I grew up with a sister who was 3 years 4 months and 11 days older than me. When I was a boy there were two things I wanted more than anything else. One was to be an elephant. And the other was to be older than my sister. Maybe the two desires were really the same desire. It seemed in everything that mattered, like getting extra dessert and staying up late at weekends and becoming streetwise at primary school, I was always second. And there’s only so much coming second a man can take – especially a 7-year-old man.
What is it about siblings? We can’t live with them; we can’t live without them. If someone attacks them we’re first to step in, if they’re sick we can’t sleep for worry; but leave us alone in a room with them and in no time we find ourselves turning from wallflowers into fireworks. I once had Christmas dinner with a friend who had his 93-year-old and 91-year-old great aunts and his 89-year-old great uncle join us for the festive occasion. The great uncle said “Pass the roast potatoes, would you” – and proceeded to help himself to a generous portion. “Stop it – put those back” snapped his older sister, “Don’t be so greedy.” The younger sister pleaded, “But surely, it’s Christmas Day!” The older aunt was not to be deterred. Looking imperiously at her 89-year-old
brother, she said ‘He has to learn!”
This is the soil out of which the story of Cain and Abel becomes the story of everybody. A great many politicians and religious leaders talk about safeguarding or promoting or focusing on the family – but you wonder if these people have ever lived in one. The book of Genesis isn’t the slightest bit sentimental when it comes to the realities of growing up with a brother. Here are Cain and Abel; the first recorded sign of trouble and straightaway Abel’s blood is crying out from the ground.
Then a few chapters later we have Abraham and Lot, who were cousins but in one place are called brothers. We have this resonant sentence, “their possessions were so great that they could not live together.” Ouch. Feel the quality of that for a moment. “Their possessions were so great that they
could not live together.” My sister and I became the best of friends only when she went away to university. I didn’t realize we were living out the Abraham and Lot story.
And then there’s Isaac and Ishmael. Anyone here got a half brother? You going to tell me that’s a picnic? You’re the older one and you’re constantly told you should be nice to your little brother even though every time you look at him you think, “It was your mother that ruined my parents’ marriage.
How can I not hate you? Why should I love someone who’s taken away my dad’s attention that used to be all mine?” Or you’re the younger one and you think “I didn’t choose this domestic arrangement so why do I get blamed for it? What do I have to do to be taken seriously in this house and not treated as a toy?”
And we haven’t even spoken yet about Jacob and Esau, and what happens when one parent starts using a child in her maneuverings against the other. Boy does that make it yet more complicated, when you’re piggy in the middle between your parents! And finally there’s Joseph and his brothers, and it’s as if in that story that every element in all the previous stories comes together in a volcano of fratricide and parental favoritism and an over-inflated ego – and yet profound love. Kerboom. If there’s anyone here this morning who doesn’t recognize themselves in one of these stories I’d be mighty surprised. If your life is a chaos of thinly-veiled warfare, and a desperate struggle for recognition, and love you long for but daren’t ask for, and long-festering resentment, and freshly minted fury – welcome to Genesis. You’ll be quite at home.