Joseph : Israel in Egypt – Beacon Lights of History, Volume II : Jewish Heroes and Prophets by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume II : Jewish Heroes and Prophets by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume II : Jewish Heroes and Prophets

Abraham : Religious Faith
Joseph : Israel in Egypt
Moses : Jewish Jurisprudence
Samuel : Israel Under Judges
David : Israelitish Conquests
Solomon : Glory of The Monarchy
Elijah : Division of The Kingdom
Isaiah : National Degeneracy
Jeremiah : Fall of Jerusalem
Judas Maccabaeus : Restoration of The Jewish Commonwealth
Saint Paul : The Spread of Christianity

Beacon Lights of History, Volume II : Jewish Heroes and Prophets
John Lord

Topics Covered
Early days of Joseph
Envy of his brethren
Sale of Joseph
Its providential results
Fortunes of Joseph in Egypt
The imprisonment of Joseph
Favor with the king
Joseph prime minister
The Shepherd kings
The service of Joseph to the king
Famine in Egypt
Power of Pharaoh
Power of the priests
Character of the priests
Knowledge of the priests
Teachings of the priests
Egyptian gods
Antiquity of sacrifices
Civilization of Egypt
Initiation of Joseph in Egyptian knowledge
Austerity to his brethren
Grief of Jacob
Severity of the famine in Canaan
Jacob allows the departure of Benjamin
Joseph’s partiality to Benjamin
His continued austerity to his brethren
Joseph at length reveals himself
The kindness of Pharaoh
Israel in Egypt
Prosperity of the Israelites
Old age of Jacob
His blessing to Joseph’s sons
Jacob’s predictions
Death of Jacob
Death of Joseph
Character of Joseph
Condition of the Israelites in Egypt
Rameses the Great
Acquisitions of the Israelites in Egypt
Influence of Egyptian civilization on the Israelites

Joseph : Israel in Egypt

No one in his senses would dream of adding anything to the story of Joseph, as narrated in Genesis, whether it came from the pen of Moses or from some subsequent writer. It is a masterpiece of historical composition, unequalled in any literature sacred or profane, in ancient or modern times, for its simplicity, its pathos, its dramatic power, and its sustained interest. Nor shall I attempt to paraphrase or re-tell it, save by way of annotation and illustration of subjects connected with it, having reference to the subsequent development of the Jewish nation and character.

Joseph, the great-grandson of Abraham, was born at Haran in Mesopotamia, probably during the XVIII. Century B.C., when his father Jacob was in the service of Laban the Syrian. There was nothing remarkable in his career until he was sold as a slave by his unnatural and jealous brothers. He was the favorite son of the patriarch Jacob, by his beloved Rachel, being the youngest, except Benjamin, of a large family of twelve sons,–a beautiful and promising youth, with qualities which peculiarly called out the paternal affections. In the inordinate love and partiality of Jacob for this youth he gave to him, by way of distinction, a decorated tunic, such as was worn only by the sons of princes. The half-brothers of Joseph were filled with envy in view of this unwise step on the part of their common father,–a proceeding difficult to be reconciled with his politic and crafty nature; and their envy ripened into hostility when Joseph, with the frankness of youth, narrated his dreams, which signified his future pre-eminence and the humiliation of his brothers. Nor were his dreams altogether pleasing to his father, who rebuked him with this indignant outburst of feeling: “Shall I and thy brethren indeed come to bow down ourselves to thee on the earth?” But while the father pondered, the brothers were consumed with hatred, for envy is one of the most powerful passions that move the human soul, and is malignant in its developments. Strange to say, it is most common in large families and among those who pass for friends. We do not envy prosperous enemies with the virulence we feel for prosperous relatives, who theoretically are our equals. Nor does envy cease until inequality has become so great as to make rivalry preposterous: a subject does not envy his king, or his generally acknowledged superior. Envy may even give place to respect and deference when the object of it has achieved fame and conceded power. Relatives who begin with jealousy sometimes end as worshippers, but not until extraordinary merit, vast wealth, or overtopping influence are universally conceded. Conceive of Napoleon’s brothers envying the great Emperor, or Webster’s the great statesman, or Grant’s the great general, although the passion may have lurked in the bosoms of political rivals and military chieftains.

But one thing certainly extinguishes envy; and that is death. Hence the envy of Joseph’s brothers, after they had sold him to a caravan of Ishmaelite merchants, was succeeded by remorse and shame. Their murmurings passed into lies. They could not tell their broken-hearted father of their crime; they never told him. Jacob was led to suppose that his favorite son was devoured by wild beasts; they added deceit and cowardice to a depraved heartlessness, and nearly brought down the gray hairs of their father to the grave. No subsequent humiliation or punishment could be too severe for such wickedness. Although they were destined to become the heads of powerful tribes, even of the chosen people of God, these men have incurred the condemnation of all ages. But Judah and Reuben do not come in for unlimited censure, since these sons of Leah sought to save their brother from a violent death; and subsequently in Egypt Judah looms up as a magnanimous character, whom we admire almost as much as we do Joseph himself. What can be more eloquent than his defence of Benjamin, and his appeal to what seemed to him to be an Egyptian potentate!

