Friday, October 14, 2011

Joseph and the Coat of Many Colors

I sincerely hope that my inclusion of a story from scripture among those of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen doesn’t offend anyone. The fact is, whether you believe in the absolute truth of the Bible or not, you can’t deny that it is full of some very excellent stories from which we can all learn a lot. Since this blog is dedicated to great stories, I thought it would be appropriate to include one of my favorites from the Old Testament.

Many, many years ago…actually, longer ago than that…no, that’s not long ago enough. It was so long ago, can I put this? Remember John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln? Remember when Columbus "discovered" America? Remember when Mel Gibson was cool and not just crazy? Yeah, waaay before that.

It was a long time ago; I just want to be clear on that point.

In any event, all the years ago we just got done discussing, there lived a man named Jacob who had many wives and twelve sons. They were all fine boys who wanted to make their father proud, but Jacob’s favorite was Joseph, because he was born late in Jacob’s life, at a time when he thought he would be unable to father any more children. So Jacob doted on Joseph and lavished affection on him. This, of course, made the other brothers (each of whom had a name and personality of their own, but there were eleven of them and we haven't got all day) very jealous and angry at Joseph. Now, technically, it wasn’t Joseph’s fault that his father played favorites, but that wasn’t the only reason they had an axe to grind.

It was also because they had a lot of wood to cut down and if they didn't grind that axe they, huh? Yeah, okay, you may be right. Still, you can't expect all the jokes to be good. Moving on:

The main reason Joseph's brothers disliked him was that he was born with an unusual talent for interpreting dreams. This was all well and good, but then Joseph took to interpreting his own dreams: “Last night I had this dream where the twelve of us were all out in the fields harvesting corn, and we each had a sheath of corn in our hands. Mine was tall and sturdy and gold, but the rest of you had shriveled, green sheaths. And then, the strangest thing haeppened. All your sheaths turned and bowed to mine. I wonder if that means that someday I’m going to be in a position of authority above the rest of you. What do you guys think?”

What they thought was that Joseph was full of himself and they didn’t like the idea of having to bow to their own brother. But the final straw was when Jacob gave his favorite son a gift: A wonderful coat in all the colors of the rainbow, and one or two colors he'd never seen before. It was a beautiful, multi-colored coat (which, curiously enough, did not clash with anything Joseph owned) which made the plain, brown, sheepskin coats of his brothers look quite shabby. And when they saw Joseph, parading around in his new coat-of-many-colors, talking about how important his dreams said he was going to be, they resolved to get rid of the smug jerk once and for all.

Bright and early the next morning, the twelve sons of Jacob went out to tend the flock. Everything was going just fine until Joseph’s brothers grabbed him, pulled off his coat and threw him in a deep pit. The flock was, of course, outraged, and agreed to give very little wool come wintertime as payback. The brothers were just about to leave him down there, when some travelers passed. Travelers in the rather unsavory habit of buying young people to sell as slaves. The brothers thought about it and decided that there was no point in letting Joseph go to waste, so they pulled him out of the well and sold him to these slave traders, who dragged him away to sell him in Egypt. Then the brothers slaughtered a goat (further incensing the flock) and rubbed its blood and insides all over Joseph’s coat, which they brought to their father as proof that his favorite son was dead.

Which is just about the yuckiest thing we've seen in any of these stories, huh?

But now we leave Jacob and his eleven remaining sons and go to Egypt, where Joseph was quickly bought by a man named Potiphar, captain of the Pharaoh’s guard. Being naturally hard-working, Joseph soon outstripped all the other slaves of Potiphar’s home and  Potiphar was so impressed with Joseph, that he promoted him to the position of head servant, making him Potiphar’s right hand man. So everything was actually going pretty well for Joseph…until Mrs. Potiphar.

