Joseph walked the long miles through the desert dragging a chain between his legs there was plenty of time for visions of his eventful youth to dispel the depressive feeling of nonentity trying to take control of his tortured young mind. These memories he deliberately set before his self as a testimony of a life to hold fast to.
H reached into the farthest recesses of his memory and pulled out the files, one by one. First there was the time when he was still a babe in arms, about six years old – one of his first memories – when his father picked him up and set him, with his mother, on the back of a kneeling camel. He remembered the secure feeling while he was in his father’s arms, and the mingled fear and excitement as he was placed before his mother. Then, before he could guess what was going to happen, the camel rose in the air with a swaying motion that nearly took his breath away. The memory was still, after all these years, accompanied by a slight feeling of dizziness. Then he remembered a feeling of wonder as they begin to move forward. He remembered the thrill as his mother explained they were all leaving. Joseph’s ten brothers, his sister, Dinah, his aunts, with his father’s livestock as well as all their other personal possessions were never going to return to the land of his birth.
Ignoring the heavy iron chains that burned into his flesh and slowed his gait, Joseph focused his attention on the events of that journey that were sharp in his memory. There was the argument ten days into their trip between his father and grandfather in the hill country of Gilead when everyone seemed to be holding their breath. It seemed that his grandfather had been angry at his father for leaving without saying good-bye. And Joseph’s father had been angry about the ill treatment Joseph’s grandfather was guilty of. The argument ended when the two of them built up a great heap of stones on the mountain that would separate the grandfather and father forever. They had a big feast that night and the following morning Joseph’s grandfather kissed them all good-bye, and that was the last time Joseph ever saw him.
Joseph could remember the panic that spread through the camp when the news came that the dread Uncle Esau was on his way to meet them with 400 followers. Joseph was sitting with his mother on the camel while his father rushed about dividing his family and stock and lining them up.
They were in the narrow Jabbok Valley and everywhere he looked he saw scarred limestone cliffs, very different from the grasslands around the home he had known all his life. Joseph and his mother were directed to stay at the end of the long line of family and stock. They would be safe back there, his mother said, but Joseph didn’t like being so far away from his father.
He remembered his very flesh was tingling with excitement. The whole thing was extremely exhilarating. Whoever, the thing that made the greatest impression on his young mind was that prayer of his father’s.
His big strong father, who seemed a tower of strength and reliability to Joseph, looked toward the heavens and cried out to the God of his fathers. He prayed humbly, reminding Yahweh of his mercy and his guiding care and revealed truth. Then he pled, with the conviction of one who knows Yahweh hears and answers prayer, for the deliverance from Uncle Esau. He pled for the lives of his family and reminded Yahweh of his promise to bless them.
Then his father sent presents to Uncle Esau and lay down to sleep.
Joseph’s father, Jacob, knew the principle that, years later, wise Solomon and his father, David, would record that, “A gift in secret pacifies anger…I laid down and slept: I awakened for the Lord sustained me. I will not be afraid of ten thousands of peoples who have set themselves against me round about.”[i]
That was a night of somber anticipation when they crossed over the ford of the Jabbok River without the trusted father. But in the morning, when his father limped into camp to get his family ready to cross the Jabbok for the third time, the mark of royalty was on his countenance.
Later, he told Joseph of the struggle with the Man and the resulting blessing. And Joseph set his own face to seek Yahweh’s blessing.
The family moved across the river with Joseph and his mother on the rear camel. Uncle Esau and his 400 men were approaching the front.
But when Uncle Esau reached them he wasn’t a roaring wild man to be feared at all. He grabbed Joseph’s father and hugged and kissed him, weeping for joy.
Joseph would never forget the delight he felt at the sight. He laughed and took his mother’s face in his hands and said, “Oh see! Don’t you see what our God has done? He has taken the angry heart of the dread uncle and made it soft and loving.”
Joseph remembered the house at Succoth and the journey to Shechem only slightly; but the terrible thing that happened there was stamped into his memory forever. There was the horror that his father felt when his sister was defiled; the rage of his brothers; the deceit and finally, the massacre. Oh the shame of it! His brothers even had to be told to get rid of their false gods before they could flee to Bethel.
But in Bethel the whole family formally entered into a covenant with Yahweh. His father took him aside and showed him the very place where the foot of the mystic ladder had set on the ground so many years ago when he was a young man running from his brother’s wrath. Joseph listened well as his father told of the angels walking up and down the ladder, and how the Lord stood above it and spoke to him.
