Where is God? - Genesis 39
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~~Where is God?
Back in the 16th century, there was a great concern within churches to ensure that believers- young and old alike- had a good grasp of basic Christian beliefs. This arose out of the conviction that what we believe shapes how we behave, and since we want to behave according to God’s will, then in order to do so we need to understand God and his world a little better. And so to help Christians along, some churches drew up a question and answer method of learning, called catechisms. And one belief in particular which was considered to be central to healthy Christian living was the belief in God’s Providence. This is how what is called the Heidelberg catechism (1562) handles that particular belief:
Question: What do
you understand by the providence of God?
Answer: The almighty and ever-present power of God whereby he still upholds, as it were by his own hand, heaven and earth together with all creatures, and rules in such a way that leaves and grass, and rain and drought, fruitful and unfruitful years, food and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty and everything else come to us not by chance but by his fatherly hand.
We might think-‘fine but so what?’ hence the next question:
Question: What advantage
comes from acknowledging God’s creation and providence?
Answer: We learn that we are to be patient in adversity, grateful in the midst of blessing, and trust our gracious God and Father for the future, assured that no creature can separate us from his love, since all creatures are so completely in his hand, that without his will they cannot move.
And if you want to find someone in the Bible who did precisely that-‘learnt patience in adversity and was grateful in the midst of blessing and who trusted God for the future’, you need look no further than Joseph, especially as we see him in Genesis 39. So let’s turn to this passage and be encouraged.
First, we have Providence and man’s purity.
The reason why this chapter is so well known is because it contains the account of a powerful temptation which is remarkably resisted. I say the resistance was remarkable because you have to try and put yourself in Joseph’s sandals. Here is a 17 year old youth who has been taken away from his homeland and dropped into what was then the most powerful nation on earth- Egypt. He was from Canaan and the people there didn’t speak Egyptian and so straight away you have the problem of a language barrier. He has no friends, no money and he’s a slave- v 1, ‘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.’ Now we are not to move on too quickly to the next few verses which have Joseph placed as the senior household administrator. That wouldn’t have happened overnight. Joseph would have started on the bottom rung of the social ladder- cleaning out the toilets, emptying the rubbish, running the errands- all the degrading and menial stuff. And this would have gone on for some time- day after day, month after month, with no end in sight.
But eventually a light did begin to shine at the end of the long dark tunnel as his master, Potiphar-which may have been his name or his title- noticed there was something special about Joseph- he had great potential, he could actually deliver the goods. And so he was promoted, no doubt gradually, to be in charge of the whole household- that was some responsibility. He was Potiphar’s man on the spot- acting in the place of Potiphar himself on a day-to-day basis. And that is when someone else took notice of him but for a very different reason- Potiphar’s wife who wanted to get him into her bed. After all, he was, we are told, ‘well built and handsome’- she wanted him has her ‘toy boy’, a sexual play thing.
It doesn’t take that much of an imagination to work out what kind of thoughts would run through his mind. He has been abandoned by his family. He has little prospect of marriage. He is young- he has needs- this is the season for male hormones after all, as an older teenager. And who was to know? He organises everyone’s timetable so he could easily arrange things so that people are out of the house while they are in the sack. Maybe he could so ingratiate himself with Potiphar’s wife that she could sweet talk her husband into giving Joseph his freedom. In other words, there are a thousand and one reasons why this might seem to be an offer he couldn’t refuse. And the enticement came not just once- an off chance opportunity on the part of the wife- but time and time and time again. The pressure to give in was relentless.
And yet Joseph stood firm-v 10, ‘And though she spoke to Joseph day after day, he refused to go to bed with her or even be with her.’
How do you account for that?
The answer lies with Joseph himself- the character that God had formed over the previous years by his Providence.
Joseph was able to deal with the temptation in the house because of the work God had performed in his heart. He would have heard from his father, Jacob, of God’s dealings with his forefathers-especially Abraham. That he was a God who made promises and kept them- he was a faithful God. That he was the 'judge of the earth who would do what is right’- a righteous God. That he committed himself to his people and his people, in turn, were to be committed to him- he was a covenantal God. And all of these things he would have pondered and embraced. And without doubt it was by drawing on these things that Joseph would have kept sane on that long journey into Egypt, so he could be, in the words of the catechism, ‘patient in adversity, grateful in the midst of blessing, and trusting his gracious God and Father for the future.’ In other words, God had forged within Joseph a godly character. This was no spiritual snowflake; this was a young man with a moral compass resolutely set on God. He saw things differently.
