Genesis 39:1-23 “Now Joseph had been taken down to Egypt. Potiphar, an Egyptian who was one of Pharaoh’s officials, the captain of the guard, bought him from the Ishmaelites who had taken him there. The LORD was with Joseph and he prospered, and he lived in the house of his Egyptian master . . . [and on to verse 23]
Joseph has been sold into slavery far away in Egypt. His own brothers sold him. His fellow-religionists, sons of Abraham according to the flesh, had accepted 20 pieces of silver and sold him to Midianite slave-traders. Though they knew it would destroy their father they sold him and told his father that a wild animal had killed him. So now Joseph is a slave in north Africa. Will he become bitter? Have you become bitter when people you know well have treated you badly? Have you shown your bitterness in your attitude to them, and your attitude to God? Joseph didn’t become bitter and it wasn’t because he quickly mastered the system in Egypt and was rolling in money, able to get everything he wanted, putting behind him all his memories of the rotten people of Canaan. Not was it because he had that kind of easy-going personality that meant nothing bothered him for long and that he was never up nor down, just a constant regular guy. The real reason he didn’t get bitter was that God was with him. People had been mean, but God (who knew all the facts and was working out his own purposes) had been with him even as God continues to be with us and we also prosper in our souls in spite of what men do.
1. GOD WAS WITH JOSEPH IN POTIPHAR’S HOUSE.
Joseph had been sold as a slave to Potiphar, Pharaoh’s Captain of the Guard, a man who was a high-ranking official in Egypt, someone responsible for protecting the life of Pharaoh, king of Egypt. Immediately Moses tells us that God’s blessing was on Joseph: “The Lord was with Joseph and he prospered” (v. 2). It is a possibility known to every Christian, that life is more than a basic relationship with God, that there are days and seasons when the Lord is with us. Stephen the first martyr in his great speech in Acts 7 says “And the patriarchs, jealous of Joseph, sold him into Egypt, but God was with him” (Acts 7:9).We are told that even Potiphar “his master saw that the Lord was with him” (v. 3). Here was an Egyptian totally ignorant of the grace of God, and yet when Potiphar watched Joseph day by day in his home he increasingly thought something like this, “That man is different from any other man I’ve ever met, and the reason is his faith.” His wife was to show that she knew of Joseph’s religion; she later says about him, “This Hebrew has done this terrible thing to me . . .” (v.14). Potiphar’s name in Egyptian meant “he whom Ra has given,” but this passage shows that it was not Ra the sun god who gives abundant life. It is the Lord who gives the blessing.
So Potiphar grew to like the young slave. In fact the more supervision and responsibility he delegated to Joseph the more the Lord blessed his servant and so Potiphar also was blessed. Joseph ended up as Potiphar’s administrative assistant with full charge of every facet of his enterprises. Potiphar was wise enough to stay out of Joseph’s way and let him handle everything except the food he ate (that would probably be because of certain rituals before eating in which a Hebrew could not take part), and also Potiphar let him know that his wife was a no go area. So Joseph experienced a gradual rise to power over a number of years. When Joseph was sold by his brothers he was 17 and at the time he was elevated to a position of power by Pharaoh he was 30 (Gen. 41:46). So, thirteen years went by between Joseph’s arrival in Egypt and his promotion to the second highest office in the land. During these years Joseph was either in the house of Potiphar or he was in prison. I am pointing out to you that Joseph’s rise to power was not achieved easily; the early years were long and lonely and tedious, but throughout this whole time, all these years God was with him. Joseph could look back to his twenties as a decade of unparalleled blessing, though he had lost the joy of basking in his father’s love and favour. He couldn’t continue his familiar vocation of tending sheep, and his plans soon to get married and have children had been brought to nought. They’d been snatched from his hands; instead he was forced to dwell far outside the Promised Land in another continent.