Joseph Sold by His Brethren. After the painting by H.F. Schopin

The sale of Joseph as a slave is one of the most signal instances of the providence of God working by natural laws recorded in all history,–more marked even than the elevation of Esther and Mordecai. In it we see permission of evil and its counteraction,–its conversion into good; victory over evil, over conspiracy, treachery, and murderous intent. And so marked is this lesson of a superintending Providence over all human action, that a wise and good man can see wars and revolutions and revolting crimes with almost philosophical complacency, knowing that out of destruction proceeds creation; that the wrath of man is always overruled; that the love of God is the brightest and clearest and most consoling thing in the universe. We cannot interpret history without the recognition of this fundamental truth. We cannot be unmoved amid the prevalence of evil without this feeling, that God is more powerful than all the combined forces of his enemies both on earth and in hell; and that no matter what the evil is, it will surely be made to praise Him who sitteth in the heavens. This is a sublime revelation of the omnipotence and benevolence of a personal God, of his constant oversight of the world which he has made.

The protection and elevation of Joseph, seemingly a natural event in view of his genius and character, is in some respects a type of that great sacrifice by which a sinful world has been redeemed. Little did the Jews suspect when they crucified Jesus that he would arise from his tomb and overturn the idolatries of nations, and found a religion which should go on from conquering to conquer. Little did the gifted Burke see in the atrocities of the French Revolution the overturning of a system of injustices which for centuries had cried to Heaven for vengeance. Still less did the proud and conservative citizens of New England recognize in the cruelties of Southern slaveholders a crime which would provoke one of the bloodiest wars of modern times, and lead to the constitutional and political equality of the whites and blacks. Evil appeared to triumph, but ended in the humiliation of millions and the enfranchisement of humanity, when the cause of the right seemed utterly hopeless. So let every one write upon all walls and houses and chambers, upon his conscience and his intellect, “The Lord God Omnipotent reigneth, and will bring good out of the severest tribulation!” And this great truth applies not to nations alone, but to the humblest individual, as he bows down in grief or wrath or penitence to unlooked-for chastisement,–like Job upon his heap of ashes, or the broken-hearted mother when afflicted with disease or poverty, or the misconduct or death of children. There is no wisdom, no sound philosophy, no religion, and no happiness until this truth is recognized in all the changes and relations of life.

The history of Joseph in Egypt in all his varied fortunes is, as I have said, a most memorable illustration of this cardinal and fundamental truth. A favorite of fortune, he is sold as a slave for less than twenty dollars of our money, and is brought to a foreign country,–a land oppressed by kings and priests, yet in which is a high civilization, in spite of social and political degradation. He is resold to a high official of the Egyptian court, probably on account of his beauty and intelligence. He rises in the service of this official,–captain of the royal guard, or, as the critics tell us, superintendent of the police and prisons,–for he has extraordinary abilities and great integrity, character as well as natural genius, until he is unjustly accused of a meditated crime by a wicked woman. It is evident that Potiphar, his master, only half believes in Joseph’s guilt, in spite of the protestations of his artful and profligate wife, since instead of summarily executing him, as Ahasuerus did Haman, he simply sends him to a mild and temporary imprisonment in the prison adjacent to his palace. Here Joseph wins the favor of his jailers and of his brother prisoners, as Paul did nearly two thousand years later, and shows remarkable gifts, even to the interpretation of dreams,–a wonderful faculty to superstitious people like the Egyptians, and in which he exceeds even their magicians and priests. The fame of his rare gifts, the most prized in Egypt, reaches at last the ears of Pharaoh, who is troubled by a singular dream which no one of his learned men can interpret. The Hebrew slave interprets it, and is magnificently rewarded, becoming the prime minister of an absolute monarch. The King gives him his signet ring, emblem of power, and a collar or chain of gold, the emblem of the highest rank; clothes him in a vestment of fine linen, makes him ride in his second chariot, and appoints him ruler over the land, second only to the King in power and rank. And, further, he gives to him in marriage the daughter of the High Priest of On, by which he becomes connected with the priesthood.

Joseph deserves all the honor and influence he receives, for he saves the kingdom from a great calamity. He predicts seven years of plenty and seven years of famine, and points out the remedy. According to tradition, the monarch whom he served was Apepi, the last Shepherd King, during whose reign slaves were very numerous. The King himself had a vast number, as well as the nobles. Foreign slaves were preferred to native ones, and wars were carried on for the chief purpose of capturing and selling captives.

The sacred narrative says but little of the government of Egypt by a Hebrew slave, or of his abilities as a ruler,–virtually supreme in the land, since Pharaoh delegates to him his own authority, persuaded both of his fidelity and his abilities. It is difficult to understand how Joseph arose at a single bound to such dignity and power, under a proud and despotic king, and in the face of all the prejudices of the Egyptian priesthood and nobility, except through the custom of all Oriental despots to gratify the whim of the moment,–like the one who made his horse prime minister. But nothing short of transcendent talents and transcendent services can account for his retention of office and his marked success. Joseph was then thirty years of age, having served Potiphar ten years, and spent two or three years in prison.

