HEROES OF THE VALLEY
Set of Three Books: Joseph, Job and Moses.
The Story of Joseph -- CHAPTER ONE
In 1915 B.C. a man named Joseph was born. His father Jacob was born in 2006 B.C., making him ninety-one years old when Joseph was born. While this may seem old to us, we can be assured that there was nothing unusual to Jacob about being a father at this age. Jacob’s father, Isaac, had been sixty years old when Jacob was born (Gen. 25:26). The Bible tells us that Abraham was one hundred years old when Isaac was born (Gen. 21:5), giving Abraham a date of birth of 2166 B.C.. Abraham lived to be 175 years old, dying then in 1991 B.C., 76 years before the birth of his great-grandson, Joseph. Abraham’s father was born in 2296 B.C.. Terah, had been an idol worshiper (Josh. 24:2) when he moved from Ur to Haran, where he died at the age of 205 in the year 2091 B.C... After his father’s death when Abraham was 75 (Gen. 12:4), God called Abraham to the land of Canaan. So in the short space of three hundred years, the central family in Israel’s history makes the spiritual journey from an idle-worshiping clan in Chaldea to God’s chosen people in the Holy Land.
The study of chronology prior to Terah is divided into two parts: from the creation to the flood, and from the flood to Abraham. These time spans are highly problematic for us as we cannot in these periods compare biblical accounts and times with any reliable historical record of any of the ancient peoples contemporary with Israel. The Masoretic or Hebrew text is the one that many scholars follow. The upshot of this chronology for our purpose here in establishing a chronological place for Abraham is to place the birth of Terah just a few years after the death of Noah, who lived 350 years after the flood.
Joseph was the older son of Rachel and a favorite with his father Jacob. Reuben, the firstborn, never achieved the status or love in his father’s eyes that traditionally should have been his, instead seeing this privilege extended to his younger brother, Joseph. Jacob’s love for his son Joseph is evidenced by the royal tunics he made for Joseph. These were characterized by long, flowing sleeves, distinguishing him to his brothers as the object of a special love by his father, a favored status that meant everything in a patriarchal culture. The "many colors" were probably additional pieces, perhaps sleeves, distinguishing the garment even more due to the costly nature of fabric dyes and their special significance. These gifts tell us that Joseph’s elevated position in his father’s eyes was so significant that Joseph was scarcely expected to do any menial work. The flowing, ceremonial and decorative nature of his garments were particularly ill-suited to manual labor. Women often tied their wider sleeves behind them to keep them out of the way as they worked.
Jacob was a man of extraordinary wisdom. His wisdom was of epic and historical proportion, we could even say. Jacob had expressed many years before his understanding of the necessity of God’s blessing upon his life. "I will not let thee go except thou bless me, " he had told the Angel of God after a night of wrestling. The blessing was given. There at the ford of Jabok where two streams meet as they flow east into Jordan between the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea, Jacob received his new name, Israel, "a prince with God."
Perhaps Jacob knew better than to decide the spiritual status and qualifications for family leadership into future generations on the basis of age alone. In this same way, Jacob would later choose Ephraim as "first-born" instead of Joseph’s oldest son Manasseh (Gen. 48:8-20.) This practice was not uncommon in the patriarchal age, but became forbidden under future Israelite law (Deut. 21:15-17). Isaac’s second son, Jacob was chosen by God to inherit the promises He had made to Isaac. God conveyed the supreme blessing on the family of Jacob: they would be the lineage leading to the Messiah. What a seemingly unlikely choice this was, however. Jacob had developed anything but an enviable reputation while growing up. He had tricked his brother Esau and lied to his father so that he could steal Esau’s’s birthright. He then fled to his uncle Laban’s home, there getting a painful and trying dose of his own medicine of deception and trickery. Nevertheless, God saw past all that and kept faith in Jacob’s underlying qualities of character, giving him a good wife and great possessions. Upon returning to his homeland in Palestine, he found that God had prepared the way for him as Jacob was restored in fellowship to his brother Esau.
