“My dear Joseph …” These were the words of Jacob as he wept for his beloved, trustful and humble son Joseph, whom his brothers alleged was eaten by a wolf. They showed him a shirt soiled with some blood. However, with great foresight, perception and insight, deep down he knew that Joseph was still alive and that one day they would be re-united. Yet, he felt great anguish and pain of separation from his loved one.
This story has been related in all the major monotheistic faiths, indicating a deeper allegorical meaning of a universal example transcending all times and cultures.
It is well worth analyzing the psychological, social and moral aspects of such stories to shed light on events in our lives and times.
In this story, Joseph represents the human conscience that enables us to be sincere, responsible and accountable, as well as altruistic and generous. The brothers of Joseph represent the carnal self which deafens, blinds, and silences the human soul in the face of spiritual and material oppression. The carnal self suppresses the sensitivity to overcome oppression and injustice as well as appreciating beauty and benefaction.
Joseph’s brothers threw him into a well in their jealousy towards him. This is allegorical to an ineffective human conscience that has been made to fall prey to passing whims and desires. It is like falling down into a pit that has only one way for escape, as opposed to rising up to overcome the challenges of humanity. In a similar perspective, Joseph represents the characteristics of the noblest men in history. These include dedication, devotion, love, responsibility, and generosity.
Joseph is then rescued from the well by people from a passing-by caravan, coming from a long distance, where otherwise there is no one that stops at this well. This brings to mind the thought that, at a certain point in history, human conscience and good-will will be lost and forgotten to such a degree that it will be ignored and left on its own. It will be like a piece of jewel deep in the earth or a small amount of water in the vast dessert, extremely precious yet inaccessible and undiscovered by the masses.
The entrapment of Joseph in the well represents the downturns of human history, where darkness and a kind of hopelessness rule over societies, in a similar vein as it is manifested in our own personal lives. There are points in our lives when we seem lost in the dark and most often in some sort of depression and despair. However, these dark points in our lives are constantly followed by some sort of guidance and enlightenment. The wisdom behind this dark-light principle clarifies to us that we are under constant trial in our lives. They call for us to learn who we are and where we are heading to in life.
The rescue of Joseph from the well represents the bright and enlightened times of human history, as well as in our personal lives. In these times there is a relief from hardship, suffering or depression for some. A sense of expansion, understanding and enlightenment surrounds us and increases our appreciation for the endless numbers of provisions we are given. In our lives and in the lives of societies, this principle points to a time of justice, peace, understanding and great spiritual development.
The crying Jacob, soft-hearted, compassionate yet dominant, and enduring in the face of adversity, represents the great spiritual and material mentors of humanity. For years they persevered patiently and consistently, while sipping the anguish of separation until humanity re-unites with the long-lost Joseph. People who represent Jacob will learn to live under conditions where they will not be understood or appreciated, possibly even by their own children. Hence, the greatest prayer of Jacob is “I only disclose my anguish and sorrow to God” (Qur’an 12:86).
After being rescued by the caravan and taken to Egypt, Joseph was sold as a slave, where he later became a King. Although a ruler with great power in his hands, he does not forget his father Jacob or his brothers. Wealth and power does not change him, nor does it make him oblivious of his responsibilities or degrade his character. In fact his prayer “Take my soul to You as one who submitted unto You, and join me with the righteous” (Qur’an 12:101) shows us very clearly how concerned he was about the state in which he would die, since the one who does not fear the consequences of his/her actions is someone who cannot be trusted.
This story also brings to mind the recurring presence of certain principles in our lives.
Joseph was thrown into a well, then later was given the opportunity (as a King) to call to account the oppression of his brothers towards him, who ultimately asked him to forgive them. This indicates that events revolve in a circular manner; while it is daylight for some it is nighttime for others. Likewise, today many suffer in agony and their identities are smeared and blotched, while others live in oblivion and recklessness. A time will come when those who are oppressed will call to account those who thought they are not accountable to anyone.
It is not known how long Joseph remained in the well and how he survived there; however, from this story we can see that the Creator, closer to all more than they are to themselves, enabled the caravan to be a means to rescue Joseph from a situation in which there was no hope for escape. This is a poignant reminder that we are never alone, or constantly at a loss, and although we are in essence fragile and powerless, the Most Gracious Creator creates a way of exit from the harshest of situations.
As a young man, Joseph was not only physically attractive but, more essentially, he had a strong spiritual magnetism and aura. His immense loyalty, sincerity and faith were the pillars of his character and the reason why his father loved him so dearly. Jacob also knew through his gifted foresight that Joseph was a beloved of the Creator; hence, this would mean that the trials and tribulations he would face would be much stronger than those most others faced.
The modesty and chastity of Joseph was equally as great as his captivating aura. This was manifested when he was working as a servant in Egypt after he was sold as a slave there. The wife of the King was powerful, young and attractive and wanted to abuse the good looks of Joseph and seduce him. At this point, we see the great will-power and chastity of Joseph, where he is protected and saved from committing a great mistake, as he says, “God forbid!” (Qur’an 12:23). Thus, the protection and help of the Creator becomes manifest under the direst conditions. The other reason why Jacob cried and was so worried and concerned for Joseph was maybe that he knew he would face great trials in his life and therefore constantly asked the Lord to protect, guide and help him under these conditions.
A final lesson to be learnt from Joseph’s strong personality and unique character is that he did not punish his brothers when they came to request from him some provisions after he became King. If he had wanted to take revenge, he could have easily done so, but he chose not to. On the contrary, he demonstrated how generous and forgiving he was. After the hypocrisy, the deception and the treachery of his brothers towards him, he finally says to them, “No reproach this day shall be on you. May God forgive you; indeed He is the Most Merciful of the Merciful” (Qur’an 12:92). Hence, Joseph teaches a lesson by forgiving his brothers who wanted him to be forgotten, lost and even dead.
Sebnem Unlu, PhD, is a Research Faculty at University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, USA. For correspondence with the author: