The Bible, for all its hope and miracles is also a book full of great pain. Mary had to watch her son slowly die on a cross in public, Job’s entire family died, one of Adam and Eve’s sons murdered the other. Pain is everywhere in this book but so is restoration. For many, Job’s is the definitive biblical story of loss and restoration but for me, the story that comes to mind is that of Joseph.
Audiences of all walks of life know the technicolor version of his story via the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical and a shirtless Donny Osmond but the musical strips Joseph not only of his Dreamcoat but also the magnitude of his loss. His profound, inconsolable loss. His story reminds me of The Count of Monte Cristo where a man is unjustly put in prison and subsequently spends years working to get out, but unlike Edmond Dantès’ journey out of prison, Joseph’s story isn’t about revenge; it’s about redemption.
Joseph’s mother and father were super old and unable to have children but then, plop, he showed up. Because of his status as a late-in-life surprise miracle baby, Joseph’s father favored him over his other sons and gave him the stereotypical youngest kid treatment, something that translated into him feeling perpetually awesome and entirely un-self-aware. This also translated into his brothers feeling resentful toward the favoritism bestowed on him. When he was seventeen, his father gave him a robe, the most famous piece of clothing in both the Bible and on Broadway: the Technicolor Dreamcoat. Of course the Bible doesn’t call it that, the Bible calls it an “ornate robe,” but either way, it was super fancy, no one else had one, and it pissed off his brothers to the point of mutating their jealousy into bitterness.
Joseph had a big mouth, he was seventeen after all, and one morning after he’d had an interesting dream in which his brothers wound up bowing down to him, he decided to tell them about it. “Hey guys, funny thing. I become a big deal and you all bow to me. Isn’t that hysterical?” They didn’t think so. Not one to take the hint, he had another dream and decided he should share it as well. “Hey guys, it happened again. The sun, moon and stars all bowed to me. So funny right?” Not to them.
When I was a young teenager, my parents told me I couldn’t get a cell phone until I was 16 years old. “Once you’re driving, you can have a phone so you can tell us where you are every minute of the day.” But like Veruca Salt, I wanted it now.
As a kid, the only teenager I knew who had a cellphone was Zack Morris on Saved by the Bell. When my parents finally got one, their phone—the one I was forced to haul around when I went to concerts with my friends—was as heavy and brick-like as Zack’s was on TV all those years prior. All of my youth group friends had the trendy Nokia mix-and-match phones so Sunday mornings became a sort of technological runway with the newest and brightest phone cover winning everyone’s attention. Still, my parents wouldn’t budge. I wasn’t sixteen yet. For my brother, the rule was the same; no phone until sixteen. But my sister, the youngest in our family, miraculously got a cell phone years before she started driving. “Well she’s so busy with choir at school, we need a way to get in touch with her,” my parents said. That sounded nice on paper but my brother and I knew what was really going on. She was the youngest and therefore got a phone when she wanted it.
Well that was Joseph’s life every day. As such, his brothers’ bitterness intensified to the point they decided to rid themselves of their pest of a half-brother. They were set on killing him but one brother, Reuben, told them not to. Plan B: they stole his robe and threw him into an empty well but upon seeing a caravan of folks headed toward Egypt to sell spices, they got an idea. An awful idea. “Let’s sell him off and they can do with him what they want. That way, he’s out of the picture but the blood isn’t on our hands! Suck it, Reuben! We found a loophole!”
And that’s what they did. The brothers banked twenty shekels of silver and Joseph, a seventeen-year-old boy, was hauled off to Egypt as a piece of anonymous human property. The brothers poured blood on the Dreamcoat to trick their father, Jacob, into believing Joe was attacked and killed by a wild animal and upon seeing the bloodied coat, he plummeted into such a cloud of grief, he said he’d mourn until the day he joined his son in the grave.
