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Whyte's Dictionary of Bible Characters


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JOSEPH, the future ruler of Egypt, was tlie late-born and the greatly-beloved son of Jacob and Rachel. Joseph inherited all his mother's proverbial gracefulness and sweetness and attractive beauty. And then Joseph's intellectual gifts were such that, taken along with the purity and the nobility of his character, they lifted him up out of a pit, and out of a prison, and set him in a seat of power and of honour scarcely second to the seat of Pharaoh himself. At the same time Joseph climbed up to that high seat through many great risks and out of many great sufferings; and he ran some of the greatest of those risks at the hand of his too-doting father. Were it not that our own hearts so continually condemn us, we would turn on Jacob with indignation for his mischievous treatment of Joseph. Can Jacob have forgotten the sea of trouble into which his father's favouritism, and his mother's indulgence, cast both themselves and their children? The woful harvest of all that long past folly is still making both Jacob's life and many other lives as bitter as death to this day; and vet here is Jacob poisoning the whole of his family life also, and spoiling Joseph, just as Isaac and Rebekah had spoiled and poisoned their own and their children's lives when Jacob and Esau were still their children. We would denounce Jacob for his insane treatment of Joseph were it not that we are all ourselves repeating sins and follies every day from which we and our families have suffered for generations.

Joseph's coat of many colours was like to have been his winding-sheet, such was the envy and the hatred of his half-brothers at Rachel's well-favoured, richly-talented, and over-ornamented son. 'Our coats be of one colour; so should his,' grumbled Dan, and all Dan's brothers agreed with his spiteful and angry words. The patriarchs, moved with envy, says Stephen in the Acts, sold Joseph into Egypt And Jacob, on his death-bed, when he was blessing Joseph, said of him that the archers had hated him, and had shot their arrows at him, and had sorely wounded him. It is usual for mankind, says Josephus on the text, to envy their nearest relatives and their best friends for their eminence and for their prosperity. And yet, if Dan would but wait a little, and would but command himself a little, the brightness will soon begin to fade out of his brother's many-coloured coat. Let a short season run and there will be nothing to pain Dan's eye and to wring and heat his heart. Some other fond father will soon begin to clothe his spoiled son in a coat full of more and more brilliant colours than Joseph's coat; till Joseph's coat will be so eclipsed that he also will join the archers' ranks, and will shoot at his rival with their envious arrows. Another author will soon rise and will take the public taste. His new books will soon be on every table, and his new name in every mouth, till that success which so galls you today will be completely forgotten by you and forgiven. His crowded pews will before long begin to thin out, and new orators will spring up and will attract and draw off that preacher's painful crowd. And if none of these considerations will quiet Dan's evil eye, and if he really feels his eye to be an evil and a wicked and a murderous eye, let him take his evil eye to God. To whom else can such an eye as that bo taken? Let him lift his so sorely stung eye up to Joseph's God. Ask the God of love to consider you and to pity you. Ask Him not to spurn and spit on you. Ask Him to be merciful to your secret and incessant misery. Shut your door on God and yourself, and on your knees ask Him still to add to your brother's goodliness, and to his talents, and to his honour, and to his happiness, and to his usefulness; if only He will anoint your eyes with enough love, and if only He will take out of your eyes that same evil light that glanced so murderously in the patriarchs' eyes as often as they again saw Joseph in his shining coat. Importune Him to enable you to love Joseph, till you enjoy, as if they were your own, those so many and so shining colours of his coat. If ever Almighty God has wrought that salvation in Dan, or in any of Dan's brothers on this side the new Jerusalem, ask Him, for Christ's sake, to do it a little to you.

