Joseph was bought from the merchants by an officer who had command over the soldiers of Pharaoh, the ruler of Egypt; and after a time of trial he prospered so well that he became one of the chief officers of the king, having among other tasks the care of the royal granaries or storehouses of corn.
Now Joseph, who was very wise and thoughtful, caused great storehouses of brick to be set up in all the cities, and he told the people to place in these granaries one-tenth of the yield of each year’s harvest. This he did to guard against any time of famine which might fall upon the land.
For seven years of plenty this was done, and after that there came upon the land and upon all the lands round about seven years of famine; and only in the land of Egypt was there corn for the people. And when the people cried to Pharaoh for bread he said, “Go unto Joseph; what he saith to you, do.” Then Joseph opened all the storehouses, and sold corn to the Egyptians. And from all the countries round about people came into Egypt to buy corn.
Far away in the Vale of Hebron the famine was sore, and the sons of Jacob did not know what to do. Then when things were at their worst news came to Jacob that there was corn in Egypt. So he sent his ten sons away with their empty sacks and their asses to buy corn for their families. They wished to take their young brother Benjamin with them, but their father would not allow them. He had lost Joseph, he said, and he would not risk Benjamin with them.
Having crossed many a weary mile of yellow sand and barren rock, they were stopped by a high wall set with forts and gates guarded by soldiers; and they had to say what they wanted before they were allowed to pass into Egypt.
For days they walked by the side of the great river Nile, along the road to Memphis, where the king’s stores were, and at length they saw the city upon an island in the river. Stepping into broad ferry-boats with their animals, they were taken over, and went up the long road, lined on each side with the figures of winged lions in stone, towards the wide market-place of the great city. There they made known what they wanted, saying that they had come from Hebron to buy corn; and their names and business were written down on a tablet, which was taken to the keeper of the granaries.
Word soon came that they must go before the keeper; and they were warned to be careful what they said, for he was one of the king’s chief officers. Taking off their sandals and cloaks at the steps, the ten Hebrew shepherds went between the pillars at the door and stood waiting.
Within sat a young Egyptian, dressed in a robe of white linen, and wearing a great black wig of horsehair with many small plaits. His scribes sat at tables below him, writing down any orders he might wish to give.
An Egyptian soldier told the sons of Jacob to go forward. Then the ten men went in and knelt down humbly before the young Egyptian; nor did they rise until he gave them leave. He looked at them and frowned, and they were afraid.
“Where do you come from?” the officer asked sharply.
“From the land of Canaan, to buy corn,” was the humble answer.
“You are spies!” he cried in a passion. “You have come to spy out the weakness of the land. What is your calling? Who are your friends?”
The ten Hebrews could scarcely speak for terror. They had heard terrible stories of how these fierce Egyptians never allowed spies to get out of their country alive.
“No, my lord; thy servants have come to buy food,” said one. “We are all one man’s sons,” cried another. “We are honest men; thy servants are no spies,” pleaded a third.
But the great Egyptian only listened with a frown to their whining voices. “No,” he replied firmly; “you have come to spy out the weakness of Egypt. Is your father alive? Have you another brother?”
Why was this man so angry with them? they wondered.
“We belong to one family of twelve brothers,” Judah replied. “We have a father, an old man, and another brother, the child of his old age, and he alone is left of his mother’s children, and his father loves him much. We are the sons of one man in Canaan, and truly the youngest is now with our father, and one other is dead.”
Was he still angry? They lifted their dark eyes to the stern face of the young Egyptian.
“I see you are spies,” was the harsh reply, but his voice was softer. “In this way I will prove you. By the king’s life, you shall not go back unless your younger brother is brought here to me. Send one among you to bring him, and the rest of you shall be kept in prison until he returns. So shall I prove whether what you say is true. If you will not do this, then by the king’s life you are spies indeed!” He waved them away with his hand, and the Egyptian soldiers pushed them out at the door, telling them that they must come away at once to prison.
As they sat on the earthen floor of the prison looking at each other in silence, they felt amazed and full of sorrow, thinking that they would never see their tents and their little ones again. For they did not know that the king’s officer was their own brother Joseph, and that instead of being angry, he was really filled with joy at seeing them after twenty years of separation. As for his angry words, he was only trying them, and meant nothing but kindness, as we shall see.
