The Young and the Restless?
It sounds more like a soap opera than a story from the Genesis 39, doesn’t it, this tale of Joseph in Potiphar’s house? Or maybe a Hollywood movie.
The characters in the story are pretty much the stock characters of popular entertainment — the good-looking, innocent young fellow who catches the eye of the bored housewife. She turns temptress and makes every effort to corrupt him. When her little scheme fails, she turns on him and tries to blame him for the whole thing. Finally, there is the husband, who never suspects what his wife is up to. When she invents a story about Joseph’s improper advances, the husband responds in a predictable jealous rage.
As I said, at first glance, all this seems to be little more than a soap opera plot we’ve seen and heard countless times before. But there’s more to it than that. Let’s take a closer look at what happened in Potiphar’s house.
Now Joseph had been taken down to Egypt. Potiphar, an Egyptian who was one of Pharaoh’s officials, the captain of the guard, bought him from the Ishmaelites who had taken him there (Genesis 39:1).
Up until this point, Joseph was pretty much living the dream. The favorite of his father (Jacob), chapter 37 tells us that he had been given the family blessing, even though he was not the oldest. This would make him the head of the family when his father died and also exempted him from most of the hard work.
This made him very unpopular with his brothers. Jacob threw gas on the fire by gifting Joseph a “richly ornamented robe” (37:3). And I suppose that Joseph didn’t help matters by telling his brothers about his dream in which he saw his brothers and father and mother all bowing down to him.
Soon Joseph’s perfect world would come crashing down. Spurred by jealousy, his brothers assault him and sell him to Ishmaelite slave traders. They stain his glorious robe with sheep’s blood to convince their father that Joseph has been killed by a wild animal.
It says he’s been taken to Potiphar’s house. Potiphar is the captain of Pharaoh’s bodyguard, so he has some wealth and influence. More importantly, he has access to Pharaoh. It’s impossible for Joseph to know how God will come through, but we know the story and we can see how this was all for his good.
2 The Lord was with Joseph so that he prospered, and he lived in the house of his Egyptian master.
Here’s something that seems like an oxymoron. How can God be with Joseph if Joseph is in Potiphar’s house? I mean, if God is with Joseph, why doesn’t he free him from slavery? But the plan of God is much bigger than Joseph and it includes this brief time of suffering.
But the Lord wasn’t just with Joseph; He was with him in a visible way:
3 When his master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord gave him success in everything he did,
Everything Joseph does works out well. Whatever is under his charge is blessed abundantly so that Potiphar notices and can’t deny that Joseph is a valuable man:
4 Joseph found favor in his eyes and became his attendant. Potiphar put him in charge of his household, and he entrusted to his care everything he owned. 5 From the time he put him in charge of his household and of all that he owned, the Lord blessed the household of the Egyptian because of Joseph. The blessing of the Lord was on everything Potiphar had, both in the house and in the field. 6 So Potiphar left everything he had in Joseph’s care; with Joseph in charge, he did not concern himself with anything except the food he ate.
Joseph turns out to be such a success that Potiphar turns over all his affairs to him. The only decision Potiphar needs to think about now is what to eat next and he can watch the gold pour in. Once again Joseph finds himself a favorite and in a place of authority. He is still a slave but at least he’s not at the bottom anymore, right? But God has a purpose in this promotion and it’s not going to seem good at first. This rise in Potiphar’s house gives way for another problem:
Now Joseph was well-built and handsome, 7 and after a while his master’s wife took notice of Joseph and said, “Come to bed with me!”
Before we get into the rest of this I want to remind you of something very important. Joseph is a good example of purity and obedience but that’s not the reason for this story. He is what he is because of grace and grace alone. If we were in the same situation we believe that God would give us the same grace to endure. The point of this encounter is not to prove Joseph’s great faith but to prove that God is with him no matter what. Joseph will do what’s right and God will let him suffer for it; so, is God still with him?
8 But he refused. “With me in charge,” he told her, “my master does not concern himself with anything in the house; everything he owns he has entrusted to my care. 9 No one is greater in this house than I am. My master has withheld nothing from me except you, because you are his wife. How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?”
Joseph realizes what a travesty it would be to break confidence with his master. It’s not just something that shouldn’t be done to Potiphar; it’s great wickedness against God. And so, he refuses but she won’t let it go:
10 And though she spoke to Joseph day after day, he refused to go to bed with her or even be with her.
11 One day he went into the house to attend to his duties, and none of the household servants was inside. 12 She caught him by his cloak and said, “Come to bed with me!” But he left his cloak in her hand and ran out of the house.
