Text: Genesis 39:1-23
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 time in between. 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 while Rebekah favored Jacob. The family suffered because of it, but unfortunately Jacob did not learn from this. He clearly favors his youngest sons, children of his favorite wife Rachel (which is quite a story in itself.) He especially loves Rachel’s oldest son, Joseph. This leads to all kinds of issues.
Jacob has a beautiful coat made for Joseph, the coat of many colors – or if you are watching the Broadway musical, the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Rather than being embarrassed by it, Joseph flaunts his favored status. He tells his brothers about his dream in which they are all bowing down to him. It had been a long time coming, but with the coat and then the dream, his brothers reach their limit.
They mean to kill Joseph 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 absolutely distraught that his favorite son Joseph had been killed by a wild animal.
The Midianite traders went on to Egypt and sold Joseph to Potiphar, one of Pharoah’s high officials and captain of the guard. Joseph goes from favored son to a slave in a foreign land. But he does well in Potiphar’s house. He is not only strong and able; he has a good mind. He organizes. He plans. He is good with people and proves to have 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, everything. Joseph becomes a trusted advisor and overseer in Potiphar’s house. God blessed Joseph and God blessed Potiphar because of Joseph.
And then 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.
We can speculate about Potiphar’s wife’s interest in Joseph. Was it purely a physical attraction? Or was it maybe about power? Joseph himself says, “No one in this house is greater than I am,” kind of weirdly echoing his dream way back when.
We think of Joseph as completely morally upright, but it is also true that Joseph understood his situation and knew that the way to survive and make the best of it was to work as hard as he could for Potiphar – to look out for Potiphar’s interests.
Potiphar’s wife’s advances continue and 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.
I wonder about Potiphar’s wife here. I mean, she didn’t have to say anything. Nobody knew what had taken place except for her and Joseph. But out of embarrassment, maybe, or because rejection hurts, or maybe she just didn’t want to face Joseph again, or maybe she has a problem with this slave that she could not control running everything, for whatever reason, she makes this accusation.
And did you catch what she said? Among other things, there is a racial or cultural dimension to it. “This foreigner, this Hebrew, tried to take advantage of me.” That little detail of pointing out that Joseph was a Hebrew was important, and very intentional.
Now, in a sense this episode is not the way it usually works. It is usually the man taking advantage of the woman. That happens all the time. But in another sense, this is the way that it usually works because what we have is a case of someone with power preying on one 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 then escalates it to physical advances – 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, not even one who was known for his responsibility and character. Mrs. Potiphar’s accusations line up with the way outsiders are perceived. For even a “model” Hebrew such as Joseph, those biases are close to the surface. Of course this Hebrew would do that.
Now the text says that when he heard this news, Potiphar was enraged and had Joseph thrown in prison. Which makes Joseph exceptionally lucky. Yes, lucky. We might expect that a slave would be executed for this. Joseph suffers wrongfully, to be sure, but by the standards of the day he got off relatively easy. I wonder if Potiphar actually felt some mercy toward Joseph.
What could Joseph had done differently here? There is absolutely nothing he could have done. He does everything right and still he winds up in prison for it.
We have probably experienced that. Not prison, but we have experienced suffering through no fault of our own.
This may raise the question, “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?
We read time and again, “the Lord was with Joseph.” “The Lord blessed Joseph.”
I don’t know about you, but when I think about Joseph’s life, it doesn’t exactly scream “blessing.” I mean, if this is blessing then count me out.
In his life, Joseph suffers one injustice after another. He was a victim of human trafficking, betrayed by his own brothers and 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 and sexual assault. You may not think it was all that bad, but what if we flipped the story around? There is a translation of the Bible – a Gender Switch translation – in which all the male characters are switched to female characters, and vice versa. I mean it is probably not the Bible you would want to use on a day to day basis, but it can be helpful in thinking about gender dynamics.
So imagine that Josephine was a household slave and a man said, “Hey, my wife - your boss - is away for the day and no one else is around. Why don’t we get together? And he grabs her, and she struggles and gets away, but her robe is ripped off in the process. You might think about that differently, and that may put things in a different light.
Joseph was wrongly accused and wrongly incarcerated. No one even bothered to hear his testimony.
So again, where is God in all of this?
Romans 8:28 is a wonderful verse. It is often translated, not all that 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 what God set up to work out for the best in the long run. God is not responsible for everything that happens. Things happen in life that grieve God’s heart. But whatever happens, in all things, God is working for good.
There is a saying that I’m sure you 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 a loved one is diagnosed with cancer? 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 someone you trust betrays you?
God is good, not because God is a spiritual Superman that comes 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 of Pharaoh. 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. In a time of famine back home, 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. We can give thanks that 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.