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.
Joseph’s brothers were furious. They couldn’t even be decent to him.
Instead of showing him the respect due his position, his brothers were no even civil to him. The breach between Joseph and his brothers grew wider and wider; and the little brother Benjamin grew dearer and dearer to him.
All the half-brothers had wives and children of their own; so Joseph, Benjamin, and their father had sweet fellowship and the bond between the three strengthened. And the jealousy of Joseph’s half-brothers grew into a huge canker eating into their souls.
Then one night Joseph had a dream. It was a disturbing dream and yet it was exciting. Joseph thought maybe it would make a good object lesson for his brothers to teach them to show him the respect appropriate his rank. He didn’t realize it would only add fuel to the fire of hatred. After all, he was still only a boy.
So he went to his brothers and said, “Listen to what I dreamed last night. In my dream we were all binding sheaves in the field, and see what happened! My sheave stood straight up. Now listen to what your sheaves did. Your bundles bowed down to mine.”
“Oh really!” His brothers’ faces were red and their voices loud. What they said was articulated through clenched teeth. “Do you think you will rule over us? What makes you think you have a right to have jurisdiction over us?” And the hatred fermented and boiled.
But Joseph dreamed again, and out of the naiveté of youth, he told his brothers and father.
“This time the sun and moon and eleven stars bowed down to me,” he said. Shouldn’t his family be proud that someday he would be such a great ruler to command the greatest token of respect due anyone? But his brothers’ envy was beyond words and his father told him not to show such disrespect to his family.
Joseph’s brothers weren’t looking forward to the humiliation of bowing down to their brother and they had a strong suspicion his dreams were from Yahweh and would come true if they weren’t stopped some way. They seethed in their anger and resentment.
But Joseph had the love of Yahweh in his heart and the hope of eternity. He was loving, meek, gentle, long suffering, good, kind, and forgiving.
Unless they are kept moving, sheep will completely devour the grass in any green area, so by and by Joseph’s brothers needed to find new grass for the herd. Eventually they ate the grass up in the new range and had to be led down even further from home until their destination was as far away as Shechem.
Shechem was a good distance from Hebron so their father didn’t expect to hear from his sons right away. But after long weeks with no word his worry for his sons was so great he was willing to send “his dearest son” to search for them.
Joseph didn’t know his life was a picture of the Son of his God sent to “seek and save that which is lost.”[i] Maybe Joseph’s father could know a little of the great cost it was to the Infinite God, Yahweh, to send his only begotten Son who dwelt in his father’s bosom; the Father who so loved the world that he sent his son to pursue and recover the lost sheep of humanity. And the Son who was sent? He came because of his own great love; and to those who would be his followers, he said, “As the father has sent me, so send I you.”[ii]
Accordingly, out of his great love for his errant sons, Joseph’s father sent the darling of his heart to search for them. And Joseph willingly went; always ready to do that which was required of him, even as far as risking his own life to get to the country where Israel’s children had made him “stink among the inhabitants of the land.”[iii]
Without hesitation Joseph said, “I am here to do your bidding, Father, whatever it may be.”[iv]
It wasn’t that he didn’t know there would be more to fear than the inhabitants of the land who his brothers had grievously wounded. He knew the mountainous country between Hebron and Shechem. He knew he would have to cross the Arnon River, go through land infested with outlaws and wild beasts, spend lonely nights in those mountains, and when he got there, he knew those false brothers wouldn’t welcome him with open arms. But he went anyway because he loved his brothers and his father; and besides that, he had a certain amount of responsibility for those he had authority over. He recognized that, even as young as he was.
Nevertheless, Joseph wasn’t filled with fear as he went on his long journey. His heart was singing to the Lord, “Your righteousness is like the great mountains, your judgments like the deep waters of the Arnon, O Lord. You are the preserver of both man and beast.”[v]
Joseph’s whole nature responded to the creation of his great God, Yahweh. His heart was in tune with the awe of David when, years later, he wrote, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows his handiwork. Day unto Day utters speech, and night unto night shows knowledge.”[vi] And he would have agreed enthusiastically with Nahum, who wrote, “The Lord is good. A stronghold in the day of trouble; and he knows those who trust in him.”[vii]
So he arrived in Shechem with a loving heart and a light step.
When a working man spotted this beautiful boy wrapped in the robe of nobility, he went to him with deference and asked, “What are you looking for?”
And Joseph answered politely, “I am looking for my brothers, the sons of Israel. Please tell me where they are feeding the sheep.”
