Two boys, Joseph and Benjamin, sons of a rich Eastern shepherd, lived in their father's wide tent in the great valley of Hebron. Joseph was about seventeen years of age, and tall and strong, so that he could drive sheep, herd cattle, and work in the harvest field. Benjamin was a little red-cheeked boy of five, with merry brown eyes, and his brother Joseph loved him very dearly, for their mother was dead. The father of the boys, whose name was Jacob, had thousands of sheep and hundreds of camels, asses, and cattle, so that he was looked upon as a very rich man; and he had ten grown-up sons, who roamed about the country feeding the sheep in the green valleys and by the water-brooks.
Joseph was dearly loved by Jacob, because the boy had been born when his father was an old man; and that was one reason why his older brothers hated Joseph and did all they could to annoy him. Perhaps they feared that their father would leave all his wealth to his favourite son, and you know that this sometimes makes quarrels among brothers and sisters.
Now Jacob showed his special love for Joseph by making him a coat of many colours -- a long tunic with stripes of red, green, blue, and yellow, having a coloured fringe at the knee, and a bright shawl to bind it closely round his waist. Joseph was very proud of this coat, but the others hated both it and him, believing that he would get the best of everything from their father -- all but Reuben, the eldest, who loved the lad, and smiled kindly when he saw his gay tunic.
One day at the harvest-time the sons of Jacob were all at home, cutting down the yellow grain, and taking it away on the backs of asses to the threshing-place. Joseph, of course, worked with them, but they were always finding fault with him, and trying to vex him. He knew, however, that his father loved him, and this made him able to bear their unkindness with patience. Besides, his mind was filled with boyish thoughts of how great he would be, and what he would do, when he grew up to be a man. He was very strong for his years, and joined with the women in tying the grain into bundles, and loading it on the asses; and it was very hard work, indeed, out there in the scorching Eastern sun.
But rest came at night. When Joseph lay down with his little brother on a heap of straw at the back of the tent, he slept soundly, and dreamt the golden dreams of youth.
He dreamt one night that they were all binding sheaves once more out in the sunny field, and his brothers' sheaves rose up and bowed down to his sheaf. Joseph took it all in earnest, and next day he told the dream to his brothers, perhaps as they were sitting at their midday meal in the shade of a spreading tree; but he soon knew from their angry faces that they saw nothing pleasant in it, and when his story was told they called out to him, --
|Shalt thou, indeed, reign over us?|
They were jealous of him, and, of course, this did not make them any kinder to the young lad. But Joseph remembered what his father had told him -- that dreams were sometimes messages from God; and he believed that his dream was a message, and that he would one day be greater than all his brothers. They also believed in dreams, and feared that what the boy had dreamt might come true, so that they began to hate him all the more.
In those days people thought that the stars had a great deal to do with their lives; and certain men said that they could tell what would happen to a new-born child when he grew up by looking at the stars which were to be seen in the sky at the time of his birth.
Now Joseph looked often at the stars, and wondered who placed them there, and what they had to do with him. And one night as he lay asleep in his father's tent he had another dream, and this time it was about the stars that could be seen through a slit in the tent, gleaming and sparkling in the dark blue sky. He dreamt that the sun and the moon and eleven of the largest of the twinkling stars came and bowed down to him.
He told this dream also to his angry brothers, as well as to the old man his father, who gently checked him for his vain thoughts. He had, however, a soaring mind, and had more dreams still, of which we are not told, so that his brothers gave him, partly in mockery, the name of |Joseph the Dreamer.|
Now at certain seasons grass was somewhat scarce in the Vale of Hebron, so at one time Jacob sent his sons away with their sheep and cattle to seek food in other valleys where the grass was longer green. They went along the hills to the beautiful Vale of Shechem, fifty miles away; and after some time had passed the old shepherd began to wonder if they were all well, for he had not heard from them for some days.
It was his usual custom when his sons were away from home to send a messenger to them with cheese, butter, and wine, and other nice things to eat; and this time he asked Joseph to go. Now, a camel ride of fifty miles was not an easy undertaking, for there were robbers in these parts, and the old man was much pleased when Joseph said he was not afraid to set out on the journey.