The despair Joseph must’ve felt as he realized there was no getting out of this and he was now a piece of property being drug away from all he’d ever known—its unfathomable. He also knew it was his brothers who’d sold him out and that had to only magnify the pain. Alone, scared, feeling completely out of control and utterly abandoned. This part of his story has always broken my heart because I can relate, even if on a small scale, to all of those feelings.
Toward the end of elementary school, my family took a vacation with some friends to Arkansas where we rented cabins on a river known for its robust rainbow trout population. We spent our days fishing and our nights eating what we caught. The cabins sat atop the hills along the banks of the river with wooden steps that lead down to the water. The hillsides were shaded by enormous trees whose branches bent down to sculpt a perfect view of the river from our porch swings.
One afternoon while standing at the top of the hill, my foot slipped on a patch of mud and I lost my balance. Toppling over, I landed on the hill’s incline only to begin rolling down the slick muddy grass toward the river. With each rotation, I tried grabbing at the grass in an attempt to slow me down but I only pawed at patches of mud instead, rolling ever faster toward the flowing river. Terrified, I was inadvertently holding my breath and as I approached the river’s edge, my back slammed into a large boulder resting on the bank. The breath I’d been holding was knocked out of me and as tears streamed down my face, I gasped for air. The boulder was flat on the side so the physical pain was minimal but as I rolled over, covered in wet grass and mud, I looked up at the porch to see the adults sitting calmly. No one appeared the least bit concerned and eventually, one of them asked if I was okay without getting out of their chair. I couldn’t speak, the air hadn’t found its way back into my lungs yet.
Perhaps the hill wasn’t that massive and they, being adults, knew I’d be fine. Perhaps being young and small and dramatic, I imagined the repetitive rolling down the hill lasted far longer than it did in reality. Perhaps I imagined the stakes being far higher—it wasn’t like the river was full of roaring rapids or alligators the Watcher in the Water from Lord of the Rings—but that was the first moment I can consciously remember feeling entirely helpless. Rolling down that hill, I felt like my life was hanging in the balance. Then, seeing that no one rushed to my aid as I peered up at them from against the boulder on the water’s edge, I felt truly alone.
When I caught my breath, I slowly made my way back up the slippery hill. The adults asked me if I was okay again as I took each careful step and I emphatically told them I wasn’t. As I approached the top of the hill, I slipped again, this time catching myself before I tumbled a second time. Feeling abandoned, I sat in silence on the porch while trying to wipe the mud, grass and tiny sticks off of my arms and legs. When I heard Joseph’s story told in Sunday School after that, my heart sank for him because I felt a teensy tiny fragment of the loneliness he must’ve felt.
In a matter of minutes, Joseph went from being the favored son with a life of abundance to a slave with a life of question marks. For his brothers to actually sell him over their jealousy, the amount of pain and distrust he must’ve felt is immeasurable. I know what it feels like to be picked last for dodgeball. I know what it feels like to be left out of games entirely. But to be disowned to the point of being sold off to strangers is so awful, my spirit aches just trying to process it.
Abandonment is a feeling people can empathize with and many popular narratives chronicle the plight of those who’ve been done wrong. The Best Picture-winning film, Twelve Years a Slave, was based on the memoir of Solomon Northup, a born-free African American from New York. In 1841, he was drugged, kidnapped, sold as a slave, and shipped to New Orleans where he was held as a slave for twelve years. Twelve years of questions, twelve years of frustration and twelve years of heartbreak. Again, my heart hurts just trying to process it.
But Joseph… (there’s a lot of “but Josephs” in his story which is what makes it amazing) …but Joseph who wound up being sold to Potiphar, one of the Pharaoh’s officials, worked hard, problem solved, and prospered. Potiphar took note of Joe’s work ethic and put him in charge of his entire household, basically making Joe the most famous personal assistant in Egypt.