How it must have galled his hard-working brothers see Joseph elevated before their eyes. The message strongly conveyed by his distinction was that Joseph had become the chosen one through which God’s providential blessing would come. Joseph reinforced this by having dreams of rising over his brothers and seeing them bow in servitude, even expressing these dreams in detail to his family. Jacob’s sons were infuriated to hear from Joseph that he thought God would raise him to this position. Their jealousy turned to hatred, as the fires of envy eventually turned their hearts in the direction of malice and cursing toward their brother, Joseph.
Jacob and his family lived in the Hebron hills. These are the highest mountains in Judah, rising to over 3,000 ft.. It was on these slopes that Abraham and Isaac had tended their flocks. It was in this region that Abraham had purchased the cave of Machpelah to bury Sarah and also here that future patriarchs would be interred. This region was demanding and the climate and landscape well suited to providing daily challenges for survival in a variety of forms.
One day Jacob’s sons were sent to find pasture for their flocks. They traveled north to Shechem, at the east end of a pass between Mt. Ebal and Mt. Gerizim and one of the chief Canaanite cities during most of the second millennium B.C.. Jacob would then send Joseph to find his brothers to bring back news of their welfare. Upon arriving in Shechem, Joseph learned that his brothers had moved on to Dothan, about fifteen miles farther to the north. Dothan was a picturesque town about twelve miles from Samaria. It was rich pasture land separated from the plain of Esdraelon by gentle rolling hills. The ruins of Dothan are still to be seen on the top of one of those hills, and just south are some of the very wells that the shepherds of this story may have used. It was from the top of one of the hills that Joseph’s brothers may have spotted the slave-traders caravan. Joseph would be less than twenty years old at this time.
When his brothers saw Joseph approaching, they plotted to kill him. Their nature was unrestrained and their lifestyle lawless. Their restraint had in the past been due more to Jacob’s authority than to any inner trait of character within the brothers. They all knew that Jacob had been intended by his father the be the one to whom would be transferred the right of the first-born. The three oldest sons of Leah had disqualified themselves for this right, Simeon and Levi by their cruelty at Shechem (Genesis 34) and Reuben by his offense in sleeping with Rachel’s maid, Bilhah,(Genesis 35) thus making her improper for Jacob to have relations with from that time. (His motivation may well have been to force his father to return to Leah’s tent. Some scholars have attributed this act as an attempt by Reuben to wrestle away some of his father’s authority.)
What more natural thought than to bestow the rights of the first-born upon he whose mother Jacob had intended to make his only wife? Now, in the absence of their father, their true inner nature would determine the outcome of events, save for the providential influence of God’s will in the matter. They seized Joseph, and despite the protesting voice of Reuben, the eldest, they plotted their revenge on Joseph in an effort to appease years of envy and jealousy. It is likely that Reuben had no more love for Joseph than his brothers, but being the eldest, he had the ultimate accountability to his father for Joseph’s welfare and was surely conscious of this responsibility. Reuben persuades the group to toss Joseph into a pit, probably a dry well, with the intention of retrieving him later. These pits have been described by ancient writers as smoothly dug and some even plastered. Widening as the descended, some were said to have been up to one hundred feet in width at the bottom. When dry, they served as hiding places and even temporary places of detention.
Judah was then able to appeal to his brothers’ greed more than to their desire for revenge and the decision was made to sell Joseph to a passing caravan of Ishmaelites, or Midianites, a group with whom they had a distant relation through their great-grandfather’s Egyptian concubine, Hagar. The caravan was pursuing the ancient trade route from the spice lands of Gilead down into Egypt. The route crossed the Jordan below the Sea of galilee, over the plain of Jezreel and then followed the sea shore to Egypt.
The vivid language in which the story was originally written gives us an insight into the deep animosity felt by Joseph’s brothers toward him. The Bible tells us simply that his brethren hated him, but as we understand the Hebrew idioms, we see that in fact , "they could not get themselves to address him unto peace." This is a clear reference to the traditional Jewish salutation, "Peace be unto thee."
