When Ptolemy Philadelphus died, he was succeeded by his son, Ptolemy Euergetes. During the reign of this monarch the high-priest in Judea was named Onias. He was a great lover of money, and he did not like to part with the twenty talents which the king of Egypt exacted every year from the high priest. One year he neglected to pay this tribute. Then Ptolemy was angry, and sent an ambassador to Jerusalem, and, when Onias still refused to pay his taxes, the ambassador told the people that the king of Egypt would seize upon their land and send soldiers to live upon it.
Onias had a nephew, named Joseph, who though young in years, was much respected in Jerusalem on account of his wisdom and prudence. This young man went to Onias, and reproved him for bringing the nation into danger, telling him that if he was so great a lover of money as to be unwilling to part with it, he ought at least to go to the king and ask him to remit either the whole or a part of the sum demanded. But Onias answered that he was old and feeble, and did not care to go to the king. He added that he was willing, if necessary, to lay down the priesthood, as he did not care for the dignity any longer. Then Joseph asked his uncle to let him go and interview the king of Egypt in his stead. Onias consented. Joseph went into the temple and called the Jews together, and told them not to be disturbed at what his uncle had done, for that he himself would go to Egypt and explain matters to the king. The people were glad to hear this, and returned joyfully to their homes.
Joseph went down from the temple, and invited the ambassador to come to his house. He feasted him for many days, and gave him rich presents. Then he told him to return to the king, his master, and say that Joseph, the nephew of the high-priest, was coming to excuse the people. The ambassador was much pleased with the frank and generous nature of Joseph, and he promised that he would assist him in every way. On his return to Egypt he gave Ptolemy the message which Joseph had intrusted to him, and he praised the young man so highly that both the king and the queen felt well disposed to him before they had seen him.
Meanwhile, Joseph sent to his rich friends in Samaria and borrowed money from
them to help him on his journey. Now, every year the king used to sell the right
of collecting his taxes to such as offered the highest sum for the right. This
was called farming out the taxes. The person who bought the right of collecting
the taxes was entitled to keep for himself all that he could collect. Sometimes
he was not able to collect as much money as he had paid for the right, and then,
of course, he lost; but usually he collected more than he had paid. When Joseph
set out on his journey for Egypt the time had come round for the annual farming
the taxes, and he met many merchants who were going to the court of Ptolemy to
contest for the right of collecting the taxes. These men saw Joseph journeying
on the way, and laughed at him for his poverty and mean clothing. On arriving at
Alexandria, Joseph was told that King Ptolemy was at Memphis, and he hastened
thither to meet him. The king happened to be in his chariot with his wife, and
with his friend Athenion, the ambassador who had been sent to Onias at
Jerusalem. Athenion at once recognized Joseph, and made known to the king who he
was, and Ptolemy asked Joseph to come up into his chariot. And as Joseph sat
there Ptolemy began to complain of the conduct of Onias. But Joseph
"Forgive him on account of his age, for thou knowest that old men are like children, and are foolish; but thou shalt have from us, who are young men, everything thou desirest, and shalt have no cause to complain."
The king was pleased with what the young man said; and when he had talked a little longer with him, and found him a sensible and pleasant companion, he invited him to come to the royal palace and stay with him as his guest. And the king returned with Joseph to Alexandria, where the great men of the place were much surprised at the favor bestowed on the young Jew.
On the day on which the taxes were to be farmed out, a great number of bidders came to the palace. The sums which they offered for the right of collecting taxes in the countries under Egyptian rule amounted in all to eight thousand talents. But Joseph stepped forward and said that this sum was too low, and that he would give twice as much. The king was pleased to hear this offer, and said he would sell the right to Joseph. But first he asked him if he had any sureties; that is, men of wealth and position, who would see that Joseph would carry out his promises, or would forfeit the money themselves if he did not do so.
Joseph answered in a firm and pleasant
"I will give you sureties who will be good and responsible persons, and whom you will have no reason to distrust."
"Who are they?" asked the king.
"I will give thee," replied Joseph, "no other persons than King Ptolemy and his queen, Cleopatra."
Ptolemy laughed at Joseph's words, and was so well pleased with the jest that he granted him the farming of the taxes without any sureties. This was a sore grief to all the merchants who had come from a distance to bid for the taxes, and they returned crestfallen to their own countries.
Joseph took with him two thousand of the king's foot-soldiers and started out to collect the taxes. Coming to the town of Askelon, in Syria, he demanded that the citizens should pay him what was due. But the citizens refused, and even spoke insultingly to him. Upon which, Joseph seized twenty of the principal men and put them to death. And he took all their gold and silver and sent it to the king, and informed him what he had done. Ptolemy sent back word that he had acted rightly, and that he had his full permission to do as he deemed best in the future. When the people of the other cities heard of what had happened in Askelon they were afraid, and they received Joseph with great honor, and paid their taxes to him.