The Bible says Joseph was well-built and handsome, of course he was, and as such, Potiphar’s wife—who saw and interacted with Joe every day—was hot and horny for him. She turned her flirt on and each time she came onto him, Joe refused her advances. He refused to betray the trust Potiphar had placed in him. The pain of betrayal was something Joseph knew intimately and he no doubt carried that hurt boulder inside of him every day. Writer Cheryl Strayed calls that loss-based hurt “the obliterated place” and I don’t think it’s ever been put more accurately. Even with an unobstructed view of the pyramids at sunset every day, he carried that hurt of betrayal inside of him every minute of his life.
I also think that as much as his refusal to have a quickie with Potiphar’s wife was rooted in Joseph’s seemingly superhuman integrity, it was also about safeguarding what he’d achieved. He’d worked his way up from being a common slave to being the head of one of Egypt’s great houses and as such, he didn’t want anything to derail that. Betraying Potiphar would be just as bad for his livelihood as it would be for his spirit.
Day after day, Potiphar’s wife tried to get with hot Joseph and each time, he said no. At one point, she became so horny she threw herself on him, grabbing his cloak to pull him toward her. Joe, being like, hell no, shimmied out of his cloak and took off naked to get away from her. Pissed after being rejected one too many times, she lied to her husband, claiming Joe came to sleep with her and left his cloak at her bedside after she screamed for help. That obviously infuriated Potiphar and in his anger, he put Joe in prison where he couldn’t betray anyone again. Interesting that this is the second time Joe’s outerwear caused him to be left alone and abandoned.
I’d be broken by this point, shattered really. To have worked so far up the ladder just to go slip-sliding down a chute into prison based on false pretenses, every part of my spirit, faith and resolve would be in tatters. But Joseph was not like me. Oh I’m sure he was devastated—he was a human person with emotions and feelings and a heart that broke just like yours and mine—but he didn’t remain stuck in the tatters.
While he was in prison, Joseph did the same as he did in the house: he got things done. His character and his drive never wavered, regardless of where he found himself. Thus, it didn’t take long before the warden put Joe in charge of the rest of the prisoners. I mean, come on. If his resilience wasn’t so damn inspiring, it would be downright annoying. Joseph’s story may be portrayed on stage in an Andrew Lloyd Weber musical, but his life really seems more like that of J. Pierrepont Finch in How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying.
In prison, Joe switched gears from dreaming the dreams to interpreting them. As his cellmates dreamt about this and that, he interpreted this and that for them and wouldn’t you know, it all panned out just as he said. In return, he pleaded for the men to not forget him, but they did.
Two years later—two years after Joe pled for those prisoners to remember him—Pharaoh had a dream he couldn’t quite put his finger on. After asking his magicians to interpret it and their subsequent inability to do so, someone remembered there was a well-built man in prison who had a knack for interpreting dreams. Go, go, go Joseph. After he shaved and put on acceptable clothes, Joe heard out Pharaoh and told him what his dream meant: there were about to be seven years of abundance followed by seven years of famine. Joseph said, “You need someone to oversee the food in your empire during the years of plenty or you’re all gonna die during the years of none.” Wouldn’t you know it? Joe was that someone. Potiphar who? Joseph was now second in command to the Pharaoh.
The next verse is a tough one for me. It reads, “Joseph was thirty years old when he entered the service of Pharaoh king of Egypt.” [Genesis 41:46] Thirteen years had passed since his brothers sold him and claimed he’d been killed. Thirteen. The Bible doesn’t detail Joe’s continuous heartbreak over missing his father and the betrayal from his brothers, but you know he thought about it day-in and day-out.
The seven years of abundance came and went and Joe’s diligence during the time of plenty kept the country alive as the years of famine began. Furthermore, Egypt was so well equipped, its surrounding countries came to the Egyptian storehouses to purchase grain for their starving people. Among those who made that trek were Joseph’s half-brothers. Ten of them to be exact. The eleventh, Joseph’s youngest brother Benjamin, didn’t go because his father, Jacob, still had PTSD from losing Joseph all those years prior.