Yet God was with this stranger in the land of Egypt; two such vastly different beings with one another . . . God the mighty Creator . . . and a young slave. He with him, and that is grace. He who had dreams from the Lord that his brothers would bow down to him, now is bowing to a worshipper of Ra; he serves in the house of this foreigner. Will he ever see his home again and know his father’s embrace and enjoy his brothers reconciled to him? We know the answer. We know what Joseph wasn’t yet aware of, how his story turned out, not just in Joseph’s lifetime but in all of redemptive history. We even know that for the last four thousand years Joseph has been in heavenly glory in the praise of the Lamb who sits on the throne. Joseph is awaiting the certain resurrection of his body at the last day.
This is the right perspective. It keeps the final goal in view – “Our God is the end of the journey” – so let us profit from that perspective. We know that all things have been working together for the good of Joseph, both the best things that happened to him, and the worst things. Let us take that perspective and know that certainly it must also apply to us as well. Is God with us? Even more certainly than God was with Joseph. For Joseph, we have words on a page assuring us that God was with him. For ourselves, we have the living Word made flesh, Jesus Christ whose name is Emmanuel, “God with us.” Is the ending assured? Even more certainly than it was for Joseph. For Joseph, he could be confident that God would fulfil all his promises. But men and women, we are confident that God has fulfilled all his exceeding great and precious promises to us which are in Christ Jesus. They are yea and Amen! Look! Christ Jesus has already passed from death into life! Already, on your behalf, he has ascended into heaven and sits at God’s right hand. You are already seated in heavenly places with him. He is your anchor within the veil. As surely as he is there now, so surely will he come again to receive you to himself. In his resurrection and ascension you have already seen the end of your story. It is going to end in glory. It is going to work out all right in the end. So then, church of Jesus Christ, let us have boldness as we face the sufferings of this present time. Your life may seem to be dragging on, and that happy ending seems impossibly remote. There were times when it must have seemed like that to Joseph too, but take courage! One day you shall look back at this life and it will seem like the life of Joseph, a moment of suffering follow by an eternity of glory. You look at Joseph&rs
quo;s life this way. God looks at yours in the same way.
Men and women, do you find yourselves today not possessing what you once wished you might have attained in this life? Did you have different plans? Different ideas about what you’d do, or where you’d live, or how you’d support yourself, or whether you’d be married, or to whom you would be married, or whatever else? Please don’t rebel against your circumstances. You may be longing for the wings of a dove to fly far away from your life here and be at rest, but God is not answering that prayer. Joseph once had plans for his future, but in one day, at the end of running an errand for his father, his brothers destroyed all his dreams. Joseph could easily have considered that his life had been permanently sidetracked by the wicked schemes of those who hated him or even by his own lack of wisdom in telling his brothers about his dreams, and that from now on his life was going to be Plan B. But the Lord was with him in Egypt and so it was Plan A. God never puts his servants where he is not and where he cannot keep them. As he was with Joseph so he will always be with you. The Lord is greater than the sum of the sin of his brothers and slave traders and Potiphar’s wife combined. So it is with you. The Lord has you right where he wants you to be and he is with you there. Fear not. There are no random events with respect to God. To us it’s true that time and chance influence all things. Things come to pass in unseen ways and by unknown means, but with respect to God, it is not so. Nothing can happen outside his knowledge or intention, for it is his decree that gives being to all events. The things that are, would never be if he had not intended them. Fear not.
So Joseph became the recipient of the divine blessing that had come upon Abraham. God, who had been with Abraham at the beginning, also said to Isaac “I will be with you” also (Gen. 26.3) and that fact had been obvious to Abimelech, the Canaanite king, just as it was all too obvious to Potiphar in Egypt. The Lord had also appeared to Jacob and made the same promise to him, “I will be with you,” and now the promise is realised in the life of his son Joseph. God is with him as well. The covenant that God made with Abraham followed him out of the Promised Land and it went into north Africa with him and it rested on him there or wherever he went.
The promise to Abraham begins to be fulfilled in Joseph. God told Abraham, “Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years; but I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. As for yourself, you shall go to your ancestors in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. And they shall come back here in the fourth generation; for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete” (Gen 15:13ff.). The nations were going to blessed because of Abraham’s Seed and here is a representative one of them, a man from Africa, Potiphar, who sees and bears testimony to God’s blessing on Joseph (v. 3), saying in effect, “Joseph has abundant life.” So Potiphar made him an overseer in his house (v.4), and God blessed Potiphar because of Joseph (v.5).
