God with Us
God With Us
When we left Joseph at the end of Chapter 37, his brothers had sold him to a passing caravan of merchants and covered their crime by presenting their father, Jacob, with Joseph’s fancy coat, all torn and bloody. Thinking his favourite son had been mauled and killed by an animal, Jacob mourned. But the narrator gave us a hint that this isn’t the end of Joseph. In verse 36 he wrote:
Meanwhile the Midianites had sold him in Egypt to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard.
Joseph’s story is important, but we need to know why. And that’s what Chapter 38 is all about. Last Sunday we read there about Judah and Tamar and of the birth of their son, Perez. A lot of Bible scholars have trouble with the Judah-Tamar story. They assume that it’s a disconnected story inserted into the middle of Joseph’s story almost as if by accident and they write it off as an unimportant intrusion. And it might look that way at first glance, but nothing could be further from the truth. We need to remember that these first books of the Bible were compiled and edited around the time of the Exile by men of the tribe of Judah. The rest of the Jewish nation had been wiped out. They were all that was left and one of their purposes in compiling the stories of their past—their history—was to take a fresh look at God’s covenant with them: to ask again what it was all about and why things had seemingly gone wrong. And so, in light of that, the story of Judah and Tamar is vitally important. Judah’s story gives purpose to Joseph’s. Judah was the ancestor of King David, he was the ancestor of this one remaining tribe of Israel living in exile, and for Christians he’s the father of Jesus the Messiah. God is at work in these stories. Joseph’s brothers may have meant it for evil when they sold him into slavery, but God is going to work it for their own good. The story of Joseph’s rise to power in Egypt isn’t simply the story of God blessing Joseph to somehow compensate for the wrong his brothers had done him. Joseph’s being sold and then rising to power is God’s plan to save Judah—to save the man from whom would be born both David, the first king of the nation Israel, and Jesus, the Lord of Creation and eternal king of the Church, the true Israel of God. Keep this in mind as the story unfolds in the coming chapters. Judah is the son of promise; the one through whom God will do great things. Imagine Judah, floating down the river in a basket like the baby, Moses, but ahead of him is a waterfall. Death is imminent, but he’s blissfully unaware. Joseph is the man sent ahead to pull the boat to shore and to rescue the son of promise. With this in mind we can resume Joseph’s story, which is exactly what the storyteller does. Look at the first verses of Chapter 39.
Now Joseph had been brought down to Egypt, and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard, an Egyptian, had bought him from the Ishmaelites who had brought him down there. The Lord was with Joseph, and he became a successful man, and he was in the house of his Egyptian master. (Genesis 39:1-2)
The key to understanding Joseph’s story is in the words: “The Lord was with Joseph”. None of this—from being sold by his brothers, to being bought by Potiphar, to rising to a position of prominence as a slave—none of this happens by accident. God never leaves his child, Joseph, and God never ceases two work providentially through these events. Joseph isn’t sold to just anyone; he’s sold to the captain of the guard—to a man close to the royal court and close to the king. And Joseph isn’t left to spend his days labouring under the hot sun as a field hand; God ensure that Joseph’s master sees him at work in this young slave.
His master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord caused all that he did to succeed in his hands. So Joseph found favor in his sight and attended him, and he made him overseer of his house and put him in charge of all that he had. From the time that he made him overseer in his house and over all that he had, the Lord blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake; the blessing of the Lord was on all that he had, in house and field. So he left all that he had in Joseph’s charge, and because of him he had no concern about anything but the food he ate. (Genesis 39:3-6)
Potiphar was a pagan. He didn’t know the Lord. He didn’t know anything of Abraham or of the Lord’s covenant with him. Potiphar knew absolutely nothing of God’s promise to bless the nations through the children of Abraham, but that’s exactly what God does. Through Abraham, God had blessed Pharaoh and Abimelech. Through Isaac God had blessed Abimelech’s successor. Through Jacob God had blessed Laban. Now through Joseph God blesses Potiphar. None of these men knew God, but all them saw him at work in his people and were compelled to acknowledge him. In Jospeh’s case, this meant that he was promoted to work in Potiphar’s house. And the more Potiphar sees of God in Joseph, the more responsibility he gives him, eventually making him overseer of his household. And yet Potiphar doesn’t stop there. In the Hebrew, Joseph goes from simply being Potiphar’s “overseer” to having all of Potiphar’s business entrusted to his hand. Potiphar came to trust so implicitly that Joseph was doing what was best for him, that he simply left the management of his household to in Joseph’s hands. The only thing Joseph didn’t oversee was what the Hebrew describes as the food that his master ate, which is a euphemism for Potiphar’s private affairs and might refer specifically to his wife.