Joseph was only seventeen years old when his two so intoxicating dreams came to him. You must always recall Joseph's unripe age, and his complete inexperience, before you blame him too much for the way he talked about his prerogatives and prospects of greatness. The time will come when all Joseph's splendid achievements, and all his matchless honour and glory, will not make Joseph open a lip about himself. But he was only seventeen as yet, and he had never been for an hour out of his father's flattering sight. And thus it was that Joseph's future modesty, and humility, and self-command, and knowledge of other men's hearts, and thoughtfulness for other men's feelings and temptations, had not yet begun to come to him. Had Joseph been but a little older, and had he been but once or twice at Dothan, he would have hidden his dreams in his heart like so many guilty secrets. But, innocent child that be was, he must up and out of his bed, and tell all his dreams to all the house. And so intent was he in what so much interested himself that he did not see the ugly looks on the faces of his brothers. And, like Joseph, till we are well past seventeen, and have been for some time away from home, we talk about nothing else but our own dreams also. Other men dreamed last night as well as we, but they never get their mouths open where we are. We talk the whole table down. We have just come home from the pulpit, or from the platform, or from the desk, or from the instrument, or from a visit, or from an entertainment, or from what not, and our vain hearts are full. We never think that all the other people at table are as full of themselves as we are. We never see that they also are bursting to get at the only topic that interests them, which is not at all the same topic that so interests us. We mistake that silence and that suspense. We think that all that silence and all that suspense means that all our audience are as full of our interests as we are ourselves, and are waiting to hear us. While all the time, they can scarcely command themselves with weariness and disgust. Be sure your company is as full of you as you are of yourself before you again give the reins to your galloping tongue. Be sure that they all worship you. Be sure that you are their god. Be sure that they are all your wife and children. Be sure that they have no interests, or occupations, or vanities of their own. Be sure of all their love and devotion and patience. In short, be sure that you are in heaven before you keep the whole house waiting to break their fast till you have told out to the end all your dreams of last night. And it came to pass that they stripped Joseph of his coat, his coat of many colours, that was upon him. And they took him and cast him into a pit, and then they sat down to eat bread. Is that another subtlety of Moses? Does Moses insinuate that Joseph's brothers had never till now sat down to eat bread in entire peace since the day that Joseph began to dream? With all their faults, Joseph would have been eating bread at that moment with the patriarchs but for his spotted coat and his irrepressible dreams. I overheard a conversation something like this not long ago: 'Shall we ask him to dinner, and invite So-and-so to meet him?' 'No, I think not.' 'Why?' 'Why? Because the last time he was with us he talked two mortal hours about himself, till everybody but himself must have seen contempt and disgust written as plain as day on every face. No. But if only he were not so full of himself, what a welcome guest he would be! And with such talents, and with such a position, what might he not do!'

There are some men, on the other hand, whom you can never waylay into once opening their lips about themselves. Two such men stand out enviably and honourably to me in my acquaintance. And they are just the two men in all my acquaintance I would most like to hear on themselves. But, no. Never they. Whether it is pride-I sometimes think it is; or whether it is scorn of their company-as it may well be; or whether it is absence of mind, or age, or experience, or knowledge of the hearts of men, till they will not commit themselves to men, I am sometimes divided; but, be it what it may, I never yet saw either of them take up a single moment of Joseph's time. There is such a thing as having too much of a good thing. And there is a golden mean in this matter also, if Joseph from the one side, and my two friends from the other side, could only strike it.

That dreadful pit in Dothan was the beginning of Joseph's salvation. The first night he spent in that pit recalled to Joseph's mind what his father had often told him of his first night from home, as also of that other night at the Jabbok. And as Joseph lay in that horrible pit, and dreamed and prayed, behold, the very same ladder of Bethel is let down into the bottom of the pit. 'I am the Lord God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and of Jacob thy father. And behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest. For I will not leave thee till I have done all that which I have spoken to thee of.' And, all that night after, Joseph could think of nothing else but the sins of his youth; his vanity, his proud superiority and superciliousness to his brothers, his evil reports concerning his brothers, his talkativeness about himself, and all the temptations and provocations into which he had led his brothers. That deep pit was brimful of such remorseful thoughts and prayers, when Judah appeared at its mouth with cords and grappling irons to draw Joseph up to the daylight. But it was only to kill him with a far worse death; for that morning Joseph was sold to the Midianite slave-dealers of Egypt for twenty pieces of silver. Twenty pieces of silver was Joseph's whole price that day in Dothan. Those who know Joseph's after-history will flash forward their minds, and will contrast the Prime Minister of Pharaoh with that slave lad sold for that paltry price at the mouth of that pit that day. And, tomorrow, when you buy an apprentice, or a message boy, of his widowed mother for five shillings a week, think of Joseph for a moment, and say to yourself, Who knows what the future may have in store for my message boy and for me? Who knows how I may go down, while he goes up? Who knows the talents of God that may lie hidden in that friendless buy? Who knows what place he may be predestined to fill in the church and in the world? And even if he comes to nothing of all that; if he never becomes a great man, yet, even so, such thoughts, such imaginations, such forecasts will help you to treat him well, and will help to make you a good man and a good master, whatever your slave-boy may come, or may not come, to be.

