65. Genesis 37:36 and 39:1-18

III. D. 4. continued

b) Joseph in slavery (Genesis 37:36 and 39:1-18)

When Joseph was sent out the last time with a message for his brothers, they had moved the flock to Dothan, no doubt in search of water or better pasture. Shechem was nearly sixty miles from Israel’s camp at Hebron, and Dothan was another thirty miles beyond that. They were so far from Israel’s camp that they were safe to carry out nearly any scheme against Joseph without danger of any rumor getting back to Israel. Dothan was on one of the principal caravan routes from Mesopotamia to Egypt so it was not unusual that the Midianite traders came along. The caravan that happened by is twice described as Ishmaelite (37:25,28) but once as Midianite (37:28). It was probably a large commercial operation, one with merchants from many tribes, including Ishmaelite and Midianite. Both Midianites and Ishmaelites were descendants of Abraham, nomadic merchants with similar cultures, and could easily have conducted joint business ventures. If Ishmaelites bought Joseph, by the time they got to Egypt he was in Midianite hands.

It was Judah who had the idea of selling Joseph. After all, he said, they shouldn’t kill him, their own flesh and blood; it would be much better to sell him as a slave and make a little money at the same time. Reuben had gone off to attend to some duty or other and did not get back until it was too late; whether he could have prevented the sale of Joseph is a matter for speculation. Later events show that Joseph’s slavery was in accordance with God’s will, so Reuben’s absence may have been arranged so that he not be there to rescue Joseph, and the crime of the brothers would go unchecked. The price given for Joseph corresponded to the same price given in the Law of Moses in Leviticus 27:5 four hundred years later, noteworthy for those who are interested in economics; inflation had not been invented.

Joseph was sold into slavery early in the reign of Senusret II, in about the year 1888 b.c. Senusret II came to the throne suddenly at about this time, when his father, Amenemhat II, was assassinated. Potiphar, a wealthy and important official in Pharoah’s court, bought Joseph. He was the captain of the bodyguard and would have had jurisdiction not only over the personal guard for the Pharaoh but also over the prison, which was in his house; and he was in charge of all executions. If this dating is correct and Joseph arrived shortly after the assassination of Amenemhat II then Potiphar may have been newly appointed as the captain of Pharaoh’s bodyguard, the previous one having failed in his duties.

Over a period of years Joseph’s faithful service won the favor of Potiphar, who put him in charge of his whole household, of “all that he owned” is the way it is phrased. I think this means that Joseph was in charge of the private property of Potiphar and that his authority did not extend to the parts of the household that were the official duties of Potiphar, like the prison. There was a chief jailer who was in charge of the prisoners, and there may have been other officials with other duties within Potiphar’s house that were not under Joseph.

For some reason Joseph’s character was shaped positively by his slavery and his experience serving Potiphar. Rather than becoming embittered and, as a result, becoming a slouching servant, or a calculating servant, Joseph became a man of character, a man of morals in a land in which morals did not abound (is there a land anywhere in which morals do abound?). Rather than wrecking whatever bit of faith Joseph had in the God of his fathers, his hardship seems to have strengthened and matured it.

Except in the theological sense, it was not a foregone conclusion that his hardship would mature him. In general, there is nothing necessarily ennobling about hardship; some are embittered, some are crushed, and some are ennobled. Some are able to understand hardship as discipline; some cannot see beyond the pain to any good thing. Some see an angel in the stranger who picks the fight with them, but some see a demon. Some find that God’s discipline makes them cling to Him more tightly while others only want to escape Him. God brought Joseph into slavery in Egypt exactly because Joseph was the type of man who would be ennobled by suffering, and prepared by it for the role he would have to assume in the future. There is great reward for those who can submit to hardship without becoming embittered, as Joseph did. It is the mark of the work of God that hardship produces gentleness and wisdom. It is the mark of wrestling with an angel.

