Purity and Power Differentials

Genesis 39

In this chapter we return to the Joseph story having taken a brief detour for a chapter to focus on Judah. As we see the two stories side-by-side, the contrast is evident. Both in the circumstances that he faces and the way he conducts himself in those circumstances, Joseph is the polar opposite of his brother and whereas Judah conducted himself in a shameful way, Joseph handled himself with honour and integrity.

The Lord Was With Him

As we pick up the story, Jospeh had been sold by his brothers to Midianite slave traders who in sold him to an Egyptian official named Potiphar. Potiphar was a man of tremendous power and influence and was the captain of Pharaoh’s guard. In the first six verses we hear of Joseph doing well in Potiphar’s house and being promoted up through the ranks of his staff until he was given a leadership position over the entire household.

Joseph’s success in this season is not credited to his own efforts or abilities but rather to the fact that the LORD was with him. The way the story has been told so far has made very little mention of God (in fact there are only two mentions of the LORD in chapters 37 and 38, and these are in reference to Judah’s sons doing evil in the LORD’s sight). By not mentioning God, the narrator is highlighting to us the attitude of the protagonists of the story – God was not given a second thought during the events of those chapters.

By chapter 39 things are different. In just six verses, the LORD is mentioned five times and we are told that he was with Joseph (twice), that he caused all he did to succeed, and that he blessed Potiphar’s house because of Joseph (twice). We are supposed to see a man walking in relationship with God, honouring God in his life and experiencing blessing from this relationship.

Looking from the perspective of his eternal circumstances, it would be easy to conclude that the LORD has abandoned Joseph. He is far from home, his relationship with his family has been destroyed and he is working as a slave. And yet God is with him. When times are tough, it is natural to ask ‘where is good’, and yet we see throughout scripture that it is often in the dark places and hard circumstances that we can draw closest to God. Whatever it is that we are going through, we should know that God has not given up on us and we can meet with him even in those circumstances. 

Potiphar’s Wife Makes Advances

Joseph’s prosperous circumstances do not last for long as he catches the eye of Potiphar’s wife. Joseph is called handsome, with both his physique and looks highlighted. As Liam Goligher points out, “being good looking makes someone both visible and vulnerable,” and that is certainly the case with Joseph here. He catches the eye of Potiphar’s wife, and she says to him “Lie with me.” When Joseph refused, she was unwilling to take no for an answer and every day she repeated the request, until one day when nobody else was in the house she physically grabbed hold of him and one more told him to lie with her.

Often when this story is taught, the focus in primarily on overcoming physical lust, and that is one aspect of what is going on. Joseph is a model that those struggling with sexual temptation can look to, in contrast to how Judah acted in the preceding chapter.

Like many seemingly familiar stories, a new light can be shed on the events by thinking about the power dynamics that are in play. In this circumstance Potiphar’s wife had all the power in the world and Joseph had none. She was free whereas he was a slave. She was rich whereas he was poor. She was Egyptians whereas he was a foreigner. She was the kind of person who was believed whereas he was not. She was able to leave if she wanted whereas he was not. Despite Joseph being clear that he did not want or consent to a sexual relationship, Poitphar’s wife used her position of power to sexually harass him, before eventually trying to force the issue. Ian Duguid is correct to say that “this story is a lot more like an attempted rape than seduction.”

We should not be blinded to the reality of what was going on in this situation because the victim was male and the perpetrator was female (try imagining the feel of the story with the gender roles reversed). Where we have power over another we must never use it to exploit them sexually or in any other way. As this topic comes up in the sermon do think about the pastoral response. There will almost certainly be people in the congregation who have been hurt by power dynamics like this, and quite possible those who have perpetrated them as well, and there may be the need to give space for healing and for repentance respectively.  

The Cost of No

Up to this reasons that he has given fo saying no are that he does not want to wrong Potiphar, does not want to betray the trust put in him and he recognises that it would be a sin against God. These reasons are not heard, and sticking with his convictions would be a costly thing for Joseph. He was left in a situation with no good options.

Joseph chose to keep on saying no, despite it being costly. When Potiphar’s wife grabbed his garment, he physically fled leaving the garments in her hand. She was absolutely furious with him, and determined to get her revenge. This started with an attacking on his reputation as she spread lies about him, but it also ended up with him losing his job in Potiphar’s house and losing his freedom as he was sent to jail for a crime that he didn’t commit.

There can be times in life where like Joseph we are left with no good options, and doing the right thing will prove costly and difficult. We want to show as much tenderness and compassion as possible for those in such a situation. Following Jesus is not an easy path, and there is no promise that doing the right thing will make life go well. Pray for the strength and comfort of the Holy Spirit to be those making choices to honour God and do what is right even when such a path is difficult and costly. 

The Lord Was Still With Him

Reinforcing the first point is the account of Joseph in prison that we get in the last paragraph. Agains, things that were entrusted to him went well and he was given promotions, even being put in charge of the other prisoners. And again we are told that the reason for this is that God was with him and God gave him success.

Even with Joseph hitting his rock bottom and facing harassment, false accusations and an unjust prison sentence, Joseph still has God’s presence with him. The is yet more evidence that God can be with us wherever we are, no matter how tough things might become!

How Does It Point to Jesus?

Just like Joseph, Jesus knew what it was like to be lied about, face unjust charges and be arrested when he had done nothing wrong and had acted with godly integrity. For Jesus this didn’t just take him to prison but to the cross, and in through it all God was with him and working his purposes through it.