Joseph’s brothers were to be kept in prison until they settled who should ride back in haste to Hebron to bring Benjamin down into Egypt; but Joseph’s heart was tender, and after a while he began to think that perhaps he had been too harsh with them.
One man, he told himself, could not carry enough corn to feed all the starving families in Hebron, and it might be dangerous for him to ride back alone. His old father, too, would be anxious. So he sent word to the prison that the brothers might all go home but Simeon, who must stay in prison until the rest came back with their young brother.
He also gave orders that they were to have their corn-sacks filled, and that each man’s money was to be secretly tied up again in the mouth of his sack.
All the brothers were glad but Simeon, who begged them to come back as quickly as they could; and riding on their high camels, with their well-laden asses tied to each other in a long line, they left the Egyptian city, thankful to get away, and went back to their old father in Hebron.
Jacob was glad to see them again, but he would not believe their story about Simeon being left behind; and he refused to let them have Benjamin, for he said that Joseph was once taken and never came back, and that the same fate would befall the other son of his old age.
When they said that the Egyptian ruler had ordered them to bring their young brother down, their old father only asked, with flashing eyes, why they told the Egyptian that they had another brother. They replied quite truly that he asked them the question. Jacob did not believe them, and this made him all the more determined not to trust Benjamin with them.
But the corn which they had brought was soon finished, and the old man urged his sons to go back to Egypt for more. They refused to do so unless they could take Benjamin with them; and after holding out for a long time, at last their father yielded. He bade them make up a little present of honey and dates and simple country things for the terrible Egyptian, hoping that the great man would not be unkind to his youngest son. Then with hands upraised he asked God’s blessing upon his sons, and with a sorrowful heart saw them ride away.
Mounted on strong camels, and followed by a string of asses with the empty corn-sacks on their backs, the ten brothers left the Vale of Hebron, and rode slowly across the hot desert to one of the gates of the great Egyptian wall. Again they came to the island, and were ferried over to the city as before. The camels knelt in the wide marketplace, where Joseph had been sold as a slave twenty years before, to wait while one of the brothers went to tell the doorkeeper of Joseph’s house that the ten shepherds of Canaan had returned with their youngest brother. After waiting for a time they were told that the king’s officer would see them.
Joseph was glad when he heard that his brothers had come back again, and that they had brought his youngest brother with them. Pulling his black wig down over his brow to hide his pleasure, he ordered them to be brought in; and when they came and knelt before him, it was not on Judah or Reuben, but on the young man Benjamin, that he fixed his searching eyes.
His brother had grown so much that he hardly knew him for the little boy who used to run about the camp holding his hand as he took him to see the little lambs and the small black kids at play.
“Take these men to my house, for I shall dine with them to-day,” was all Joseph said. The brothers were amazed when the meaning of the Egyptian words was made known to them. And when the gates of the courtyard closed behind them, they thought they were prisoners again, and sat down on the stone pavement to sigh and mourn.
But at noon there came a loud knocking at the gate, and the red and green chariot of the great Egyptian drove in, and soon they were summoned to stand before him. With their simple presents in their hands, they went through the garden and into his beautiful house, and kneeling, laid the gifts at his feet.
“Is your father well?” the great man asked in a kindly voice. “The old man of whom you spoke-is he still alive?”
“Thy servant our father is alive and in good health,” they answered humbly.
“Is this your younger brother, of whom you spoke?” he asked again, speaking as if he did not know one from another. Benjamin answered with a low bow; and Joseph said, “May God be gracious to thee, my son!” Then Benjamin looked up at him, and Joseph felt the tears coming into his eyes; and rising from his chair, to the surprise of the men, he left the hall. They did not know why he had done so. But if they had seen him in his own room weeping like a child for very joy, they would have been more astonished still.
The meal was served, and the ten brothers were surprised when the Egyptian ruler set them at a table all in the order of their ages; but even yet they did not know who he was. Joseph sat at a table by himself, with a beautiful silver wine-cup before him, and he sent plates of choice food to each of his brothers; but he sent to Benjamin five times as much as to any of the rest.
Next morning they were sent home with their asses laden with well-filled corn-sacks. They were very glad to get away so quickly, and they wondered as they went why the great Egyptian had been so kind to them. But even yet the thought that he might be none other than Joseph had not entered their minds.
