This retelling comes from Genesis 37, 39-45, and it appears in Blood Covenant Origins: Biblical Retellings.
Joseph is one of my favorite biblical characters; he’s such a great example of faith. It took thirteen years for his reversal of fortune to finally occur, and another nine years after that for the complete fulfillment of God’s promise to him. Yet if he ever wavered in his faith that God would fulfill what He showed him in his two dreams, we have no record of it. This is even more incredible when you consider that Joseph had no written scriptures to cling to like we do. He wouldn’t have even had an oral tradition of previous faith heroes similar to himself. While Abraham his grandfather had to wait 25 years for the promised child, the circumstances had little in common with Joseph’s own circumstances. He couldn’t read about the 13-17 years between King David’s anointing and when he finally became king, for instance. Moses had not yet written Deuteronomy, telling him all the blessings he could expect if he remained faithful to the Lord. All Joseph had to go on were two cryptic dreams… but it was enough. It’s fitting that the first dream showed his brothers’ sheaves of grain bowing down to his, considering it was the famine and grain distribution that propelled him to second in command of Egypt in the end.
The one charge leveled against Joseph by some is that he started out arrogant: after all, what was he thinking, telling his brothers (whom he knew already envied him, due to his father’s blatant favoritism) that God had told him he would rule over them? Maybe this was arrogance, or at best, a decided lack of wisdom. He was only seventeen at the time, after all. Also, with the exception of the death of his mother when Benjamin was born, Joseph had presumably lived a charmed life: the coat of many colors that Jacob had given him was the attire of a great landowner, even though Joseph was the second youngest of twelve brothers. (Pretty foolish of Jacob, too.) It’s no wonder this galled them. Even so, their response to him shows how evil his brothers were, at that point. Had they not sold Joseph into slavery, they very well might have killed him—that was what they meant to do at first, after all.
Despite this, despite slavery and then imprisonment, God said Joseph was prosperous and successful (Genesis 39:2-3, 23). Even though Joseph himself was not paid for any of his work, the blessing of the Lord was upon him, and therefore his master got blessed because of him. This is an interesting concept, that the overflow of God’s blessing upon us (Deuteronomy 28:2) can affect those around us who just happen to be in the way—including our bosses in this case, or our families as well (1 Corinthians 7:14).
Joseph also happened to be very handsome (Genesis 39:6)—ordinarily a blessing, but under the circumstances it was a curse, as he drew the eye of Potiphar’s wife. If she was this aggressive, probably this wasn’t the first time she had cheated on Potiphar. I suspect that the other servants, and maybe even Potiphar himself could compare what they knew of her and what they knew of Joseph and deduce the truth. But if Potiphar did not choose to believe Joseph, what could the other servants do? And wouldn’t it have disrupted Potiphar’s life more to have believed Joseph? He surely couldn’t have kept Joseph in his house with his wife; he had to get rid of one of them. So in my retelling, I assumed that Potiphar’s pride forced him to believe his wife, even though deep down he knew the truth. I would imagine that if he had truly believed his wife’s accusation, he would have had Joseph killed, rather than merely thrown into prison.
So Joseph started out with two dreams of greatness, which led directly to his being sold into slavery for a decade (deduced from his age at the time he was sold, the number of years he was in prison, and his age when he was finally promoted). At the end of the decade, Joseph refused to commit adultery and sin against God (very interesting that he phrased it that way, Genesis 39:9)—yet for his integrity, he got thrown into prison. Most people would be bitter at this point, but”until the time that His word came to pass, the word of the Lord tested [Joseph]” (Psalm 105:19). Joseph was holding fast to the word that the Lord had given him through those dreams, even when it looked like every circumstance in his life was heading in the wrong direction. He did not yet know Galatians 6:9, but he seemed to understand the principle: “let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart.”
Joseph continued to exhibit diligence and faithfulness in prison, and he must have even kept up a contagious good attitude—we can intuit this because when the butler and baker each had dreams, Joseph said to them, “Why do you look so sad today?” (Genesis 40:7). You’d think they would look sad because they were in prison without cause! But apparently their distress was unusual. Under Joseph’s rule, the prison had become a cheerful place. Moreover, Joseph was not merely sulking about his own misfortune; he knew and cared about the other prisoners. Colossians 3:17 says, “And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.”
I whistled, absently twirling the cord of the colorful tunic Father had given me as I made my way back out to the fields where my brothers tended the sheep. I couldn’t stop smiling, couldn’t think about anything except the dream I had had last night. In it, the sun, moon, and eleven stars had bowed down to me! I pictured this over and over, relishing the thrill of it, knowing that these celestial bodies represented my entire family. I was already my father’s favorite, but the Lord confirmed it—I was to be the greatest of them all! Moreover, it was the second dream of its kind; in the first, a few days ago, eleven sheaves of wheat bowed down to my sheaf. I knew upon waking what it meant: all of my brothers would bow down to me one day.
I told them so the next morning. It went over went about as well as I’d expected. They already envied me, and my little brother Benjamin: we were our father’s favorite, the only two sons of our mother Rachel, the woman Father had truly loved. He was duped into marrying Rachel’s sister Leah, and then in a competition to see who could bear Father more sons, both sisters had given their maids to bear children when it seemed that Mother was barren. I was the first child to open her womb, and so I was much favored even from birth. Father didn’t even try to hide it—in fact, he’d given me as a gift the multicolored tunic I now wore, of the same style as the owners of the great estates. This galled my brothers; it was a preference that should have belonged to Reuben as the eldest, and only after our father’s death. Yet here I was dressed as the heir, the second youngest of twelve, while our father yet lived.
I might have felt guilty for my father’s obvious preference for me, but quite frankly, I could hardly blame him. My brothers were self-centered, lazy, and cruel.
God clearly preferred me over them, also! Had I doubted it at all after the first dream, the second one clinched it. Would I somehow become a king? Maybe a neighboring nation would offer their princess’s hand to me in marriage… that was possible, as I was the favored son of a great man, and I was also exceptionally good looking. I didn’t say so out loud, nor did anyone say it to me… but I saw the way all the young women gazed after me with longing and admiration. I knew.
But, it couldn’t be marriage to a princess, I mused, because then I would only be a consort, and not the king. Unless it was of a nation with different customs, in which a king could ascend to the throne by marriage…
“Oh look, here comes the dreamer!” sneered Simeon as I approached. He and Levi mock-bowed to me. “So! You’re going to rule us? You’re going to boss us around?” Simeon taunted.
I shrugged. “I was just telling you what the Lord told me.”
“Oh, sure,” cried Levi, “and I had a dream I’m going to have a harem like Pharaoh, every concubine more beautiful than the last. I know it’s true, because I dreamt it!”
I bristled, knowing he was trying to get a rise out of me, but unable to keep myself from responding. “I know it’s true, and irrevocable, because I had another dream last night just like it! This time, the sun, moon, and the eleven stars bowed down to me!”
Levi’s expression froze for a beat. In that half a second, I knew he believed me. Simeon recovered first.
“Oooh, bow down, guys!” cried Simeon, waving his hands in the air, “bow down to our perfect baby brother, the future ruler of the entire universe!”
Every time one of my brothers caught sight of me for the rest of the day, he made me an elaborate bow. They continued mocking me before my father and stepmothers that evening once we came in from the fields, compelling my father to ask what they meant by it. When he did, Issachar taunted, “Ask your little prince here! He’s got it in his head that he’s going to be greater than all of us put together!”
Father turned to me with a frown. “Joseph? What are they talking about?”
Feeling slightly abashed, I repeated my dreams, and my father, predictably, rebuked me. “What’s with all this dreaming? Am I and your mother and your brothers all supposed to bow down to you?”
“I don’t know,” I muttered, “you’re the one who taught me that the Lord speaks in dreams, remember?”
“Give him a pretty tunic, and suddenly he thinks he’s God Almighty!” cried Zebulun.
But I saw my father’s thoughtful expression: he believed me, too. He had taught me that the Lord often spoke in dreams. He himself had a dream of a ladder from heaven to earth, with angels ascending and descending upon it—echoing the first dream God had given to our ancestor Abraham, in which He had cut a covenant with him. In another dream, the Lord had told my father to go home to Canaan. Father had also told me of how God had appeared to my grandfather Laban in a dream when he had fled from him, telling Laban to be careful what he said when he next encountered Father.
Father knew of the power of dreams to both instruct and to prophesy. He knew my dreams must have significance, particularly since I had dreamt two that were very similar. But how could I, the second youngest son of twelve, come to rule over the other eleven? I had the same question myself—that was why I’d shared the vision. I realized, after today’s taunting, that doing so had been foolish. I should have known better, considering my brothers’ animosity and my father’s obvious preference for me. Yet, why would God give me a dream of my future without interpretation, if He did not mean for me to share it?
The next day, my brothers went out from the Valley of Hebron to tend to the flocks out in Shechem. I did not volunteer to go with them, as I preferred to keep my distance from them after the encounter the day before. But my father sent me to them later that day, asking me to send word on how they and the flocks fared. I cringed inwardly, dreading the ongoing heckling, but that was hardly a reason to disobey my father. So I went.
I did not find them in Shechem, however. I had to ask directions from another shepherd I came across.