There are no less than eight occasions on which Moses emphasizes that, even though Joseph has been sold into slavery, and even though Joseph has been tempted by his master’s wife, and even though eventually Joseph wound up in jail, that God was with him. Now that is not a reference to God’s omnipresence, God being everywhere. That is not the theme of Psalm 139 being emphasized here. That’s not the particular comfort that’s encouraging and inspiring Joseph here. Joseph was comforted by God’s covenantal presence, or what we might call God’s evangelical presence, his gospel presence, his favourable presence. That is, that God takes a special note of his people and draws near to them in times of need or when they gather in his name. Now a dozen of us meet on Friday mornings at 7 a.m. and we pray that God will be with each gospel minister in the town the following Sunday as he stand in the pulpit. We have done for 14 years. And we four elders meet before the services on Sunday mornings and again in the evenings and we pray that God will be with us as we worship.
Now to pray that the Lord would be with us is not an inappropriate prayer, in fact, it’s a biblical prayer, as long as we understand what we’re asking for. We’re not denying that God is everywhere, but we’re asking for God’s special presence and favour. In fact it’s precisely defined that way in this passage. Look at verse 2; ‘The Lord was with Joseph.” Look at verse 3; “The LORD was with Joseph and he prospered.” Then look down to verse 5. “The Lord’s blessing was upon all that he owned.” Look down to verse 21. “The Lord was with Joseph and extended kindness to him and gave him favor in his sight.” So when we see that phrase “the Lord was with him” it’s emphasizing that the Lord’s enriching Joseph, the Lord is elevating him and inspiring him, guiding him and helping him to rejoice in the Lord. The Lord’s face was turned towards him in a favorable way. God had drawn near to him like a loving Father in this hour of Joseph’s need. So Moses is setting it out right here in these opening words of Genesis, chapter 39 that God, in his providence, is showing favour to Joseph even in his slave’s daily tasks. He’s separated from his family. He’s hated by his brothers. He’s sold into a strange land, but even in that place God is mitigating the disappointments, and he is prospering Joseph in his setting. He’s a slave, but he’s a successful man. He’s a slave, but he’s promoted to the highest position in the household. His trustworthiness is seen by all, and his success is such that it draws the attention of his master. So God in his providence shows favor to Joseph in Egypt. Jehovah is not the local tribal god of Canaan. He is God over all the nations of the world.
Do you see how it is shown to us how God was with Joseph? This young believer kept trusting in the Sovereign Lord, day by day; Joseph chose to dwell on the character of God rather than on the pain of the injustice. How do I know that? Because he could tell his brothers many years later, “It was not you who sent me here but God.” He chose to continue to live by faith in Jehovah even though it was difficult. He chose to believe that God was at work in Potiphar’s house even when he couldn’t see what in the world God was doing in allowing him to be sold as a slave in Egypt. True blessing comes from walking by faith and walking in the Spirit. It doesn’t have anything to do with our circumstances. Let me illustrate it by telling you a story I got from Bruce Goettsche of a man called Michael.
Michael seemed always to be in a good mood, a very positive Christian. When someone would ask him how he was feeling, he’d have his wisecrack, “If I were any better, I’d be twins!” How was he able to keep so positive always? He would tell you that it was all by the grace of God, but then he would add this, “Each morning I wake
up and say to myself, Mike you have two choices today. You can either choose to be in a good mood or you can choose to be in a bad mood. I choose to be in a good mood. Each time something bad happens, I can choose to be a victim or I can choose to learn from it. I choose to learn from it. Every time someone comes to me complaining, I can choose to accept their complaining or I can point out the positive side of life. I choose the positive side of life.