Within the limits of his slavery Joseph prospered. God took a direct hand in his prosperity, and during this time with Potiphar Joseph was learning to manage the affairs of a household. He was gaining the administrative skills that would be so necessary to him later. He was also healing a bit from his brothers’ ill treatment of him. The best treatment for such injustice is time and a period in which things work out, a time in which you can relearn how to “feel good about yourself”. This may sound like modern pop-psychology self-image stuff, but there is something to it. Joseph had to learn to respect himself again, and this time in a healthier way. There is the self-respect, the “good self image” that Joseph had as a youth, in which he defined himself by comparison to his brothers and fed off the preferential treatment he got from his father. Now he was learning a better kind of good-self-image defined by the quality of the work that he did and by a simple trust in God’s favor toward him.

Don’t be misled into thinking that God showed favor to Joseph because Joseph was obedient and faithful as a servant; don’t reverse cause and effect, as we always want to do. Joseph did not earn God’s favor; he received God’s favor and God’s favor transformed him, one degree at a time, into a better man. God had extended His favor to Joseph when he was still a spoiled brat bragging about his dreams. He had chosen to send Joseph into Egypt and He had chosen to bless all of Joseph’s work before he had done any of it.

But more subtly, Joseph was getting to know God. He was learning who God was in a way that no one before him had had the opportunity to learn. Perhaps it is the other side of the coin to being a dreamer, but Joseph was apparently given to reflecting on the meaning of the events in his life. He did not waste his time just drifting through life, but he considered what had happened to him, and what it all meant. Joseph, perhaps as part of his sensitivity to dreams, saw God as being behind everything; and so reflecting on things automatically meant reflecting on God.

It appears that he remembered the oral traditions that were part of his family heritage; not being written down, they were more easily fixed in his memory. It is ironic that he did not truly get to know God, the God of His traditions, until he was immersed in the Egyptian religious culture. The Egyptian religion, unlike the religion of the Middle East, was worthy of being called a religion. The myths of Mesopotamia and Canaan tended to be ad hoc and incoherent, more for magic and manipulation of events than for worship. Perhaps this is unfair to them, for there was a strong tradition of spiritual devotion to the gods of Mesopotamia; but their ideas of their own gods were quite primitive, very anthropomorphic, hardly more than projections of humanity onto the sky. The Egyptians, on the other hand, were very sophisticated spiritually, and their religion was more like modern Hinduism than like the pagan religions of the west.

Certainly by the time Potiphar’s wife set her sights on him, Joseph had matured in his understanding and devotion to God beyond what anyone in his family had. Where did he come by his understanding that adultery with Potiphar’s wife would be displeasing to God? Was it because adultery was condemned by all cultures? Or was it that he was devoted to Potiphar, who showed himself to be a kind master? Or was it something more profound? How did he learn to think that his God, who was clearly not an Egyptian god, cared about his behavior toward an Egyptian’s wife? Certainly, adultery would have had grave consequences for him if it were discovered, but the fear of consequences is frequently not powerful enough to deter the crime. Joseph’s standard of morality came from something more than his upbringing and more than practical question of his vulnerable status. His insight must have been something that God had taught him in the quietness of inner reflection, a matter of the heart and not a matter of the law. Joseph had received new revelation from God, not by means of a verbal revelation, but by an inward, invisible and inaudible working of the Spirit. He knew God; he could not point to any commandment – there were none – but he knew, or thought he knew, how God would feel about an affair with Potiphar’s wife.

Joseph had learned to care about what God thought about things, what God thought about the events in his life and what God thought about right and wrong. And here I mean God Most High, the God of his fathers, not the Egyptians’ gods. In his slavery, Joseph had become convinced that God Most High, of his fathers’ tradition, was an ethical God, a God who had opinions about right and wrong. This was hinted at, to be sure, in the oral tradition he had inherited, but Joseph picked up on those hints to a degree that the rest of his family had not. The details of the moral code that his God preferred had not been spelled out; Joseph had only his own conscience, his cultural traditions, and the possibility that God would speak to him as He had spoken to Abraham and Isaac and Israel. By this point in his life he had become accustomed to considering the events in his life and the choices he made from a spiritual perspective, so when Potiphar’s wife suddenly confronted him with the temptation to adultery he had a spiritual mindset in place to evaluate her offer.