“I saw your ten brothers several hours ago,” he told me. “They’ve left here, but I overheard them say, ‘Let’s go to Dothan.'”
I tracked them down in Dothan late that afternoon. I saw the flocks first, neglected as usual. I could tell that my brothers had seen me, though they were huddled strangely in the middle of the field, as if having an intense conversation. When I was close enough, I perceived that their council had ended, and they stopped talking, spreading out in a half circle as I approached. Their postures gave me pause: they looked alert, like predators. My steps faltered.
“Our father sent me to you to see how you and our flocks fared—” I began. But no sooner had I begun to speak, Judah and Dan started toward me, followed by the other eight. “What are you—ahhhh!” I tried to fight them off as they lunged for me, but at seventeen years old to their late twenties, thirties, and forties, I could not have fought off even one of them, let alone all ten. The blows came at me from all sides. The next thing I knew, I was lying on the ground curled in upon myself, trying in vain to protect my face, which was a swollen, bloody mess. I felt them rip my colorful tunic from me. Then three of them picked me up, carried me a short distance, and cast me down into a dry cistern. I landed with a sickening crunch, and let out a fresh cry of pain.
It took me some time to test my feet, and the boundaries of the cistern. I could hear my brothers’ voices filtering down from up above me, so they were still there—but they were too far away to make out what they said. I began to cry out, “Help!” When there was no response, I tried again, “Someone let me out! Let down a rope!” I knew they heard me, as they stopped talking—but none of them bothered to help.
I could just make out some sort of commotion up above—new voices had joined those of my brothers, interrupting the flow of their conversation, as well as the rumble of wheels and the characteristic jingle of merchandise. I strained to hear what they were saying, but could not.
All of a sudden, Zebulun’s face appeared up above, backlit by the sun so that I could not make out his expression. He tossed down a rope and said cheerfully, “Grab on, Joseph!”
I asked no questions; I grabbed on, as he and Issachar hauled me up, squinting in the brightness when I cleared the top of the cistern. Then I discerned the Midianite traders, their camels laden with spices to sell, and saw the merchants hand silver to my brother Zebulun with a handshake. My eyes widened as I began to understand what was happening. Naphtali and Dan shoved me toward them, and I cried out as the traders caught me and pinned my wrists behind me, binding them and then my feet as they tossed me sideways atop one of their camels.
“No, please!” I begged, “please! Help me!”
My pleading gaze happened to fall upon Simeon, who sneered, “Let’s see what comes of your grandiose dreams now, eh, little brother?”
It was the last words any of my brothers spoke to me. After that, the caravan moved on.
It was first an uncomfortable, then a painful journey. My position on the camel caused my abdominal muscles to spasm, and blood to pool in my head and feet as I bounced. Before long I had a splitting headache, which was no doubt worsened by my fear, despair, and previous injuries. None of the traders took any notice of me; to them I was only merchandise. The only exception to this was when they stopped to relieve themselves—they unceremoniously unslung me from the camel and made me lift my tunic right there beside it, so that they did not have to unbind me.
Days passed—I lost count how many. I was constantly hungry and thirsty. The traders did feed me on bread, water, and strips of dried meat when they stopped, though never enough. I overheard one of them comment, “Don’t want him to waste away before he gets to market, or he won’t fetch a good price.” It was from this that I understood my fate for certain, though I had suspected before. I was to be sold as a slave.
Once we were deep into the desert and there was nowhere I could have gone even if I had escaped, one of the traders unbound my feet so that I could ride astride my camel, rather than tossed over him between his humps like so much cargo. It was amazing what an improvement this made: my headache and abdominal cramps relieved, and at last I had some mental space to think about something besides my physical pain.
Lord, I prayed. Then my mind went blank. I was so overwhelmed with my circumstances that I didn’t know where to start.
I wondered what my brothers would tell my father to explain my disappearance. All I knew for sure was that they would not tell him the truth. They would tell him I’d been killed—they must. How else could they explain my long-term disappearance?
I had a vision of my father weeping for me as he had wept for my mother. I saw my little nine-year old brother Benjamin, my only full-blooded brother, weeping beside him. The vision made my chest ache with sorrow and longing. I closed my eyes and shoved it away as tears stung my lashes. I took a deep breath.
I’m here now, I told myself, and at least at the moment, there is nothing I can do about it.
After another few miles, as the sweat rolled down the sides of my face, I tried praying again.
Help me, was all I managed. I had no specifics. I didn’t know what else to pray.
Presently I overheard some of the traders telling one another that they had made good time: only fifteen days, they said, when the glittering mirage of Egypt appeared on the dusty horizon. At first the sight of it filled me with dread, and terrible visions of oppression, whippings, and chains—but I shut these thoughts down, recognizing the futility of experiencing imaginary hardships before the real ones materialized.
Within hours, we were in the heart of the bustling city. I was overwhelmed by the sights, sounds, and smells—never had I seen so many people and animals and buildings all in one place. There was a profusion of both wealth and waste intermingled in a confusing array. The traders allowed me to dismount on my own, but then led me with a vice grip on one arm to a raised platform. I blinked, taken aback, when I saw the lineup of naked men upon it. I had only seconds to process this when the trader who had steered me toward it released my arm and in the same motion produced a knife in one hand, gripping my tunic with the other. Before I knew what he was doing, he had sliced half of it away. I started to resist when another trader pinned me so that the first could finish the job. Seconds later, horror and hot shame rolled over me as the traders shoved me up on the platform with the other woebegone men, my hands now bound behind me so that I could not so much as cover my genitals with my fists.
Lord, I cried out in my mind, but again, I could not think how to finish the prayer.
I squeezed my eyes shut, trying to pretend I was somewhere—anywhere—else. Trying to tune out the jeers and the haggling of the buyers. It had never occurred to me in the long journey to Egypt that the slave trade required nudity, but now suddenly it seemed obvious: buyers wanted to inspect their purchase, to see what they were getting. When the haggling began over me, even though I did not speak their language, I gathered that the bidding was fierce. I heard the note of finality in their voices that I had heard in previous sales when the price was agreed upon, and opened my eyes to behold my new master as he stepped forward. He was a tall, swarthy man—as most of them were—imposing and probably at least twice my age, if not more. I had no experience with Egyptians, but his dress suggested a uniform. I wondered if he was an officer of some kind.
The man beckoned me to join him, and I meekly obeyed. Nothing like public nudity to induce humility. He produced a small knife and sliced through the bonds that held my wrists behind me. I rubbed the raw places where the ropes had bitten into my flesh, not even bothering now to use my hands to hide myself. What difference did it make? Everyone who had wanted to had already gotten a good look.
Though he could not speak to me, the man produced a simple blue tunic and a length of silken cord to secure it. My eyebrows raised as I saw it: both the dye and the material suggested wealth. I put it on at once, grateful for the renewed dignity. The man gave me a nod, and put a hand on his own chest.
“Potiphar,” he pronounced, very slowly.
“Potiphar,” I echoed, understanding that my new master was telling me his name. I placed a hand on my own chest and said, “Joseph.”
“Joseph,” he echoed, and gave another perfunctory nod, beckoning me to follow.
I gaped as I beheld my new home for the first time. Never in my wildest dreams had I imagined such opulence as these marble floors, sculpted columns, and dyed silken curtains. I wondered what Pharaoh’s palace must be like, if this Potiphar was only one of his officers.
Potiphar introduced me to the rest of his household via charade, but I was already starting to pick up a few Egyptian words here and there. I was one of dozens of servants, male and female, their skin ranging from dark to pale and with all sorts of distinctive features of races I had never before beheld.
As I made my halting introductions to the staff, an attractive woman in her late twenties approached Potiphar and languidly draped her arm through his. She drew my eye because I felt her gaze upon me, roving over my body in a way that made me feel like I was still naked. She wore fine blue silks, and her arms were spangled with bracelets. From this and from her familiarity with Potiphar, I gathered that she must be either his wife or his mistress. I looked away abruptly.
The overseer of the household, an aging man who introduced himself as Babu, took me under his wing. With him, I learned to do all of the various chores, both in the estate and in the fields. Babu was also very patient with me as I learned Egyptian words, and within the next few weeks, I at least knew enough to communicate the essentials with a combination of halting Egyptian and hand gestures. I quickly grew wary of spending too much time indoors, though, as Edrice, whom I learned was in fact Potiphar’s wife, always seemed to be wherever I was. She lurked in hallways and lingered in boudoirs, sometimes pretending to be occupied but always with her eyes upon me.
At first this was all she did, and I ignored her when I could not avoid her. But as time passed and my Egyptian became more proficient, she began to engage me in smalltalk, which I could not avoid without rudeness. She’d comment on the weather, ask unnecessary questions about the progress of whatever task I was engaged in at the time, or sometimes ask me personal questions about how I had come to be in their household as a slave. I answered as briefly as possible, asked no questions in return, and excused myself.
Years passed. In time I grieved the loss of my freedom, my family, and my identity, and I determined that I would do the work the Lord placed before me with all my heart. Babu and then Potiphar took notice of this. Babu, I learned, was beginning to suffer from poor health, and had been hoping to find a replacement for his position. He had recommended me to Potiphar for the job, so that he could take on less responsibility. Suddenly I found myself managing scores of servants on what I later learned was one of the largest estates in Egypt—and actually, I loved it. Even in my father’s household, I’d never had either respect or responsibility. Here, I was trusted, and I rose to the challenge. Babu praised my management, telling Potiphar in my hearing that never had his fields or his wealth grown so quickly, never had his affairs run so efficiently, as they did under my care.