Now Joseph had told his overseer that as he filled the brothers’ corn-sacks he was to put their money into them again, and also to take his own beautiful silver cup and put it into the mouth of Benjamin’s sack. This was done for a purpose, as we shall see.
Next day, when the brothers had set out on their journey, the overseer was sent for by his young master, who ordered him to put horses into his chariot, to ride after the ten Hebrews, and to ask them why they had stolen his master’s silver cup.
Cracking his whip as he went, the Egyptian drove along the road, and soon overtook the returning travellers. Checking his horses, he stepped out of his red chariot and sternly asked why they had returned evil for good by stealing his master’s precious silver cup; and he smiled when he saw the fear in the faces of the dusky Hebrews, and laughed when they all said that they knew nothing of the cup.
He did not believe them, he said, and would search for the cup himself; and he laughed again when they said he could search at once, and if he found it with any one of them, he could put that man to death and make all the rest of them the slaves of his master.
Of course the silver cup was found in Benjamin’s sack; and pointing his finger at him, the Egyptian said that he would take him back to be his master’s slave, but as for the rest of the men, they could go on their journey to their homes.
The brothers wrung their hands at these words, and their hearts sank within them. Judah had promised his father that he would bring Benjamin back again safe and sound, and now the lad was to become the slave of this terrible young ruler! After all, the man’s kindness of the day before was only intended to make them feel the pain all the more when he seized their young brother to be his slave. They could not return to their old father without him. They would go back to the Egyptian city, they said, and all go to prison together rather than part with Benjamin.
In those days, when Hebrews were overcome with grief they tore their clothes, that all might see how sorrowful they were; and Judah was the first to seize his tunic and tear it down the front from neck to hem, and the others did the same. In a mournful procession they followed the Egyptian’s chariot back to the city; and the people gazed at them as they passed, and laughed.
When they reached Joseph’s house and entered the courtyard, they sent in a very humble message, begging that he would see them. And when they came into his presence they knelt before him with bowed heads, till their brows touched the coloured pavement.
“What is this that you have done?” he asked. “Do you not know that such a man as I can find out secret things?”
Joseph wished to frighten them, but in his heart he was glad that his brothers had not gone away, leaving Benjamin behind in slavery. They were kinder now than on that day so long ago when they sold him to the dark merchantmen in the far-off Vale of Dothan.
In a pleading voice Judah told the terrible Egyptian that all of them were now his slaves. But Joseph replied that he only wanted the man who stole his silver cup; the rest could return to their father.
Then Judah had more to say. Holding up his hands for mercy, he told the story of how they had begged their old father to let Benjamin come; adding that if they returned without him, the old man would die of grief. And to Joseph’s surprise, he begged that he would let him stay behind and be his slave for ever in place of his young brother, and let Benjamin go home to his father.
At times while Judah was speaking Joseph looked at Benjamin, and sometimes he turned away his head lest they should see the tears in his eyes. And when his older brother offered to be his slave for ever, the young Egyptian suddenly ordered every one to leave the room but the Hebrews; and he remained silent, with his head turned away, while his Egyptian friends and servants went slowly out.
As soon as they were all gone he sprang to his feet, and held out his hands to his brothers, calling to them in Hebrew,-
“I am Joseph! Is my father indeed alive?”
The men gazed at him in amazement. What would this terrible Egyptian do next? Who was this who knew about their brother whom they had sold into slavery? They were dumb with wonder.
“Come nearer to me, I beg of you,” he pleaded. It was the voice of Joseph that rang in their ears. They came nearer, and gazed up at the great man. These cheeks were too ruddy for an Egyptian, and these brown eyes-were they not the eyes of Joseph!
“I am Joseph, your brother, whom you sold into Egypt!” he cried. They could no longer doubt that he spoke the truth to them; and as they came forward he clasped them in his arms one by one, weeping for very joy. Then seeing in their eyes the deep sorrow for their past unkindness, he added,-
“Be not grieved nor angry that you sold me into Egypt, for it was God who sent me hither to save many lives in the years of famine. I am lord of the king’s palace and ruler of all Egypt.”
Then he took his wondering brothers home with him to stay in his fine house, where his Egyptian wife and their little children lived; and after a time he sent them away, laden with presents, and with wagons to bring down their children and their old father Jacob into Egypt. For they were all to come down, he said, and live in the golden and fruitful land of Goshen, and he would watch over them there.