Now, someone else looking at the same circumstances might have come to an entirely different conclusion and so accommodate Potiphar’s wife’s lusts-v 8. ‘With me in charge, my master does not concern himself with anything in the house’- so, one might think, he needn’t concern himself with his wife either-I can take care of her in more ways than one. ‘No one is greater in the house than I am’ –so why shouldn’t I have a few perks- even sexual ones? My master has not withheld anything from me’- so what is the problem in going one stage further and having his wife- no one need know.’ It could be seen as a win/win situation all round- Potiphar has a well-managed estate, Potiphar’s wife is serviced in bed, and Joseph has it all- sex and status.
But he doesn’t. Look at what he says instead: ‘My master has withheld nothing from me except you, because you are his wife. How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?” And then, v 10, ‘he refused to go to bed with her or even to be with her.’
Joseph looks at the situation and reads it very differently to the way many would today because he has developed what can only be called a godly character. He sees how kind and trusting his master has been towards him and concludes it would be plain wrong to abuse that trust and sleep with his wife- how could he do such a monstrous thing?
Now character is something which is downplayed today but central to the Bible. Our culture speaks in terms of someone’s personality. But character, what the Bible calls the ‘heart’, is of supreme concern to God- ‘Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.’ (Prov. 4:23). Having a good character will mean that we will be people of integrity- not saying one thing and doing another, but saying what we mean and meaning what we say.
You see, how we will respond in a moment of temptation will depend upon the character we have been cultivating over a lifetime. Don’t expect that if you neglect your prayer life, reading the Bible, meeting with God’s people and hearing his Word, that when trials come your way (and they will) you are going to be any match for them- because you won’t. But if by those day to day spiritual workouts you develop the spiritual fibre and moral muscles of the godly-the outcome is likely to be very different.
And one of the features of such a godly character is that you recognise a thing for what it is and calling it for what it is- that sin is sin. Did you notice how Joseph names what was being suggested by Potiphar’s wife? –v 9, ‘How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?”
One of the first things that tend to happen when we are being tempted is that we stop calling the thing we are being tempted to do ‘sin’. We use other euphemisms- ‘It is peccadillo’, ‘a weakness’, ‘a momentary lapse’- in this instance even ‘love’- as long as it is between two consenting adults what could be wrong with it when both have their needs met? But Joseph identifies it and names it for what it is and in so doing raises his moral defences- it is a ‘wicked thing and sin against God’. Sure, what is being proposed would be a sin against Potiphar. It would be a sin against Potiphar’s wife. It would even be a sin against Joseph’s own body. But first and foremost sin is always, always, sin against God. We may fool ourselves ‘Well nobody gets hurt if I indulge in this’ which is rarely the case anyway, but we are to get it firmly impressed in our minds that if we ‘indulge in this’ (whatever ‘this’ is), it is an affront, a spitting in the face of God. And Joseph could not bear the thought of doing such a thing. And of course the only reason we can and do such things is because we don’t give it much thought; we don’t construe sin in this way because if we did, it would become less attractive and more repulsive. Is that not so?
What is more, such integrity of character meant that Joseph took practical steps to put himself, as much as he was able, out of temptations way. He wasn’t so super-spiritual that he thought he could handle it. No, a godly person has such an awareness of the corruption of his own heart, that it is like dry kindle, one spark and –‘whoosh’ up it goes- such that he won’t even risk it. And so Joseph will not even be in the same room as her. How did Jesus put it, ‘If you right eye causes you to stumble (that is what you are tempted to look at something or someone you shouldn’t) gouge it out’- we have to be practically ruthless with sin.
And the reward for Joseph being faithful? A jail sentence would you believe?! What is the saying? ‘Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned’. That is certainly what you see here with a vengeance. Having had her advances spurned by Joseph, Potiphar’s wife accuses him of attempted rape-v13 and her husband believes her. Betrayed by his brothers, Joseph is now betrayed by his Master’s wife to spend years in prison.
And you may think: where is God in all of this? Well, the writer wants us to know that God is where he has always been- present with Joseph, in the good times and the bad, which leads us to our next heading: Providence and the presence of God.