“That’s not easy,” you could say. “Yes it is,” Michael affirms. “Life is all about choices. When you clean away the cosmetics, every situation is a choice. You have to choose how you react to situations. You choose how people will affect your mood. You choose to be in a good mood or a bad mood. The bottom line is this: it’s your choice how you live your life.” That is the doctrine of human responsibility, a huge and important doctrine in Scripture.
Some years ago Michael was involved in a serious accident; he fell 60 feet from a communications tower. After 18 hours of surgery and weeks of intensive care, Michael was released from the hospital with rods in his back. A friend saw Michael about six months after the accident. “How are you Michael?” He replied. “Fine. If I were any better, I’d be twins.” “What did you think,” his friend asked him, “when the accident took place?” He said, “The first thing that went through my mind was the well-being of my soon to be born daughter, and then, as I lay on the ground, I remembered that I had two choices: I could choose to submit to God’s will or I could choose to complain and whine as a victim. I chose to submit to the good and acceptable and perfect will of God. I don’t know why I had that fall, but god knew. When they wheeled me into the Accident and Emergency Operating Theatre and I saw the expressions on the faces of the doctors and nurses, I got scared. In their eyes, I was reading ‘no hope . . . he’s a dead man.’ I knew I needed to take action.” “What did you do?” his friend asked him. “Well, there was a big burly nurse with a clip board shouting questions at me,” said Michael. “She asked if I were allergic to anything. ‘Yes,’ I replied. The doctors and nurses stopped working as they waited for my reply. I took a deep breath and said loudly, ‘Gravity.’ Over their laughter, I told them that they should operate on me as if I were alive, not dead.”
Young Joseph in Egypt had a choice, a deliberate choice, whether he was going to trust God and obey him or give up on life, defy God and live in black despair. In Potiphar’s house Joseph chose to trust God. He would not become another slave statistic. He chose to move forward, living confident that God was doing something in his life even though he had no idea what it was. Joseph determined to serve Potiphar the best he could in whatever circumstance he was in. If Joseph was going to be a slave then he would serve his master to the glory of God. He would not be an eye-pleaser. If he were to be a prisoner in jail he would glorify God as a convict. Joseph sought to honor God in every circumstance. He could have whinged. He could have complained about the fact that he wanted to be in management rather than in labour. He could have whined that he was not being used to his fullest potential. He could have spent his life in Egypt complaining that he’d had all the hard breaks, but he didn’t. Instead he served God where he was. You may not be where you’d like to be. But are you willing to trust God where you are and serve him with all your ransomed powers? Will you find some way to give your best as an offering to the Lord of life? Will you stop whining and start looking for ways to honour God right where you are? That’s what Joseph did. And if he hadn’t done that then he’d never have overcome temptation when it came to him via his master’s wife.
2. GOD TRIED AND TESTED JOSEPH IN POTIPHAR’S HOUSE.
In verses 7 to 19 we see how God permitted a great test to come into Joseph’s life and how he passed the test, showing his commitment to God under the most dangerous circumstances. What a difference from his brothers, Reuben in Genesis 35 and Judah in Genesis 38 both fell. Now Joseph is tempted; he was propositioned by his master’s wife, Mrs. Potiphar, and verse 6 actually sets you up for the exchange. There Moses tells us that Joseph was well built and handsome, a great face, and a great body to go with it, and it is then that we are told that his master’s wife propositioned him. He was a lonely young man around 20, and there was no one of his family who could know what went on. Here was a bored older woman taking the initiative, and what does Joseph do? Here I found Bruce Goettsche helpful.
i] Joseph said no immediately; “But he refused” (v.8). We have the tendency to get as close to sin as we can before we get away at the last minute. But the longer we say ‘No’ the harder it gets. Instead of acting decisively we flirt and we see how far we can go without getting into trouble. It is utterly foolish. The moment we debate the merits of wrong behaviour we give the devil a foothold. She said to him one day, “Come to bed with me” but he refused immediately. The apostle John says, “Make it your aim not to sin.” He does not say, “Not to sin very much.” Never to sin.
ii] Joseph counted the cost realistically; he didn’t just refuse to do something ‘because it was wrong’ (though that should be reason enough). He had a realistic view of what was at stake.