While the brothers no doubt spent the return trip to Hebron delighting in their coup, Reuben surely must have been dreading the consequences of betrayal that awaited him in his father’s presence upon their return. With fragments of Joseph’s bloody tunic in his had, having been dipped in sheep blood, he proceeded to crush his father’s heart with the fabricated tale that the Joseph had disappeared in the wilderness with only the bloody garment left to tell the story of his demise. At that moment, Joseph found himself shackled in a slave caravan on his way to what then promised to be a life of complete and perpetual servitude in a the land of Egypt. Jacob, the master of deception in his youth had now himself been cruelly deceived . "I will go down to Sheol mourning for my son," Jacob cries out. The half-existence of the place of the departed seemed no worse than the agony Jacob knew he would face for the rest of his life, having lost the most precious treasure of his later years.
This period was undoubtedly the low point of Joseph’s life. Joseph did not know, of course, the end of the story as we do today. Joseph did not know if he would ever be pulled out of the pit. When he was, we can only imagine what went through this young man’s mind as he watched his brothers approach the Ishmaelite caravan and begin a discussion of which he somehow knew himself to be the object. Surely the slave-traders would have examined Joseph as would a horse-trader, looking at his features, his musculature, his teeth and his general condition. Joseph fetched a price of twenty shekels, the going price for a male slave between five and twenty years old being thirty shekels of silver, or about $_____ in our currency. Reuben was not present when the transaction took place and "rent his clothes" upon learning of it. Joseph had gone from a life of privilege and a home filled with his father’s love and admiration, to being evaluated for servitude in a manner befitting a beast of burden. It certainly did not take him long to understand that such was to be his lot in a land he had only heard about, and that probably in anything but favorable terms.
What was racing through Joseph’s mind as he was led away by the slave-traders on that hot and arid trade route? Surely he looked over his shoulder at his brothers, seeing them grin in victory and delight at not only having finally been able to avenge their jealousy for their despised brother, but having exacted for him a tidy and unexpected sum of money in the process. As the two groups moved out in their opposite directions, Joseph saw his sole link with the only world he had ever known vanish out of his sight. He had gone from a life of honor, privilege and affection to very nearly the lowest rung of the cultural ladder in the ancient middle east: he was a slave! Can we imagine the depth of sorrow and grief that Joseph must have felt that afternoon in the desert? This was a separation that appeared as nothing short of life-long for Joseph. He had no hope of ever seeing his father again. He must have felt abandoned, isolated and completely alone on that dusty road.
In fact, Joseph was not alone. Each step that he took, though indescribably agonizing and heartbreaking to Joseph, was a step ordained by the very Creator of the universe Himself with a purpose so vast and important in mind, that there probably was not a solitary figure anywhere in the world at that moment that so embodied the unlikelihood of being cast in the role God had ordained for Joseph. Joseph was not at all alone on that trade-route. Neither was he without the essential elements of his destiny firmly in his possession—he had his character, his faith and he walked in the presence of God.
As surely as the human soul is prone to thoughts of desperation in trying times, Joseph must have been in the abject depths of despondence during that journey south into Egypt. God’s reaction to Joseph’s plight, however, was anything but despondent. Just as the Bible tells us that it "pleased God" to see His Son sacrificed on the cross, so must God also have been pleased as He gazed down on a young man whose life had just been torn from him, knowing the future of his redemptive role in Israel’s history. Surely God’s response was not anything like Joseph’s. While Joseph saw nothing but the shackles on his feet and the back of the slave before of him, God saw beyond the horizon of Joseph’s despair. Joseph’s heart and soul must have cried out with every step: "Why? Why? Why? God, please help me! Take me home!" We can easily guess God’s calming and reassuring answer, needing only three words to be expressed: "Trust me, Joseph." And trust Him Joseph did.