The only blight upon my surprising happiness was Edrice. She grew increasingly bold over time, when I did not return her attentions to her satisfaction. When she started to inquire about my history with women, and whether I was still a virgin, I began to avoid her outright. At last I hinted about her behavior to Babu, who gave me a knowing glance, and said, “Edrice is a beautiful bird in a gilded cage. She longs for freedom, and will seek it where she can.”
I blinked, understanding that he meant to tell me, without telling me, that she had been unfaithful to Potiphar in the past.
“Does he know?” I asked at last.
Babu hesitated, and then gave a very subtle nod. “Everyone knows.”
“What do I do?” I whispered at last.
Babu sighed. “I don’t see that you can do any more than you have. Avoid her when you can. But do your best not to spurn her outright. Her pride is… easily wounded.”
Babu’s warning rang in my mind for days, particularly because I had sensed Edrice’s growing irritation with me. I needed to appease her. So when I felt her eyes upon me across the room, rather than pretending I did not notice, I looked up and smiled. She blinked, and her scowl softened in response, replaced by a flirtatious gleam in her eye. I panicked and looked away abruptly. I’d meant to appease, not encourage her—but how was I to know the difference? I’d never done this before…
She crossed the room to me, and before I knew what was happening, she was beside me, stroking my forearm with her trailing fingers. I was suddenly very aware that we were alone—I had no idea where the nearest servants were. Potiphar was away on Pharaoh’s business.
“Joseph,” she murmured, as if savoring my name, tracing my bicep with her fingers. “You are… so very handsome.”
My heart hammered in my chest, though with fear or with arousal, or a strange combination of both, I could not tell. My throat felt too thick to reply. I just froze.
Edrice gave a soft laugh. “I’m making you blush! Oh, I just love virgins…” Her hand trailed from my arm down my torso. I grabbed her wrist before it could descend any further, and found my tongue.
“Look, my master doesn’t give a second thought to anything that goes on here—he’s put me in charge of everything he owns. He treats me as an equal. The only thing he hasn’t turned over to me is you. You’re his wife!”
She puffed out her lower lip. “I know you find me attractive.”
This was dangerous territory. There was no safe answer to that question. “That has nothing to do with it,” I insisted. “How could I violate his trust and sin against God?”
“God?” she scoffed. “Your God allowed you to be sold as a slave. You owe Him nothing. And Potiphar has never paid you a day’s wages in the almost ten years you’ve been with us. Don’t you think it’s time you got a little… reward?” The hand I had not seized by the wrist also went exploring before I took hold of it too.
“I cannot do this! It is wrong!” I hissed. I let go of both of her wrists at once, and fled the room.
Either fortunately or unfortunately, I could not tell which, Edrice did not take this as rejection, but as enticement. I could tell by her increasing brazenness that she thought I burned for her and could barely restrain myself. At times, I wondered if this was actually true—after all, I could not stop thinking about her, even though thinking of her was a kind of torture. I successfully avoided being alone with her for the next week or so, but I knew I could not do so forever.
At last, one day after Potiphar again went away on Pharaoh’s business, I was inside managing the orders for the kitchen after the morning meal. I stopped what I was doing, and frowned when I realized that the whole house was eerily silent—more so than I had ever heard before. Usually there were some servants chattering or clanging about at least in the distance. It was as if all of them had suddenly gone on holiday.
A wave of foreboding passed over me, and then I sensed that I was not alone. I turned around and saw Edrice standing there in the most provocative gown I had ever seen. She rested one arm on the doorframe to give me the best possible view, her gaze inviting me to come and take her.
“You know you want to,” she purred. “I promise I won’t resist.”
“Edrice—” my voice came out hoarse, and I couldn’t seem to tear my eyes away from her nearly exposed bosom, no matter how hard I tried.
She grinned and sauntered forward, swinging her hips. I could not move. The next thing I knew, she stood before me, tugged on the cord of my tunic, and began undressing me.
“Sleep with me, Joseph,” she whispered.
I had one choice in that moment: stay and obey her, or run.
So I ran. She had a firm grip by then on my tunic, and I nearly tripped and fell on my face, as it was half off already. Instead I wrestled myself free of it, leaving my tunic in her grip, and alas—fled naked.
Some of the other servants who were outside at the time saw me. I saw the fleeting looks of confusion and shock. Then Edrice began to scream.
There was a commotion after that. Several of the men went running into the house, and those near enough to me cast glances of alarm in my direction. I hid myself among the shrubbery, not sure what else to do, feeling like I might throw up. I didn’t know exactly what Edrice was playing at, but I suspected I knew well enough.
A few minutes passed. Babu found me and handed me one of his own tunics without a word. I saw the look in his eyes, of mingled worry and sympathy, and it alarmed me.
“You should have just done as she wanted,” he murmured under his breath.
“How could I do such a thing against Potiphar, and against the Lord?” I protested as I put on the tunic.
Babu sighed, and shook his head. It was a long moment before he answered. “Joseph.” The way he said my name, with such regret, made my heart sink into my stomach. He bit his lip and then said, his voice barely above a whisper, “You spurned her. It’s exactly what I told you never to do. All the servants know who and what she is, and I daresay Potiphar does too, but I don’t think it will matter. She is accusing you of attempted rape.”
Waves of horror washed over me. That was even worse than a consensual affair. How was it that by doing the right thing, I’d managed to make my situation even worse?
“But… if everyone knows her ways…” I began weakly.
Babu shook his head. “She is the lady of the house,” he murmured. “Any servant who dares to contradict her story will be subject to her wrath himself. The only one who might be able to challenge her is Potiphar, and while I suspect he knows, if he admits that she is guilty in this, it makes him a cuckold—not just this once, but the many times he has turned a blind eye in the past as well.”
My breath came in short, ragged gasps. “What do I do?”
Babu ran a hand through his graying hair. “I will… try… to convince Potiphar to merely sell you, rather than punish you.”
I sank to my knees. Babu stood watching me. At last I murmured, “Shall I be killed?”
“I do not think so,” Babu said with surprising conviction. “You would be if Potiphar believed her story, but he is not an evil man. He will want you out of his sight and out of his household, but he knows you are not capable of such a thing, even if he does not admit it to himself.” He patted my shoulder. “Stay in my chambers and do not show your face until Potiphar returns. I will attend to your needs myself, and discuss how we might best plead your case to him when he does.”
The rest of that day was one of the longest of my life, with the possible exception of those first several weeks’ ride to Egypt. Fortunately I did not have to wait longer, as Potiphar arrived back home unexpectedly that evening. I heard him in the vestibule, and I heard Edrice’s renewed histrionic wails. I cowered in Babu’s small chambers, catching words here and there—mostly my name in Edrice’s high-pitched shriek, and Potiphar’s angry growls. I closed my eyes, and tried to steel myself for what came next. Heavy footsteps pounded down the hall toward me, and the door flew open. I opened my eyes and beheld Potiphar’s face. It was nearly purple with rage. He held my tunic in his hand like it was evidence against me.
“What,” he seethed, “is the meaning of this?”
In a split second, even though I knew it would likely make my own situation worse, I decided to try the truth. If I were married to an unfaithful woman, I would want to know. I stood up straight and said, “Your wife has been attempting to seduce me for years, Master, and earnestly for the last several months. You know this to be true. She has invented her current story because I spurned her and fled, and she kept hold of my tunic as I did so. I could not sin against the Lord and against you.”
If possible, Potiphar’s color turned an even deeper shade of purple. “How—dare you!” He threw my tunic down and took two steps toward me, hands balled into fists. I clasped my own hands behind my back as hard as I could, determined not to protect myself, should he strike a blow. But I looked him directly in the eye, knowing that doing so would communicate my truthfulness better than anything else I could do.
It worked, at least on some level. Potiphar nearly snorted, he breathed so heavily, his face etched in a snarl. But he did not strike me. Behind him, three of the male servants who had grown quite fond of me in the last few years, and I of them, appeared in the hallway.
“Throw him in prison,” Potiphar pronounced my sentence, and turned to stalk out. “I want him out of here tonight.”
The three servants shuffled awkwardly, before moving forward to fulfill Potiphar’s orders. One apologized as he began to bind my wrists. I shook my head.
“That is not necessary,” I told him, and forced a smile. “You know I will not resist you.”
The young man gave me a tiny nod, and the four of us marched out of the room with one abreast, two at my sides. I tried not to look around at the great manor I was leaving forever. This was the second time my home had been ripped from me; I did not think I could bear it if I looked and considered this.
Edrice appeared at the entrance to the estate with one arm positioned brazenly on a marble pillar, a vicious half smile on her full red lips. She still wore the scandalous gown, which surprised me at first—wasn’t that gown evidence of my version of the story? But then I realized, it doesn’t matter. She knows Potiphar will refuse to believe her unfaithful, regardless of the evidence. She still wore the gown on purpose. It was evidence of her power over me.