A] it was a violation of trust . . . Potiphar trusted him. His trust was so great that he didn’t concern himself with anything while Joseph was around. To give in to Mrs. Potiphar would be to treat that trust as if it were nothing. How could he do this to someone who had been so kind to him? His credibility would be gone. His character would be destroyed.
B] it was a violation of marriage. He said, “My master has withheld nothing from me except you, because you are his wife.” Joseph understood that marriage settled the issue. It was not even open for debate.
C] it was a sin against God. Immorality is wrong! It is to go contrary to the directives of our Creator and Benefactor. Joseph knew that disregarding God’s law is to alienate ourselves from our strength and hope.
The biggest problem in temptation can be that we focus on what we think we are going to get out of it; we ignore the cost. But there is always a price to pay. Let me give you a couple of examples. The person tempted to immorality should consider the grief they would bring to the Lord, and the reality that some day they will have to stand before Jesus and give an account of their decisions. Let them consider the people that they will be stealing from (a present spouse, a future mate). Let them be aware of the undermining of the faithful example and hard work of other Christians in the community. Let them consider a loss of credibility and opportunity to serve and minister. Let them think of the threat of dis
ease and pregnancy. Let them think of the embarrassment, pain and disappointment of those who are family and friends. If men and women could take some moments to look beyond the momentary thrills to consider the consequences of their actions . . . they’d be better equipped to resist temptation of many kinds. So we must beware of acting on impulse, of ‘going with the flow,’ of thinking, “it seems so right so how can it be wrong?” Of saying to ourselves that the only moment any of us has is now! No, you have your whole future on earth as long or short as that may be to live with the consequences, and after it there is eternity. We must confront these atheistic rationalizations that so quickly come to mind.
iii] Joseph resisted the pressure persistently. Notice that Joseph resisted even though “she spoke to Joseph day after day, he refused to go to bed with her or even be with her” (v.10). Joseph had to have some contact with Mrs. Potiphar but he tried to avoid her as much as possible. He was a smart man. He was also a strong man. She made lots of eye contact. She took every opportunity she could to touch Joseph. And you can hear her saying, “Potiphar is gone for the day . . . no one will ever know . . . Just this once! . . . Potiphar hasn’t been a very good husband to me . . . I deserve some happiness too, don’t I? . . . Just come close and hug me . . . it won’t go any further . . . we won’t be hurting anyone”
It takes great strength to resist the persistent pressure to sin. Whatever you’re struggling with – the particular sin that easily besets you – it will be something that seems to bombard you everywhere you go. When Satan senses vulnerability he doesn’t turn away quickly. We must choose to trust, say no immediately, and remind ourselves of the cost of this sin and never stop . . . never stop.
iv] Joseph avoided situations of temptation. Notice that Joseph wouldn’t be in the same room as Mrs. Potiphar. He didn’t go looking for trouble. Joseph was smart enough to know that no matter how strong he was . . . he couldn’t constantly invite temptation without putting himself at risk. So he avoided Mrs. Potiphar as much as possible. If you know that something will be a situation that will tempt you . . . . stay away! If you know that city living is a temptation then move to the country if you can. If there are places or websites that encourage sin then avoid them. If you know that certain practices will stir up sinful emotions or dull your sensibilities. . . stay away. If you know that certain people are a temptation to you, keep away from them, or make sure that someone is always with you when you see them. If there are friends who say, “Come on . . . don’t be silly . . .” end the friendship. If you know that certain situations always bring out the worst in you . . . avoid those situations.
v] Joseph fled the trap decisively. Joseph’s job brought him into the household. He had no choice. He tried to avoid Mrs. Potiphar but it was inevitable that they would run into each other. So, one day Joseph walked unknowingly into a trap. The house was empty. The servants were all gone and Mrs. Potiphar made her move. She grabbed Joseph and sought to seduce him. Joseph didn’t try to reason with her. He ran away leaving his outer garment that she was grabbing in her hand! Sometimes you need simply to get out of the situation that is causing the problem. Jesus tells us to take decisive action, “if your right arm offends you . . . cut it off.” Paul told us to “flee sexual immorality.” This is not a figure of speech . . . it is a battle plan. This is not the time for explanations. It is not the time for debate. It is not the time to be polite. Your window of opportunity is small . . . run!