13 When she saw that he had left his cloak in her hand and had run out of the house, 14 she called her household servants. “Look,” she said to them, “this Hebrew has been brought to us to make sport of us! He came in here to sleep with me, but I screamed. 15 When he heard me scream for help, he left his cloak beside me and ran out of the house.”
16 She kept his cloak beside her until his master came home. 17 Then she told him this story: “That Hebrew slave you brought us came to me to make sport of me. 18 But as soon as I screamed for help, he left his cloak beside me and ran out of the house.”
19 When his master heard the story his wife told him, saying, “This is how your slave treated me,” he burned with anger. 20 Joseph’s master took him and put him in prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were confined.
Joseph’s reward for purity is another demotion. It’s not hard to imagine his shock and disappointment. How can God be with him and still let all these bad things happen to him? In fact, are we sure? Is God still with him?
But while Joseph was there in the prison, 21 the Lord was with him; he showed him kindness and granted him favor in the eyes of the prison warden. 22 So the warden put Joseph in charge of all those held in the prison, and he was made responsible for all that was done there. 23 The warden paid no attention to anything under Joseph’s care, because the Lord was with Joseph and gave him success in whatever he did.
Well, we know the rest of this story, but we have to wonder what Joseph thought as he watched another promotion come along. It seems that he takes it all in stride. Maybe these little blessings in the hardships were sufficient evidences for him that God was indeed with him. Maybe he too knew that all these failures and losses would somehow equal a positive at the end. Maybe he knew it was somehow for his good.
But what about the original reader and what about us? What do we learn that helps us today?
Well, the bottom line is that God was with Joseph:
He was with him in his slavery,
He was with him in Egypt,
He was with him in persecution,
He was with him in prison.
All Joseph’s suffering had a definite end in mind:
If Joseph had not been sold into slavery,
If he had not been falsely accused and thrown into prison,
If he would not have met Pharaoh’s cupbearer,
If he would not have interpreted the dream of Pharaoh,
If he had not been raised to the position of second in the kingdom,
He would not have been in position to save the lives of thousands of people including the very brothers who had first sold him.
At the end of the story, Joseph confesses his faith in God’s controlling providence before his brothers:
You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives (Genesis 50:20).
Even when it seems that God has abandoned us, he has a plan. His plan may include suffering but it’s how he fulfils his promises to his people.
It is amazing that the most common means people use these days to solve the mystery of suffering never even occurred to Joseph or Job or Paul. These who suffered so for their testimony never once expressed any sense that God is limited in what He has control over. But that seems to be the first instinct in our day when tragedy strikes, or injustice is done. “God couldn't have willed that sickness, or that storm, or that wreck.” We create exemption clauses that we think protect God when hard things happen.
All through Joseph’s experiences, there is no indication that he followed this line of thinking. Instead, by example and by word, he held to the conviction that God reigns. The banner that hangs over Joseph’s life is the New Testament verse from Paul, who was himself martyred for his faith:
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. (Rom. 8:28)
Listen: that verse means nothing if God is not in absolute control over the events and details of our lives. His rule over all the details of my life is the ground of my hope, the assurance that justice will have the last word, and the promise that this life cannot compare to what He has in store for me in the next.
Our old friend Job put it like this in Job 12:13-16:
"To God belong wisdom and power; counsel and understanding are His. What He tears down cannot be rebuilt; the man He imprisons cannot be released. If He holds back the waters, there is drought; if He lets them loose, they devastate the land. To Him belong strength and victory; both deceived and deceiver are His.
Keep the conviction that God reigns over all the details of your life. Rest here. Stay here. Joseph did. David did. Isaiah did. Daniel did. This is the place of comfort, endurance, and hope.
Learn to wait upon the Lord. Isaiah knew well this truth, and gave us these great words:
They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall soar on wings as eagles; they shall run and not grow weary; they shall run and not be faint (40:31).
Joseph understood that God’s ways are not our ways. His timing is always perfect.
Let me close with this hymn from William Cowper:
God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.
Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never-failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs
And works His sov’reign will.
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.
His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flow’r.
Blind unbelief is sure to err
And scan His work in vain;
God is His own interpreter,
And He will make it plain.