Mounted on a strong camel, with side baskets filled with cakes of figs, dried raisins, parched corn, and leather bottles of oil and wine, the young lad rode away. He was dressed in his favourite coat of many colours, protected by his long cloak, while a bright kerchief covered his head, and a spear and club hung at his saddle. And as his father watched him going along the yellow track and over the hill towards the Bethlehem road, he sent up a prayer for his safe return.
When Joseph came in due time to the Vale of Shechem, he wandered about asking the few people he met for his brothers; and at last he was told by a certain man that he must ride to a place called Dothan, where there were two wells, for his brothers were there feeding their flocks. This he did, and in due time came to the spot where his brothers were resting.
|Who is this coming over the hill from Shechem?| said the brothers to each other, as they shaded their eyes with their hands to watch Joseph coming down the track into the plain.
They expected more riders to follow him, but no more came, and they wondered who the lonely traveller could be. After a time the newcomer urged his camel into a trot across the plain, and they soon saw that it was Joseph.
|Behold, this dreamer cometh!| cried one. Now they had their father's favourite in their power.
|Let us slay him for his dreams, and throw him into some pit,| said another; |and we will say that some wild beast has eaten him up.|
But Reuben, one of the ten, would not hear of hurting the lad, though he agreed to their putting him into a pit; for he had made up his mind that when the night came he would help the lad out again, and send him home to his father.
Shouting to his brothers in his joy at finding them, Joseph urged on his camel; but no answering shout came back again, and his heart sank within him. His camel knelt on the ground, and leaping off its back, he turned to his nearest brother for the kiss of welcome; but a strong arm warded him off.
He turned to another in surprise, only to meet with the same cold dislike. He told them what his father had sent, and took out the presents from the camel-bags, giving them the old shepherd's kind messages. But it was all of no use. He could not make friends of these dark, bearded men, whose flashing eyes spoke only of their bitter hatred towards the young lad their brother.
Seizing him roughly, they stripped him of his coat of many colours, and leading him to a deep hole in the ground called a pit, they pushed him in. What would become of his dreams now?
|Let him die there of thirst and hunger,| they said, as they turned to feast upon the good things the lad had brought to them with such a joyful heart.
Meanwhile Reuben had gone away, so as not to see his brother treated cruelly; and now the men feasted together in sullen silence, for they were by no means happy.
While they sat eating they watched a string of camels come over the hills to the north, and draw nearer and nearer across the plain; and before long they saw that the travellers were a band of merchants taking slaves and spices to the distant land of Egypt. Slaves! That was the very thing; and a flush came over the face of Judah as he said to his brothers, --
|What shall we gain if we kill our brother? Let us sell him to these men. Let us not harm him, for, after all, he is our brother.|
So they helped Joseph out of the pit and showed him to the merchants, who saw that he was a handsome lad, such as would bring a good price in the slave-market in Egypt, where red-cheeked boys were of greater value than black boys of the desert; and they bought him for twenty silver pieces, which they counted out to Judah upon the ground.
Tied with a rope like a dog to his master's camel, Joseph was led away by the dusky merchants on their slow march to Egypt. They did not heed his cries and tears, for they bought and sold boys and girls, as other men bought and sold sheep and cattle, almost every day of their lives.
When night drew near, and Reuben came quietly towards the edge of the pit and called his young brother's name, he got no answer but the sighing of the wind in the grass. Believing that the lad was dead, Reuben tore his clothes in his grief, and ran quickly to his brothers' tents; but they hid the truth from him, and having dipped Joseph's tunic in the blood of a goat which they had killed, they brought it to his father.
|This have we found,| they said. |Tell us now whether it is your son's coat or not.|
Then the old man knew it at once, and said, |It is my son's coat; an evil beast has devoured him. Joseph is without doubt rent in pieces.| And in his bitter grief he tore his garments after the manner of his people, while his sons and daughters tried in vain to comfort him.
|I will go down to the grave,| he said, |mourning for my son.|