It would certainly have been dangerous to agree to the woman’s advances, but as Joseph discovered, there was also danger in refusing her. Potiphar’s wife was relentless in her pursuit of Joseph, and it is difficult to see how the other servants could have helped noticing her advances to Joseph. The house was full enough of servants that there was usually a manservant or two around, and wealthy women tend to keep their female servants about them very closely. Servants always knew what was going on with the lord and lady; secrets couldn’t be kept in such a household. The mistress knew that her secret would not be betrayed; it would have been dangerous for any servant to even hint to his or her master what was suspected or heard.

In 39:10 it says that “he did not listen to her to lie beside her or be with her”; not only was he refusing the adultery she wanted, but he was refusing the context that could lead to adultery. He not only refused her outright suggestions, but having decided the right course of action, he refused any course of action that might set him up to betray his decision. We do not discuss how to resist temptation these days, but it is not enough to “just say no”, as excellent as that advice may sometimes be. That something is a temptation means that there is an inward impulse toward giving in to the temptation, an inclination against our own resolve, and that is what we must guard against. A resolve to resist is not sufficient because our resolution is exactly what is at stake; we must act to protect that resolution and ensure that it will not fail, to put ourselves beyond the reach of the power temptation will have over us.

Potiphar’s wife watched for opportunities to seduce Joseph, and inevitably one arose in which all or nearly all the servants were away. It is hard to see what Joseph could have done to protect himself. Leaving most of his clothes behind may have been necessary but it was not helpful for his alibi. He reacted out of desperation and just ran, but to where? He could not go to his master; it is not likely that his master would have believed any story Joseph would tell him about his wife. Raising the subject with his master would only put Joseph in a bad light no matter what he might say. When Potiphar’s wife determined to seduce him his fate was inescapable.

When Joseph ran, she could simply have given up on him, of course, and pursued some easier prey, but her pride had been hurt. She wanted to hurt Joseph in return, and that is why she made the scene with the other servants. She summoned the men servants, all of whom were under Joseph’s authority, but all of whom also knew that Potiphar’s wife’s power went beyond any delegated authority. Then she told them what had happened – that is, she gave them the official story that she would expect them to verify to her husband. She wasn’t so much informing them of what happened as telling them what to say; but surely they knew better; they weren’t blind or deaf and they knew her character, but they also knew the consequences should they contradict her.

Potiphar’s wife’s role was not exactly like that of the serpent deceiving Eve. There was no subtlety involved. She skipped the part about, “you won’t really die” and went right to the “isn’t this a delicious idea”. There was no attempt to trip up Joseph with confusing questions, no sweet assurances that everything would be all right. Eve had to be deceived, but since the Fall we generally come “pre-deceived” as it were. But Joseph’s training in Potiphar’s house had wakened him, it had opened his eyes enough that he wasn’t just a hapless victim wandering past. A little subtlety might have captured her prey, but this one was wearing a kind of armor against such a head-on attack. This time the intended victim ran rather than falling for the ruse, so there was what we might call a spiritual victory. And the result of this spiritual victory was … death of another sort: disgrace, probably a beating, and prison. This is the beginning of the theme of sacrifice and resurrection. Since the Fall, no choice  right or wrong, escapes death. Choose to do right or choose to do wrong, either way you die. The difference lies in the quality of the death involved. One kind of death is just death, and the rottenness of it is all there is until decay has finished it off. Another kind of death leads, against all hope, to a new kind of life. Joseph’s fall into disgrace is an allegory of this second kind of death. He went into the tomb, the dungeon, but he did not stay there.

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