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Jealousy In a Family


JEALOUSY: Collins Thesaurus lists the words that convey a related meaning: envy, covetousness, distrust, heart-burning, ill-will, mistrust, possessiveness, resentment, spite, suspicion.

These are expressions of powerful human emotions, especially the word heart-burning, all originating in the cauldron of the self-centered mind where they seem to simmer and bubble away until they boil over into action.  In Lucifer it began with wanting more than the high gifts he already possessed, in covetous observation of others and thinking the great I word, the centre of sin. Imaginatively transferring status and ownership to himself, ‘he said in his heart’ (Isaiah 14: 13, NIV) “I will”, including the element, “I want.”  Note that he thought he could achieve his goals all by himself: I will ascend . . .  raise my throne . . .  sit enthroned on the mount, on the utmost heights . . . above the tops of the clouds; I will make myself  like the Most High.” Thus his plan delineated position, power and supreme authority. Whew! What a competitor; what a personality to work beside, one who pushes others aside for the top job.  As Proverbs 27:4, NIV points out, “Who can stand before jealousy?”

 Yet Jesus did withstand by choosing commitment to his Father when Satan took him to the highest point of the temple and to a very high mountain peak. Satan supposed, in his continuing vanity, that he could seduce the Son of the Most High.   Ha – No Way! (Mathew 4: 1-11 NIV).

The expressions “I will” and  “I want” start early in life. Arising from need or as statements of personal choice and decision making, they are part of normal child development.  But every good attribute can have a dark side, and even healthy utterances can fester into envy and self-centeredness which strengthen with use, becoming deeply rooted in the personality. Living in a materialistic society, besieged by stimuli that feed the ego and cultivate a covetous spirit, they are a challenge in child rearing.   It is not enough to shrug off such behavior by commenting that “S/he is just like her/his mother/grandpa, aunty, uncle . . .” So we may ask  if example and environment come into all this?  Is the Nature versus Nurture issue involved? 

Consider the antonyms of the adjective formed from the noun jealousy: jealous. These are carefree, indifferent, trusting, satisfied.  They are attributes that can be modeled and taught, along with stories from the Bible and other literature that can be discussed in family dialogue. And, importantly, by leading a child to choose Jesus, then encouraging a continuing relationship into youth and young adulthood, establishing family love which is caught and strengthening. Think about ways to develop trust and satisfaction.

The saga of Jacob and his family, told in Genesis 29 – 50, is a dramatic one, acted out by strong and differing personalities, often torn apart by deceit and extreme emotional passions. Raised in a large family of more than twelve children, they were the sons and daughter of four mothers, so with a diverse gene pool, Joseph’s older brothers had a severe problem of  jealousy and disharmony (Genesis 37:4-11). Of course their father’s gift to his favorite son of a richly ornamented robe fed this attitude and affected their subsequent conduct.  They probably would not have identified the princely robe as being partly a memorial and tribute to Jacob’ s favorite wife. And if they had sensed it, they would have been jealous for their own mothers’ sakes. This raises the question about fairness within a family; Is it possible not to discriminate, or is it always discolored by other factors, such as differing personalities?

What did the brothers envy, or even seek for themselves, perhaps at a subconscious level?  Firstly, it could well have been their need as individuals for a personal demonstration of their father’s affection. A special robe, like Joseph’s, would have been nice, but surely Jacob could have found some way into his older sons’ hearts so that they did not feel left out, and Reuben, the eldest,  did demonstrate respect. Certainly Jacob showed concern for their wellbeing when they went over to Shechem to graze their flocks, which is why he asked the young man, Joseph, to leave the Valley of Hebron and go to find out if all was well, then to bring back word.  (Genesis 37:12-14). Jacob would also have been alerted to possible trouble between Shechemites and his family, remembering how his second and third sons, Simeon and Levi, had killed and plundered the house of Shechem for their sister Dinah’s  sake.  Later, Jacob pronounced that “Simeon and Levi are brothers – their swords are weapons of violence . . . Cursed be their anger . . .” (Genesis 49:5 NIV). That Jacob knew his sons’ characters in manhood is shown in his final blessings (Genesis 49).

The ten older brothers were already grown men when Joseph was seventeen (Genesis 37:2) and it was too late to compensate for years of possible emotional neglect, especially the early years of childhood when bonding is established. And of course the issue was colored by who their mothers were: Leah, first wife, a surprise of Laban, the father-in-law, couched in Jacob’s marital bed after the wedding celebrations; Zilpah, Leah’s maid and mother to two sons of Jacob – probably Leah’s own choice when she wearied of having babies herself, at least seven of them, including Dinah, and wanted her figure back. Then came Bilhah, Rachel’s maid, foisted onto a protesting, angry Jacob by Rachel when she was jealous of her older sister, overlooking the history of God’s intervention with Sarah and Rebekah. Through this sad attempt to solve her bleak, barren condition herself, Rachel became step-mother to two sons whose natures Jacob analysed in his final blessings (Genesis 49:16. 17, 27). 

Rachel was, of course, Jacob’s soul-mate, for whom he worked seven hard years after seven years of servitude for Leah. She was mother to Joseph,  love-child born in Jacob’s older years, and also mother of the youngest child, Benjamin, at whose difficult birth she died.  A complicated, disfunctional family indeed!  Yet it was fathered by a patriarch who knew the story of God in his ancestry and who had accepted the LORD at Bethel. (See Genesis 28:20-22).

A second reasonfor the brothers’ jealousy could have been bred by the nature of Joseph’s dreams and the way he recounted them. After Joseph’s dream of his brothers’ sheaves of corn bowing down to his own sheaf, trouble surged. “Will you actually rule us?” they asked, scorning him. The situation worsened when Joseph, perhaps with naivety, told his second dream of the sun, moon and eleven stars bowing down to him. This time his father rebuked him, for the symbolism was obvious, but the inter-sibling damage had been done. They could never have guessed, then, how God would turn things around!

A third reason was that Joseph’s dreams made him different, so the brothers sneeringly labeled him “That dreamer.”   He seemed a threat to their own status quo and futures, and fear arose along with intolerance and subsequent dire action. The development of the story shows, however, that God was indeed with the young man, whose life has been compared to the life of Christ.

In conclusion, the story of Jacob’s family shows how jealousy does not grow alone. It is a weed with tendrils that intertwine and choke healthy relationships.  Without unselfish love at a personal level, it can flourish in any family along with other evils, so that the first commandment of the ten given at Sinai, along with the fifth, sixth, eight, ninth and tenth may also be shattered.

 In each incident portrayed, goodness grows beside evil, light with darkness, good intentions by ill, so that we ultimately find concerning the two sons of Rachel’s maidservant that “Dan will be a serpent by the roadside, a viper along the path” (Genesis 49: 17, NIV), whereas “Naphtali is a doe set free that bears beautiful fawns” (verse 21).  On the other hand, a messianic promise comes through Judah, the son born after the murderous pair, Simeon and Levi, and “Joseph is a fruitful vine near a spring whose branches climb over a wall” (Genesis 49: 27, NIV). As Jesus’ parable of the sower shows ( Matthew 8:4-15) different hearts have different responses, even perhaps in a family.

There are choices all along life’s journey, choices and examples for parents to make, choices for children, and all have their consequences. They may be for a colorful robe, a cistern in a desert or a caravan to Egypt, yet even what may appear an unwise decision born of jealousy, can become transformational and lifesaving with a merciful, omniscient Heavenly Father.

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