“Oh, how the mighty have fallen,” she taunted in a low trill as I passed by her.
“Oh, how quickly your lust turns to hatred,” I returned, looking her straight in the eye. “The Lord sees what you have done, and will repay you for it.”
My words hit the mark. Her gloating smile vanished, and she began to shriek after me, “How dare you, you filthy Hebrew slave! You should be hung on the gallows! I see to it that you’re hung on the gallows—!”
The door closed behind us, cutting off her threats. I took a deep breath of the night air, and one of the other servants murmured, “Empty threats. She’s already exerted the extent of her power against you.”
Another agreed, his voice still low, “We’ve seen her watching you for months, and watched you avoid her, too. We know you’re not guilty. So does Potiphar, even if he won’t admit it.”
Tears pricked my eyes at this, and a lump rose in my throat. “Thank you.”
We walked in silence the rest of the way. When we arrived at the prison and the other servants identified me as the prisoner to the keeper, he glanced at my unbound hands in surprise.
“And… he comes willingly?”
“I would not struggle against my brothers,” I said. “They are merely following orders. Besides, where could I go?”
The keeper of the prison looked even more surprised at this, and looked to them for an explanation. They told my story for me, and I bowed my head.
“You will never find a more capable worker or better manager, sir,” one of the servants finished, placing a hand on my shoulder. “Judge for yourself, but we are all very sorry to lose him.”
The keeper of the prison let out a breath through pursed lips. At last he pronounced, “Well, this is certainly the strangest way I’ve ever been introduced to a new prisoner.” He took me by the arm and began to lead me inside, but the servants stopped him to hug me goodbye with some tears before they went their way. The keeper shook his head.
“Curiouser and curiouser,” he murmured as he watched our farewell. Then he said, “Well, normally I’d take you to a barred cell, but with three witnesses such as those in your favor… you might just be a gift from the gods. I tell you, I’ve been quite overwhelmed lately with the number of prisoners, particularly managing resources from Pharaoh and directing labor. I could use the help of a skilled household manager.”
I inclined my head. “Happy to be of service in any way I can.”
“Splendid!” The keeper, who introduced himself as Shakir, took me to a small room with a cot and a desk near the cells where the prisoners were kept. It did have a small window though. “This will be your room, then. I’m sure it isn’t much compared to your chambers in Potiphar’s house, but at least it is neither a cell, nor the gallows, eh?”
I managed a smile. “I am very grateful for your kindness. I will work hard for you and will not take it for granted.”
Shakir blinked at me again and shook his head. “Poor kid,” he murmured at last, more to himself than to me. “Those good looks of yours are a curse.” With that, he left me alone and closed the door behind me.
In the silence that followed, I approached the window, leaning on the sill and looking up to the stars. I reminded myself how many years my ancestor Abraham had believed the Lord for a son, looking at those very same stars. His descendants were not yet so numerous, but certainly my father had been fertile. My chest ached as I thought of my brothers, particularly of my little brother Benjamin. He had been nine when my half-brothers had sold me into slavery. He would be nineteen now. I wondered what he looked like. I wondered if he remembered me. I wondered if—
No, I stopped myself. I had been about to wonder if my dreams would ever come to pass. They certainly looked impossible, as I went from my father’s favorite son, to slave, and now to prisoner. But the Lord had given me two dreams for a reason: that told me that the future it foretold was not conditional. It would happen. It was not up to me to determine how, or when. I must continue to cling to that; I must continue to believe that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living, or my heart would faint. Especially tonight, of all nights.
Many years ago, I’d had to release my anger and bitterness toward my half brothers, or it would already have eaten me alive. Tonight, the image of Edrice’s scandalous dress and haughty smirk floated back to me, and I gnashed my teeth. She belonged here, not me… but I knew the memory came because the Lord wanted me to release her to Him too. He was a God of justice—I knew this, despite how things looked, because of the covenant He had made with my father Abraham. He’d said to him, “Your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies.” The gate was the place of power and influence, was it not?
I had had power and influence over Potiphar’s house, relatively speaking. I now already seemed to have the favor of the keeper of the prison. Was that all God’s promise had meant for me? Was this the extent of the blessing I could expect upon my life?
No, I told myself emphatically, closing my eyes and deliberately conjuring again the memories of the dreams, now rather faded and possibly distorted with time. I saw again my brothers’ sheaves of wheat bowing down to mine, and then the sun, moon and stars bowing to me. The Lord gave me those dreams in advance because He knew I would need them, in addition to what I knew of the covenant to His people in general, to sustain me through this dark period of my life. It would not last forever. It must not. Somehow, somehow—I would be reunited with my brothers and my family again. The Lord would place me in a position of power and influence. How prison was a stepping stone to anything, I certainly did not know. But He was God, and I was not.
“I trust You,” I murmured aloud to the Lord. “I forgive my brothers, I forgive Edrice, and I leave their punishment to You. I trust You to bring Your word to pass in my life. Somehow.”
I heard nothing back. I wished God would speak to me, the way He had to some of my ancestors, and even to my father Jacob. But I felt the comfort of those stars winking down at me from above, and I knew He saw me and He cared. I was not forgotten.
Over the next days and weeks, I got to know the prisoners as well as Shakir, and learned the business of prison—for business it was. We had finances and shipments from Pharaoh for the upkeep of both prison and prisoners, schedules to manage and enforce, and some of the prisoners also engaged in labor as part of their service. I could see why Shakir had been overwhelmed before. But I applied the management skills I had gained in Potiphar’s household to management of the prison, and within the first month, I gained not only Shakir’s trust but his admiration and gratitude as well. He often referred to me as a “gift from the gods,” though he’d always look a bit abashed after he said it, conscious that he was profiting from my misfortune. When he apologized for the third time after a declaration like this, I finally smiled at him and said, “It is all right. The Lord is with me, and He will repay me for what was stolen.”
Shakir blinked, and seemed to want to say something. He opened his mouth and then closed it again. He walked away with a puzzled look on his face.
In time, the prisoners and Shakir came to be a sort of makeshift family to me, just as Babu at the other servants had been. I was surprised to wake up one day and realize that I was happy again. Despite all, I found great satisfaction in doing my work well, and in the relationships I had formed with those around me. I genuinely cared about my fellow prisoners. I came to know their stories, and wept for those whose stories were even more tragic than mine. Of course there were a few actual criminals among them, but in short order I won over even them. I rejoiced with those whose sentences were completed or commuted when they returned to freedom, even though I was still imprisoned indefinitely, with no apparent hope of escape. They were perplexed how I could maintain such hope in such a place—so I taught them about the Lord, about the covenant He had made with my fathers.
“That’s all very well for you,” one of them grumbled at first, “but your god has never spoken to me or my fathers. What hope do I have?”
“It’s not about what He’s said or hasn’t said,” I insisted. “Yes, He made a covenant with my fathers to prosper and bless them, but how could I be assured that that blessing would extend to every one of their descendants, including me? Yes, I had two dreams that suggested I would be blessed”—I had told the prisoners the secret of my dreams, in due time—”but those were very obscure, after all. If I wished to doubt their meaning, particularly after all that has happened to me, I certainly could. What assures me is the character of Him who made those promises to my father Abraham. It isn’t about what He has done, but about who He is. He told Abraham that through him, every nation of the world would be blessed, not just Abraham’s direct descendants. That includes you, too! He is both good and mighty, as well as trustworthy. So yes, I have hope, and always shall have. You can have that same hope, if you want it.”
A few months after I had arrived, the prison received two new rather illustrious prisoners from the Pharaoh’s own household: his butler and his baker. I felt sorry for them, as they seemed exceedingly upset to have found themselves in such a predicament. We all understood; every one of us, even the guilty ones, went through a period of first denial, then anger, then grief, and ultimately a depressed sort of acceptance when we arrived here. It was even worse for the two of them, as the butler had no idea why he was there at all. The baker’s cooking had apparently displeased the capricious Pharaoh one too many times.
“I don’t know what I said,” the butler moaned to me, his head in his hands. “I don’t know what I did…”
I clucked my tongue sympathetically as the baker sat beside him, patting his arm. “One never knows,” he murmured, “Pharaoh is like a child.”
“Shh!” hissed the butler, horrified. “You must not say things like that?”
The baker gave a short laugh. “Why not? What else is he going to do to me?” He gestured at the bars of their cell; they were currently in the same one, as I had allowed them to comfort one another as they could.
“He could kill us, of course!” the butler hissed back, “the walls have ears, I’m sure!”
“You are as safe as I can make you here,” I assured them. “We’re all family here, right guys?” I called to the other prisoners. Shouts, claps, and grunts from the other nearby prisoners responded to this, and I flashed a brief grin at the newcomers. “We’re here if you need us. Take your time.”
It was a few weeks before the butler and baker worked their way through the various stages of acceptance of their new predicament. I marveled as I watched their fellow prisoners commiserate with them in the process, feeling how I’d imagine a proud father might feel as he watches one child comfort another in his distress.
One day after both the baker and butler had adjusted to life in prison, and had grown cheerful for the most part, I noticed an abrupt change. Both of them seemed sad and troubled again, and did not perform their work as efficiently as usual. I frowned.
“What is wrong?” I asked them. “Why do you both seem so sad today?”
