My Grandfather’s Son is the autobiography of Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas. Justice Thomas was raised by his grandparents, and his story reminded me of the Old Testament story of Joseph. Both were raised by flawed, but powerful and good men. Both overcame tremendous obstacles in their youth. And both went on to great careers, rising fast through the ranks, and reaching to the heights of governmental power. The careers of both were marred by accusations of sexual misconduct. And, both had a deep faith in God and a profound gratitude to God. Both men thanked God for what they had been given, and for the ways God brought them through all their troubles.
Clarence Thomas has often thought back to the lessons his grandfather taught him, lessons that seemed harsh at the time. But it was those harsh lessons gave him the strength and the wisdom to work hard, endure adversity, and succeed. Old grandpa had a rough, old school approach to raising kids, and in the 1960’s, Thomas, like so many others, rebelled against it. But then over the years, he returned to his grandfather’s ways, and now, he gives his grandfather the credit for his success. The years of rebellion were tough on the relationship, and a great sadness for Thomas is that they never really had a chance to be fully reconciled before his grandfather’s death. Grandpa remained harsh and hard, and Clarence was too proud to bend, and that’s how things stood when grandfather died. But now, years later, in this book Clarence expresses his appreciation for his grandfather’s influence.
Many people take an opposite approach, blaming all their adult troubles on their childhood. There are things in everyone’s past that could tempt us to do that. There is that popular image of the patient lying on the psychiatrist’s couch, going deep into his or her childhood to bring back painful memories of things that have led to their current problems. There are the tell-all biographies of celebrities or celebrities’ children that describe truly terrible stories of neglect and abuse. Some of the stories Clarence Thomas told about his grandfather could have been told from that perspective. Grandpa’s firmness was never abusive, but it could seem very mean, especially by today’s standards. It is easy for anyone to find hurtful things in their past, no matter how wonderful their parents or how privileged their birth. It is an imperfect world we live in, and if one wants to dwell on it long enough, or think back hard enough, they can think of all kinds of things that went wrong as they were growing up– mistakes parents made, teachers that were mean, other kids that were brutal, and all sorts of other reasons why one just could not help turning out as troubled as they now are. This is not to deny or downplay that many childhoods are extremely abusive and damaging, and it does, for some, become too much to overcome. But even in less traumatic situations our memories can be very selective, and we can choose to color our remembrances of the past in whatever way we want. I have heard siblings who grew up in the same home, recalling the very same situations; and for one, the memories are filled with gratitude, and for the other, the memories are filled with bitterness and resentment. If we want to find someone else to blame for all of our troubles, we can do it.
It would be hard to find someone with a childhood as complicated as Joseph’s in the Bible. The story is told in chapters 37-50 of the Old Testament book of Genesis. The first few verses of chapter 37 are already filled with conflict, and we see from the very beginning that there is trouble. Joseph, the second youngest boy in the family, is out tending flocks with his brothers, and “he brings his father a bad report about them” (verse two). Back when I was a kid, someone who did that was called a ‘tattle tale’ or a ‘squealer.’ That is what they were, even if they were your own flesh and blood. So Joseph was a tattle-tale, and you can be quite sure Joseph’s ten older brothers did not much care to have him around. But that’s not uncommon. Many children even today do not always appreciate having their little brother or sister around. On the other hand, there is also enough in the story to suggest that the other brothers were mean and irresponsible troublemakers, provoking other tribes in the area and causing difficulties for their father. It may even have been for the sake of the family’s safety that Joseph wanted to keep his father informed.
In verse three, we see more trouble, this time caused by the father of the 12 boys. Jacob was a wise and godly old man who should have known better, but the Bible says, “Jacob loved Joseph MORE than any of his other sons.” Everyone knows that’s not a good way to be a parent. Not only did Jacob love Joseph more, he made it very clear to everyone that Joseph was his favorite by having a richly ornamented robe made for him, that famous ‘coat of many colors.’ That kind of favoritism will inevitably bring of conflict, and it did in Jacob’s family.
In the popular television program Everybody Loves Raymond, Raymond is obviously loved more by his mother than is Robert, the other son in the family. On TV this can generate a lot of laughs, but in real life that kind of favoritism will bring a lot of conflict. And it did in Jacob’s family. Verse four says, “When his brothers saw that their father loved Joseph more than any of them, they hated him and could not speak a kind word to him.” Today we would call this a dysfunctional family. It gets worse.
In verse 14, Jacob the father, sends Joseph the favorite son, out to check on the rest of the brothers who are tending the flocks. Jacob apparently doesn’t trust these boys, and is no doubt hoping that Joseph will do some more tattling. The brothers plan to see to it that he doesn’t. The solution they propose is to murder Joseph and deceive their father. Rueben, the oldest son, prevents this drastic solution. Then Judah, another one of the older sons, comes up with a different plan, convincing them all get rid of Joseph by selling him as a slave to a caravan going to Egypt. That, they believed, would certainly be the end of Joseph for them.
They would, however, still have to deceive their father. So in verses 31-32, the brothers smear the despised ‘coat of many colors’ with animal blood and take it home to their father. Jacob is heartbroken, and decades grieves for the loss of his favorite son. (continued…)
Joseph’s Coat Brought to Jacob, Giovanni de Ferrari, 1640
Genesis 37:2-4 — This is the account of Jacob’s family line. Joseph, a young man of seventeen, was tending the flocks with his brothers, the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives, and he brought their father a bad report about them. Now Israel loved Joseph more than any of his other sons, because he had been born to him in his old age; and he made an ornate robe for him. When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of them, they hated him and could not speak a kind word to him.
Deliver us, good Lord, from the excessive demands of business and social life that limit family relationships; from the insensitivity and harshness of judgment that prevent understanding; from domineering ways and selfish imposition of our will; from softness and indulgence mistaken for love. Bless us with wise and understanding hearts that we may demand neither too much nor too little, and grant us such a measure of love that we may nurture our children to that fullness of manhood and womanhood which you intended for them, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
–Charles S. Martin (b. 1906), Headmaster of St. Alban’s School, Washington, D.C.