Years ago, when I was a young child, our church sang a hymn written by “anonymous” entitled, “No, Never Alone.” The second verse said:
The world’s fierce winds are blowing,
Temptations are sharp and keen;
I feel a peace in knowing
My Savior stands between;
He stands to shield me from danger,
When earthly friends are gone,
He promised never to leave me,
Never to leave me alone
Joseph very understandably could have felt alone. Sold by his brothers to the Ishmaelites, sold by them to an Egyptian officer, in a place with no acquaintances, no friends, no family, no cultural awareness, and having the status of slave. But he did not feel alone. He had an abiding sense of the presence of God. Without doubt he knew of the promises and covenantal revelation given to his father, Jacob. He had had dreams that he felt were prophetic of something that surely would come to pass. Our text shows us how every external discouragement becomes the context for the manifestation of God’s faithful execution of his purpose.
I. The Moral foil and the divine drama – Chapter 38 tells the story of Judah’s life during the approximately twenty-three years between the selling of Joseph and the journey of Jacob’s sons to Egypt for food. Similar biographical entries could have been given for each of the brothers, but this of Judah has special relevance.
A. Even before the maturing of the house of Israel as a nation, God began including the nations into the people of God. Judah married a Canaanite woman and had children by her. He took a wife for his eldest son, also from the inhabitants of the land, who eventually bore two sons to Judah. Joseph himself would marry an Egyptian, and some Egyptians would be among those who left Egypt during the Exodus. God was including in the Israelite people the nations of the world.
B. The character of Judah contrasts significantly with that of Joseph. Judah gave himself to one that he supposed to be a harlot in order to satisfy a lust that arose in the moment (38:15, 16); Joseph resisted the sexual aggression of the wife of Potiphar. The one is free but enslaved to his personal quest for pleasure; the other is a slave but aware of the deceitful promises of the flesh so that he resists them.
C. Sometimes God judges evil immediately in this life (38:7, 10; cf Acts 5:5, 10; 12:21-23) and at other times he lets it run its course of consequences but under his providential purpose (38:18, 26).
D. The chief reason for this chapter seems to be to give the history behind the maintenance of the line of Judah as the genealogical origin for the Christ, descendant of Judah, through Perez. Genesis mentions Perez as does Ruth 4:12, 18. A blessing arose in Israel, “May your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah. Matthew 1:3 traces the genealogy of Jesus through Judah by Tamar’s son Perez. “Judah begot Perez and Zerah by Tamar, Perez begot Hezron,” then Ram, Amminadab, Hahshon, Salmon, Boaz (by Rahab!) Obed (by Ruth the Moabitess!), Jesse, David the king. Jesus Christ was “of the seed of David according to the flesh” (Romans 1:3).
II. The Lord’s presence and purpose
A. Throughout chapter 39, we find the text pointing us to God’s presence. “The Lord was with Joseph” (2); “The Lord was with him . . . the Lord caused all that he did to prosper” (3); “The Lord blessed the Egyptian’s house on account of Joseph; thus the Lord’s blessing was upon all that he owned” (5). “But the Lord was with Joseph and extended kindness to him and gave him favor in the sight of the chief jailer (21); “the Lord was with him; and whatever he did, the Lord made to prosper” (23). When we see this refrain in the text we can recall the refrain of the hymn, “No, never alone; No never alone. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone.” Not only is the Lord present, but he is present in obvious execution of a purpose to work in Joseph a great advance in the fulfillment of his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
B. Specifically, the Lord gave Joseph such a measure of wisdom and so ordered all the plans of Joseph that “he became a successful man” (2). His master put Joseph in charge of everything in his house and in his field, over all that he owned and over all those who worked for him. So trustworthy was Joseph and so successful was his management that Potiphar was relieved of all domestic concerns and could give himself totally to his service to Pharaoh. He showed up for meals.
