Text: Genesis 39:1-23
September 23, 2018
I was contacted this week through ancestry.com by a distant relative. Fred Russell is probably a 4th or 5th cousin according to DNA tests. His family was stuck on his Russell ancestors and hoping I could help. I had to tell them that I had also hit a brick wall, probably a generation or two before our ancestral lines would meet up.
Apparently the ancient Hebrews did a better job of keeping track of their genealogy than many of us. We are in Genesis again this week, moving on in the continuing story of the family that began with Abraham and Sarah.
Last week we looked at the call of Abraham and Sarah. God called them to a new land that God would show them, and God was with them as they ventured toward an unknown future.
Today we are with Abraham and Sarah’s great-grandson, Joseph. A lot has happened in the intervening time. Sarah gives birth at age 90 to the child of promise, Isaac. Isaac and his wife Rebekah have the twins Jacob and Esau, rivals with one another all of their lives. God’s favor falls on the scoundrel Jacob, who as he ages matures, at least a bit. He wrestles with God and leaves the experience changed. And his name becomes Israel, which means “Striving with God.” The nation is named for him.
But the family dysfunction is palpable as we read the pages of scripture. There was favoritism in Jacob’s family of origin. Isaac favored Esau awhile Rebekah favored Jacob. The results were not pretty, but unfortunately Jacob did not learn from this. He clearly favors his youngest sons, children of his favorite wife Rachel, which is a story in itself. He especially favors Joseph. This leads to all kinds of issues.
Jacob has a beautiful coat made for Joseph, the coat of many colors – or as they have it in the Broadway musical, the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Joseph is arrogant and flaunts his favoritism. He tells his brothers of his dream in which they are all bowing down to him. As a young man, he is not a real likable person. With the coat and then the dream, his brothers reach the limit. They mean to kill him but his brother Reuben convinces them to throw Joseph into a pit instead. In the end, they pulled him up out of the pit and sold him to Midianite traders who were passing by.
They took Joseph’s coat, his coat of many colors, and dipped it in goat blood. They took it back to Jacob, who was distraught that his favorite son Joseph had been killed by a wild animal.
This brings us to today’s scripture. The Midianite traders went on to Egypt and sold Joseph to Potiphar, one of Pharoah’s high officials and captain of the guard. He was in a foreign land and he was a slave, but Joseph nevertheless did well in Potiphar’s house. He is not only strong and able; he has a good mind. He organizes. He plans. And he is very good with people – he has excellent leadership qualities. Before long, Potiphar puts Joseph in charge of the household. He is over the other slaves, he is in charge of purchases and upkeep. He has the keys to the home. Joseph becomes a trusted advisor and overseer in Potiphar’s house. God blessed Joseph and God blessed Potiphar because of Joseph.
But there was this issue with Potiphar’s wife. We read that Joseph was handsome, a good-looking guy, and Potiphar’s wife had a thing for him. She tried to seduce him, tried to interest him, but Joseph would not think of it – Potiphar trusted him completely and he would not betray that trust.
But one day when Potiphar was away and none of the household servants seemed to be around, Potiphar’s wife tries again to entice Joseph and grabs his robe. Joseph runs out of the room, and she still has his robe in her hands. So she calls all the members of her household and says, “My husband has brought this Hebrew into our midst and that man made advances toward me. I screamed and look, he ran and left his robe!” Potiphar comes home and she reports the same thing.
Did you catch what happened there? There is a racial or cultural dimension to it. “This foreign man, this outsider, this Hebrew tried to take advantage of me. That little detail of pointing out that Joseph was a Hebrew was important, and very intentional.
They say that “clothes make the man,” but in Joseph’s case, clothes proved to be the unmaking of the man. First it was his coat of many colors, and now his robe or whatever garment it was that had gotten him in trouble.
Now, in a sense this episode is not the way it usually works. It is usually the man taking advantage of the woman. But in another sense, this is the way that it usually works because what we have is a case of the powerful preying on those without power. The male boss makes suggestive comments to a female subordinate because he can get away with it. In this case, Mrs. Potiphar makes suggestive comments and comes on to a Hebrew slave because she can. And did you notice that Joseph doesn’t even have a chance to deny it? No one would believe the word of a Hebrew slave.
At least, the word of a slave would not be accepted publicly. But there is some reason to believe that Potiphar had his doubts about his wife’s version of the incident. The text says that Potiphar was enraged and took Joseph and put him in prison.
But the consequences could have been a lot worse. Often a slave accused of such a thing would be executed. That would be more typical. Joseph suffers wrongfully; he is thrown in prison. But by the standards of the day he got off relatively easy.
Well, it happens. It has happened for centuries. We have to admit that this morning’s scripture seems ripped from the headlines, as they say. But much more often, a man is the one in a position of power who abuses a woman. The behavior can range from comments and looks and whistles to something much, much worse.
This has been a very difficult week in our community, a heartbreaking week. A young woman, close to graduating, a talented athlete and wonderful person with her whole life ahead of her, has her life taken in broad daylight on the golf course. The death of Celia Barquin Arozamena has been heavy on all of our minds. I confess that I considered ditching the planned sermon and just focusing on a response to that crushing loss. I didn’t quite do that, but I think it does need to be mentioned, because it is in the air this morning, whether we talk about it or not.
