Genesis 39:1-23 “Joseph in Potiphar’s House, God’s Faithfulness in Adverse Circumstances” Part 2
Sunday, March 10th and 17th, 2013
Bryan E. Walker
Read: Genesis 39:1-23
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. 2 The Lord was with Joseph, and he became a successful man, and he was in the house of his Egyptian master. 3 His master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord caused all that he did to succeed in his hands. 4 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. 5 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. 6 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.
Now Joseph was handsome in form and appearance. 7 And after a time his master’s wife cast her eyes on Joseph and said, “Lie with me.” 8 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. 9 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?” 10 And as she spoke to Joseph day after day, he would not listen to her, to lie beside her or to be with her.
11 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, 12 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. 13 And as soon as she saw that he had left his garment in her hand and had fled out of the house, 14 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. 15 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.” 16 Then she laid up his garment by her until his master came home, 17 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. 18 But as soon as I lifted up my voice and cried, he left his garment beside me and fled out of the house.”
19 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. 20 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. 21 But the Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love and gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison. 22 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. 23 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.
Main Idea/Gospel Points: While certainly doing a character study of Joseph is profitable for our sanctification when done properly, the greater point lies in looking towards the God who shows his steadfast love to Joseph. Here we see God’s sovereign grace being poured out on young Joseph while the pagan Potiphar himself recognizes that it is the Lord prospering his household because of Joseph. Indeed, the theme of this chapter is “The LORD was with Joseph!” This is not a story of the success of Jacob and how we too can be a success; this is a story of God’s faithfulness to his covenant with Abraham. This points us to abide in Christ til He comes, spreading the Kingdom as we go through the mundane things of this life. The movement in Joseph’s life from exaltation to humiliation back to exaltation points forward to how God will act in Israel’s life as a people, but beyond Israel to the Son of God himself who existed in glory forever in heaven with the Father and the Holy Spirit, but then came to earth as a humble peasant baby who would grow up and gain a large following based upon his dynamic preaching and his mighty miracles only to be abandoned by his followers and tortured, crucified, and buried. THEN, he is resurrected and ascends to the Father in glory. In this story we see God keeping his promise to Abraham from 12:3 in that Abraham’s descendant has the LORD with him and is being a blessing to a all peoples, pointing to the greater Descendant, who will be the biggest blessing for all peoples.
Additionally, in this lesson today, we will examine a hermeneutical issue that we briefly struggled with a couple of weeks ago in studying ch.38 and now we see the issue again in 39 but from a different angle. The issue is how can we interpret and apply ethical issues in Old Testament people’s lives when some of their behavior is laudatory and other behavior, though praised in the Bible, seems reprehensible to us?
XI. The Account of Jacob: Joseph and His Brothers, or, How Israel Came to Live in Egypt Instead of the Promised Land
- A. Joseph’s Beginning: The Beloved Son, Sent By his Father, Providentially Sold Into Slavery in Egypt by His Brothers, 37:2-36
- 1. Joseph, Beloved of His Father, and His Dreams, 37:2-11
- 2. Joseph Betrayed By His Brothers, Sold into Slavery, 37:12-36
*Note: the rise of Judah
- B. The Descent of Judah, Foreshadowing God’s Work of Grace 38:1-30
- 1. Judah Marries a Canaanite, 38:1-11
- 2. Judah, Deceived by Tamar, Fathers Twins, 38:12-30
- C. Joseph in Potiphar’s House, Faithfulness in Adverse Circumstances, 39:1-23
Derek Kidner writes, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, Genesis, “The symmetry of this chapter, in which the serene opening (1-6) is matched point for point, at a new level at the close (19-23) despite all that intervenes, perfectly expresses God’s quiet control and the man of faith’s quiet victory.”
The Joseph story offers several doublets, two events that are either linked or share several features. In ch. 37 there were the 2 dreams, 2 different schemes to get rid of him. In ch.40 there are the two officials and two dreams. In ch.41 Pharaoh himself has two dreams and Joseph’s brothers make two trips to Egypt. Here is ch.39 we see the second time a patriarch is faced with a sexual temptation by a married woman.