Notice that the text doesn’t say that Potiphar promoted Joseph because he was a good and trustworthy worker. That no doubt had something to do with it, but first and foremost, Potiphar promoted Joseph because even he, a pagan Egyptian, could see that God was with him and that God prospered everything to which he put his hand. This is the same message we’ve seen repeatedly and one we need to remember: God is the one who makes men and women great. Jacob struggled most of his life with this lesson. He was always trying to acquire greatness on his own: swindling his brother, deceiving his father, cheating his uncle. In contrast, Joseph has learned from the start to trust in God for these things. He understood that his end of the covenant was simply to trust in God, to walk in his way, and to trust God for the outcome.
And so far the outcome is more than Joseph might have hoped for. He was a slave, but he was at the top of the slave hierarchy. He was a slave valued and, no doubt, treated well by his master. In terms of physical comforts, he might even have been better off than had his brothers never sold him. But there’s a catch. First, Joseph was his mother’s son. Rachel has been described as “beautiful in form and appearance” (29:17) and Joseph is described here using those same terms and for that reason he attracts some unwanted attention.
Now Joseph was handsome in form and appearance. And after a time his master’s wife cast her eyes on Joseph and said, “Lie with me.” But he refused and said to his master’s wife, “Behold, because of me my master has no concern about anything in the house, and he has put everything that he has in my charge. He is not greater in this house than I am, nor has he kept back anything from me except you, because you are his wife. How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” And as she spoke to Joseph day after day, he would not listen to her, to lie beside her or to be with her. (Genesis 39:7-10)
Potiphar’s wife didn’t just proposition Joseph once; we’re told that she propositioned him “day after day”. And Joseph’s response shows his innocence: he repeatedly refused to “listen to her, to lie beside her or to be with her”. He didn’t give temptation a chance. But more important, Joseph’s repeated refusal shows again that the Lord was with him. Joseph was committed to walking with God. He knew the covenant and even though he had been forcibly removed from the covenant land and people and sold as a slave in Egypt, Joseph never gave up on the God of that covenant and he never gave up on God’s covenant promises. The book of Proverbs was still at least a millennium away, but Joseph nonetheless exemplifies the wise son described there:
My son, do not forget my teaching,
but let your heart keep my commandments…
Let not steadfast love and faithfulness forsake you;
bind them around your neck;
write them on the tablet of your heart.
So you will find favor and good success
in the sight of God and man. (Proverbs 3:1, 3-4)
Because of his faithfulness, Joseph found favour and good success in the sight both of God and men. The warnings of Proverbs towards the adulteress ring true in Joseph’s story too:
For the lips of a forbidden woman drip honey,
and her speech is smoother than oil. (Proverbs 5:3)
For the price of a prostitute is only a loaf of bread,
but a married woman hunts down a precious life. (Proverbs 6:26)
Joseph wasn’t about to let those honeyed words lure him into sin. He wisely appealed to Potiphar’s wife first on practical grounds: How could he (or she, for that matter) betray her husband’s trust? Potiphar trusted him with everything he had and Joseph wasn’t willing to betray that trust. It might have been that an affair with this woman promised greater privilege or even freedom, but to be caught by Potiphar in that sort of betrayal would destroy not only Joseph’s character, but would undermine his witness to God. Secondly, Joseph appeals to Potiphar’s wife by reminding her what a great sin such a thing would be before God. The two of them worshipped different gods, but even in pagan Egypt, adultery was a great sin and its penalty was death. So Joseph not only refuses to give into this temptation, but he tries to correct his master’s wife.
Potiphar’s wife will have none of it and decides to take a more aggressive approach.
But one day, when he went into the house to do his work and none of the men of the house was there in the house, she caught him by his garment, saying, “Lie with me.” But he left his garment in her hand and fled and got out of the house. (Genesis 39:11-12)
Joseph was working alone in the house and she tried one last time, grabbing hold of him and pleading with him: “Lie with me!” And this time Joseph ran. Sometimes it’s enough to simply say no to temptation and at other times the best course of action is to run away from it. A man like Joseph in that day would have worn an outfit that consisted of long, baggy shorts and a tunic—something like a long T-shirt. In trying to force herself on Joseph, Potiphar’s wife grabbed hold of that tunic or shirt and as Joseph ran he left it behind. And so now, foiled for the last time, Potiphar’s wife gives up on seducing Joseph and decides to have her revenge.