When his brothers arrived in Egypt, they bowed down to Joseph. They didn’t recognize him now that he was a grown man—culturally Egyptian, royally outfitted, guyliner perfectly applied—but he sure as hell recognized them. I imagine every angry thought, every broken emotion, and every abandoned moment in prison welled up inside of him like a hot air balloon. The amount of restraint he had to marshal in order to not lay into them and repay their actions with his full power—it’s as unfathomable as the hurt he endured.
He didn’t lash out. He didn’t scream and yell and order their deaths. He swallowed his grief and asked where they were from. They told him they were from Canaan and Joseph responded that they must be spies. No, no. We’re not spies Sir. We’re honest men. [Genesis 42:11] I imagine Joseph cackled loudly in their faces, a release of long trapped emotion.
They explained they were a clan of twelve brothers. Ten were present, one was at home, and one was “no more.” Joseph kept up his bit about them being spies and told them that unless their youngest brother came to Egypt, they’d remain in his prison. So into prison they went and after three days, they were brought before Joseph and told to go home and bring back their youngest brother. As insurance they’d return, Joe said he’d keep one brother locked up in Egypt.
Talking to each other, the brothers knew they were being punished because of what they’d done to Joseph, all the while oblivious to the fact they were in his presence. Reuben, the brother who convinced them not to kill Joseph in the first place, reminded them, I tried to tell y’all but no, you had to do it your way.
Once the nine brothers returned home and reported to their father what happened, Jacob wasn’t a fan of the idea of them taking Benjamin to Egypt but Reuben, the emerging anti-hero of this story, promised him, “You may put both of my sons to death if I don’t bring Benjamin back to you. Entrust him to my care, and I will bring him back.” [Genesis 42:37]
Jacob wasn’t convinced but after the grain ran out and they were in danger of starving once again, he caved and sent all of the brothers back to Egypt. When they arrived and Joseph saw Benjamin with them, he told his assistant to invite them to brunch. Joe released the one who’d remained in prison and at brunch, the brothers gave Joe gifts before again bowing to their little brother. This meant Joseph’s first two dreams, the dreams which catapulted him into this series of unfortunate events, happened just as he dreamt they would. I’m sure that wasn’t lost on Joseph and he decided to ask about their/his father.
“Is he still living?” He was. Upon hearing that, Joe had to leave the room. He wept in private, unable to contain the surge of emotions he’d been fighting back since he’d first seen his brothers. I like that the Bible includes the line, “after he washed his face, he came out and, controlling himself, said to serve the food.” [Genesis 43:31] He was culturally Egyptian after all. His tears probably made his eye makeup run all over the place and nobody wants guyliner running all over their robe. It’s in the little details where the Bible’s stories really thrill me.
It came time to send the brothers on their way but Joseph knew if he did, he may never see his father again. So, when he had the brothers’ sacks filled with grain, he also had his silver cup placed in Benjamin’s bag. As they were leaving, he had them stopped and searched; claiming one of them had stolen from him and would thus become his slave. The brothers pleaded with him, telling him if they returned without Benjamin, it would literally kill their father. He’d already lost one son and couldn’t bear losing another. One of the brothers even begged to be kept in Benjamin’s place because he couldn’t stand the thought of his father’s grief.
