JOSEPH looked longingly toward the east, wishing he could break away from the caravan and make a run for it. Somewhere beyond those hills, at no great distance, lay his home in Hebron. His father, Jacob, would be settling in for the evening, utterly unaware of what had befallen his favorite son. But Joseph could not get to him now; for all the young man knew, he might never see that dear old face again. The traders eyed him as they urged their camels along the well-worn track of the road heading south. They owned Joseph now, and they would not let him out of their sight. To them, this boy was like their precious cargo of fragrant gums and oils—valued merchandise that would fetch a profit in faraway Egypt.
Joseph could not have been much more than 17 years old. Imagine him turning to squint into the western sky, where the sun was nearing the horizon of the Great Sea, as he tried to fathom how his world had fallen apart. It was hard to believe that his own brothers had come close to murdering him and had then sold him as a slave. It must have been a struggle for Joseph to hold back his tears. He could not guess what his future would hold.
How did Joseph get into such a terrible predicament? And what can we learn from the faith of a young man who was victimized and rejected by members of his own family?
A COMPLICATED FAMILY BACKGROUND
Joseph came from a very large family—but not a happy and united one. The Bible’s portrait of Jacob’s family stands as vivid proof of the negative effects of polygamy—an entrenched practice that God tolerated among his people until his Son restored the original standard of monogamy. (Matthew 19:4-6) Jacob had at least 14 children by four different women—his two wives, Leah and Rachel, and their maidservants, Zilpah and Bilhah. From the start, Jacob was in love with his beautiful Rachel. He never felt such an attachment to Leah, Rachel’s older sister, whom he had been tricked into marrying. A bitter rivalry persisted between the two women, and that jealousy carried over to the children of the household.—Genesis 29:16-35; 30:1, 8, 19, 20; 37:35.
Rachel was barren for a long time, and when she finally gave birth to Joseph, Jacob treated this son of his old age as special. For example, when the family were on their way to a dangerous meeting with Jacob’s murderous brother, Esau, Jacob made sure that Rachel and little Joseph were given the safest position at the rear of the household group. That tense day must have made a deep impression on Joseph. Imagine how he felt that morning as he wondered, wide-eyed, why his aged but vigorous father was now walking with a limp. How amazed he must have been to learn the reason: His father had struggled the night before with a mighty angel! And why? Because Jacob wanted a blessing from Jehovah God. Jacob’s reward was the change of his name to Israel. A whole nation would bear his name! (Genesis 32:22-31) In time, Joseph learned that the sons of Israel were to father the tribes of that nation!
Later, young Joseph faced tragedy firsthand when the dearest person in his young life left him all too soon. His mother died while giving birth to his younger brother, Benjamin. His father grieved deeply over the loss. Imagine Jacob gently wiping the tears from Joseph’s eyes, comforting him with the same hope that had once comforted Jacob’s grandfather Abraham. How touched Joseph must have been to learn that Jehovah would one day restore his mother to life! Perhaps Joseph came to have even deeper love for the generous “God . . . of the living.” (Luke 20:38; Hebrews 11:17-19) In the wake of the loss of his wife, Jacob always had tender feelings for those two boys, his sons by Rachel.—Genesis 35:18-20; 37:3; 44:27-29.
Many children would be spoiled or corrupted by such special treatment; but Joseph learned from the many good qualities of his parents, and he developed strong faith as well as a keen sense of right and wrong. At the age of 17, he was working as a shepherd, assisting some of his older brothers, when he noticed some wrongdoing on their part. Was he tempted to keep the matter quiet so as to gain their favor? In any case, he did what was right. He reported the matter to his father. (Genesis 37:2) Perhaps that brave act confirmed Jacob’s high opinion of this beloved son. What an excellent example for Christian youths to think about! When tempted to conceal the serious sin of another—perhaps a sibling or a friend—it is wise to imitate Joseph and make sure that the matter is known to those who are in a position to help the wrongdoer.—Leviticus 5:1.
We can also take a lesson from Joseph’s family life. While true Christians today are free from the practice of polygamy, there are nonetheless many blended families among them, with stepparents, stepchildren, and stepsiblings. All can learn from Jacob’s family that favoritism and partiality undermine family unity. Wise parents with blended families do all they can to convince their children and stepchildren that each one is loved and is blessed with unique gifts and that each one can add to the happiness of the family.—Romans 2:11.
JEALOUSY TAKES ROOT
Perhaps because of Joseph’s courageous stand for what was right, Jacob bestowed an honor on the boy. He had a special garment made for his son. (Genesis 37:3) It has often been called a striped coat or a coat of many colors, but there is scant evidence for such renderings. Likely, it was a long, elegant robe, perhaps reaching to the extremities of the arms and legs. It was probably the kind of garb that a nobleman or a prince might wear.
Jacob surely meant well, and Joseph must have been touched by this sign of his father’s regard and affection. But that garment would bring him a great deal of trouble. For one thing, remember that the boy worked as a shepherd. That meant rugged manual labor. Imagine the youth wearing such a regal garment while trudging through long grass, climbing over rocks, or trying to disentangle a lost lamb from a thornbush. Worse, though, how would this sign of Jacob’s special favor affect Joseph’s relationship with his brothers?
The Bible answers: “When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they began to hate him, and they could not speak peaceably to him.”a (Genesis 37:4) Their jealousy may be understandable, but Joseph’s brothers were unwise to give in to that poisonous emotion. (Proverbs 14:30; 27:4) Have you ever found yourself seething with envy when someone received attention or honor that you wanted? Remember Joseph’s brothers. Their jealousy led them to commit deeds that they would come to regret deeply. Their example serves to remind Christians that it is far wiser to “rejoice with those who rejoice.”—Romans 12:15.