The butler said for both of them, “We each have had a dream, and there is no interpreter of it.”
The vision of my own dreams to which I had clung for the past many years flashed across my mind as I said, “Do not interpretations belong to God? Tell them to me, please.”
The two men exchanged a look, and then the butler ventured, “Behold, in my dream a vine was before me, and in the vine were three branches; it was as though it budded, its blossoms shot forth, and its clusters brought forth ripe grapes. Then Pharaoh’s cup was in my hand; and I took the grapes and pressed them into Pharaoh’s cup, and placed the cup in Pharaoh’s hand.”
My heart swelled as he spoke. I understood the dream’s meaning, and I also knew, I knew this was to be my salvation as well! “Here’s the meaning. The three branches are three days. Within three days, Pharaoh will get you out of here and put you back to your old work—you’ll be giving Pharaoh his cup just as you used to do when you were his cupbearer. Only remember me when things are going well with you again—tell Pharaoh about me and get me out of this place. I was kidnapped from the land of the Hebrews. And since I’ve been here, I’ve done nothing to deserve being put in the dungeon.”
The baker’s eyes lit up too, and he declared, “Three days—that will be Pharaoh’s birthday! That is often when he commutes sentences…” He turned to me and said eagerly, “Tell me what my dream means too! It went like this: I saw three wicker baskets on my head; the top basket had assorted pastries from the bakery and birds were picking at them from the basket on my head.”
I blinked at the baker, and felt my heart sink to my stomach. He saw my expression and his own faltered too. I knew this interpretation at once, also, but wished I did not have to tell him. “This is the interpretation: The three baskets are three days; within three days Pharaoh will hang you from a tree, and the birds will pick your bones clean.”
All the color faded from his cheeks, and his mouth fell open. The three of us sat in silence, not even looking at each other. At last I placed a hand on the baker’s shoulder, who shrugged it off and hid his face. The butler and I exchanged a sympathetic look.
“Well,” the butler said to me in a low tone, “at least we know that you do not hesitate to prophesy good or evil. In three days’ time, we shall see.”
I nodded, knowing full well what we should see. I reminded the baker, more soberly now, “Do not forget me.”
“I won’t,” he promised.
Three days later it happened just as the Lord had shown me through the dreams. Pharaoh held a feast in honor of his own birthday, and summoned the butler and the baker from the prison in the middle of it. Shakir, who had been at the feast, arrived with guards to escort them. We all watched them go in dead silence. Everyone was nervous for them.
Before they all vanished, I took Shakir by the arm, and asked, “Please return after the feast tonight, no matter how late it is, and tell us all what became of them.”
Shakir gave me a strange look. “I thought you already knew.”
“I do,” I confirmed. “But for the sake of the rest of the prisoners.”
He gave me a small nod, and left, last behind the guards.
Around the third watch of the night, Shakir returned again, looking haggard. Most of the prisoners dozed, but lightly. We all roused when we saw his lantern and heard his footsteps. I sat up first.
Shakir sighed. “It was as Joseph predicted,” he confirmed. “The butler was restored to the right hand of Pharaoh. The baker…” he shook his head and bowed it. There was a moment of silence. A few of the prisoners swore. One quietly sobbed. We had all grown quite fond of the two men.
Despite my sorrow for the murder of the baker, I could not entirely forget that I now had an ally at the right hand of Pharaoh. I had reminded him several times not to forget me. Surely he wouldn’t! Every day I anticipated a retinue of soldiers to come and release me as well. When they did not come after a week, I grew confused.
When they did not come after two weeks, I sank into depression, for the first time since those weeks riding across the desert to Egypt. Even when I’d been thrown into prison, I’d maintained my faith, and bounced back quickly. But now, when I was alone at night, I cried out to God.
“It’s been eleven years!” I told Him in a hissing whisper, like He didn’t know. “Eleven years!” I panted with rage, until I finally needed an outlet of some kind and pounded my fists against my wall. “Am I ever getting out of here? Did You forget about me? Do you care at all?”
I knew the answers to all of these things by the quiet reproach in my mind as soon as I’d said them. At once, my rage melted away and I crumpled, giving way to tears for the first time in years. I buried my face in my hands and wept, feeling small and vulnerable, like the child I had once been in my mother’s lap. She had died giving birth to my brother Benjamin, when I was only eight years old. I conjured her in my mind now, picturing her caresses on my back as I remembered them until I had no more tears left within me. They were followed by first a dull numbness, and then, inexplicably, a sense of peace. I fell asleep to the vision of the sun, moon, and stars bowing down to me once again, a reassurance that despite the apparent setbacks, the Lord had promised. He would fulfill His word.
Over the next few days, I acknowledged to myself that it was the hope of an immediate fulfillment that had set me up for such disappointment; before, when I had placed no timeline on my deliverance, I had been able to thrive regardless of my circumstances. Now that it was clear that the butler had forgotten me, I let go of my expectations and became my old cheerful self again, caring for my inmates and managing them well. The Lord would deliver me when and how He might, but I’d just as soon not know until it happened. I never wanted to go through that again.
Two more years passed before that moment finally came, and it was as abrupt as I could have wished for. I was in my office, calculating income versus expenses for the prison, when the palace guards arrived.
“We are looking for the Hebrew called Joseph,” announced the guard.
I frowned. “I am he.”
The guard bowed to me—a prisoner. “You have been summoned to the Throne Room by His Majesty, Pharaoh.”
My mind went blank. My mouth reacted first.
“May I… be permitted to make myself presentable first?” I gestured at the filthy rags of an inmate I wore, and my long, unkempt beard and hair.
“You may. Come.”
A few of the prisoners whose cells were close enough to hear some of the commotion pressed their faces to their bars curiously. Shakir, who had heard the entire interaction, watched me with wide-eyed fear. I knew he was remembering what had happened to the baker. But that made sense—Pharaoh had known and been offended by him. He should have no knowledge of my existence.
Unless… my heart beat faster as the guard led me to the river to bathe, and provided me with a razor, a servant, and a change of clothes. I bathed as quickly as I could, my nervousness only growing as I did so. I did not let my mind imagine, in case this was not what it appeared to be. When I emerged from the water, dried myself and put on the new garments, the servant combed and used the razor to trim my hair and beard before shaving my face clean. When he had finished, he gestured back to the water, inviting me to look at my new self. Tentatively, I did so, though I dreaded the change I might find—the last time I had beheld my own reflection was when I still served in Potiphar’s home, three years ago. I feared that my ordeal in the prison might have aged me ten years or more.
I blinked at the man who peered down at me, and swallowed hard, raising my hands to my own chin gingerly. I had not been clean shaven since I was a boy; the face I saw therefore looked significantly younger than the one I remembered. I might have been a teenager again, though I had turned thirty this year.
The guard, who had waited for my transformation, now stepped forward and beckoned me.
“Pharaoh is not a patient man. Come,” he said, and I followed.
The whole thing felt incredibly surreal, as I crossed the threshold of the enormous vestibule of the palace. Potiphar’s house had been a shack by comparison. The marble pillars held up a ceiling so high it might have been the sky. Colorful mosaics lined the floors, and intricate paintings of great exploits decorated the walls. The opulence astounded me; I could not stop staring, even though I kept pace with the guard.
In the throne room were four men dressed in Egyptian finery. Three were gray haired and weathered. The fourth stood at a window with his arms clasped behind him, his forearms adorned with thick gold bracelets. He alone of the four wore a geometric headdress, his tunic bedecked with purples and golds, complete with a gold sash. He turned as we entered, and I saw Pharaoh’s face for the first time. He had the swarthy, coppery skin of all of the Egyptians, his black beard close-cropped. I saw that he was not much older than I was. He might have even been younger.
“Joseph the Hebrew prisoner, Your Majesty,” bowed the guard, and backed away, leaving Pharaoh and me to face one another alone. The other three—advisors? servants?—stood at a respectful distance, but close enough to hear. Pharaoh regarded me with an expression I could not read. I knew nothing of the etiquette; should I speak first or wait for him to address me? Should I bow? Surely I should bow. I had just made up my mind to do this and started, when Pharaoh abruptly began.
“I dreamed a dream,” he announced. “Nobody can interpret it. But I’ve heard that just by hearing a dream you can interpret it.”
This is it, I realized in dazed wonder. This is really it.
I found my tongue. “Not I, but God. God will set Pharaoh’s mind at ease.”
Pharaoh searched my face. Something about my answer gave him pause. Then he went on, “In my dream I was standing on the bank of the Nile. Seven cows, shimmering with health, came up out of the river and grazed on the marsh grass. On their heels seven more cows, all skin and bones, came up. I’ve never seen uglier cows anywhere in Egypt. Then the seven skinny, ugly cows ate up the first seven healthy cows. But you couldn’t tell by looking—after eating them up they were just as skinny and ugly as before. Then I woke up.
“In my second dream I saw seven ears of grain, full-bodied and lush, growing out of a single stalk, and right behind them, seven other ears, shriveled, thin, and dried out by the east wind. And the thin ears swallowed up the full ears. I’ve told all this to the magicians but they cannot tell me what the dreams mean.”
My mind whirred with images and understanding as Pharaoh spoke, as clearly as if there had been no parable at all. The second dream overlay the first in my mind, making me even more certain that my interpretation of the first had been correct.