This all took place, as some now suppose, shortly after 1700 B.C., under the dynasty of the Hyksos or Shepherd Kings, who had conquered the kingdom about three hundred years before. Their capital was Memphis, near the pyramids, which had been erected several centuries earlier by the older and native dynasties. Rawlinson supposes that Tanis on the delta was the seat of their court. Conquered by the Hyksos, the old kings retreated to their other capital, Thebes, and were probably made tributary to the conquerors. It was by the earlier and later dynasties that the magnificent temples and palaces were built, whose ruins have so long been the wonder of travellers. The Shepherd Kings were warlike, and led their armies from Scythia,–that land of roving and emigrant warriors,–or, as Ewald thinks, from the land of Canaan: Aramaean chieftains, who sought the spoil of the richest monarchy in the world. Hence there was more affinity between these people and the Hebrews than between them and the ancient Egyptians, who were the descendants of Ham. Abraham, when he visited Egypt, found it ruled by these Scythian or Aramaean warriors, which accounts for the kind and generous treatment he received. It is not probable that a monarch of the ancient dynasties would have been so courteous to Abraham, or would have elevated Joseph to such an exalted rank, for they were jealous of strangers, and hated a pastoral people. It was only under the rule of the Hyksos that the Hebrews could have been tolerated and encouraged; for as soon as the Shepherd Kings were expelled by the Pharaohs who reigned at Thebes, as the Moors were expelled from Spain by the old Castilian princes, it fared ill with the descendants of Jacob, and they were bitterly and cruelly oppressed until the exodus under Moses. Prosperity probably led the Hyksos conquerors to that fatal degeneracy which is unfavorable to war, while adversity strengthened the souls of the descendants of the ancient kings, and enabled them to subdue and drive away their invaders and conquerors. And yet the Hyksos could not have ruled Egypt had they not adapted themselves to the habits, religion, and prejudices of the people they subdued. The Pharaoh who reigned at the time of Joseph belonged like his predecessors to the sacerdotal caste, and worshipped the gods of the Egyptians. But he was not jealous of the Hebrews, and fully appreciated the genius of Joseph.

The wisdom of Joseph as ruler of the land destined to a seven years’ famine was marked by foresight as well as promptness in action. He personally visited the various provinces, advising the people to husband their harvests. But as all people are thoughtless and improvident, he himself gathered up and stored all the grain which could be spared, and in such vast quantities that he ceased to measure it. At last the predicted famine came, as the Nile had not risen to its usual height; but the royal granaries were full, since all the surplus wheat–about a fifth of the annual produce–had been stored away; not purchased by Joseph, but exacted as a tax. Nor was this exaction unreasonable in view of the emergency. Under the Bourbon kings of France more than one half of the produce of the land was taken by the Government and the feudal proprietors without compensation, and that not in provision for coming national trouble, but for the fattening of the royal purse. Joseph exacted only a fifth as a sort of special tax, less than the present Italian government exacts from all landowners.

Very soon the famine pressed upon the Egyptian people, for they had no corn in reserve; the reserve was in the hands of the government. But this reserve Joseph did not deal out gratuitously, as the Roman government, under the emperors, dealt out food to the citizens. He made the people pay for their bread, and took their money and deposited it in the royal treasury. When after two years their money was all spent, it was necessary to resort to barter, and cattle were given in exchange for corn, by which means the King became possessed of all the personal property of his subjects. As famine pressed, the people next surrendered their land to avoid starvation,–all but the priests. Pharaoh thus became absolute proprietor of the whole country; of money, cattle, and land,–an unprecedented surrender, which would have produced a wide-spread disaffection and revolt, had it not been that Joseph, after the famine was past and the earth yielded its accustomed harvest, exacted only one-fifth of the produce of the land for the support of the government, which could not be regarded as oppressive. As the King thus became absolute proprietor of Egypt by consent of the people, whom he had saved from starvation through the wisdom and energy of his prime minister, it is probable that later a new division of land took place, it being distributed among the people generally in small farms, for which they paid as rent a fifth of their produce. The gratitude of the people was marked: “Thou hast saved our lives: let us find grace in the eyes of my lord, and we will be Pharaoh’s slaves.” Since the time of Christ there have been two similar famines recorded,–one in the eleventh century, lasting, like Joseph’s, seven years; and the other in the twelfth century, of which the most distressing details are given, even to the extreme desperation of cannibalism. The same cause originated both,–the failure of the Nile overflow. Out of the sacred river came up for Egypt its fat kine and its lean,–its blessings and its curses.

The price exacted by Joseph for the people’s salvation made the King more absolute than before, since all were thus made dependent on the government.

This absolute rule of the kings, however, was somewhat modified by ancient customs, and by the vast influence of the priesthood, to which the King himself belonged. The priests of Egypt, under all the dynasties, formed the most powerful caste ever seen among the nations of the earth, if we except the Brahmanical caste of India. At the head of it was the King himself, who was chief of the religion and of the state. He regulated the sacrifices of the temples, and had the peculiar right of offering them to the gods upon grand occasions. He superintended the feasts and festivals in honor of the deities. The priests enjoyed privileges which extended to their whole family. They were exempt from taxes, and possessed one-third of the landed property, which was entailed upon them, and of which they could not be deprived. Among them there were great distinctions of rank, but the high-priests held the most honorable station; they were devoted to the service of the presiding deities of the cities in which they lived,–such as the worship of Ammon at Thebes, of Phtha at Memphis, and of Ra at On, or Heliopolis. One of the principal grades of the priesthood was that of prophets, who were particularly versed in all matters pertaining to religion. They presided over the temple and the sacred rites, and directed the management of the priestly revenues; they bore a distinguished part in solemn processions, carrying the holy vase.