And as soon as she saw that he had left his garment in her hand and had fled out of the house, she called to the men of her household and said to them, “See, he has brought among us a Hebrew to laugh at us. He came in to me to lie with me, and I cried out with a loud voice. And as soon as he heard that I lifted up my voice and cried out, he left his garment beside me and fled and got out of the house.” Then she laid up his garment by her until his master came home, and she told him the same story, saying, “The Hebrew servant, whom you have brought among us, came in to me to laugh at me. But as soon as I lifted up my voice and cried, he left his garment beside me and fled out of the house.” (Genesis 39:13-18)
Potiphar’s wife starts by manufacturing witnesses. She’s extremely shrewd. Notice what she does. She gathers the other household slaves around and she appeals to their xenophobia. They’re Egyptian; Joseph is a Hebrew—a foreigner and therefore not to be trusted. And she identifies herself with the slaves. Joseph was only there to make them all—the slaves and her—laughing stocks. And then she describes what happened, but turns the events upside-down. In her version, Joseph was the aggressor, but she drove him off with her screams and he left his tunic behind as evidence. And, of course, the other slaves believe her. Brothers and sisters, let this be a reminder: always seek out both sides of a story! People lie and evidence may not always be what it seems.
When Potiphar returns home, his wife has her manufactured witnesses there to support her as she shows him the evidence. And again, she’s very shrewd. Not only does she accuse Joseph, but in doing so she puts Potiphar on the defensive. She refers to Joseph as that “Hebrew servant, whom you brought among us”. We can gather that she may have had a reputation for this sort of thing and so she not only accuses Joseph falsely, but lest Potiphar suspect her of being the one truly in the wrong, she deflects any accusations from herself. “This is your fault, Husband!” she says, “You brought this foreign Hebrew into our home knowing he’d be trouble.”
As soon as his master heard the words that his wife spoke to him, “This is the way your servant treated me,” his anger was kindled. (Genesis 39:19)
But who was Potiphar angry with? The penalty for sexually assaulting a highborn Egyptian woman was death. And for a slave it most likely would have meant death on the spot. A slave didn’t have any rights. He lived at the good pleasure of his master. And that also meant that slaves didn’t go to trial or prison for crimes of this nature. They were simply executed. What happens next speaks loudly.
And Joseph’s master took him and put him into the prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were confined, and he was there in prison. (Genesis 39:20)
Instead of executing Joseph, Potiphar has him put in prison. And not a prison for run-of-the-mill criminals, but in the place where political prisoners were held. From what we’re told in Chapter 40, this prison was on the grounds of Potiphar’s home and in some way under his authority. Potiphar knew his wife was lying, but he couldn’t sacrifice her honour without sacrificing his own. He couldn’t rebuke her lies without destroying himself. His only option was to sacrifice his most competent slave. And yet Potiphar has strong enough feelings for Joseph that he doesn’t have him executed. Instead he has him confined to the king’s prison—a place where he could keep an eye out for his welfare.
Poor Joseph. First he was sold by his brothers into slavery, but then we’re told that God was with him. In his good providence, God saw that Joseph was sold to Potiphar and then manifested himself through Joseph, blessing him and through him, blessing Potiphar. And we think, “Yes. That’s what’s supposed to happen when ‘God is with us’.” If we don’t know the story already, we might even start wondering if God’s being with Joseph might lead eventually to his freedom. And now this. Suddenly, through no fault of his own, Joseph ends up in prison. What happened to God? Did God abandon him? Absolutely not. Look at verses 21-23:
But the Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love and gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison. And the keeper of the prison put Joseph in charge of all the prisoners who were in the prison. Whatever was done there, he was the one who did it. The keeper of the prison paid no attention to anything that was in Joseph’s charge, because the Lord was with him. And whatever he did, the Lord made it succeed.
Joseph may have been in prison, but God was still with him. In fact, just as God raised Joseph in Potiphar’s esteem and put him in a position to oversee Potiphar’s household, he now does the same in prison. Before long, Joseph is handling everything that happens in the prison on behalf of the warden.
Joseph’s story is far from over, but even at this point, it ought to cause us to examine our own faith. As Christians we trust that God is with us, but do we trust him as Joseph did? Is there room in our faith for events like these? Are we able to trust that even in the difficult times of our lives, God is faithful to his saving covenant and to all his promises to us? Do we still trust that God is providing what is good even when things look bad?