- 1. God Keeps His Covenant with Joseph and Joseph’s Faithfulness Leads to Prosperity, 39:1-6
- 2. Joseph’s Faithfulness To God in Temptation, 39:7-20
- 3. God Keeps His Covenant with Joseph and Joseph’s Faithfulness in Prison, 39:21-23
A. Introduction: beginning of Joseph’s story 37:2-11
B. Jacob mourns ‘death’ of Joseph 37:12-36
C. Interlude: Judah signified as leader 38:1-30
D. Joseph’s enslavement in Egypt 39:1-23
E. Joseph savior of Egypt through disfavor at Pharaoh’s court 40:1-41:57
F. Journeys of brothers to Egypt 42:1-43:34
G. Brothers pass Joseph’s test of love for brother 44:1-34
G1.Joseph gives up his power over brothers 45:1-28
F1. Migration of family to Egypt 46:1-27
E1. Joseph savior of family through favor at Pharaoh’s court 46:28-47:12
D1. Joseph’s enslavement of Egyptians 47:13-31
C1. Interlude: Judah blessed as ruler 48:1-49:28
B1. Joseph mourns death of Jacob 49:29-50:14
A1. Conclusion: end of Joseph story 50:15-26
- 1. God Keeps His Covenant with Joseph and Joseph’s Faithfulness Leads to Prosperity, 39:1-6
- a. V.1 “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.” Moses returns to the main story where he left off in ch.37 with this verse matching 37:28 “the Ishmaelites…took Joseph to Egypt” and 37:36 “the Midianites had sold him in Egypt to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard.” Joseph is “sold” in 37:36 and “bought” iin 39:1. And notice the symmetry in 39:1 “brought down” and “brought him down” at the beginning and ending of the verse. This is a Janus verse, looking back at 37 and forward to what is to come. But it may also be deliberately looking back at 38 as 38:1 “at that time Judah went down from his brothers and turned aside…” This is the second “descent” of Joseph. QQ: where was his first “descent”? (37:24). And in this chapter Joseph’s 3rd descent is to prison in v.20. Joseph being sold in Egypt begins the fulfillment of the prophecy in 15:3 that Abram’s descendants would be strangers in a country not their own. This again points to Moses speaking to his people explaining why and how they came to be enslaved in Egypt. Also, this points to Christ who left Heaven’s glory to come to earth and be treated as a stranger in a strange land and then point us to the fact that we are not at home in this world either (1John3:1 “The world does not know us”; 1Pet.1:1 “elect exiles”; John 15:19 “you are not of the world”)
- b. “Potiphar” a shortened version of the Egyptian Potiphera, meaning “he whom Ra (the sun god) has given” (Waltke, p.504).
- c. “an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard” no doubt his title is given so that the reader (us) can understand God’s Providence in getting Joseph to an important man with access to Pharaoh. The word for “officer” can mean an official under Pharaoh or it can even mean “eunuch”, but since Potiphar was married we take it to mean the former. “Captain of the guard” can mean leader of the bodyguard of Pharaoh or even Chief Butler (to match the Baker and Cupbearer in ch.40). But Captain of the Guard also can mean the keeper of the prison, in which we find Joseph by the end of the chapter. QQ: Is Potiphar the keeper of the prison in v.22? K.A. Kitchen seems to believe they are the same man (The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol.4 M-P, Merrill C. Tenney, ed. Regency Reference Library: Grand Rapids, MI 1976. “Potiphar”, p.823.)
- d. “Ishmaelites” it is fitting that the descendants of Ishmael, who persecuted Isaac in 21:9, would be selling the descendant of Isaac into slavery in Egypt. The animosity of these two groups of people exists down to the present day. Interchanging the Midianites with the Ishmaelites (37:28, 36; 39:1) may indicate that the descendants of Keturah (25:1-4) intermarried with the descendants of Ishmael (whose mother, Hagar, was Egyptian) from 25:13-16.