At that, Joseph cleared the room. He couldn’t handle it any longer. “And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard him and Pharaoh’s household heard about it.” [Genesis 45:2] That’s one very loud, very ugly cry. Through his tears, he told his brothers, “I am Joseph! Is my father still living?” but his brothers were too spooked to answer. He told them to come close so they could see he was in fact the brother they’d wronged all those years before and while doing so, Joseph said the most powerful thing. “Do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you.” [Genesis 45:5]
The amount of perspective and grace Joseph had is astonishing. Not only was he composed, but he told his brothers to go home, get their families and his father and bring them back to Egypt so he could take care of them during the remaining years of famine. He did all of this while ugly crying like an audience member during Oprah’s Favorite Things and he went down the line hugging and crying with each of his brothers. “He kissed all his brothers and wept over them. Afterward his brothers talked with him.” [Gen. 45:15]
The sentence about Pharaoh’s household overhearing Joseph’s revelation to his brothers is an important one. At that point in time, Hebrews and Egyptians didn’t mix. Even during the brunch Joseph threw his brothers upon their return, the Egyptians wouldn’t eat at the same table as the Hebrews. Yet when Pharaoh heard Joe’s full story, he supported him fully and backed his decision to move his family to Egypt. For Pharaoh to break that significant segregation fortifies just how powerful and trusted Joe had become. Pharaoh even told Joe’s family not to bring their stuff with them because they’d be given the best Egypt had to offer. The Goshen Pottery Barn was theirs for the pillaging. Look under your seats! You get a gift card! You get a gift card! Gift cards for everyone!
But more important than that is the sentence that reads, “Afterward, his brothers talked to him.” This is their redemption. Joseph’s story isn’t just a story of his redemption, but that of his entire family. They talked to Joseph, probably while apologizing through waterfalls of tears, and Joseph comforted and shared with them the plot points that led him to where he was. This exchange of communication is their redemption. You can believe that as someone with a master’s degree in Communication, this thrills me to no end.
But the story wasn’t over. Can you imagine his father Jacob hearing the news that not only was Joseph alive but he was also the one man who could save them from starvation? The explosions of joy just kept coming.
I love reunions. It’s part of what I cry at the beginning and end of Love Actually. Because of that film, I’ve gained an affinity for the baggage claim area of the airport. I love seeing people reunited after not having seen each other for some time. Every time I see my friend Holly, she drops her bags, runs toward me and leaps into my arms. It doesn’t matter if we are in Grand Central Station, the entrance to Macys in Herald Square, or Fountain Mall at Baylor University. Reuniting with her fills me with joy.
For my 35th birthday, I threw a big party on the Upper West Side. I rented out the basement bar of a restaurant, brunch was catered, music from the 90’s played and my friends and family laughed and danced and ate together. About an hour into the party, the door opened and in walked my friend who lives in Oman. Of course I didn’t think she’d be there, she lives on the other side of the world, but in the door she walked and upon seeing her face, I burst into tears. I stood in the center of the dozens of my friends who showed up to make me feel loved and I wept. She ran over to hug me and we cried together. She’s not my daughter nor am I her son, but we’re family and reuniting with her made my heart swell to the point I combust into tears. As Lesley Gore sang, “You would cry too if it happened to you.”
I’m sure that’s what Heaven will feel like. Love, colorful and bright, exploding and expanding like an endless kaleidoscope.
I imagine something similar happened when Joseph saw his father. After riding out on his chariot to meet them, Joe threw his arms around his father, the fulfillment both he and his father needed after years of existing in “the obliterated place.” Yes, leading the empire was lovely and his life of luxury was grand, but what really mattered was being reunited with his family. This is Solomon Northup finally coming home. This is Celie and Nettie running toward each other in that field of pink flowers in The Color Purple. This is Meg embracing her father at last in A Wrinkle In Time. We are meant to be united.
The post-reunion story of Joseph includes his bringing the Israelites to settle in Goshen, a place where their numbers increased greatly and while this may be the epilogue of Joe’s story, it’s the prologue of Moses’. When Joseph was old and about to die, he said when God decided to bring the Israelites out of Egypt, they must carry his bones with them. When he died, he was embalmed as nobility and placed in a coffin in Egypt.
It’s easy to forget just how high up in the chain Joseph was in the Egyptian world but the Bible made clear Joseph’s enduring importance to his people. When the Hebrews finally did leave Egypt, Moses took Joe’s sarcophagus with him, faithfully honoring the man who epitomized faithfulness. I love that.
Joseph’s story can be found in the book of Genesis starting with chapter 37.
So what’s this all about? Read my introduction to the Sunday School for Sinners and Saints project here.
Illustrations by freepik.com