C. Joseph could have been the model for passages related to the conduct of slaves in the New Testament.
- Paul instructed slaves to “be obedient to those who are your masters, according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart, as to Christ.” They were not to be “men-pleasers” but see themselves in a relation of servitude to Christ, while working for their master, “doing the will of God from the heart.” Again, Paul emphasized that they were to work with “goodwill doing service as to the Lord,” with confidence that any good he did in such a way would be returned to him “from the Lord” (Ephesians 6:5-9). Essentially these same instruction Paul repeats in his letter to the Colossians (3:22-25)
- Peter also instructs slaves to be “submissive to your masters with all fear,” and adds this radical extension, “not only to the good and gentle, but also to the harsh.” This situation provided an opportunity to emulate Christ who, “when he was reviled, did not revile in return; when he suffered he did not threaten.” Such conduct is possible only when we commit ourselves “to him who judges righteously” (1 Peter 2:18-22).
D. This success elevated Joseph in order that the extremity of the fall might be accentuated. It would seem that such a height of trust and success could not be surpassed. Or perhaps, this success would naturally lead to gradual attainment of higher responsibility, more comprehensive authority, based on his performance. That all the glory might be to God, Joseph would lose this position, lose his influence and reputation, and be relegated to the most ominous place of detention in Egypt, “the place where the king’s prisoners were confined” (20).
III. The evil trap of Satan.
A. Not only was Joseph obviously talented and raised to a position of great power in Potiphar’s household, the text of Scripture notes this, “Joseph was handsome in form and appearance.” The two things that might be coveted by any young man were in the possession of Joseph, power and knock-dead good looks. Joseph knew that all he had was from God from his present circumstances to his genetic structure. He received his servitude as a gift from God to be used as a witness to the holy beauty of this redeeming deity and not as an opportunity to the gratification of his flesh.
B. Potiphar’s wife “looked with desire at Joseph.” She was not subtle in her attempt to seduce Joseph but said “Lie with me,” and continued this pursuit “day after day.” Proverbs described her perfectly as the “immoral woman, . . . the seductress who flatters with her words, who forsakes the companion of her youth” (Proverbs 2:16, 17; cf 6:24, 25; 7:5).
C. Had Joseph yielded, even though he could plead entrapment, and that he was not the aggressor, he would have been reduced to “a crust of bread,” “an ox going to the slaughter,” a bird that “hastens to the snare,” would sear his feet on these hot coals even as he stumbled toward hell (Proverbs 6:26, 28; 7: 22, 23, 27).
IV. The resolve manifest in Joseph’s speech. Joseph did not think with his hormones but with a God-centered rationality. His answer showed deeply-seated principle that would sustain him through trials of many sorts.
A. He perceived the valuable nature of the trust that his master had placed in him. “He has put all that he owns in my charge” (8). Such confidence is rare and is to be cherished and nourished when it is given. A betrayal of trust is a sin against all human relationships and against the very foundation of one’s relation to God. If we want to emulate God as bearers of his image, we must be trustworthy for he has said, “I will never leave you not forsake you.” Even in these trials of Joseph, God is showing the relentless way he pursues the fulfillment of his covenant. He cannot deny himself: “If we are faithless, He remains faithful; He cannot deny himself” (2 Timothy 2:13).
B. The gravity of such a betrayal of his master would be measured according to the level of authority given to Joseph. “There is no one greater in his house than I, and he has withheld nothing from me except you” (9). How could Joseph be grasping beyond the already extravagant amount of privilege given him by his master. Was he to meet his master’s generosity with greed? Apparently, Satan was the most exalted, powerful, and striking of the angels God created, and he responded, not with a sense of gratitude for the privilege of service, but with resentment that an even greater place was not his (Hebrews 1:13; 2 Peter 2:4; Ezekiel 28:17). Joseph had been accused by his brothers of arrogance and presumptiveness; he would not manifest a presumptive arrogance in taking what his master had not granted him.
