"Behind our life the Weaver stands
And works his wondrous will;
We leave it all in his wise hands,
And trust his perfect skill.
Should mystery enshroud his plan,
And our short sight be dim,
We will not try the whole to scan,
But leave each thread to Him."
It was said by Coleridge that our greatest mission is to rescue admitted truths from the neglect caused by their universal admission. There is much force in this. When a truth is fighting for existence, it compels men, whether they love it or not, to consider it. But when its position is secured, it becomes like a well-used coin, or the familiar text which hangs unnoticed on the wall. It is a great mission to rescue such truths from neglect; to flash upon them the strong light which arrests attention; to play the part of Old Mortality, who, chisel in hand, was wont to clear the mould of neglect from the gravestones of the Covenanters, so that the legend might stand out clear-cut. It is something like this that I attempt for this exquisite story. We think we know all about it; and yet there may be depths of meaning and beauty which, by their very familiarity, escape us. Let us ponder together the story of Joseph; and as we do so, we shall get many a foreshadowing of Him who was cast into the pit of death, but who now sits at the right hand of Power, a Prince and a Saviour.
Seventeen years before our story opens, a little child was borne by Rachel, the favourite wife of Jacob. The latter was then living as manager for his uncle Laban, on the ancient pasture-land of Charran, situated in the valley of the Euphrates and the Tigris, from which his grandfather Abraham had been called by God. The child received an eager welcome from its parents, and from the first gave unusual promise. He was like one of those children, whom we sometimes meet in large families, who bear a marked contrast to the rest; and who grow up like some fair Saxon child amid the swarthy natives of a tent of gipsies who have made it their prize.
But what a history has passed in that interval! When yet a child he was hastily caught up by his mother, and sustained in her arms on the back of a swift camel, urged to its highest speed, in the flight across the desert that lay, with only one oasis, between the bank of the Euphrates and the green prairies of Gilead. He could just remember the panic that spread through the camp when tidings came that Esau, the dread uncle, was on his march, with four hundred followers. Nor could he ever forget the evening full of preparation, the night of solemn expectancy, and the morning when his father limped into the camp, maimed in body, but with the look of a prince upon his face.
More recently still, he could recal the hurried flight from the enraged idolaters of Shechem; and those solemn hours at Bethel where his father had probably showed him the very spot on which the foot of the mystic ladder had rested, and where the whole family formally entered into a new covenant with God. It may be that this was the turning point of his life. Such events make deep impressions on young hearts. As they stood together on that hallowed spot, and heard again the oft-told story, and clasped each other's hands in solemn covenant, the other sons of Jacob may have been unmoved spectators; but there was a deep response in the susceptible heart of the lad, who may have felt, "This God shall be my God for ever and ever; He shall be my Guide, even unto death."
If this were so, these impressions were soon deepened by three deaths. When they reached the family settlement, they found the old nurse Deborah dying. She was the last link to those bright days when her young mistress Rebekah came across the desert to be Isaac's bride; and they buried her with many tears under an ancient but splendid oak. And he could never forget the next. The long caravan was moving slowly up to the narrow ridge along which lay the ancient village of Bethlehem: suddenly a halt was called; the beloved Rachel could go not another step; there as the sun was westering, amid scenes where in after-years Ruth met Boaz, and David watched his sheep, and the good Joseph walked beside the patient ass with its precious burden—there Rachel, Joseph's mother, died. This was the greatest loss that he had ever known. A little while after, the lad stood with his father and brethren before Machpelah's venerable grave, to lay Isaac where Abraham and Sarah and Rebekah awaited him, each on a narrow shelf; and where, after a space of seven-and-twenty years, he was to place the remains of his father Jacob.
These things made Joseph what he was. And the little sympathy that he received from his family only drove him more apart, and compelled him to live "by the well" (Gen. 49:22), and to strike his roots deeper into the life of God.
It may be that these words will be read by youths of seventeen who have passed through experiences not unlike Joseph's. They have lost sainted friends. They have been emptied from vessel to vessel. They feel lonely in the midst of their home. Let me solemnly ask them if they have entered into covenant with God. Have you avouched God to be your God? Have you put your hand into the hand of "the mighty God of Jacob"? It is an urgent question, for the answer to it may mark the crisis of your lives. Choose Christ; and, in choosing Him, choose life, and blessedness, and heaven. And when you have chosen Him, cleave close to Him, and send the rootlets of your existence deep down into the hidden wells of communion and fellowship.
Joseph was endowed with very remarkable intelligence. It would almost seem as if he were chief shepherd (ver. 2), the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah acting as his subordinates and assistants. The Rabbis describe him as a wise son, endowed with knowledge beyond his years. It was this, combined with the sweetness of his disposition, and the memory of his mother, that won for him his father's peculiar love. "Israel loved Joseph more than all his children."
And this love provided the coat of many colours. We have been accustomed to think of this coat as a kind of patchwork quilt, and we have wondered that grown men should have been moved to so much passion at the sight of the peacock plumes of their younger brother. But further knowledge will correct these thoughts. The Hebrew word means simply a tunic reaching to the extremities, and describes a garment commonly worn in Egypt and the adjacent lands. Imagine a long white linen robe extending to the ankles and wrists, and embroidered with a narrow stripe of colour round the edge of the skirt and sleeves, and you will have a very fair conception of this famous coat.