Hmm...this bit's going to be hard to do if I want to maintain my G-rating, huh? Well, bear with me:

Mrs. Potiphar was not what you might call a faithful spouse. This, coupled with the fact that Joseph was young and very handsome with one of those "winning smiles" you so often hear about, meant more than a few unsavory glances in his direction. Joseph rejected her, of course; he’d never do anything like that, but Mrs. Potiphar was determined to get what she wanted. One day, when they were alone together, Mrs. Potiphar reached out and grabbed Joseph roughly by his clothes. He ran away, causing his clothes to tear off in the woman’s hand. So when Potiphar saw Joseph’s bare chest under his torn garment and his wife crying out, lying that Joseph had attacked her, he assumed the worst, and put his most trusted servant in prison.

Yes, things seemed to be going pretty bad for Joseph once again. But somebody was watching over him in that dingy cell. Somebody was looking down on Joseph and preparing to lift him up into the sunlight. And this was done, as it usually is, in so roundabout and unlikely a fashion, that many people would say that it was just a coincidence, or a lucky break, or just one of those things. In any case, what happened was this: Joseph had two cellmates, both of whom had previously served the Pharaoh. And one night, both woke up having had strange and disturbing dreams. Joseph, being somewhat adept at interpreting dreams, offered to tell his companions what their dreams meant.

Of course, the last time Joseph had interpreted anyone's dreams, it had gotten him betrayed and sold into slavery by his own brothers. Still, he reasoned, that was unlikely to happen again, so he gave it a go.

“I saw a vine with three large, ripe grapes,” said the first prisoner, the Pharaoh’s cupbearer, “which I plucked, held over Pharaoh’s cup and crushed into wine. Then I gave the cup to Pharaoh and he smiled. Then I woke up.”

(Which people always say when they're telling you about a dream, don't they? Why? Of course you woke up! That's how every dream in the history of mankind has ended.) 

“The three grapes mean three days,” said Joseph. “Three days from now, Pharaoh will pardon you and return you to your old job.”

Now it was the turn of the second prisoner, a baker, who was understandably hopeful upon hearing his companion's dream. “I was carrying a basket on my head with three fat loaves of bread. Then a big black bird came and started eating the bread, I lost my balance and dropped everything. That’s when I woke up.”

(See? What'd I tell ya?)

“I’m sorry,” said Joseph. “I am so very sorry. But the three loaves also represent three days. Three days from now…Pharaoh will have you executed.” And, sure enough, in three days’ time, both predictions came true. The cupbearer was pardoned, the poor baker sentenced to death, and Joseph was alone, and beginning to feel like that's how he'd be for the rest of his days...

But, once again, somebody, somewhere had other plans for Joseph, and this time they involved a very useful ally: The Pharaoh himself. The God-King of Egypt, the supreme ruler of the land. For shortly after pardoning the first servant and executing the other, Pharaoh had a strange dream of his own. None of his advisors or wisemen knew what it meant, but then the cupbearer was bold enough to mention that, during his stint in prison, he met a man with a gift for interpreting dreams. Desperate for an explanation, Pharaoh had Joseph sent for and the poor boy was brought before the king and asked to interpret his dream:

“I was standing on my pyramid," said Pharaoh, "looking out over my land, when I saw seven big, fat, healthy-looking cows pass before me. But right behind them were seven thin, sickly, undernourished cows. Right before my eyes, the skinny cows ate the fat cows. Which, strangely enough, did not make them any fatter. So what does it mean?”

Joseph thought for a moment, then said, “For the next seven years, Egypt will know prosperity like never before. It will be the best period of food production in history. You will have more food than you know what to do with. Which is good, because the following seven years will be years of famine and desolation. So, if I were you, my liege, I would set up some kind of rationing program to set aside the extra food to distribute during the famine. You should fine a wise, discerning man to oversee it all.”

