Genesis Chapter 39
This chapter focuses back in on the life of Joseph.
Joseph was brought to Egypt, and an Egyptian officer of Pharaoh, Potiphar who was the captain of the guard, bought him from the Ishmaelites (39:1). The LORD was with Joseph, and he became successful in Potiphar's house (39:2). Potiphar saw that the LORD was with him and that the LORD caused everything he did to succeed (39:3). Because of this Joseph found favor in Potiphar's sight and he put him in charge of everything he had, making him an overseer in his house (39:5). The LORD blessed Potiphar's house and fields for Joseph's sake, so he left all he had in Joseph's charge, and he had no concern about anything but the food he ate.
Joseph was a good looking guy, and Potiphar's wife liked his looks and asked him to be intimate with her (39:7). Joseph refused recognizing it'd be a sin against Potiphar, and primarily God (39:9). So day after day when she would speak Joseph wouldn't listen to her and be intimate with her.
One day, he went into the house to work and no one was around, and she caught Joseph by his garment and said, "Lie with me." But he fled the house, leaving his garment in her hand (39:14). She called to the men of the house and told them the "Hebrew" has been brought in order for them to be laughed at and that he was trying to be intimate with her, but that she cried out and he fled the house leaving his garment beside her. She held the garment by her until Potiphar came home, and she told him the same story. Only this time she said the Hebrew servant came in to laugh at her.
As soon as Potiphar heard this his anger kindled, that his trusted servant would do this to him. So Potiphar, Joseph's master, put him in the prison where the king's prisoners were confined. Then the text says, "But the LORD was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love and gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison." (Gen. 39:21)
The keeper of the prison put Joseph in charge of all the prisoners, and he paid no attention to anything under Joseph's charge, because the LORD was with him. Everything Joseph did the LORD made to succeed (39:23).
Reflections on Genesis 39
God is sovereign over all things! This passage outlines the deepening of Joseph's trial. Notice that Joseph didn't choose his circumstances: He was "brought" to Egypt by the Ishmaelites; Potiphar "bought" him as a slave; the Lord was "with" him and "caused" him to succeed; Potiphar "favored" Joseph; Potiphar "put" Joseph in charge of everything; Joseph didn't choose to be good looking he just was; Potiphar's wife "asked" him to lay with her; she "caught" Joseph; Potiphar's anger "kindled" toward Joseph; Potiphar "put" Joseph in prison; the Lord was "with" Joseph and "gave" him favor in the prison-guard's eyes; the prison-guard "put" Joseph in charge of all the prisoners; the Lord "made" everything that Joseph did succeed. God's sovereignty didn't stop here in Joseph's life, His character hasn't changed even up to today. Have you had success in life? Do you think that's because you did something special? Do you deserve the praise for your successes?
It's important to notice, also, that Joseph was also responsible for his actions in the midst of the circumstances he found himself in by the providence of God: He worked for Potiphar (but he succeeded because the Lord made his work succeed); Joseph took charge of Potiphar's household (though the charge was bestowed upon him); Joseph refused the to sin against Potiphar (and primarily he refused to sin against God) by sleeping with Potiphar's wife; Joseph chose not to listen to her day after day; Joseph fled from her when she caught hold of him by his garment; he chose to leave his garment behind and escaped with his integrity for the sake of God's glory; lastly, the text implies that Joseph worked well for the prison-guard in the prison (and again he succeeded because the Lord made his work succeed).
What is the underlying "force" or "power" that is enabling Joseph to behave righteously in these circumstances? The LORD, Yahweh! The quality of Joseph's work, the choosing of righteous behavior, all of this is the fruit borne by the fact that the Lord was with Joseph (see 39:2, 3, 5, 21, and 23). Reading this passage one gets the sense that God is ruling over all, and sovereignly working in the circumstances. God is preserving Joseph in the midst of it all. Notice that even the good favor, which Potiphar and the prison-guard bestow upon Joseph, is not primarily because something Joseph did, but because the Lord inclined their hearts and minds to look well upon the good work that the Lord was enabling Joseph to do. The sexual chastity of Joseph draws a stark contrast to that of his brother Judah in Genesis 38. A heart that is focused on God and seeking to please the Lord is enabled by His power to withstand temptation. 1 Corinthians 10:13 comes to mind, "No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it." God's people fight hard to live righteous and holy lives, knowing that it is God who works in them, both to will and to work for His good pleasure (Phil. 2:12-13). Believers fall, but they keep getting up and fighting with gospel infused effort. Further, Joseph's life and choosing of holiness over adultery is a living parable of Jesus' parable of the talents in Matthew 25 (especially verses 21, 23, and 45). By Joseph's faithfulness in little in the midst of his trial, God is preparing him to be responsible for much (as we'll see later on).
We can't pursue holiness from our own power. You can't "man up" or "cowboy up" and exert enough tenacity and moral willpower to be a truly holy person, no one can. We're all sinners to the point that even the good we pursue is as filthy rags in God's sight (Isa. 64:6). This is why anything not done in faith is sin; even the fleeing and pursuing of justice and righteousness is sin if it's done without faith (Rom. 14:23). That's a sobering thought. We deserve to be abandoned by God and to suffer His endless wrath for our sin. And we can't pursue holiness by our own effort. This is bad news for us. That's one of the main points of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7). Unless our righteousness surpasses that of the Scribes and Pharisees we will not be able to enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5:20), and we must be perfect/holy as our heavenly Father is perfect/holy (Matt. 5:48). This is the standard, and the tragedy is that we can't do it, even Joseph couldn't do it perfectly. This is why we need Jesus Christ. He was able to perfectly obey God, and by faith in His life, death, and resurrection we can be clothed with an alien righteousness that does not come from within us, namely Jesus Christ's. The gospel doesn't excuse or justify sin though, we should still be fighting for holiness and righteousness in lives.
The main thing one must draw his or her attention to in Genesis 39 is not primarily that this is a morality tale of how to be righteous. Is there a lesson in this for us to seek a righteous life? Well, yeah, but that's not the main point. The main point is that the Lord is sovereign in Joseph's life, and He is sovereign even now. He is working out His good and perfect purposes on the stage of the world. One can see that theme resound again and again in this chapter. The Lord is working here in the Ishmaelites, Potiphar, Potiphar's wife, the prison-guard, all the folks working in and around these people, and most clearly, God is working in Joseph's life. Joseph's conditions are terrible, he's a slave. Yes, his circumstances are better than those of his fellow slaves, but he is still a slave. He has been betrayed by his own family. This is not mere conjecture, Joseph was carrying certain amount of depression and despair as he looked at his life (cf. the implication of 40:14-15). And yet, Yahweh, the triune all powerful God of the universe was with him. The Lord had not abandoned Him, He was upholding him by His power, He was sustaining him by His revelation of Himself through the covenantal promises given to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Joseph had nothing, but by faith he could find joy, and cling to his hope in Yahweh by faith alone. Praise God that in trials we can know that through Jesus Christ, this same faithful God who shows His loving-kindness to Joseph will be with us to the end of the age (Matt. 28:20). When we have no hope, and we fall in sin, even falling in sin that by God's grace Joseph was able to flee from, when we have no hope in and of ourselves we can put our entire hope in the finished work of Jesus Christ, all the while knowing that He will give grace to those who seek Him to turn from their sin. Praise Yahweh for this truth!