The covenant promise was etched solidly into Joseph’s memory cells and his whole being thrilled at his own part in that promise. The impression went deep into his heart and grew with each succeeding event of his life.
Joseph’s being thrilled again when he heard the story of how Yahweh changed his father’s name to Israel. His father explained that it was a re-affirmation of what he had been told when he struggled with Yahweh on the banks of the Jabbok while they waited for Uncle Esau. Joseph rejoiced that his father was a prince with God and knew in his heart Israel was an ideal for the son of Israel to model.
They left Bethel – the House of Yahweh – and headed for Bethlehem. The death of Deborah, his grandmother’s nursemaid, while they were still at Bethel, hadn’t made much of an impression on Joseph. Deborah was pretty much an unknown quantity in his young life. His father wept for her and joseph understood that she was a link to his grandmother. But his grandmother was already buried with his great-grandfather Abraham and great-grandmother Sarah in a cave in the field of Machpelah. He had never seen her.
Death was a face of life for Joseph but it didn’t pierce his soul with awful pain until he heard the weak cries of his mother just a short distance from Bethlehem.
One day there would be joyful scenes in this same place. Ruth would meet Boaz here and a beautiful story of love and faith would unfold. One day David would watch his sheep here and sing of his faith in his God. Here another Joseph would walk beside the as that carried Mary who, in turn, carried the Savior of the world in her womb.
But for Joseph, this was the place where his mother lost her own life as she ushered in the life of his little brother.
Joseph loved his little brother passionately. Perhaps his love was greater for his brother because Benjamin was his mother’s last gift to him and his father. Joseph and his father had always been close, but after that day, they were even closer. The three of them – Joseph, his father, and Benjamin – would have to comfort one another. The rest of the family couldn’t understand quite how they felt.
They buried her there on the narrow road to Bethlehem with a pillar to mark her resting place.
The way to Hebron from Bethlehem was hard for Joseph. He was all alone so much now. His half-brothers didn’t know what it was like to be the only son of a loving mother and have her wretched from his life at such an early age. A little later they buried his 103 year old grandfather and this new death poured salt in Joseph’s wounds. He suffered the death of his mother all over again.
But joseph had a God who is full of mercy and grace. As Job said, “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and he shall stand at the later day upon the earth: and though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh I shall see God: Whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold and not another.”[ii] Joseph had that same faith in that same God, and that faith was the fabric of the hope that he had of a reunion in eternity.
Young Joseph was seventeen years old, in his next memory, and living with his father in the land of Canaan. His half-brothers Dan, Naphtali, Gad, and Asher were feeding their father’s flock and Joseph was working with them. But Joseph had another job. He was to watch his brothers and tell his father how they behaved. They had, more than once in the past, behaved very badly and it behooved their father to keep an eye on them. Consequently he gave the one son he could trust they duty of telling him when they did anything that would bring their father shame. Benjamin was still too young for the fields.
No one likes to be spied on and told on but the one who never does any wrong. Joseph’s half-brothers had long ago hardened their consciences and as a result did more wrong than right. He who is faithful in little is also faithful in much and he who is unjust in the least is also unjust in much. So Joseph’s father left the older unjust sons in the field and promoted Joseph. He gave him a long flowing white linen robe that extended to his ankles and wrists. It was embroidered with a long strip of color along the edge of the shirt and sleeves and was the kind of robe worn only by the opulent and noble who didn’t need to toil for a living. If this robe had been given to Reuben, his brothers wouldn’t have objected. He was the oldest and the natural heir to the position. The short colored garments of the laborer were their lot. They expected to go on wearing them the rest of their lives. They didn’t show stain, or cramp the free movement of their limbs as they waded through marshes or climbed hills. The robe that Joseph’s father gave him was not fit to wear while carrying stray sheep or fighting robbers or beasts. The older sons wouldn’t have minded if Reuben had been exempt from such hardship and toil. The richest inheritance and position would naturally go to the oldest. But their father couldn’t trust the oldest, so he gave it to the son he could trust. And Joseph was the son his father could trust in his old age.
[i] Proverbs 21:14; Psalms 3:5, 6 KJV slightly paraphrased by Allison Kohn
[ii] Job 19:25-27