“You are the only one who was able to inerpret my dream,” said Pharaoh. “So who could be wiser and more discerning to you?” And with a word and a wave from Pharaoh, Joseph was pardoned of all his crimes, lifted up from the bonds of servitude and appointed as Pharaoh’s right hand. He was given a palace to live in, gold and jewels. He had many servants, rich clothing, a really hot wife (which is another story altogether), and in all of Egypt only Pharaoh was above him. And, as Joseph had predicted, for the next seven years, there was plenty of food for everyone…also, as he had predicted, the following seven were difficult. But, thanks to the system Joseph had put in place, no one went hungry. Everyone had plenty to eat, thanks to Joseph…

Everyone in Egypt, that is. But the famine stretched far beyond the borders of Pharaoh’s domain. In fact, back in Canaan, where Joseph was born, people were hurt the most. Poor Jacob, his eleven sons, and what was left of the flock were on the verge of starvation, and Jacob himself was old and getting very weak. Knowing that there was plenty of food in Egypt, the brothers went there to see if they could collect some food to bring home for their father.

There is, of course, a reason why all eleven of them left their ailing father alone but for one particularly loyal sheep instead of some of them staying behind...but we don't have time to get into that right now. Maybe if I hadn't wasted so much time with stupid jokes earlier in the story. Oh well, on to Egypt:

They were brought before Joseph and they explained their position and made their request. Now Joseph recognized his eleven brothers at once, but between the years of servitude, the hot Egyptian son, the new clothes and the traditional makeup of Egyptian royalty, none of them recognized him! And when he realized this, Joseph, in his grace and wisdom, did what only seemed natural under the circumstances:

He messed with their heads.

“So,” said Joseph in his Deep Scary Voice, “you expect me to just hand over Egypt’s precious food to you simple farm folk because you give me some sob story about a sick father? Why should I? What are you? Spies? Here to see how strong our defenses are?” The brothers then began to beg, plead and grovel in a fairly revolting display of pathetic toadying and he relented, as he had always intended to, instructing them to take as much as they needed…while they were doing so, however, Joseph went to his home, partly because he didn't want them to hear him laughing over his prank, but mostly because he had something else planned.

Once at his home, he found a silver goblet adorned with jewels, and snuck it into the sack of one of his brothers. Then he waited until they were ready to go home and told them to stop. “My silver cup is missing! One of you must have taken it! I will search every one of you until I find it!” Joseph and his guards searched the bewildered brothers, only to find the cup in the sack of Joseph's brother, Benjamin. “You will be thrown in prison for the rest of your life for this crime!” bellowed Joseph, and then something happened he had not expected. Actually, ten somethings.


“You can’t!”

“Please, don’t!”

“Take me instead!”

All ten of the other brothers stepped forward to defend Benjamin. Each one insisting that their brother was innocent and begging for leniency. “Many years ago,” they explained, “we lost one of our brothers. It was our fault. And we have missed him ever since. We cannot bear to lose another member of our family.”

That was all Joseph needed to hear. For now he knew that they were truly sorry for what they had done. And when someone you care about is truly, truly sorry for something they did to you, there’s really only one thing you can do: Forgive them. Joseph revealed his true identity to his brothers and they were overjoyed to see him. The twelve brothers were reunited at last and they embraced each other over and over as Joseph told them his remarkable story. They felt guilty hearing the hardships he had endured, but Joseph forgave them all. In fact, he did a lot more than that. He invited them all to come and live with him in Egypt, and Jacob joined them and the whole family lived in happiness and prosperity forever afterward.

Or, to put it another way, they all lived happily ever after!


If You Liked My Story, You Might Enjoy:
  • Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (1999) This video version of the popular broadway musical by Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice stars Donny Osmond as Joseph
  • Joseph: King of Dreams (2000) One of the first direct-to-video features Dreamworks animation ever produced. An attempt at a follow up to the highly successful (and, in my opinion, far superior) Prince of Egypt. Ben Affleck, Steven Weber and Mark Hamill lend their voices
  • VeggieTales: The Ballad of Little Joe (2003) Hey, they’re all video releases, huh? Weird. Anyway, the popular children’s video series turned the story into a western. Very entertaining.

NEXT WEEK:  "3 Silly Stories (featuring Leroy!!)"

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