Thank you, Lord, I prayed silently. To Pharaoh, I said, “Pharaoh’s two dreams both mean the same thing. God is telling Pharaoh what he is going to do. The seven healthy cows are seven years and the seven healthy ears of grain are seven years—they’re the same dream. The seven sick and ugly cows that followed them up are seven years and the seven scrawny ears of grain dried out by the east wind are the same—seven years of famine.
“The meaning is what I said earlier: God is letting Pharaoh in on what he is going to do. Seven years of plenty are on their way throughout Egypt. But on their heels will come seven years of famine, leaving no trace of the Egyptian plenty. As the country is emptied by famine, there won’t be even a scrap left of the previous plenty—the famine will be total. The fact that Pharaoh dreamed the same dream twice emphasizes God’s determination to do this and do it soon.
“So, Pharaoh needs to look for a wise and experienced man and put him in charge of the country. Then Pharaoh needs to appoint managers throughout the country of Egypt to organize it during the years of plenty. Their job will be to collect all the food produced in the good years ahead and stockpile the grain under Pharaoh’s authority, storing it in the towns for food. This grain will be held back to be used later during the seven years of famine that are coming on Egypt. This way the country won’t be devastated by the famine.”
I had watched the transformation in Pharaoh’s face as I spoke. His hard features softened, his eyes widened, and I could see that the Lord had confirmed my words to him. He withdrew to consult with his advisors in low tones that I could not hear—yet I could hardly suppress the smile that stretched across my lips.
Pharaoh returned to me, his advisors right behind him this time.
“You shall be the one in charge of all you propose. No one is as qualified as you in experience and wisdom. From now on, you’re in charge of my affairs; all my people will report to you. Only as king will I be over you. I’m putting you in charge of the entire country of Egypt.”
I stared at him, my mind blank. I had expected that he would believe me; that he would favor me; even that I would never return to prison. But… what had he just said?
His next actions confirmed it: he took a signet ring off of his own hand, took my own hand, and placed it upon my finger. Behind me, servants I had not seen enter the room draped my shoulders with a fine linen garment, and my neck with a gold chain. As they did all this, Pharaoh went on, “I am Pharaoh, but no one in Egypt will make a single move without your approval. We must do something about your Hebrew name, though. Henceforth, you shall be known as Zaphenath-Paneah.” I bit my lip to keep the surge of tears at bay—the new name meant in Egyptian, God Speaks and He Lives. I met Pharaoh’s eyes, and to my utter amazement, I found him smiling at me fondly, like we were almost peers. More than that—like we were kin.
This man just met me! How—
I am restoring all that was stolen from you, the Lord whispered to my heart. Sevenfold.
I found myself ushered along with Pharaoh’s servants like a tide sweeping out to sea. The day played out like a dream: they helped me into Pharaoh’s second chariot, and rode me around Egypt, introducing me to the people of the land by shouting before me, “Bow the knee! Bow the knee to Zaphenath-Paneah, second in command of all of Egypt!”
I expected to wake the next morning back in prison. It took me several confused moments to remember what had happened when I saw the luxurious bed with linen curtains, and the window with a view of all of Egypt, through which the early morning sunlight streamed in. I saw movement out of the corner of my eye, and sat up to see servants bustling about in a corner of the enormous room, laying out my breakfast. One of them looked up and said, “Ah, my lord is awake.” He brought the food over to my bed, and then beckoned to someone outside the room. One of the advisors I had seen with Pharaoh in my encounter with him yesterday approached and bowed, introducing himself as Lateef.
“My lord Zaphenath-Paneah,” he began. “We have much to discuss. Would you prefer to eat in silence and seek me after, or—”
“No, no, Lateef, please.” I gestured to a chair by the window. Lateef accepted it and seated himself as I ate. He then proceeded to tell me all of the plans Pharaoh had discussed with them on my behalf while I was riding around the city in Pharaoh’s second chariot: where I was to live, who I was to marry (marry? I thought in amazement), and how I was to begin to implement the recommendations I had made to Pharaoh regarding the collection of grain. He rattled off the names of master builders they had already recruited to build both my home—to be constructed on land adjacent to the palace—and the massive storage facilities they would need to store up dried grain. Lateef was here to ask my preferences on the architecture and building materials for my home. Would I like essentially a miniature palace? Would I like a pool indoors and open to the sky, for bathing and recreation? Would I like my bedroom to face east or west? Did I prefer mosaics or simpler flooring and walls?
All the questions made my head spin. I had been merely a servant in Potiphar’s house, and now my own home would be many times as grand as his. I weakly indicated that I trusted the master architects’ tastes and would be extremely gratified by whatever they chose. Lateef gave a short nod to this. Then he announced, “Pharaoh also hopes that my lord will be pleased to take Asenath to wife: she is the daughter of Poti-Pherah, priest of On.”
I had heard about the Egyptian god On, of course; he was one of many Egyptian gods. I had a brief flash of concern that my wife would worship another god, but then I realized, what alternative did I have? The same would be true of any woman in Egypt. At least they were polytheists, and therefore would not object to my worship of the one true God. And, given the new name Pharaoh had bestowed upon me of God Speaks and He Lives, the same appeared to be true of Egyptians in general.
“I would be most honored,” I told Lateef.
He beamed. “Splendid. We shall arrange the wedding to coincide with the completion of your house, so that you may have a home for your bride.”
Pharaoh recruited so many workers to construct my home and storage facility that both were completed within a few months. During that time, I met and courted Asenath, and was dazzled by her. Pharaoh had clearly selected her for me not only because of her pedigree, but also for her own merits. Beautiful, accomplished, and demure, she was one of the most highly sought women in the land. I was pleased to find that she was also very intelligent when I gave her the opportunity to engage with me on matters of state, and at least did not object to my worship of the Lord. I would hope for more than mere acquiescence to Him in time.
I otherwise spent my days touring the land of Egypt, observing the abundance of the land, collecting and drying, pickling, salting, smoking, or fermenting one fifth of the produce of the land. Until my granaries were completed, I stored what I could, where I could, but I had designated store houses before long.
One day on these tours, I caught sight of my old master, Potiphar. He saw me too. After a moment’s hesitation, he bowed, his expression like stone. I approached him alone, motioning for some of my servants who usually moved with me to remain behind. I did not know what I would say until we stood face to face.
“Zapthnath-Paaneah,” Potiphar growled my new name pointedly. “Tell me, does Pharaoh know your true identity, Joseph the adulterous Hebrew slave-turned-prisoner?”
I searched Potiphar’s face. “I believe you know, deep down, that I never betrayed you, and never would have done. As I told you at the time, it was your wife who attempted to seduce me, and left me no choice but to run. She accused me because I jilted her.” I watched as Potiphar’s face turned red with suppressed rage, and he balled his fists at his sides. But as I was now second in command over Egypt, he would not dare assault me. “Your own heart tells you this is true,” I went on, “in fact, you suspected her of infidelity long before I came to your house, I believe. I advise you to stop misdirecting your anger and confront her. In the meantime, whether you come to see this or not, I forgive you for what you did to me.”
His mouth fell open, and he gave a short, affronted laugh. “You… forgive me?”
“Yes,” I nodded, “because there is nothing you, or even Edrice, could ever do to me that the Lord would not ultimately use for my good. And whatever you think of my forgiveness now, when you finally admit the truth to yourself, you will be glad of it.”
Before he had a chance to reply, I turned around and returned to my chariot, without looking back.
Once my home was completed, Asenath and I married, and her father Poti-Pherah presided over the ceremony. The whole of Egypt was invited to participate in the feast, during those years of great abundance. I was grateful once again that my experience with Asenath was not tainted by guilty flashbacks to a sordid experience with Edrice.
Years passed, and the sharp tang of painful memories faded in light of my newfound blessings and abundance. Asenath bore me two sons in those plentiful years, Manasseh and Ephraim. Toward the end of the seven years of plenty, very occasional moments of doubt plagued me. What if the time of plenty continued, when I had achieved my position only because I had predicted seven years of famine? All of Egypt, and Pharaoh himself, would call me a false prophet…
But I stopped those thoughts before I could fret more than a few moments about them. It wasn’t, of course, that I wanted draught and famine—but the Lord had shown me that it would occur for a reason. He had never misled me before. Pharaoh had two dreams, each depicting the same thing. It was not in doubt.
The first few months of the eighth year indeed produced an abrupt change. By the third month of that year, the people began to cry out to Pharaoh for food, and Pharaoh sent them to me. I had previously been busy in a leisurely sort of way; now I found myself called upon day and night by citizens desperate to feed their families. Within a few months, it was not just Egyptians who came to see me; word had spread far and wide that there was food in Egypt, and many surrounding nations came to purchase it.
Then one day, I sat on a grand elevated chair at the top of a dais outside the central granary, and scanned the line of supplicants waiting to speak to me after I had dismissed the last one laden with purchased grain. My eyes fell upon a group of ten men dressed in Hebrew tunics, and I caught my breath.
I steeled my expression so as not to give anything away, standing as they approached. I could tell that they did not recognize me. A lump rose in my throat as they bowed before me, the granary of wheat behind me. I had a flash of my first dream: eleven sheaves of wheat bowing to mine.