This comes on the heels of other incidents and crimes against women, ranging from workplace discrimination to harassment to public figures who resign because of misconduct, which happens almost every week. This week it was reports from the Dallas Mavericks basketball front office of inappropriate and abusive behavior toward women extending over 20 years. And then just yesterday a Senate aide resigning after allegations of sexual harassment.
The news can be dismal. We have had doctors molesting Olympic gymnasts and Hollywood producers taking advantage of young actresses and the case of Bill Cosby, who will be sentenced this week. And of course there is Mollie Tibbetts, fresh in our minds. When it comes to men mistreating women, there is a wide range of severity, of course – from unwanted comments to deadly violence – but the fact is that so many have suffered simply because they were a woman and a man chose to abuse them.
You know, yesterday was my birthday. (It was Ethan’s, too.) I would have preferred to have a nice, happy, fun sermon today (and maybe you would have too), but it felt like this needed to be said. So, this is slightly an aside from the Joseph story – we’re getting away from it a bit here - but not completely.
Joseph was the exception – it is more often a woman who is the victim of unwanted advances, and worse - but the common thread is the powerful abusing those without power.
A question we may have this morning is, “Where is God in all of this?” When we are treated unfairly, unjustly, when we suffer because of the evil intent and actions of others, where is God? For Joseph, God was with him and God had been with him all along.
Joseph’s life was a series of peaks and valleys, highs and lows. One after another.
In our college group we often go around and share highs and lows. What was a high point of your week and what was a low point? Joseph knew all about highs and lows.
He is Jacob’s favorite. His dad gets him this awesome coat, the coolest thing around. It’s a high. But then his brothers turn on him and he is thrown in a pit. Low. It looks like he will die but his life is spared and he is pulled from the pit – high. But then he is sold into slavery in Egypt – low.
Joseph rises to a position of prominence and responsibility in Potiphar’s house – high. He is wrongly accused and thrown in prison – low. Eventually, he will rise to second in power in the whole nation. Ups and downs, highs and lows. And God is with him through it all.
Joseph’s life was filled with ups and downs. A lot like our lives, really. Highs and lows, joy and pain, victories and losses. And God is with us through all of it.
Now you might ask, “If God was with him, why was Joseph sold into slavery by his brothers? If God was with him, then how was he wrongfully thrown into prison?”
Well here’s the thing. Everything that happens is not God’s doing. Everything that happens is not God’s will. We have free choice. We can choose to cooperate with God’s intentions or we can choose to take another path. We can follow Jesus’ ethic of love for neighbor, or we can choose to live for ourselves and ignore the humanity of our neighbor.
When that happens – when we are the one who is suffering because of the actions of another – it does not mean that God has abandoned us. God is with us in our pain, with us in our hurt. And despite what can sometimes be our best efforts to the contrary, God is always working for good.
Romans 8:28 is a wonderful verse. It is often translated, not very accurately, as “all things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to God’s purpose.” But a better translation is, “in all things, God is working for good.” It does not mean everything works out for the best. It does not mean that whatever happens, it’s God’s will and we have to wait to see the good that will come from it. No, things happen that grieve God’s heart. There is an awful lot that happens that is not God’s will. But whatever happens, in all things, God is working for good.
In his life, Joseph suffers one injustice after another. He was a victim of human trafficking, sold by those who had power over him.
He was a victim of human slavery. Although he was apparently treated well and given responsibility, we can’t forget that he was a slave, owned as property.
He is a victim of racism, stereotyped because of his background and culture. Potiphar’s wife said, “Look what this Hebrew did,” and she didn’t have to explain what she meant.
He was a victim of sexual harassment. A person with power over him was pressuring him.
He was wrongly accused and wrongly incarcerated. No one even bothered to hear his testimony.
Now, there is a saying that you may have heard. “God is good, all the time. All the time, God is good.”
There are times when we may wonder about that. Is God good when there is a tragic death? Is God good when you lose your job and you are left wondering how you are going to make it financially? Is God good when a loved one suffers a serious illness?
God is good, not because God is some kind of spiritual Superman who flies in and saves the day and not because if we follow Jesus everything will be sunshine and roses. God is good because we are never forgotten by God. God is always there, always for us and always with us. And God did not forget Joseph.
In prison, Joseph again rises to a place of responsibility. In time he is freed and becomes a trusted advisor to Pharoah. He eventually rises in position to become the second most powerful person in the land of Egypt. He reunites with his brothers, whom he forgives. His whole family moves to Egypt, and Jacob is reunited with his son Joseph, whom he thought had died.
After Jacob’s death, Joseph’s brothers are fearful and wonder if he will bear a grudge. But Joseph responds, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.” In a time of famine, Joseph’s position and prominence in Egypt made it possible to save the family.
We are all blessed by God. We are blessed in the good days, in those times when future looks bright. We are blessed in the difficult times, when the outlook may seem bleak. In all of our days, God is with us, working for our good and for the good of all. And we are never forgotten by God. Amen.