Just take a look at the two ‘bookends’ which frame this story- v2ff, ‘The Lord was with Joseph so that he prospered, and he lived in the house of his Egyptian master. When his master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord gave him success in everything he did, Joseph found favour in his eyes and became his attendant. Potiphar put him in charge of his household, and he entrusted to his care everything he owned. From the time he put him in charge of his household and of all that he owned, the Lord blessed the household of the Egyptian because of Joseph. The blessing of the Lord was on everything Potiphar had, both in the house and in the field. So Potiphar left everything he had in Joseph’s care; with Joseph in charge, he did not concern himself with anything except the food he ate.’ And then v20b, ‘But while Joseph was there in the prison, the Lord was with him; he showed him kindness and granted him favour in the eyes of the prison warden. So the warden put Joseph in charge of all those held in the prison, and he was made responsible for all that was done there. The warden paid no attention to anything under Joseph’s care, because the Lord was with Joseph and gave him success in whatever he did.’ Do you see how the wording is more or less identical, designed to make an important point- namely, whatever the circumstances we are in God is present with us for our strength and his glory. Think back to that catechism, and the question, ‘What do you understand by the providence of God?’ the answer- ‘The almighty and ever-present power of God whereby he still upholds, as it were by his own hand, heaven and earth together with all creatures, and rules in such a way that leaves and grass, and rain and drought, fruitful and unfruitful years, food and drink, health and sickness, riches (the first part of the episode) and poverty (the end of the episode) and everything else come to us not by chance but by his fatherly hand.’ God’s fatherly hand is as much at work in Joseph in prison as much as in the palace. When times are dark we are not to conclude that God has left us, but that it has simply got dark. When times are bright we are not to think that God is much closer to us- it is just that the times are bright. God is no more or less present depending up the circumstances- his presence is as full and certain on earth as it is in heaven. That is what the writer wants to impress upon us, so that, with Joseph, ‘we are to be patient in adversity, grateful in the midst of blessing, and trust our gracious God and Father for the future.’ Do you see?
God is in all the detail. At the beginning of the story four times in four verses the author reminds us that God’s hand is in Joseph’s circumstances as he speaks of the ‘Lord’ doing this and the ‘Lord’ doing that. And it is no accident either that Joseph ends up in prison, the King’s prison at that. You have to understand that for what Joseph is accused of doing he could have be executed- no questions asked. That was not part of God’s plan and so no matter how outraged Potiphar is, he is not permitted to take Joseph’s life, rather he puts Joseph exactly where the Lord wants him to be- Pharaoh’s prison. Why?
Well, this brings us to our final and very important point- Providence and the purposes of God.
We need to think through why this chapter is here in Genesis?
Well, the first thing is that it forms a contrast with chapter 38. There you have Joseph’s brother Judah in freedom having sex with someone he is not meant to have sex with- being a real sleezball, and here you have Joseph in slavery retaining his moral integrity. Judah is the one from whom the Christ is going to come for goodness sake! But what matters most to God is not one’s position, but one’s faithfulness.
Secondly this chapter drives God’s plan of redemption along until it finds its fulfilment in the coming of Jesus is the New Testament. Let me explain. Joseph at this stage is a kind of Saviour. God’s plan is to get him into Pharaoh’s presence to eventually become Pharaoh’s Prime Minister, so that when the famine comes- it will be Joseph who will save his own family, as well as whole nations by his wisdom and planning. Now think on this: if Joseph had not been in this position, his own family would have died of starvation, together with countless thousands of others, and then what would have become of God’s promise to Abraham that from him a Saviour would eventually come? So from a human perspective we can say: because of Joseph’s faithfulness in Potiphar’s palace, he was placed in Pharaoh’s prison. Because of his faithfulness in Pharaoh’s prison, he was placed in Pharaoh’s court and because of his faithfulness in Pharaoh’s court, he saves his people from whom will eventually come the Christ, the Saviour of the World. Putting it bluntly, humanly speaking, Jesus was born because Joseph kept his flies buttoned up! Do you see how simple acts of faithfulness can have momentous consequences which far outlast our own lifetime for good or ill? Never think that what you do or don’t do is insignificant- they are.
Think of it this way.
You are a Christian father or mother, or maybe grandparent. You haven’t preached to crowds. You haven’t led dozens to Christ. But each day you have been seeking to be faithful to the Lord. You bring your family before him in prayers. Your evident love for Jesus and his people and your integrity -that you are not one thing on a Sunday and hypocrite on a Monday- has an impact on those children. They in turn decide to follow the Lord Jesus and follow in their parent’s or grandparent’s footsteps. They too have children, some of whom do the same, and this continues until a few generations down the line you have the next Billy Graham or John Wesley! That could be God’s plan and it can be traced all the way back to those little acts of faithfulness and love of a Christian family here in Hull. Maybe, we don’t know. What we do know is that faithfulness counts- getting on being people of integrity where God has placed us for better or for worse- leaving the good purposes he intends- unbeknown to us- in his strong, capable hands.
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