- e. V.2 “The LORD was with Joseph…) this verse gives us three clues as to Joseph’s status in Egypt as a slave. First, the LORD was with Joseph. Here we see the covenant name for God, YHWH, the LORD. This emphasizes that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who had made a covenant with Abraham and his descendants was present in Joseph’s situation in a unique and powerful way. God had promised to be with the patriarchs (26:3; 28:15; 31:3). The use of the name YHWH is rare in the Joseph story, but occurs 7 times in this chapter emphasizing that Joseph is in a uniquely dangerous spot and the LORD is uniquely with him. This points forward to Israel’s experiences with the LORD at Mt. Sinai and beyond in the wilderness as the LORD enters into covenant with Israel and promises to dwell with them. It points even more towards Emmanuel, God with us, in Jesus Christ who promises in Matt.28:20 “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Notice the chiasmus structure as this phrase is matched by the same in v.21.
- f. APPLY: If you were in a tight spot, a bad situation, and being sold as a slave in a foreign land is about as bad of a spot as you can be in, who would you want to be with you? We Have The Lord with usWherever we are, in whatever situation the world throws at us, He is with us always in His Holy Spirit. The doctrine of the abiding presence of Christ in the Believer through the Holy Spirit is under utilized in our personal discipleship!
- g. “and he became a successful man” The word for success is translated as “prosper-prospered” in ch.24 about Abraham’s servant. How does a slave become successful? He pleases his master. He worked diligently using the God-given brains, energy and talents he possessed as gifts from God. He was apparently making his master even more wealthy by his management skills and ingenuity. Notice that his prosperity came AFTER the LORD being with him. Moses here gives credit where credit was due…God receives the glory. He had previously earned his father’s respect by his diligence in regards to his brothers (while simultaneously earning his brothers’ resentment).
- h. APPLY: Here is perhaps one of the verses that the Prosperity Preachers of the Health and Wealth gospel rely on. I do not doubt for one minute that God has blessed Western Europe and America through the centuries because of the Protestant Reformation and the spreading of the true gospel. I do not doubt that on average, if a people are trusting in Christ and living by God’s Word they will be healthier, smarter, harder working, more trustworthy and more profitable than others. The virtues and godly character of the Christian, the fruit of the Spirit, will tend towards hard work, diligence, honesty and then prosperity. But the main thing must always be Jesus and not just his gifts.
- i. “and he was in the house of his Egyptian master” Joseph was not a field hand, not a construction laborer, but a house slave. This kind of position was reserved for the smartest, most presentable, and docile slaves. This was a blessing, and would enable him to meet important people, but it would also be the means by which he came into daily contact with Mrs. Potiphar. Usually, God’s blessings also come with more of an opportunity to sin by abusing what God has entrusted to us (we are THAT corrupt!)
- j. V.3 “His master saw that the LORD was with him…” Joseph’s work was so productive, his attitude and disposition so pleasing, and the success of his efforts so unusual that even his pagan master saw that it was the result of the LORD blessing Joseph. Now this is phenomenal that a pagan Egyptian would understand that the Hebrew God, YHWH, would be behind the blessings he was receiving through the hard work and faithfulness of the young slave Joseph. This may indicate that Joseph and Potiphar had some theological conversations or witnessing by Jospeh. Previously in Genesis we saw in 12:17-20 that a Pharaoh had some awareness of Abraham’s God due to an affliction placed upon them as a result of him taking Sarai into his harem. And in 20 God came to Abimelech in a dream to warn him about Sarah and Abraham. In 26 Abimelech tells Isaac to move away because of the great blessings Isaac has received making him too powerful for the Philistines around Gerar. The idea here is that when God blesses his people it should become obvious to the pagans around God’s people that it is God who is doing the blessing. In Abimelech of Gerar it produced fear and he told Isaac to move away but in Potiphar’s case he welcomed the blessings.