Now we can understand the envy of his brothers. This sort of robe was worn only by the opulent and noble, by kings' sons, and by those who had no need to toil for their living. All who had to win their bread by labour wore short, coloured garments that did not show stain, or cramp the free movement of the limbs. Such was the lot of Jacob's sons, and such the garments they wore. They had to wade through morasses, to clamber up hills, to carry wandering sheep home on their shoulders, to fight with robbers and beasts of prey; and for such toils the flowing robe would have been quite unfit. But when Jacob gave such a robe to Joseph, he declared in effect that from such hardships and toils his favourite son should be exempt Now in those times the father's will was law. When, therefore, they saw Joseph tricked out in his robe of state, the brethren felt that in all likelihood he would have the rich inheritance, whilst they must follow a life of toil. "And when his brethren saw that their father loved him more than all his brethren, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably unto him."
The case was aggravated by his plain speaking. "He brought unto his father their evil report." At first sight this does not seem a noble trait in his character. Love covereth the multitude of sins, as the two elder sons of Noah covered their father's shame. At the same time there may have been circumstances that justified, and even demanded, the exposure. It is sometimes the truest kindness, after due and repeated warning, to expose the evil deeds of those with whom we live and work. If they are permitted to go on in sin, apparently undetected, they will become hardened and emboldened, and eager to go to greater lengths. Moreover, Joseph was probably placed over them, and was responsible to his father for their behaviour. He was jealous for the family name, which they had already "made to stink among the inhabitants of the land." He was eager for the glory of God, whose name was continually blasphemed through their means. And, therefore, without attempting to conceal the evil, he told their father just how matters stood.
But this was enough to make them hate him. "Every one that doeth evil hateth the light." "I hate him," said the infuriated Ahab when speaking of Micaiah, "because he doth not prophesy good of me, but evil." "The world cannot hate you," our Lord said sadly; "but Me it hateth, because I testify of it, that its works are evil." So will it be always: if the world loves us and speaks well of us, we may gravely question if we are salt, pure and stinging, amid its corruption, or lights in its midnight gloom. As soon as our lives become a strong contrast and reproof, we shall arouse its undying hate. "What evil have I done," said the ancient Cynic, "to make all men speak well of me?"
But still further, Joseph dreamed that he should become the centre of the family life. All young people dream. Unless our lot has been peculiarly hard and untoward, we all, in the sunny days of youth, don Joseph's tunic, and dream—how great and successful we shall be!—how noble and heroic!—how much good we are to get and give! The heavens shall rain soft showers of benediction! The earth shall yield flowers for our feet and fruits to our taste! We shall surpass all who have preceded us; sitting on the throne of supremacy, whilst our detractors and foes do us obeisance! Alas, our raiment soon drips with blood, and we find ourselves down in the pit, or sold into captivity. But there was this in Joseph's dreams, they foretold not only his exaltation, but his brothers' humiliation. If he were the central sheaf, their sheaves must do obeisance, by falling to the earth around it. If he were on the throne, sun, moon, and stars must do him homage. This was more than the proud spirits of his brethren could brook, and "they hated him yet the more."
But the root of their enmity lay even deeper. In Eden, when addressing the serpent, God said: "I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed." That is one of the profoundest sayings in the Bible. It is the key to Scripture. All that comes after only proves the virulence and the universality of the conflict between the children of God and the children of the devil. It broke out between Cain and Abel. It has embittered every family. It has rent every home. It shall yet convulse the universe. This was the secret of the conflict that raged around Joseph. I grant that the home was ill-organized; that all the evils incident to polygamy were there; that Jacob was incompetent to rule. But still I see there an instance of that conflict of which Christ spake: "I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother;... and a man's foes shall be they of his own household."
Do you know by sad experience what Joseph felt beneath those Syrian skies? Do the archers shoot at you? Are you lonesome and depressed, and ready to give up? Take heart!—see the trampled grass and the snapped twigs; others have gone this way before you. Christ your Lord suffered the same treatment from His own. Go on doing right, in nothing terrified by your adversaries. Be pitiful and gentle, forgiving and forbearing. Be specially careful not to take your case into your own hands; demanding redress in imperious and vindictive tones. If you are servants, forbear to answer back. Give your backs to the smiters, and your cheeks to them that pluck off the hair. Avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath. Put down your feet into the footprints of your Saviour, who left an example that we should follow Him, He did no sin, neither was guile found in His mouth: and yet, when He was unjustly reviled, He reviled not again; when He suffered beneath undeserved contumely and reproach, He did not even remind the perpetrators of the righteous judgment of God, but was dumb as a lamb, and threatened not, and committed Himself to Him that judgeth righteously And what was the result? Joseph was carried through the hatred and opposition of his foes; and his dreams were literally fulfilled in the golden days of prosperity, which came at length. Just as Jesus was eventually seated at the right hand of God, as Prince and Saviour. And your time, sufferer, shall come at length, when God shall vindicate your character, and avenge your sorrows. "Trust in the Lord, and do good; fret not thyself in any wise to do evil; for evil-doers shall be cut off: but those that wait upon the Lord, they shall inherit the earth. He shall bring forth thy righteousness as the light, and thy judgment as the noonday" (Psa. 34.).