Here it was. The fulfillment, over twenty years later. Almost… there were only ten of them. Where was Benjamin?
I prayed silently, and with a flash of insight I knew that now was not the moment to reveal myself. I forgave them long ago, but had they changed? Or were they still the same evil men who had first plotted to kill their brother, and then sold him into slavery? I wanted to know. I needed them to volunteer information about themselves, and I could think of only one way to do this: put them on the defense.
So I pretended not to recognize them either, or to understand their language. I spoke to them through the interpreter at my side, asking in Egyptian, “Where do you come from?”
My brother Reuben, always their spokesperson, stepped forward and answered in Hebrew, “From the land of Canaan. We have come to buy food.”
I narrowed my eyes at them. “You are spies!” I pronounced, “You’ve come to look for Egypt’s weaknesses.”
I could feel the strange look from my interpreter as he translated my message, but I ignored him, watching my brothers’ responses.
Issachar spoke up next. “We’ve only come to buy food. We’re all the sons of the same man; we’re honest men; we’d never think of spying.”
I snarled, “No. You’re spies. You’ve come to look for our weaknesses!”
I watched them all exchange helpless looks with one another. Then Reuben spoke up again. “There were twelve of us brothers—sons of the same father in the country of Canaan. The youngest is with our father, and one is no more.”
I swallowed this reference to myself without flinching. So they’d told others I was dead after all. I said, “It’s just as I said, you’re spies. This is how I’ll test you. As Pharaoh lives, you’re not going to leave this place until your youngest brother comes here. Send one of you to get your brother while the rest of you stay here in jail. We’ll see if you’re telling the truth or not. As Pharaoh lives, I say you’re spies.”
Their eyes widened, and I gestured to several of my guards to surround them, as they all loudly protested and struggled. It didn’t matter; ten though they were, they were no match for Egyptian guards.
“Take them to the dungeon overseen by Shakir,” I said with a wave of my hand, and did not look back, attending to the next in line.
I knew that Shakir would treat them kindly, even without knowing who they were to me. He could not do otherwise. But I wanted them desperate enough to do as I asked. I also admit, I wanted them to feel just the tiniest bit of what they had done to me—not to get even (three days could never do that), but to spark a bit of empathy when they finally learned the truth. After all, they did not know what kind of a man I was, or what I might do to them next. They were at my mercy, just as I had been at the mercy of Potiphar and Shakir.
I slept very little those three days. It took all the will I had not to run to the prison each day and reveal myself. At last on the third day I went with my Hebrew translator, pausing at the threshold in a strange moment of deja vu—it was the first time I had set foot in the dungeon since Pharaoh had summoned me, now nine years ago. I had seen Shakir in those years, but only in my official capacity as a supplier of grain to the prison, and at my wedding. Shakir saw me first, and bowed low.
“My lord Zaphnath-Paaneah,” he said, with just the tiniest smirk in his voice.
I gestured to my translator, “Go on inside, I shall meet you there.” Then I pulled Shakir outside and closed the door behind him, so that none of the prisoners could hear us. He beamed and I embraced him.
“It’s good to see you, Shakir.”
“Joseph!” he whispered, and then reproached me, “You never come to see us anymore!”
“I’ve been busy,” I confessed with a shrug and a smile. “But I’ve missed you.”
“Sure, sure you have…”
“How are the men I sent to you three days ago?”
He shrugged. “About like all new prisoners. Angry, terrified. I put them all in one cell. They’ve come to blows with each other a few times.”
I sighed, running a hand across my face. “Listen, are there still any prisoners in there who might remember me and call me by name?”
“A few. Amon and Gamal. And Horos too. Why?” he regarded me curiously.
“I can’t explain right now, but I don’t want the new prisoners to know my Hebrew name. Can you go in and tell Amon, Gamal, and Horos to act like they’ve never met me before?”
A spark of understanding lit Shakir’s face as he put it together. “Those men are Hebrew too… you knew them, didn’t you?” Then his eyes widened. “They’re not…” he let the question trail off, and gasped as I nodded.
“They are. But tell no one.”
Shakir cackled, and clapped his hands together in his mirth. “They’re the brothers who sold you! Oh, this is rich… are you going to have them executed, then?”
“No!” I said at once. “I’m just trying to get them to apologize!”
His glee melted into confusion. “Apologize?” he said, like he’d never heard the word before. “For ten years as a slave and three as a prisoner… you want them to… apologize.”
“Yes!” I hissed. “And I want them to bring my other brother, the only one who didn’t betray me. And to tell me what’s become of my father. Will you help me?”
Shakir blinked at me, and shook his head. “I guess… if that’s really all you want. I’d hang them if were you, but it’s your call, of course.” He went back inside to tell the three remaining prisoners to pretend I was a stranger, and then poked his head back outside and whispered, “All right, all clear.”
I met the eyes of the other prisoners, all of whom bowed and murmured my Egyptian name. I flashed a smile at Amon, Gamal, and Horos, but I needn’t have worried: they all gazed at me with disbelief and reverence, either awed by my current position even though they knew me, or else they were much better actors than I’d expected.
I approached the cell Shakir led me to, though I’d have known the one anyway: it was the only cell large enough for ten men. They looked haggard, sleepless, and a few of them seemed listless. The translator waited for me and came to my side. When my brothers saw me approach, half of them jumped to their feet, and alerted the other half with swift nudges and kicks to do the same. I gave them a curt nod.
“Do this and you’ll live,” I said abruptly. “I’m a God-fearing man. If you’re as honest as you say you are, one of your brothers will stay here in jail while the rest of you take the food back to your hungry families. Bring your youngest brother back to me, confirming the truth of your speech, and not one of you will die.” The translator repeated my words in Hebrew, and the brothers turned and whispered to one another, also in Hebrew, unaware that I understood them.
“Now we’re paying for what we did to our brother—we saw how terrified he was when he was begging us for mercy,” hissed Dan. “We wouldn’t listen to him and now we’re the ones in trouble.”
“Didn’t I tell you, ‘Don’t hurt the boy’?” Reuben cut in. “But no, you wouldn’t listen. And now we’re paying for his murder.”
A lump sprang to my throat, and I turned abruptly away, beating a path to the office-cell that was once my own just in time to hide my tears. I buried my face in my hands and wept.
They truly believed I was dead! Perhaps they thought I had died in the slave caravan, or that my master had beaten me to death. Such a thing was far from unheard of. At least I knew one thing: their consciences still smote them for what they had done. Was that enough? Should I reveal myself now?
Not yet, I thought, with a flash of my second dream. In it, the sun, moon, and eleven stars bowed to me. That would have to represent Benjamin, my father, and my stepmother, in addition to the ten brothers who were here already. This could not yet be the end of the story.
When I had composed myself again, I returned, assuming the character once again of their Egyptian overlord.
“Well? Have you chosen who will remain behind, while the rest of you return and bring your youngest brother?”
Reuben began to step forward, but Simeon placed a hand on his shoulder, and stepped forward in his place.
“I shall stay,” he offered. “Let my brothers return to Canaan.”
I gave a quick nod, and Shakir opened the cell, and handed me a length of rope. I made a show of binding Simeon’s wrists together, and gestured for the other nine to leave the cell. Many of them did not even cast Simeon a backward glance, I noted, and frowned inwardly. Maybe they weren’t yet so different as I had hoped. I would have to prod them to repentance a little harder.
I sent word on ahead to the granary to fill the sacks of the nine Hebrew brothers with grain, and to likewise place the money they had brought to pay for it back with each brother’s sack, along with provisions for the several week journey back to the land of Canaan—but I told the servants strictly to make sure they did not tell the brothers that their money had been returned to them. I knew this order would raise eyebrows also, but no one but Pharaoh himself could contradict my orders, and he did not bother himself about such matters.
Nearly six months I waited. I knew there would be some delay, as I had sent my brothers with grain to last about that long. I did not dare visit Simeon in the prison during those months, though I sent word to Shakir on a regular basis to ask how he fared.
Toward the end of those months, though, I began to look for my brothers in my grain line every day. Then, one day, I saw them—with Benjamin! I caught my breath as I saw my brother’s face as a grown man for the first time. He was young of course, and while the other nine looked fidgety and nervous, I could only describe Benjamin’s expression as excited. He gazed around Egypt in wide-eyed wonder, and his expression reminded me forcefully of Ephraim’s, my youngest, as he discovered the world for the first time. I could hardly wait to introduce Manasseh and Ephraim to their uncle.
Before they could reach the front of the line, I beckoned one of my servants to my side and pointed them out. “Take these men into my house and make them at home. Butcher an animal and prepare a meal; these men are going to eat with me at noon.”
The servant gave a swift nod and made his way down the dais to where my brothers waited their turn. I smothered a laugh as I watched Reuben and Issachar startle upon being addressed. I hardly attended to the man and his wife who were speaking to me; most of my attention was focused upon my brothers’ anxious expressions as the servant led them away. I suspected what they must be thinking: this was a set up. I thought they’d stolen the money they had brought to pay for grain the first time, and I was trying to lull them into complacency, before accusing them of theft and taking them all as slaves.