The priests not only regulated all spiritual matters and superintended the worship of the gods, but they were esteemed for their superior knowledge. They acquired an ascendency over the people by their supposed understanding of the sacred mysteries, only those priests being initiated in the higher secrets of religion who had proved themselves virtuous and discerning. “The honor of ascending from the less to the greater mysteries was as highly esteemed as it was difficult to obtain. The aspirant was required to go through the most severe ordeal, and show the greatest moral resignation.” Those who aspired to know the profoundest secrets, imposed upon themselves duties more severe than those required by any other class. It was seldom that the priests were objects of scandal; they were reserved and discreet, practising the strictest purification of body and mind. Their life was so full of minute details that they rarely appeared in public. They thus obtained the sincere respect of the people, and ruled by the power of learning and sanctity as well as by privilege. They are most censured for concealing and withholding knowledge from the people.

How deep and profound was the knowledge of the Egyptian priests it is difficult to settle, since it was so carefully guarded. Pythagoras made great efforts and sacrifices to be initiated in their higher mysteries; but these, it is thought, were withheld, since he was a foreigner. What he did learn, however, formed a foundation of what is most valuable in Grecian philosophy. Herodotus declares that he knew the mysteries, but should not divulge them. Moses was skilled in all the knowledge of the sacred schools of Egypt, and perhaps incorporated in his jurisprudence some of its most valued truths. Possibly Plato obtained from the Egyptian priests his idea of the immortality of the soul, since this was one of their doctrines. It is even thought by Wilkinson that they believed in the unity, the eternal existence, and invisible power of God, but there is no definite knowledge on that point. Ammon, the concealed god, seems to have corresponded with the Zeus of the Greeks, as Sovereign Lord of Heaven. The priests certainly taught a state of future rewards and punishments, for the great doctrine of metempsychosis is based upon it,–the transmission of the soul after death into the bodies of various animals as an expiation for sin. But however lofty were the esoteric doctrines which the more learned of the initiated believed, they were carefully concealed from the people, who were deemed too ignorant to understand them; and hence the immense difference between the priests and people, and the universal prevalence of degrading superstitions and the vile polytheism which everywhere existed,–even the worship of the powers of Nature in those animals which were held sacred. Among all the ancient nations, however complicated were their theogonies, and however degraded the forms of worship assumed,–of men, or animals, or plants,–it was heat or light (the sun as the visible promoter of blessings) which was regarded as the animus mundi, to be worshipped as the highest manifestation of divine power and goodness. The sun, among all the ancient polytheists, was worshipped under various names, and was one of the supremest deities. The priestly city of On, a sort of university town, was consecrated to the worship of Ra, the sun. Baal was the sun-god among the polytheistic Canaanites, as Bel was among the Assyrians.

The Egyptian Pantheon, except perhaps that of Rome, was the most extensive among the ancient nations, and the most degraded, although that people were the most religious as well as superstitious of ancient pagans. The worship of the Deity, in some form, was as devout as it was universal, however degrading were the rites; and no expense was spared in sacrifices to propitiate the favor of the peculiar deity who presided over each of the various cities, for almost every city had a different deity. Notwithstanding the degrading fetichism–the lowest kind of Nature-worship, including the worship of animals–which formed the basis of the Egyptian religion, there were traces in it of pure monotheism, as in that of Babylonia and of ancient India. The distinguishing peculiarity of the Egyptian religion was the adoration of sacred animals as emblems of the gods, the chief of which were the bull, the cat, and the beetle.

The gods of the Egyptian Pantheon were almost innumerable, since they represented every form and power of Nature, and all the passions which move the human soul; but the most remarkable of the popular deities was Osiris, who was regarded as the personification of good. Isis, the consort of Osiris, who with him presided at the judgment of the dead, was scarcely less venerated. Set, or Typhon, the brother of Osiris, was the personification of evil. Between Osiris and Set, therefore, was perpetual antagonism. This belief, divested of names and titles and technicalities and fables, seems to have resembled, in this respect, the religion of the Persians,–the eternal conflict between good and evil. The esoteric doctrines of the priests initiated into the higher mysteries probably were the primeval truths, too abstract for the ignorant and sensual people to comprehend, and which were represented to them in visible forms that appealed to their senses, and which they worshipped with degrading rites.

The oldest of all the rites of the ancient pagans was in the form of sacrifice, to propitiate the deity. Abraham and Jacob offered sacrifices, but without degrading ceremonies, and both abhorred the representation of the deity in the form of animals; but there was scarcely an animal or reptile in Egypt that the people did not hold sacred, in fear or reverence. Moral evil was represented by the serpent, showing that something was retained, though in a distorted form, of the primitive revelation. The most celebrated forms of animal worship were the bulls at Memphis, sacred to Osiris, or, as some think, to the sun; the cat to Phtha, and the beetle to Re. The origin of these superstitions cannot be traced; they are shrouded in impenetrable mystery. All that we know is that they existed from the remotest period of which we have cognizance, long before the pyramids were built.