The man shook his head. “They left here,” he said. “I heard them say they were going to Dothan for better grazing.”
Joseph could have returned home then and said to his father, “They are all right. They are feeding the flock in Dothan.” He wouldn’t have been lying and he would have fulfilled his duty. But Joseph hadn’t seen his brothers for himself. He hadn’t gone all the way and greeted his brothers in his father’s name and seen with his own eyes that all was well. He would have to talk to them and see if there was anything they needed, too, before he returned to his father. He would give them his father’s love just as Jesus[viii], years later, would bring his Father’s love ot his wayward brothers.
However, joseph’s brothers saw him long before he reached them. There were nine of them, all grown men. But they were mean and they were cowards. Long ago, when Shechem had dishonored the family by violating their sister, Dinah, they had shown their true characters by their cowardly obnoxious act.
Accordingly, they watched Joseph come and plotted to kill him, throw him in a pit, and tell their father he was killed by a wild beast.
Joseph’s oldest brother, Reuben, had proved himself to be foolish, unreliable, and disrespectful in the past; but when he heard his brothers plotting to murder his little brother, he said, “N, wait a minute! That’s going a little too far. Don’t kill the kid. Just throw him into a pit for a while. That’ll fix him.” He told himself he would let him out when the others weren’t looking. Then he went about his business and forgot his brothers for a while.
Joseph didn’t expect his brothers to welcome him with open arms so he was surprised when they came running toward him with their arms flung wide. Before he could take in what was happening, those big strong men had fallen upon him and stripped the royal robe from his un-resisting form and thrown him into a pit.
The pit was empty of water but was dark and infested with vermin. Joseph began to cry for his brothers to lift him back out, but there only response was a harsh laugh as they walked away. Then his brothers spread their noon meal out and began to eat to the sound of their little brother’s pitiful pleading.
Joseph was still after a while and listened in unbelief and horror as his brothers plotted his death while they calmly filled their stomachs.
Then, off in the distance, he heard an approaching caravan. He would scream for help. Maybe his brothers would lift him out before strangers came t see their evil deed.
But the cry had barely left his lips when one of his brothers cried, “Kill him quick and shut him up before the strangers come and find us out.”
Judah, however, was searching in his mind for a way to keep his brothers from killing joseph. As he looked down the road that looked from the fords of the Jorden toward the coast of the Mediterranean, his eyes lighted on the approaching company. The road was a main thoroughfare and connected the territories beyond the Jorden with the sea coast. From there the road southward through Philistia and the Delta to the Nile were well traveled and easy going. Judah saw the long string of patient camels and guessed that they were Ishmaelite’s going from Gilead with spices, balm and myrrh to sell in Egypt for emblements. He also knew there was a great demand for slaves in Egypt, and these merchants were in the habit of buying slaves in their passage and selling them in Egypt.
So Judah turned to his brothers and cried, “Wait! What will it profit us to kill him and hide the deed? I have a better idea. Let’s sell him to these Midianite traders and then we won’t be responsible for killing our own brother. He is, after all, our own flesh and blood.”
Hence Joseph, in shocked silence, was lifted from the pit and sold for twenty shekels of silver. His life was saved, but for what? He who had worn the robe of royalty was now only one in a long line of fettered slaves, bound for a foreign land.
Anguish tore his heart and dry tears burned in the back of his young eyes. No way to send a message to his poor old father and let him know he was alive even! And what was his God doing? Did he care? Joseph remembered how Yahweh dealt with his father in mercy and grace. He remembered his great care of the past, and his heart was soothed. “Oh how deep are the riches, both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How un-searchable are his judgments and his ways past finding out.”[ix]
They traveled south from the direction that Joseph had come, but he knew that when they finally got as far south as Hebron, they would be miles to the west with no chance of anyone from his home seeing him even if they had been disposed to glance at a bunch of slaves.
The road was long and hard. The fettered slaves sometimes fell into each other. If one lagged behind, they all bore the punishment. Many times on that long journey Joseph had to remind himself Yahweh knew where he was and would take care of him. And just when He was beginning to doubt there would ever be an end, to this tramping in chains through endless wilderness, they reached a well-populated ribbon of green amid the waste of sand. And Joseph found himself the property of Potiphar, captain of the guard.
[i] Like 19:10
[ii] John 17:18
[iii] Genesis 34:30
[iv] Matthew 26:39; Luke 22:42; John 5:30
[v] Psalm 36:6
[vi] Psalm 19:1, 2
[vii] Nahum 1:7
[ix] Romans 11:33