This the difference between selfish, man-centre religion and true, God-centred religion—ultimately the difference between paganism and true faith. Scripture is clear. It gives us example after example of God’s goodness even in the midst of trials and sorrows. And yet somehow Christians miss the true message because a false message is being preached. Too often we evangelise people with the promise that with Jesus there will be no trials. There are preachers who emphasise only the “positive”. And of course there’s an entire segment of the “Church”—although I hestitate to include them under that label—who teach a false gospel of health and wealth and prosperity. Whatever the case, the message is sent that if God is with you, nothing will go wrong; life will be good all the time. And then when trials and sorrows strike, like Job’s friends, they tell us our faith wasn’t strong enough or that we must have done something wrong to deserve God’s abandoning us. Brothers and sisters, these are lies. But they’re common lies today. They’re also lies that set up false expectations. They’re lies that result in people being angry with God when things don’t go the way they think they should. And then as people struggle with anger towards God, they’re often given one of the worst pieces of pastoral advice that could ever be: “You’ve got to forgive God.”
Dear friends, you can only forgive someone if they’ve done you wrong. You can’t forgive God. No matter what the circumstances, he has never and will never do anything to wrong you. As St. Paul says in Romans 8:28:
We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.
The Scriptures teach us this lesson from the beginning and they’re full of examples—like the story of Joseph—that show us dramatically how even in the darkest pit, God is always with his people working for their good. If you don’t believe this basic truth, your faith will always be undermined. If you believe that God has wronged you, whether you’re angry with him or think you’ve forgiven him, you worship a false God who wavers in his goodness.
You see, that false religion of materialism and prosperity is dangerous, because it either affirms us as we are in our sins or simply casts us aside as hopeless. It has no room for redemption. It has no room for Abraham or Isaac, who waited patiently for decades for the sons God has promised; it has no room for Joseph, sold into slavery, falsely accused, and sent to languish in prison; it has no room for the sufferings of Job or Jeremiah; it has no room for the Old Testament at all—for two millennia of waiting and of hardships and trials as God worked out his redemptive plans. And, brothers and sisters, ultimately it has no room for a Messiah who was beaten, bloodied, and crucified for our sake.
Dear friends, think again of Judah’s story in the last chapter. If God can redeem such a sinner and turn him into a saint through whom he brought the Messiah, God will also work to redeem the worst situations of life and bring good out of them. He is the God of the covenant and consider what that covenant means. Think of the night he appeared to Abraham as the smoking pot and the torch, passing between the carcasses of animals he’d asked Abraham to sacrifice. In that act God sent a message: “I have established my covenant with you; should I not be faithful to it, may I be cut in two as these animals.” From that point on, Abraham could be confident in God’s promises no matter what. He bore the visible sign of that covenant in his flesh and even in the worst of situations, he knew that God is ever faithful.
Brothers and sisters, God never changes. In Jesus the Messiah he fulfilled that covenant he had made to Abraham and established a new one. We’ve been called into that covenant through the waters of Baptism and every week we receive a reminder of it—a down payment on its fulfillment—here at his Table. Jesus is Emanuel—he is “God with us”—and his promises to us are just as certain as his promises to Abraham. Let that knowledge undergird our faith no matter what situations we experience in life. Let us always trust God. Remember your baptism; come and receive the assurance of Jesus’ new life at the Table; as you go from this place, walk in trusting faith, knowing that God is with you; and like Joseph know that as you walk in faith, the world will see that God is with you.
Let us pray: Father, in the Collect we acknowledged our frailty and our propensity to fall into sin. We asked you to “keep us always under your protection” and to “lead us to everything that makes for our salvation”. We ask you now, Father, to strengthen our faith that we might trust your promises to us even when life is difficult. Give us grace to remember always that you truly do protect us and that you will lead us in all things to our salvation. We believe, Father, but help our unbelief, that we might follow you closely and, like Joseph, witness your glory and blessings to the world around us. We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Walter Brueggemann writes, for example: “This peculiar chapter stands alone, without connection to its context. It is isolated in every way and is most enigmatic. It does not seem to belong with any of the identified sources of ancestral tradition. It is not evident that it provides any significant theological resource. It is difficult to know in what context it might be of value for theological exposition. For these reasons, our treatment of it may be brief.” From Genesis (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), pp. 307-308.