- k. APPLY: Does our work ethic and attitude communicate the gospel in the workplace? One of the things that seriously damages the gospel is Christians who are lousy workers but are known as Christians in the workplace. We ought to be bearing the Fruit of the Spirit in the workplace so that every manager wants US on his/her team, every client asks for US, and every Christian owned business leads the way in whatever industry we work in. Then, we have the integrity to share the gospel in the workplace and have earned the right to be heard. We hear all too often that we need to be more evangelistic in the workplace, share the gospel, invite folks to church. But all of this is predicated on being godly, pleasing, and productive first. We do not know much about Jesus between his getting left behind in Jerusalem as a 12 year old and when he began his ministry as a man of about 30 years of age except that he was the carpenter’s son, implying he was a carpenter too. I would imagine that Jesus was the leading carpenter in the area; that he was the best and most sought after carpenter. Can the same be said of us?
- l. But if Joseph is a type of Christ, then his excellence in service should also cause us to meditate on Christ’s sinlessness as it relates to his greatest work, his substitutionary, atoning death on the cross, and how his life pleased his heavenly Father. The Old Testament concept of a perfect lamb, goat or bull for sacrifice combines with the sinlessness of Christ to show us that apart from Christ’s complete active and passive obedience his death would not have sufficed for our atonement.
- m. V.4 “So Joseph found favor in his sight” Again, not all pagans will be content with the profits they make from their believing servants. Some are so anti-God that they will persecute those who earn them the most; a willingness to cut their nose off to spite their face.
- n. “So Jospeh…attended him” Joseph went from working in the house to becoming Potiphar’s personal attendant. “He made him overseer of his house…” Next, Jospeh was promoted to being the overseer of the whole estate. Joseph was faithful in that which was least, and became steward over much (Matt 25, Parable of the Talents).
- o. APPLY: This idea from scripture can, unfortunately, be misused and misapplied. This can lead us to think that those who are most successful in terms of money, wealth, power, big positions in big churches or big corporations, etc. are the closest to God and have been the most faithful to God. The main idea of this part of Gen.39 and of Matt 25 is not that success will come to those who are faithful. The idea should rather be that we are all called to be faithful in the small things and if God promotes us then He should get the glory. Many a faithful, obedient servant of Christ has been very dutiful, disciplined and wise in their business and personal lives yet not made it to a level of success that anyone would readily recognize. And many scoundrels who claim Christ have been exceptionally successful. In THIS case, the LORD did have big plans for young Joseph and used his diligence as a means of promoting God’s own agenda.
- p. V.5 “the LORD blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake” This anticipates Joseph’s future usefulness to Pharaoh and all of Egypt along with the whole world during the time of famine. Again, this confirms and fulfills 12:2-3 which promises to make Abraham a blessing to all peoples and that “I will bless those that bless you”. The Lord blessed Laban because of Jacob in 30:27,30. Jeremiah 29:4-7“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. 8 For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel:” I believe that this blessing is still ineffect for both the Jews and the Church, as well as the individual Christian, on average. The word “blessed-bless” is an important word in Genesis (1:22; 12:1-3).
- q. V.6 “Joseph was handsome in form and appearance.” This comment leads in to the middle section of the text, the temptation by Potiphar’s wife. Joseph’s mother, Rachel, is also noted for being “beautiful in form and appearance”(29.17), thus Rachel and her son are the only 2 people in the OT with this kind of complement.
- r. “but the food he ate” this exception is probably based upon the Egyptians looking at the Hebrew slave as being unclean. The religious differences here could lead to separation in regards to preparing food; only Egyptians would be able to prepare the food.
- s. “all” in the above verses notice the word “all” (vv.3,4,5 (2x) and 6). This indicates the completeness and thoroughness of the blessings from God upon Joseph and Potiphar’s household.