3. GOD MOVED JOSEPH FROM POTIPHAR’S HOUSE TO PRISON.
So the angry spurned wife acted the victim and accused Joseph of attempted rape, and into prison he goes. But once again Joseph experienced God’s favor. What a roller coaster! Joseph had gone from his father’s favorite to hated brother, to slave, back up to successful servant, to accused felon, and now to imprisoned criminal. But once again, (v. 21) Moses will assure us God was with him. Actually Moses doesn’t say that. Eight times he says not, ‘God’ was with him, but, ‘the Lord’ was with him. The covenant God of Israel who calls himself by name and reveals himself to his people, he was with him and he was for him. Eight times, I say, in this passage Moses will stress that.
Even in the punishment, God’s hand is apparent. All that Joseph could have expected was execution for a crime as base as this. He’s a Hebrew slave in Egypt. He’s just been accused of attempting to assault his master’s wife! All he could have expected was execution, and yet the Lord mitigates the punishment, and he places him not simply in a prison, but the term that Moses uses indicates a royal prison, a prison where prisoners of a specific type were kept.
Of course, God has him in that prison for a reason, just as he had a reason for the brothers selling him to traders going down to Egypt. Moses doesn’t reveal that reason yet. It will be a while before the purpose of the false accusation and the wretched unjust imprisonment will become apparent. So Moses gives us the opportunity to wonder with Joseph for a moment what is going on. That’s normally where we are when we are experiencing these kinds of providences. We have a sneaky suspicion that God is doing something but what we’re not sure about. We may even be able to cling to the goodness of God, but it’s very difficult to understand and our instinctive reaction is to say, “Lord, what are you doing?” Yet in this very context, God continues to refine the character of Joseph. Derek Kidner says, “Joseph’s outstanding abilities and integrity, crowned with the touch of God, were constant at every level; as prisoner and as governor, he was simply the same man.” God was teaching Joseph to be the same man in every circumstance so that one day he would be the kind of man who could resist the temptations inherent in the most powerful court in the world. But he had to learn that in the depths of a royal Egyptian prison.
I appreciate the conclusions of Ligon Duncan; “We don’t know where God has us in his providence right now. But God here shows you how he protects us from the full extent of the designs of the wicked and the wilds of the world, and how he causes us to be favored in the sight of the people for his purposes. All the while, he’s crafting our character and character crafting is going on to be sure here in the life of Joseph. The unfolding story makes it obvious that it’s God who brought Joseph here for the task of preserving his people, and so God preserves Joseph so that he might be used to preserve God’s people and the Seed, Jesus who is to be born.
“What is God preparing us for now? I think every believer needs to recognize that in God’s providence, God has a p
urpose for you, God has a purpose for his people, and he has a purpose for himself. Every part of God’s plan will one day bring glory to him, and so there is a real sense in which the way you respond in the context of God’s dark providences is an opportunity for you to bring glory to God. When you, with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, say, “the Lord will deliver us, but even if he doesn’t we won’t bow down and worship this idol,” you are bringing glory to God in a dark providence. But you’re also encouraging the people of God. So in what God is doing in you and with you, his providences are designed to be an encouragement to the people of God so that as you stand firm, so the people of God are encouraged. So every time a family in this congregation faces a crisis, the fact that they bear up in faith proves to be a tremendous encouragement to the rest of us when we also are called to bear up in the midst of some unspeakable tragedy.
“Then of course God has a design in his providence to make you like his Son. You know, The church fathers saw in Joseph a type of our Lord, because you can’t help but see Israel in Egypt, the suffering servant in the life of Joseph reflected in the greater Joseph, the Lord Jesus Christ. God is crafting Joseph so that he would be like his Son. And God is crafting you in his providence so that you would be like his Son. May God enable you to believe that and his goodness in the midst of your trials, for his glory and for your good.”