Joseph surely sensed his brothers’ animosity. So did he stash his fancy robe out of sight when his brothers were near? He might have been tempted to do so. Remember, though, that Jacob wanted the robe to be a sign of favor and love. Joseph wanted to live up to his father’s trust in him, so he loyally wore the garment. His example is useful for us. Although our own heavenly Father is never partial, he does at times single out his loyal servants and favor them. Furthermore, he asks them to stand out as different from this corrupt and immoral world. Like Joseph’s special robe, the conduct of true Christians makes them different from those around them. Such conduct sometimes incites jealousy and animosity. (1 Peter 4:4) Should a Christian hide his true identity as a servant of God? No—no more than Joseph should have hidden his robe.—Luke 11:33.
It was not long before Joseph had two extraordinary dreams. In the first dream, Joseph saw himself and his brothers, each binding a sheaf of grain. But then his brothers’ sheaves encircled his sheaf and bowed down to it as it stood erect. In the second dream, the sun, the moon, and 11 stars were bowing down to Joseph. (Genesis 37:6, 7, 9) What should Joseph do about those strange and vivid dreams?
The dreams came from Jehovah God. They were prophetic in nature, and God meant for Joseph to pass along the message they contained. In a sense, Joseph was to do what all the later prophets did when they related God’s messages and judgments to His wayward people.
Joseph tactfully said to his brothers: “Please listen to this dream that I had.” His brothers understood the dream, and they did not like it one bit. They answered: “Are you really going to make yourself king over us and dominate us?” The account adds: “So they found another reason to hate him, because of his dreams and what he said.” When Joseph related the second dream to his father as well as his brothers, the reaction was not much better. We read: “His father rebuked him and said to him: ‘What is the meaning of this dream of yours? Am I as well as your mother and your brothers really going to come and bow down to the earth to you?’” However, Jacob kept thinking the matter over. Might Jehovah be communicating with the boy?—Genesis 37:6, 8, 10, 11.
Joseph was neither the first nor the last servant of Jehovah to be asked to relay a prophetic message that would prove to be unpopular and even lead to persecution. Jesus was the greatest of such message bearers, and he told his followers: “If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” (John 15:20) Christians of all ages may learn much from the faith and courage of young Joseph.
HATRED COMES TO A HEAD
Not long afterward, Jacob sent young Joseph on a journey. The older sons were tending the flocks up north near Shechem, where they had recently made bitter enemies. Naturally, Jacob was concerned about his sons, so he sent Joseph to check on their welfare. Can you imagine Joseph’s feelings? He knew that his brothers hated him more than ever! How would they like it when he came to them as their father’s spokesman? Nonetheless, Joseph obediently set out.—Genesis 34:25-30; 37:12-14.
It was quite a trek—in all, perhaps four or five days of walking. Shechem lay about 50 miles (80 km) to the north of Hebron. But at Shechem, Joseph learned that his brothers had moved on to Dothan, which lay another 14 miles (22 km) or so to the north. When Joseph finally neared Dothan, his brothers saw him coming from a distance. Immediately their hatred boiled to the surface. The account reads: “They said to one another: ‘Look! Here comes that dreamer. Come, now, let us kill him and pitch him into one of the waterpits, and we will say that a vicious wild animal devoured him. Then let us see what will become of his dreams.’” Reuben, however, persuaded his brothers to throw Joseph into a pit alive, hoping that he could rescue the boy later on.—Genesis 37:19-22.
Unsuspecting, Joseph approached them, no doubt hoping for a peaceful meeting. Instead, his brothers attacked him! Roughly, they stripped off his special robe, dragged him to a dried-out waterpit, and pushed him in. Down Joseph fell! Recovering from the shock, he struggled to his feet, but he could never climb out on his own. He saw only a circle of sky as his brothers’ voices receded. He cried out to them, pleading, but they ignored him. Callously, they ate a meal nearby. While Reuben was absent, they again considered killing the boy, but Judah persuaded them to sell him to passing merchants instead. Dothan was near the trade route to Egypt, and it was not long before a caravan of Ishmaelites and Midianites came by. Before Reuben returned, the deed was done. For 20 shekels, they had sold their brother as a slave.b—Genesis 37:23-28; 42:21.
So we find ourselves back at our starting point. As Joseph was taken south along the road to Egypt, he seemed to have lost everything. He was cut off! For years, he would know nothing of his family—nothing of Reuben’s anguish when he returned to find Joseph gone; nothing of Jacob’s grief when he was deceived into believing that his beloved Joseph was dead; nothing of his aged grandfather Isaac, who still lived; and nothing of his beloved younger brother, Benjamin, whom he would miss dearly. But was Joseph left with nothing at all?—Genesis 37:29-35.
Joseph still had something that his brothers could never take from him: faith. He knew much about his God, Jehovah, and nothing could rob him of that—not the loss of his home, not the hardships of captivity on the long journey to Egypt, and not even the humiliation of being sold as a slave to a wealthy Egyptian named Potiphar. (Genesis 37:36) Joseph’s faith and his determination to stay close to his God only grew stronger through such hardships. In future articles, we will see how that faith made Joseph ever more useful to his God, Jehovah, as well as to his troubled family. How wise we would be to imitate the faith of Joseph!
a Some researchers suggest that Joseph’s brothers interpreted their father’s gift to Joseph as evidence that he intended to confer the right of the firstborn on this boy. They knew that Joseph was the first son of Jacob’s favored wife—the one he had intended to marry first. Further, Jacob’s firstborn, Reuben, had lain down with his father’s concubine, disgracing his father and effectively forfeiting his own birthright.—Genesis 35:22; 49:3, 4.
b Even in this minute detail, the Bible record proves accurate. Documents from the same time period reveal that 20 shekels was the going price for slaves in Egypt.