In spite, however, of the despotism of the kings, the privileges of the priests, and the degrading superstitions of the people, which introduced the most revolting form of religious worship ever seen on earth, there was in Egypt a high civilization in comparison with that of other nations, dating back to a mythical period. More than two thousand years before the Christian era, and six hundred before letters were introduced into Greece, one thousand years before the Trojan War, twelve hundred years before Buddha, and fifteen hundred years before Rome was founded, great architectural works existed in Egypt, the remains of which still astonish travellers for their vastness and grandeur. In the time of Joseph, before the eighteenth dynasty, there was in Egypt an estimated population of seven millions, with twenty thousand cities. The civilization of that country four thousand years ago was as high as that of the Chinese of the present day; and their literary and scientific accomplishments, their proficiency in the industrial and fine arts, remain to-day the wonder of history. But one thing is very remarkable,–that while there seems to have been no great progress for two thousand years, there was not any marked decline, thus indicating virtuous habits of life among the great body of the people from generation to generation. They were preserved from degeneracy by their simple habits and peaceful pursuits. Though the armies of the King numbered four hundred thousand men, there were comparatively few wars, and these mostly of a defensive character.

Such was the Egypt which Joseph governed with signal ability for more than half a century, nearly four thousand years ago,–the mother of inventions, the pioneer in literature and science, the home of learned men, the teacher of nations, communicating a knowledge which was never lost, making the first great stride in the civilization of the world. No one knows whether this civilization was indigenous, or derived from unknown races, or the remains of a primitive revelation, since it cannot be traced beyond Egypt itself, whose early inhabitants were more Asiatic than African, and apparently allied with Phoenicians and Assyrians,

But the civilization of Egypt is too extensive a subject to be entered upon in this connection. I hope to treat it more at length in subsequent volumes. I can only say now that in some things the Egyptians were never surpassed. Their architecture, as seen in the pyramids and the ruins of temples, was marvellous; while their industrial arts would not be disdained even in the 19th century.

Over this fertile, favored, and civilized nation Joseph reigned,–with delegated power indeed, but with power that was absolute,–when his starving brothers came to Egypt to buy corn, for the famine extended probably over western Asia. He is to be viewed, not as a prophet, or preacher, or reformer, or even a warrior like Moses, but as a merely executive ruler. As the son-in-law of the high-priest of Hieropolis, and delegated governor of the land, in the highest favor with the King, and himself a priest, it is probable that Joseph was initiated into the esoteric wisdom of the priesthood. He was undoubtedly stern, resolute, and inflexible in his relations with men, as great executive chieftains necessarily must be, whatever their private sympathies and friendships. To all appearance he was a born Egyptian, as he spoke the language of Egypt, had adopted its habits, and was clothed with the insignia of Egyptian power.

So that when the sons of Jacob, who during the years of famine in Canaan had come down to Egypt to buy corn, were ushered into his presence, and bowed down to him, as had been predicted, he was harsh to them, although at once recognizing them. “Whence come ye?” he said roughly to them. They replied, “From the land of Canaan to buy corn,” “Nay,” continued he, “ye are spies.” “Not so, my lord, but to buy food are thy servants come. We are all one man’s sons; we are true men; thy servants are not spies.” “Nay,” he said, “to see the nakedness of the land are ye come,”–for famine also prevailed in Egypt, and its governor naturally would not wish its weakness to be known, for fear of a hostile invasion. They replied, “Thy servants are twelve brothers, the sons of one man in the land of Canaan; the youngest is this day with our father, and one is not.” But Joseph still persisted that they were spies, and put them in prison for three days; after which he demanded as the condition of their release that the younger brother should also appear before him. “If ye be true men,” said he, “let one of your brothers be bound in the house of your prison, while you carry corn for the famine of your house; but bring your youngest brother unto me, and ye shall not die.” There was apparently no alternative but to perish, or to bring Benjamin into Egypt; and the sons of Jacob were compelled to accept the condition.

Then their consciences were moved, and they saw a punishment for their crime in selling Joseph fifteen years before. Even Reuben accused them, and in the very presence of Joseph reminded them of their unnatural cruelty, not supposing that he understood them, since Joseph had spoken through an interpreter. This was too much for the stern governor; he turned aside and wept, but speedily returned and took from them Simeon and bound him before their eyes, and retained him for a surety. Then he caused their sacks to be filled with corn, putting also their money therein, and gave them in addition food for their return journey. But as one of them on that journey opened his sack to give his ass provender, he espied the money; and they were all filled with fear at this unlooked-for incident. They made haste to reach their home and report the strange intelligence to their father, including the demand for the appearance of Benjamin, which filled him with the most violent grief. “Joseph is not,” cried he, “and Simeon is not, and ye will take Benjamin away!” Reuben here expostulated with frantic eloquence. Jacob, however, persisted: “My son shall not go down with you; if mischief befall him, ye will bring down my gray hairs in sorrow to the grave.”

Meanwhile the famine pressed, as Joseph knew full well it would, and Jacob’s family had eaten all their corn, and it became necessary to get a new supply from Egypt. But Judah refused to go without Benjamin. “The man,” said he, “did solemnly protest unto us, saying, Ye shall not see my face, except your brother be with you.” Then Jacob upbraided Judah for revealing the number and condition of his family; but Judah excused himself on account of the searching cross-examination of the austere governor which no one could resist, and persisted in the absolute necessity of Benjamin’s appearance in Egypt, unless they all should yield to starvation. Moreover, he promised to be surety for his brother, that no harm should come to him. Jacob at last saw the necessity of allowing Benjamin to go, and reluctantly gave his consent; but in order to appease the terrible man of Egypt he ordered his sons to take with them a present of spices and balm and almonds, luxuries then in great demand, and a double amount of money in their sacks to repay what they had received. Then in pious resignation he said, “If I am bereaved of my children, I am bereaved,” and hurried away his sons.