Asenath would know who they were of course—I’d told her six months ago, and she’d listened to me agonize nightly over when I would at last see them again. She wouldn’t know they were coming to dine today, but when she saw the strange Hebrew men and noted their number, she’d figure it out. I knew I could count on her to maintain the charade as long as I chose.
I finished with the couple before me, and beckoned another servant over, gesturing with my eyes in the direction of my brothers. “Send word to my steward,” I murmured, “and if those men say anything about finding their money in their sacks the last time they came, assure them that we received their payment in full, and not to worry themselves. And please also fetch their brother from the prison and bring him to them as well.”
My servant bowed and did as I bid him.
I paid little attention to the rest of the queue until noon, only half listening to their stories and pleas, sometimes accidentally cutting them off as I signaled for the servants to bring them grain. At last, word came that the feast had been prepared, and I leapt to my feet in relief, hurrying toward my home, where I knew my brothers waited. I entered through the back, and Asenath met me with a quizzical look on her face, dandling Ephraim on her hip. I gave her a quick kiss, and nodded, in response to all the questions on her face. Before she could ask me anything else, I washed my hands and feet, and made my way into the main dining space where my brothers stood waiting awkwardly. When I entered, as one, they all bowed to me, each man offering the present of coins he had brought back with him. Once again, I saw the stars from my second dream—all eleven of them this time. I took a moment to steady myself as my brothers straightened again. Then I cleared my throat.
“Are you all still well since last we met?”
They all assented that they were, shifting awkwardly from one foot to the other.
“How is your father, the old man of whom you spoke? Is he still alive?”
Reuben spoke for them. “Yes—your servant our father is quite well, very much alive.” He initiated a second bow, and the rest of them followed suit.
When they straightened again, at last I looked at the youngest of them. “And is this your youngest brother that you told me about?” Benjamin lifted his chin to me, and my voice came out thick. “God be gracious to you, my son.” All I wanted to do was to embrace my only full-blooded brother, but of course I could not do this without revealing myself. So instead, I turned abruptly and left the room. I was sure this confused my brothers, but I barely made it into my sleeping chamber as it was before I broke down and cried. I remained there until I managed to compose myself, probably ten minutes or so. Then I splashed my face with water to hide the evidence of my tears, made my expression as impassive as I could, and returned to the dining room. I felt my brothers’ curious stares, but I could offer no explanation. I glanced at Asenath, whose smile was fixed in place, and announced to the servants, “Serve the meal, please.”
The servants began to do so, setting places for each of our guests as well as for myself and for the Egyptians in my service. I pulled one of them aside and whispered that the last place should receive a serving five times larger than that of anyone else. If he wondered at this, he did not show it, but nodded once. As the servants set the places, I directed each of my brothers to their places, beginning with Reuben at the head of the table, and then I seated my brothers in descending order of age, setting Benjamin in the last place with the largest serving. I watched them glancing at one another in astonishment at what they took to be a remarkable coincidence, and smiled inwardly. I intended to give them a hint, hoping they might start to piece together the truth on their own.
The wine flowed, acting as the social lubricant we all needed. Even Simeon, after his long imprisonment, luxurious though I knew it was by prison standards, loosened up and began to tell stories from back home of the years I had missed. I caught Benjamin sneaking curious glances at me more than once. Did he recognize me at all, I wondered? Did he notice that we both had our mother’s eyes, and her cheekbones?
When the meal ended, my brothers were in no condition to begin their journey home. I urged them to remain the rest of the day and set out in the morning. That night, I sought my steward.
“Fill the men’s bags with food—all they can carry—and replace each one’s money at the top of the bag,” I told him. “Then put my chalice, my silver chalice, in the top of the bag of the youngest, along with the money for his food.”
I caught the steward’s confused look, but he did not question me. He did as I requested.
When morning dawned, I purposely lingered in bed, though I hardly slept that night. I heard the shuffling in the house of my brothers rising to begin their journeys. I waited until the house was silent, and then waited a little longer still.
Asenath was awake beside me, too—she propped her head up on her hand, narrowed her pretty dark eyes at me, and demanded, “How long are you going to let this go on before you tell them?”
I met her gaze, and shook my head. “As long as it takes, I suppose.”
“To achieve what, precisely?” she challenged. “They can’t apologize to you without knowing who you are. You already overheard them lamenting what they did to you. You saw your brother Benjamin. What else are you waiting for?”
I bit my lip. “I just want to know that they’ve changed.”
“How do you plan to determine that?”
The corners of my mouth curled. “Watch.” I rose, and called my steward in to our chamber as Asenath wrapped herself in silks. My steward appeared at the doorway and bowed.
“Run after the men who just left,” I told him. “When you catch up with them, say, ‘Why did you pay me back evil for good? You stole the chalice my master drinks from; he also uses it for divination. This is outrageous!'”
I again caught the fleeting look of confusion on the steward’s face, but he bowed again, and turned to carry out my orders. I turned back to Asenath with a grin on my face.
“So you’re just torturing them a little more, is that it?”
My grin faded. “No,” I protested, a little hurt that she would so misconstrue my motives. “Don’t you see? If my father is still alive, the only reason he would have kept Benjamin at home the first time my brothers made their journey must be because he favors him the way he once favored me. That was why my brothers hated me: they were jealous. Twenty years ago, if I were framed and endangered, my brothers would have abandoned me to the mercy of the Egyptian overlord and saved their own skins in a heartbeat—obviously. They did even worse than that. Now I’ve recreated a similar situation: Benjamin is suddenly the one in peril. Will they abandon him to his fate, too?”
Asenath searched my face. “What if they do?” she asked quietly. “What will you do then?”
I sighed. “Never trust them again, certainly. But I haven’t thought that far. I’m still hopeful they will prove to me that they are not the men they were.”
I splashed my face, dressed, and waited until I heard the commotion outside indicating that my steward had returned with my brothers. I affixed my face with my most stern, imperious look, and went out to meet them. They all came back, that was something. Also, I noted the torn clothing, the haggard expressions, as they fell prostrate before me.
“How can you have done this?” I demanded of them. “You have to know that a man in my position would have discovered this.”
My brother Judah spoke first. “What can we say, master? What is there to say? How can we prove our innocence? God is behind this, exposing how bad we are. We stand guilty before you and ready to be your slaves—we’re all in this together, the rest of us as guilty as the one with the chalice.”
I kept my expression impassive, but inwardly my heart leapt. They were all willing to take the fall together—was that not evidence of changed hearts? But I decided to push it further, just to be sure.
“No, only the one involved with the chalice will be my slave,” I declared. “The rest of you are free to go back to your father.”
My brothers all exchanged another anguished look, and Judah ventured for all of them, “Please, master; can I say just one thing to you? Don’t get angry. Don’t think I’m presumptuous—you’re the same as Pharaoh as far as I’m concerned. You, master, asked us, ‘Do you have a father and a brother?’ And we answered honestly, ‘We have a father who is old and a younger brother who was born to him in his old age. His brother is dead and he is the only son left from that mother. And his father loves him more than anything.’ Then you told us, ‘Bring him down here so I can see him.’ We told you, master, that it was impossible: ‘The boy can’t leave his father; if he leaves, his father will die.’ And then you said, ‘If your youngest brother doesn’t come with you, you won’t be allowed to see me.’ When we returned to our father, we told him everything you said to us. So when our father said, ‘Go back and buy some more food,’ we told him flatly, ‘We can’t. The only way we can go back is if our youngest brother is with us. We aren’t allowed to even see the man if our youngest brother doesn’t come with us.’ Your servant, my father, told us, ‘You know very well that my wife gave me two sons. One turned up missing. I concluded that he’d been ripped to pieces. I’ve never seen him since. If you now go and take this one and something bad happens to him, you’ll put my old gray, grieving head in the grave.'”
My heart dropped to my stomach. This was the first time I had heard what my father believed had happened to me. Of course—I knew they believed that I had died, but they told him I had been devoured by wild animals all those years ago! My poor father…
Judah went on, “And now, if I show up before your servant, my father, without the boy, this son with whom his life is so bound up, the moment he realizes the boy is gone, he’ll die on the spot. He’ll die of grief and we, your servants who are standing here before you, will have killed him. And that’s not all. I got my father to release the boy to show him to you by promising, ‘If I don’t bring him back, I’ll stand condemned before you, Father, all my life.’ So let me stay here as your slave, not this boy. Let the boy go back with his brothers. How can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? Oh, don’t make me go back and watch my father die in grief!”
As Judah spoke, my heart swelled as if it might burst out of my chest, until at last I could stand it no more. I turned to my steward and all the curious attending servants, and shouted, “Leave! Clear out—everyone leave!”
They scurried to do as I asked, and even Asenath gave me a significant look before she too left the room. My brothers looked stunned and terrified; Judah still groveled at my feet.
“I am Joseph!” I burst out at last, dropping to my knees where Judah lay. “Your brother, Joseph! Is my father really still alive?”
I didn’t know what I expected at this pronouncement, but my words were met with utter silence. No one so much as moved. I remained on my knees, and said, “Come closer to me, please.” It took a moment for them to obey, but at last they shuffled forward. I presented my face for their inspection, insisting, “I am Joseph, your brother, whom you sold into Egypt. But God was behind it. God sent me here ahead of you to save lives. There has been a famine in the land now for two years; the famin