it brought great pain.
God doesn’t show favoritism to His children. He loves all of us equally, no matter who we are or what we’ve done. He is the example of the perfect Father. While we will never be perfect parents, let’s be careful with our words and attitudes and make sure all our children feel equally loved and important. And if we see some old patterns of behavior in ourselves that were passed down to us, may God do a new work in us.
Romans 2:11 – For there is no partiality with God.