In due time they all safely arrived in Egypt, and with Benjamin stood before Joseph, and made obeisance, and then excused themselves to Joseph’s steward, because of the money which had been returned in their sacks. The steward encouraged them, and brought Simeon to them, and led them into Joseph’s house, where a feast was prepared by his orders. With great difficulty Joseph restrained his feelings at the sight of Benjamin, who was his own full brother, but asked kindly about the father. At last his pent-up affections gave way, and he sought his chamber and wept there in secret. He then sat down to the banquet with his attendants at a separate table,–for the Egyptian would not eat with foreigners,–still unrevealed to his brethren, but showed his partiality to Benjamin by sending him a mess five times greater than to the rest. They marvelled greatly that they were seated at the table according to their seniority, and questioned among themselves how the austere governor could know the ages of strangers.

Not yet did Joseph declare himself. His brothers were not yet sufficiently humbled; a severe trial was still in store for them. As before, he ordered his steward to fill the sacks as full as they could carry, with every man’s money in them, for he would not take his father’s money; and further ordered that his silver drinking-cup should be put in Benjamin’s sack. The brothers had scarcely left the city when they were overtaken by the steward on a charge of theft, and upbraided for stealing the silver cup. Of course they felt their innocence and protested it; but it was of no avail, although they declared that if the cup should be found in any one of their sacks, he in whose sack it might be should die for the offence. The steward took them at their word, proceeded to search the sacks, and lo! what was their surprise and grief to see that the cup was found in Benjamin’s sack! They rent their clothes in utter despair, and returned to the city. Joseph received them austerely, and declared that Benjamin should be retained in Egypt as his servant, or slave. Then Judah, forgetting in whose presence he was, cast aside all fear, and made the most eloquent and plaintive speech recorded in the Bible, offering to remain in Benjamin’s place as a slave, for how could he face his father, who would surely die of grief at the loss of his favorite child.

Joseph could refrain his feelings no longer. He made every attendant leave his presence, and then declared himself to his brothers, whom God had sent to Egypt to be the means of saving their lives. The brothers, conscience stricken and ashamed, completely humbled and afraid, could not answer his questions. Then Joseph tenderly, in their own language, begged them to come near, and explained to them that it was not they who sent him to Egypt, but God, to work out a great deliverance to their posterity, and to be a father to Pharaoh himself, inasmuch as the famine was to continue five years longer. “Haste ye, and go up to my father, and say unto him that God hath made me lord of all Egypt: come down unto me, and thou shalt dwell in the land of Goshen near unto me, thou and thy children, and thy children’s children, and thy flocks and thy herds, and all that thou hast, and there will I nourish thee. And ye shall tell my father of all my glory in Egypt, and of all that ye have seen; and ye shall haste, and bring down my father hither.” And he fell on Benjamin’s neck and wept, and kissed all his brothers. They then talked with him without further reserve.

The news that Joseph’s brethren had come to Egypt pleased Pharaoh, so grateful was the King for the preservation of his kingdom. He could not do enough for such a benefactor. “Say to thy brethren, lade your beasts and go, and take your father and your households, and come unto me; and I will give you the good of the land of Egypt, and ye shall eat the fat of the land.” And the King commanded them to take his wagons to transport their families and goods. Joseph also gave to each one of them changes of raiment, and to Benjamin three hundred pieces of silver and five changes of raiment, and ten asses laden with the good things of Egypt for their father, and ten she-asses laden with corn. As they departed, he archly said unto them, “See that ye fall not out by the way!”

And when they arrived at Canaan, and told their father all that had happened and all that they had seen, he fainted. The news was too good to be true; he would not believe them. But when he saw the wagons his spirit revived, and he said, “It is enough. Joseph my son is yet alive. I will go and see him before I die.” The old man is again young in spirit. He is for going immediately; he could leap,–yea, fly.

To Egypt, then, Israel with his sons and his cattle and all his wealth hastened. His sons are astonished at the providence of God, so clearly and impressively demonstrated on their behalf. The reconciliation of the family is complete. All envy is buried in the unbounded prosperity of Joseph. He is now too great for envy. He is to be venerated as the instrument of God in saving his father’s house and the land of Egypt. They all now bow down to him, father and sons alike, and the only strife now is who shall render him the most honor. He is the pride and glory of his family, as he is of the land of Egypt, and of the household of Pharaoh.

In the hospitality of the King, and his absence of jealousy of the nomadic people whom he settled in the most fertile of his provinces, we see additional confirmation of the fact that he was one of the Shepherd Kings. The Pharaoh of Joseph’s time seems to have affiliated with the Israelites as natural friends,–to assist him in case of war. All the souls that came into Egypt with Jacob were seventy in number, although some historians think there was a much larger number. Rawlinson estimates it at two thousand, and Dean Payne Smith at three thousand.