The good work that the pit in Dothan began in Joseph, those still more terrible days and nights on the way down to Egypt carried on. Lashed to the loaded side of a huge cane-waggon, and himself loaded with the baggage of Gilead for the Egyptian market, Joseph toiled on under the mid-day sun, thankful to be left alone of his churlish masters in the red-hot air. Put yourself in Joseph's place. The fondling of his father; a child on whom no wind was ever let blow, and no sun was ever let strike; with servants to wait on his every wish, and to dress and anoint him for every meal; with loving looks and fond words falling continually upon him from the day he was born; and now, lashed to the side of a slave caravan, and with the whistling whip of his Ishmaelite owner laid on his shoulder till he sank in the sand. But you must add this to the picture, else you will not have the picture complete: 'The Lord was with Joseph, and Joseph found grace in the sight of the Lord.' Yes, the Lord was more with Joseph, more and better far, than ever He had been as long as Joseph was the spoiled child of his father, and the continual snare of his brothers. And there are young men in this city suffering hardships and persecutions in workshops and in offices as sore to bear as was Joseph's load of labour and ill-usage of the Ishmaelites. And the Lord is with them also as He never was so long as they were spoilt sons at home, getting all things their own way. And as they silently and prayerfully take up their cross daily, and wait out the will of God, they are thereby putting off a past that would have been their sure destruction-and had almost been-and are preparing themselves for a future as sure, and as full of the providence of God, as ever was Joseph's future. It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth. He sitteth alone and keepeth silence, because he hath borne it upon him. He putteth his mouth in the dust, if so be there may be hope. He giveth his cheek to him that smiteth him; he is filled full with reproach. For the Lord will not cast off for ever; but, though He cause grief, yet will He have compassion according to the multitude of His mercies. 'How many saints,' William Law rejoices, 'has adversity sent to heaven! And how many poor sinners has prosperity plunged into everlasting misery! This man had never been debauched, but for his fortune and advancement; that had never been pious, but through his poverty and disgrace. She that is envied for her beauty may perchance owe all her misery to it; and another may be for ever happy for having no admirers of her person. One man succeeds in everything, and so loses all; another meets with nothing but crosses and disappointments, and thereby gains more than all the world is worth.'

Even if Potiphar paid thirty or even forty pieces of silver for his Hebrew slave, we know now what a good bargain he got that day. For that handful of silver the captain of Pharaoh's guard came into possession of all the splendid talents that lay hid in Joseph's greatly gifted mind, and all the magnificent moral character the first foundations of which had been laid in the pit in Dothan, and had been built up in God every step of the long wilderness journey. All Joseph's deep repentance also, and all his bitter remorse; all his self-discovery, and all his self-condemnation; with all his reticence and all his continence,-Potiphar took all that home from the slave-market that day in exchange for his handful of Egyptian silver. Joseph was now to be plunged into the most corrupt society that rotted in that age on the face of the earth. And had he not come into that pollution straight out of a sevenfold furnace of sanctifying sorrow, Joseph would no more have been heard of. The sensuality of Egypt would have soon swallowed him up. But his father's God was with Joseph. The lord was with Joseph to protect him, to guide him, and to give him the victory. The Lord was with him to more imprisonment, and then to more promotion; to more and more honour, and place, and power, till this world had no more to bestow upon Joseph. And, through it all, Joseph became a better and an ever better man all his days. A nobler and an ever nobler man. A more and more trustworthy, and a more and more trusted and consulted man. More and more loyal to truth and to duty. More and more chaste, temperate, patient, enduring, forgiving; full of mind and full of heart; and full, no man ever fuller, of a simple and a sincere piety and praise of God, till he became a very proverb both in the splendour of his services, and in the splendour of his rewards.

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These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Whyte, Alexander. Entry for 'Joseph'. Alexander Whyte's Dictionary of Bible Characters. 1901.

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