Selling Joseph: A Cautionary Tale
Many people like stories from ancient scripture. The characters are familiar. The plot lines are predictable. And the distance from our time back into the ages is so formidable, we presume that the struggles described therein are not like our own daily struggles. Yet, we should never assume that we can just comfortably be entertained by such legends, for when the mystics take hold of these stories, they shed an intense light on the old texts.
For example, the thirteenth-century Sufi, Farid ud-Din Attar, in The Conference of the Birds, makes an enlightened interpretation of the story of Joseph from the Hebrew scriptures. Joseph, the favoured son of Jacob, was the one who was given the coat of many colours. In the Bible, it is told that his jealous brothers threw him into a pit and sold him into slavery.
Attar enlarges and expands this story for our benefit. He tells us that when Joseph was sold into slavery, the slave trader was so startled by how cheap the price was, and how eager the brothers were to make the sale, that the trader insisted on a formal sales receipt. He made all ten brothers sign it. Then, when the Pharaoh bought Joseph, the sales receipt went with Joseph.
As the years passed, Joseph became favoured by the Pharaoh, and quickly rose in the ranks of the empire, eventually becoming King. One year, a terrible famine fell on the entire region, including the land where the ten brothers lived. They were so desperate for food and grain they went to beg for sustenance from the King. They did not recognize Joseph, their brother, as the man on the throne. It had been many years since they had abandoned him. But he recognized them.
Joseph told them, “O men, I have a document, in the Hebrew tongue. No one here can read it. If you read it to me, I will give you plenty of bread.”
Since all of them were fluent in Hebrew they happily accepted and said, “O King, bring the paper!”
At this juncture, the narrator in Attar’s story interrupts his prose and says to all who are happily engrossed in the unfolding drama: “May your heart be struck with blindness if your pride keeps you from hearing this story as your own.”
Suddenly we are commanded by Attar to pay much closer attention. No matter what we might have thought at the beginning of this story from scripture, it isn’t really about the past. It is a story about you and me and our relationship with God.
Attar concludes his account of Joseph’s story with these words:
Joseph handed them the receipt. They took it and fell to their knees, trembling. Not a single line of it did they dare read out loud, nor did they have the courage to say what it contained. All suffered distress and grief, afflicted by what they had done to Joseph.
And then, just in case we are having a difficult time understanding what this story has to do with our discipleship, Attar offers his commentary. He explains that when we go before God, every deed we have committed and every decision we have made is presented to us – especially concerning the choices we have made about where we have placed our attention. Did we give our attention to our soul, the most precious part of ourselves and our most prized possession? Or, on the contrary, did we neglect our soul and scatter our attention out into the world? Attar reveals that Joseph, in this story, represents our soul. Then Attar asks each and every one of us questions like, Have you thrown your precious brother, your soul, into a well? Have you abused and neglected your soul? Have you constantly given your attention away to trivialities and deceptions?
Then he says:
Don’t you know, you nobody beggar
that you sell a Joseph at every breath?
Joseph in the end will be your king.
The jewel of the High Court, and
you will go to him as a naked, hungry tramp.
If money was what you wanted –
why did you sell him so cheap?
This is a question worth pondering. Why do we “sell” so much of our time and attention, the precious opportunity of this human life, so cheaply – to Facebook, television, dreams about vacations, promotions or renovations to our homes? When we, initiates of a living Master, promised to give our time and attention to meditation and simran, and to remembering the One to whom we actually belong, how did we manage to get so lost, so distracted, so negligent? Why have we given our lives to the transient and fleeting distractions of this world and all its momentary pleasures?
The Masters, who see our spiritual poverty and starvation, say, “Begin again. Begin now.” With every breath, we have the opportunity to remember the Lord. A satsangi complained to Hazur, “Maharaj Ji, my meditation is so poor, that I feel it doesn’t even count as meditation.” The Master replied in Spiritual Perspectives, Vol. II:
Well, you can count all twenty-four hours in your meditation. If you build around you an atmosphere of meditation, every breath you breathe is meditation for you.… If the Lord is always in your heart, in one way or another, then every breath is meditation.Meditation is not closing yourself in a room for a couple of hours – meditation is a way of life.
Let’s not sell our soul, our ‘Joseph,’ so cheaply. By giving our time and attention to the Lord as we promised, and living life in the atmosphere of meditation, we will not be afflicted by our choices but will rise to the throne of the King.
Don’t presume the road is short!
Many oceans and deserts lie between the Beloved and us.
Only the brave can be Wayfarers in the Path,
For the journey is long and the waters deep.
It’s best to go on this journey weeping and laughing
And riddled with amazement.
If we discover even a trace of the Beloved,
That will be something! …
Since life without the Beloved isn’t worth a dime
Go ahead, be brave, discard your precious life.
If you are willing to give up your precious existence,
The Beloved will reward you with eternal existence.
Farid ud-Din Attar, The Conference of the Birds