Jacob was one hundred and thirty years of age when he came to dwell in the land of Goshen, and he lived seventeen years in Egypt. When he died, Joseph was about fifty years old, and was still in power.

It was the dying wish of the old patriarch to be buried with his fathers, and he made Joseph promise to carry his bones to the land of Canaan and bury them in the sepulchre which Abraham had bought,–even the cave of Machpelah.

Before Jacob died, Joseph brought his two sons to him to receive his blessing,–Manasseh and Ephraim, born in Egypt, whose grandfather was the high-priest of On, the city of the sun. As Manasseh was the oldest, he placed him at the right hand of Jacob, but the old man wittingly and designedly laid his right hand on Ephraim, which displeased Joseph. But Jacob, without giving his reason, persisted. While he prophesied that Manasseh should be great, Ephraim he said should be greater,–verified in the fact that the tribe of Ephraim was the largest of all the tribes, and the most powerful until the captivity. It was nearly as large as all the rest together, although in the time of Moses the tribe of Manasseh had become more numerous. We cannot penetrate the reason why Ephraim the younger son was preferred to the older, any more than why Jacob was preferred to Esau. After Jacob had blessed the sons of Joseph, he called his other sons around his dying bed to predict the future of their descendants. Reuben the oldest was told that he would not excel, because he had loved his father’s concubine and committed a grievous sin. Simeon and Levi were the most active in seeking to compass the death of Joseph, and a curse was sent upon them. Judah was exalted above them all, for he had sought to save Joseph, and was eloquent in pleading for Benjamin,–the most magnanimous of the sons. So from him it was predicted that the sceptre should not depart from his house until Shiloh should come,–the Messiah, to whose appearance all the patriarchs looked. And all that Jacob predicted about his sons to their remote descendants came to pass; but the highest blessing was accorded to Joseph, as was realized in the future ascendency of Ephraim.

When Jacob had made an end of his blessings and predictions he gathered up his feet into his bed and gave up the ghost, and Joseph caused him to be embalmed, as was the custom in Egypt. When the days of public mourning were over (seventy days), Joseph obtained leave from Pharaoh to absent himself from the kingdom and his government, to bury his father according to his wish. And he departed in great pomp, with chariots and horses, together with his brothers and a great number, and deposited the remains of Jacob in the cave of the field of Machpelah, where Abraham himself was buried, and then returned to his duties in Egypt.

It is not mentioned in the Scriptures how long Joseph retained his power as prime minister of Pharaoh, but probably until a new dynasty succeeded the throne,–the eighteenth as it is supposed, for we are told that a new king arose who knew not Joseph. He lived to be one hundred and ten years of age, and when he died his body was embalmed and placed in a sarcophagus, and ultimately was carried to Canaan and buried with his fathers, according to the oath or promise he exacted of his brothers. His last recorded words were a prediction that God would bring the children of Israel out of Egypt to the land which he sware unto Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. On his deathbed he becomes, like his father, a prophet. He had foretold his own future elevation when only a youth of seventeen, though only in the form of a dream, the full purport of which he did not comprehend; as an old man, about to die, he predicts the greatest blessing which could happen to his kindred,–their restoration to the land promised unto Abraham.

Joseph is one of the most interesting characters of the Bible, one of the most fortunate, and one of the most faultless. He resisted the most powerful temptations, and there is no recorded act which sullies his memory. Although most of his life was spent among idolaters, and he married a pagan woman, he retained his allegiance to the God of his fathers. He ever felt that he was a stranger in a strange land, although its supreme governor, and looked to Canaan as the future and beloved home of his family and race. He regarded his residence in Egypt only as a means of preserving the lives of his kindred, and himself as an instrument to benefit both his family and the country which he ruled. His life was one of extraordinary usefulness. He had great executive talents, which he exercised for the good of others. Though stern and even hard in his official duties, he had unquenchable natural affections. His heart went out to his old father, his brother Benjamin, and to all his kindred with inexpressible tenderness. He was as free from guile as he was from false pride. In giving instructions to his brothers how they should appear before the King, and what they should say when questioned as to their occupations, he advised the utmost frankness,–to say that they were shepherds, although the occupation of a shepherd was an abomination to an Egyptian. He had exceeding tact in confronting the prejudices of the King and the priesthood. He took no pains to conceal his birth and lineage in the most aristocratic country of the world. Considering that he was only second in power and dignity to an absolute monarch, his life was unostentatious and his habits simple.

If we seek a parallel to him among modern statesmen, he most resembles Colbert as the minister of Louis XIV.; or Prince Metternich, who in great simplicity ruled Continental Europe for a quarter of a century.

Nothing is said of his palaces, or pleasures, or wealth. He had not the austere and unbending pride of Mordecai, whose career as an instrument of Providence for the welfare of his countrymen was as remarkable as Joseph’s. He was more like Daniel in his private life than any of those Jews who have arisen to great power in foreign lands, though he had not Daniel’s exalted piety or prophetic gifts. He was faithful to the interests of his sovereign, and greatly increased the royal authority. He got possession of the whole property of the nation for the benefit of his master, but exacted only a fifth part of the produce of the land for the support of the government. He was a priest of a grossly polytheistic religion, but acknowledged only the One Supreme God, whose instrument he felt himself to be. His services to the state were transcendent, but his supremest mission was to preserve the Hebrew nation.

Erection of Public Building in the Time of Rameses After the painting by Sir Edward J. Poynter

The condition of the Israelites in Egypt after the death of Joseph, and during the period of their sojourn, it is difficult to determine. There is a doubt among the critics as to the length of this sojourn,–the Bible in several places asserting that it lasted four hundred and thirty years, which, if true, would bring the Exodus to the end of the nineteenth dynasty. Some suppose that the residence in Egypt was only two hundred and fifteen years. The territory assigned to the Israelites was a small one, and hence must have been densely populated, if, as it is reckoned, two millions of people left the country under the leadership of Moses and Aaron. It is supposed that the reigning sovereign at that time was Menephtah, successor of Rameses II. It is, then, the great Rameses, who was the king from whom Moses fled,–the most distinguished of all the Egyptian monarchs as warrior and builder of monuments. He was the second king of the eighteenth dynasty, and reigned in conjunction with his father Seti for sixty years. Among his principal works was the completion of the city of Rameses (Raamses, or Tanis, or Zoan), one of the principal cities of Egypt, begun by his father and made a royal residence. He also, it appears from the monuments, built Pithon and other important towns, by the forced labor of the Israelites. Rameses and Pithon were called treasure-cities, the site of the latter having been lately discovered, to the east of Tanis. They were located in the midst of a fertile country, now dreary and desolate, which was the object of great panegyric. An Egyptian poet, quoted by Dr. Charles S. Robinson, paints the vicinity of Zoan, where Pharaoh resided at the time of the Exodus, as full of loveliness and fertility. “Her fields are verdant with excellent herbage; her bowers bloom with garlands; her pools are prolific in fish; and in the ponds are ducks. Each garden is perfumed with the smell of honey; the granaries are full of wheat and barley; vegetables and reeds and herbs are growing in the parks; flowers and nosegays are in the houses; lemons, citrons, and figs are in the orchards.” Such was the field of Zoan in ancient times, near Rameses, which the Israelites had built without straw to make their bricks, and from which place they set out for the general rendezvous at Succoth, under Moses. It will be noted that if Rameses, or Tanis, was the residence of the court when Moses made his demands on Menephtah, it was in the midst of the settlements of the Israelites, in the land of Goshen, which the last of the Shepherd Kings had assigned to them.

It is impossible to tell what advance in civilization was made by the Israelites in consequence of their sojourn in Egypt; but they must have learned many useful arts, and many principles of jurisprudence, and acquired a better knowledge of agriculture. They learned to be patient under oppression and wrong, to be frugal and industrious in their habits, and obedient to the voice of their leaders. But unfortunately they acquired a love of idolatrous worship, which they did not lose until their captivity in Babylon. The golden calves of the wilderness were another form of the worship of the sacred bulls of Memphis. They were easily led to worship the sun under the Egyptian and Canaanitish names. Had the children of Israel remained in the promised land, in the early part of their history, they would probably have perished by famine, or have been absorbed by their powerful Canaanitish neighbors. In Egypt they were well fed, rapidly increased in number, and became a nation to be feared even while in bondage. In the land of Canaan they would have been only a pastoral or nomadic people, unable to defend themselves in war, and unacquainted with the use of military weapons. They might have been exterminated, without constant miracles and perpetual supernatural aid,–which is not the order of Providence.

In Egypt, it is true, the Israelites lost their political independence; but even under slavery there is much to be learned from civilized masters. How rapid and marvellous the progress of the African races in the Southern States in their two hundred years of bondage! When before in the history of the world has there been such a progress among mere barbarians, with fetichism for their native religion? Races have advanced in every element of civilization, and in those virtues which give permanent strength to character, under all the benumbing and degrading influences of slavery, while nations with wealth, freedom, and prosperity have declined and perished. The slavery of the Israelites in Egypt may have been a blessing in disguise, from which they emerged when they were able to take care of themselves. Moses led them out of bondage; but Moses also incorporated in his institutions the “wisdom of the Egyptians.” He was indeed inspired to declare certain fundamental truths, but he also taught the lessons of experience which a great nation had acquired by two thousand years of prosperity. Who can tell, who can measure, the civilization which the Israelites must have carried out of Egypt, with the wealth of which they despoiled their masters? Where else at that period could they have found such teachers? The Persians at that time were shepherds like themselves in Canaan, the Assyrians were hunters, and the Greeks had no historical existence. Only the discipline of forty years in the wilderness, under Moses, was necessary to make them a nation of conquerors, for they had already learned the arts of agriculture, and knew how to protect themselves in walled cities. A nomadic people were they no longer, as in the time of Jacob, but small farmers, who had learned to irrigate their barren hills and till their fertile valleys; and they became a powerful though peaceful nation, unconquered by invaders for a thousand years, and unconquerable for all time in their traditions, habits, and mental characteristics. From one man–the patriarch Jacob–did this great nation rise, and did not lose its national unity and independence until from the tribe of Judah a deliverer arose who redeemed the human race. Surely, how favored was Joseph, in being the instrument under Providence of preserving this nation in its infancy, and placing its people in a rich and fertile country where they could grow and multiply, and learn principles of civilization which would make them a permanent power in the progress of humanity!

Moses : Jewish Jurisprudence

Beacon Lights of History, Volume II : Jewish Heroes and Prophets