- 2. Joseph’s Faithfulness to God in Temptation, 39:7-20
- a. The motif of a hero spurning the advances of a friend’s wife is common in the ancient world. Today the motif is the hero accepting the advances of a friend’s wife. Some liberal scholars make a big deal out of saying this part of the Joseph story resembles a particular Egyptian story but the reality is that there are very few similarities between the two stories.
- b. V.7 “And after a time” gives a vague sense of a long time and is used to clearly set apart this new sub-section of the story.
- c. “his master’s wife” Moses does not dignify her by giving us her name. Yet Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba are portrayed as heroines.
- d. “cast her eyes on Joseph” Mathews says it is literally, “lifted her eyes to Joseph” which points back to 24:64 when Rebekah saw Isaac for the first time (p.734).
- e. “lie with me” These two words in Heb. are never used in relation to marriage. This brief report of what Mrs. Potiphar said to Joseph may be simply discretion of Moses’ part, or it may mean to indicate her urgency and insatiable lust. We are spared the details! It could be, that as the mistress of the household, she was used to getting her way and Joseph may not have been the first slave she had attempted to seduce.
- f. V.8 “But he refused” the quickness and decisiveness of Joseph’s response indicates a heart already set on obeying God. He did not negotiate, he did not flirt with her, he refused her.
- g. V.8-9 Joseph’s lengthy speech in reply to Mrs. Potiphar is spontaneous and heartfelt. He reasons that out of gratitude, obligation and loyalty to his master he cannot do this. He mentions the bond of marriage, “nor has he kept back anything from me except you, because you are his wife.”
- h. “How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” Joseph names her proposition as wickedness, and points out that it is a sin against God. Joseph’s apology here then covers practical reasons why not to sin, social moral reasons why not to sin, and finally a theological reason, bringing God into the conversation.
- i. APPLY: In today’s world it is not PC to name sins as sins or to call them wickedness. While on the one hand we should try to be winsome, polite, civil, respectful, and peaceful, we should not allow the culture’s prevailing political correctness to censor, cow or coerce us into sitting down and shutting up. There is a time to name sins and call them what they are: wickedness, evil, disgusting, etc. Sadly, even within the church sexual sin is flourishing. For us to take a strong stand for biblical marriage, against homosexual marriage, while most Christian singles are engaging in pre-marital sex is pathetic, and the world recognizes it as such. We have to name the sin as being wicked vocally and by our actions. In case no one has noticed, we have lost the argument in our culture against gay marriage. There is a very slim chance of reversing course and it would include a SCOTUS win and a Constitutional Amendment at this point. Not likely to happen, but we must continue the fight, even when it gets costly.
- j. V.10 “She spoke to Joseph day after day” The temptation did not happen just once, but rather, day after day, on a continuous basis. That is how temptations normally work. Oh, there may be times where there is a once in a lifetime kind of temptation, but usually we are tempted by the same kinds of things day in and day out. Mrs. Potiphar’s flirting and aggressiveness continued and it seems to have even grown in strength as she “caught him by his garment”- she grabbed him!
- k. This points us to Christ who was “tempted as we are, yet without sin” Heb. 4:15. And in Luke’s account of the temptation of Jesus by the devil it says that “And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time” meaning that the tempting of Jesus was not a one time thing. Satan came at him again, and again, like Joseph.
- l. “he would not listen to her” though her tactic of trying to wear him down failed here, it would succeed with Samson in Judges 14-16. Notice the constancy of Joseph, his steadiness. A lot of us can resist temptation once or twice, and then pat ourselves on the back, but can we stay strong day after day in the face of an overwhelming temptation?
- m. “to lie beside her or to be with her” Hamilton, p.375, writes, “This may suggest that Potiphar’s wife was moderating her demands, ‘let’s just be on our own together for a little,’ in the hope of making him take the first step.” When people tempt us, or want us to join them in evil, and we refuse, they may seek a compromise. All the compromise does is to move us closer to the sin so as to tempt us more sorely. Flirting with sin, dancing around the edge, is a great plan- to FAIL! It’s always best to draw the line in the sand and stand firm.
- n. APPLY: How to Turn Down Temptation- (1) decide before hand what your response to particular temptations will be. Make that decision firm. (2) Be always trusting in God and filled with His Spirit by regular intake of the Word (hear it preached, read it, study it, memorize it, meditate on it, obey it) (3) Pray for strength, (4) enlist the aid of other believers to encourage you to obey, (5) proclaim Christ to those around you who are tempting you. (6) Flee! Cut off the hand! Quote scripture to the devil! (7) Understand that your salvation depends on God’s grace alone, and the completed work of Christ alone. When you fail, look to Christ your only hope.
- o. V.11 “and none of the men of the house was there” This was a dangerous situation for it helps to have another person as witness. This gave Mrs. Potiphar the opportunity.
- p. “she caught him by his garment” the word indicates force, violence even. The word is used in Deut. 22:28 describing the rape of a virgin. She literally attacked him and began taking his clothes off! Here is the third reference to a garment which will be used in a deceitful manner in the bigger story going back to Judah’s cloak he left with Tamar and Joseph’s coat of many colours presented to Jacob with the goat’s blood. The word for garment is used 6 times in this story.
- q. “but he…fled” Joseph could not fight her, else he get in trouble and go to prison, so he fled. Leaving his garment behind, however, did lead to trouble.
- r. Vv.13-16 In this section Mrs. Potiphar uses the garment to frame Joseph by calling out to the other men on the property and telling them that Joseph had attacked her. Joseph, by his consistent refusals to her advances, has now become the object of her wrath rather than lust. She just calls him a Hebrew in a racist, demeaning manner, not even referring to him by name. She claims to have cried out loudly (see Deut.22:24ff). Being FALSLEY ACCUSED Joseph again points us to Christ who, though sinless, was falsely charged with blasphemy and executed.
- s. Vv.17-20 Mrs. Potiphar tells the story to Potiphar when he gets home and Potiphar gets angry, but the text is deliberately ambiguous about who Potiphar is angry with, and places Joseph in the King’s prison. The big question here is why did not Potiphar execute young Joseph? A slave attempting to rape a government official’s wife…? Perhaps Joseph adequately defended himself or maybe Potiphar’s wife even intervened. In the end, the LORD was watching out for Joseph.
- t. Why do bad things happen to Christ’s loyal followers? Surely at this point Joseph is wondering “Why me?” Twice now he has been abused and brought near death when he has done nothing wrong. Certainly one of the strongest question posed to the Faith is,”Why do bad things happen to good people?” We must point out that first of all, there are no good people; Joseph here, though blameless, remains a sinner. If we all got what we deserved we would be cast into hell for we have indeed offended a holy God. But here in Joseph’s case especially, God has a plan which Joseph cannot yet see, despite his past dreams.
- u. APPLY: when we suffer a wrong, instead of immediately throwing a fit or seeking revenge or complaining (as I am wont to do), we should first of all acknowledge the wisdom, providence and holiness of God and understand that he is in control and he loves us. The bad things that happen to us can be used by Him to sanctify us and prepare us for further ministry.
- 3. God Keeps His Covenant with Joseph and Joseph’s Faithfulness in Prison, 39:21-23
a.V.21 “But the Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love” the word in Heb. is hesed and means to act with loyal love to assist a covenant partner. God is present with Joseph in the toughest of circumstances fulfilling his covenant with Joseph’s fathers.
b. “and gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison.” Just like he had found favor in the sight of Potiphar, he finds favor with the keeper of the prison. Joseph maintains his positive attitude and work ethic even in prison, making himself useful and pleasing the one in authority over him. One can think of several NT verses that would be applicable in these circumstances: 1Thess 5:16, 18 “Rejoice always…give thanks in all circumstances”; Col.3:15,17,22,23 “And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful…And whatever you do in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him….Bondservants, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye service, as people pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men”.
c. V.22 “the keeper of the prison put Joseph in charge of all the prisoners” Again we see the fulfillment of Gen. 12:1-3 as Joseph is being used as a blessing to all peoples. Possibly the warden of the prison worked for Potiphar as the Captain of the Guard, so perhaps Potiphar told the warden what kind of worker Joseph was. It no doubt started with small menial tasks, but soon Joseph proved himself again to be diligent and trustworthy and he became the superintendent under the warden. Very likely Joseph was able to improve conditions in the prison and provide for the inmates in a way that included the necessary discipline but also compassion.
d. V.23 “the Lord was with him. And whatever he did, the Lord made it succeed.” Move over Joel Osteen! Here is the original best life now…in prison. This verse re-emphasizes how the passage started off and points forward to what lies ahead.
e. These final 3 verses are sometimes included in with the story in ch.40 as a part of that outline; scholars are mixed about that.
Excursus: Hermeneutical Issues
Two weeks ago we studied chapter 38 and the dreadful story of Judah and Tamar. Tamar had been deceived by Judah about marrying his third son after she had married his first two sons and they had died without producing an heir. Tamar resorted to disguising herself as a prostitute in order to sleep with Judah and produce heirs. She used an immoral act to achieve a greater good in preserving the line of Judah from whom would come the Messiah. Scripture nowhere condemns her actions, and she is in fact named by Matthew in the genealogy of Christ; Jews consider her a heroine. None of us was comfortable with what she or Judah did and in our society what Judah did in withholding his third son would be no big deal, but what she did would be outrageously bad.
Here, then is the problem: How do we interpret and apply morals and ethics we see in our biblical heroes and heroines? Obviously in our current story about Joseph we see exemplary behaviour which points us to Christ and furthers our own sanctification. But what about for slaveholding societies, and the slaves, of the ante-bellum South in America? Or what about political prisoners in the various communist regimes around the world? Wouldn’t we recommend that the prisoners break out, escape their unjust masters?
Furthermore, the passage that ch.39 mirrors in the chiasmus structure of Moses is ch.47, Joseph’s enslavement of the Egyptians. Do we condone what Joseph did then? It goes against everything we believe in as Americans! So why do we use ch.39 as a good example for us to follow, but shy away from ch.47? Same Joseph, doing God’s will. John H. Walton, The NIV Application Commentary: Genesis, Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 2001 (pp692-694) writes, “Given the methodology that accepts the role models in the text, only an arbitrary judgment can dismiss this economic policy as inapplicable for today. It is only when we consistently adopt the criteria of taking our lead from the overt teaching of the text that the morass of subjectivity can be avoided and the text can retain its clear vision and voice.”
So is the text teaching that we should all be good workers even if we are slaves? No. The text is demonstrating remarkable character qualities by Joseph, and we can say that he is even pointing us to Christ, but the character qualities are taught elsewhere in scripture. This text is not here to tell us how to be successful, it is here to tell us how God used Joseph and his situation to accomplish His will in bringing Israel to be in Egypt and to demonstrate that God is keeping his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
So then, can we use OT texts to teach ethics, morals, and Christian behaviour? Yes, Paul does say that these things are written for examples for us, for our instruction (1Cor.10:11) BUT, we must be careful to ground the examples from the OT in firm NT teaching that is specific.
Conclusion: In this remarkable story we DO see many points that can be used to help us in our sanctification- from working hard to resisting temptation- when combined with the proper NT texts that teach these things directly. But the primary thing that Moses is teaching us is that God is faithful to His covenant. Here is how Israel came to be in Egypt and where they would grow into a numerous people and ultimately be redeemed from slavery. Yes, Joseph is a great man, a type of Christ even. But the greater story is all about God’s Providence, Grace, and Covenant-Keeping Love. From this lesson then, we gain confidence in the God who has entered into covenant with us through the blood of his Son, Jesus.