C. “You are his wife.” Joseph refused to commit adultery. Though this is more than 400 years before the giving of the Ten Commandments, it was a law written in the heart. Perhaps the sacred, divinely-instituted relationship of marriage at creation was present also in Joseph’s consciousness. From Adam (Genesis 2:22-25; 5:4), to Lamech (Genesis 5:25), to Noah (Genesis 5:29), and then to generations following (Genesis 9:6, 7, 19), the purpose of God in marriage had been kept alive through oral history. It is possible, given the details in the genealogical records (Genesis 5, Genesis 10, Genesis 36) that some written records were kept that included notable events and times of divine interaction with man. At any rate, Joseph is clear that he is not to have another man’s wife. He anticipated the book of Proverbs in his understanding: “For jealousy is a husband’s fury; therefore he will not spare in the day of vengeance. He will accept no recompense, nor will he be appeased though you give many gifts” (6:34, 35).
D. Most importantly, Joseph knew this was a sin against God. It was a “great evil” and a “sin against God.” The heinousness of this sin is second only to murder in the second table of the commandments. The sixth commandment, “You shall not murder,” establishes the dignity and the inviolability of the person, and is the most fundamental aspect of loving one’s neighbor. The following commandments designate various ways one can dishonor his neighbor short of killing him. To take his life is the greatest sin against one’s neighbor; to take his wife is next to it in heinousness. When David took the wife of another, his friend Uriah, it led him to the turpitude of also taking his life.
E. The wife of Potiphar kept up this sexual harassment on Joseph day by day. Joseph was resolute in his refusal to consent to her provocation. He did not entertain the idea or give himself any permission to rationalize the act into innocence. He “did not listen to her.” Obviously she sought several ways to convince him to lie with her; and he knew that no argument could be presented to make what was wrong a justifiable action on his part.
V. The desperate and deceitful nature of sin. (11-18) The woman came up with a plot. She saw to it that all the servants were away from the house and she would have complete freedom to be as aggressive and assertive as possible.
A. She sought to force him physically by grabbing him. In this she showed no regard for him and his convictions before God, no regard for her own moral standing, and no respect for her husband. It was an evil act, brazenly committed, with no concern for the well-being of anyone, driven only by a consuming lust.
B. He in turn used his own physical strength to escape her, wresting himself from her by leaving his garment in her hand, and fleeing to a remote place where she could not approach him again. Now his act of consistent holy and moral action is turned against him by her conniving.
C. She turned his absolute rejection of her constant overtures into a reason to condemn him. Knowing that such a relation would be seen as a violation of trust, she made Joseph the offending party by a complete lie, accusing him of having sought to rape her. She used the abandoned garment—a mark of Joseph’s desperate resistance to sin and infidelity—as evidence of an offense against her and his master. His brothers used his cloak in a deceitful way to convince Jacob of his death. This woman used his cloak in a deceitful way to convince her husband that he had sought to violate her. In reality, he chose death in preference to committing sin against God, for this accusation could easily have resulted in his death.
VI. The worst in men does not stop the gracious purpose of God (19-23)
A. Predictably, Potiphar is enraged. Some have said that he was upset at the necessity of giving up such an effective servant; or that he suspected his wife of infidelity and was enraged that now she had used her weakness to make him do a thing he had no desire to do. These kinds of interpretations have some fascination, but the economy of language and the seeming cause and effect nature of the narrative leads us to believe that Joseph was put in prison because Potiphar believed his wife and felt betrayed by Joseph.
B. In prison, however, “the Lord was with Joseph.” As in Potiphar’s house, Joseph again demonstrated skill and trustworthiness and the jailer put all things under Joseph’s administration. This happened “because the Lord was with him; and whatever he did, the Lord made to prosper” (23).
C. God is pursuing his own plan in the story of Joseph to make into a distinct nation the family of Israel. Joseph serves as a type of Christ. Though innocent, he is treated as guilty. His delivery over to death, as it were, results eventually in his exaltation. By his humiliation and exaltation, he becomes the redeemer of God’s people.