66. Genesis 39:19 – 40:23

III. D. 4. continued

c) Joseph in prison (Genesis 39:19 – 40:23)

It was certainly a case of injustice, though it was not as severe as it could have been. Prison was a merciful punishment for Joseph’s crime; a flogging of a thousand lashes would have been the usual punishment, a punishment not designed to leave the culprit physically functional afterwards. But either Potiphar was a particularly merciful man or he had a secret suspicion that Joseph might not be the wrongdoer here. But Potiphar believed his wife; he had to try to believe his wife. Even if he had suspected her of having an unfaithful character, it would have damaged his pride too much to admit she might be the one to blame, that she might prefer a slave to her noble husband.

So Joseph suffered a fate even more ignominious than that of being sold as a slave to begin with. At least when he had been sold by his brothers there had been some reason for it; he despised them as much as they hated him. He certainly had never tried to win their brotherly love. He knew on some level, that to some extent he had brought them to it by his obnoxious personality. But to be thrown into prison for something he not only had not done but had been strenuously trying to avoid doing: it was simply unjust and he knew it.

Here again Joseph had the opportunity to become bitter. See! He had obeyed God but it hadn’t paid off. He had sought to honor God, and what he got out of it was just more of the same mistreatment as was common all over the world. There was no justice, and if God did exist then He was either too weak or too busy, or else not really all that good. Maybe God did prefer the rich people, the Pharaohs, and the chief guards. Maybe God was playing favorites here, like He had done at Shechem, only now Joseph was the one getting the short end of the stick. Or so we would be tempted to think in his place.

But Joseph did not become bitter. For some reason, the unfairness, the cruelty, the sense of the injustice of the thing, only made him trust God more deeply. Now why is that? Why does hardship cause some to spurn God and others to cling more tightly? I can only think that it is the grace of God; it is the internal grace of the Holy Spirit and that is all there is. Or put another way, Joseph could either choose to see God as abandoning him or he could choose to give God the benefit of the doubt and continue to trust Him in spite of the evidence, and he chose to trust. This description does not do justice, I think, to the way Joseph actually experienced the imprisonment. It was not so much a choice as a lack of choice: what else could he do?

To cease to trust God, for those who have trusted Him, is like stepping off the edge of a cliff; there is nothing beyond such a choice. It would be the end. Choosing to renounce God, for those who have once trusted Him, is like committing suicide. We usually talk of “choosing God” as if the choice were a free one, but I don’t think it ever is. To those who reject God as untrustworthy, the whole spiritual thing is like the smell of decay, revolting and disgusting and they run from God like they run from a sewer. To those who accept Him and trust Him, it is the same as choosing life over death, sweetness over pain, plain sight over blindness. This gives us more credit than we are due, in most cases. More usually I think it is like choosing the last thin string of hope over letting go in despair, because our grasp of God’s sweetness, or light, or life is tenuous a lot of the time. Still, for those of us who choose Him, there is little doubt as to what must be done.

While Joseph did not become embittered, there is no doubt that he felt bitterness. It was not that Joseph didn’t feel the way an unbeliever would; it was that the balance of his heart was on the other side of the equation. Joseph continued to be faithful in jail. Faithfulness had become a habit to him during his long years as a slave and now he became a faithful criminal. And his faithfulness as a prisoner was faithfulness to that same master who had thrown him into prison in the first place, for though there was a chief jailer who was his direct overseer, it was Potiphar that he really served and in whose house he still served. What did Potiphar’s other servants think of it, the slave who had once been their overseer now humiliated in the prison, and humiliated, as they well knew, through no fault of his own but just to satisfy the lady’s pride? Joseph probably had no contact with Potiphar’s wife while he was in prison, and very little contact with the other household servants, and just as well. How might Potiphar’s wife have mocked him, quietly, with her little secret? She could find another slave to seduce, but he was doomed to prison forever.

Joseph’s degradation was complete, but he did not give up the integrity he had found as a slave. Again God blessed Joseph in his work, however much Joseph’s feelings may have tormented him. Over the years he was entrusted with increasing responsibility until he was in charge of all his small domain once again. What a remarkable person Potiphar must have been as well. The charge against Joseph would have been the worst charge possible from Potiphar’s personal viewpoint, and yet Joseph won his favor a second time. Not many people could have bestowed a second favorable opinion on a man with Joseph’s reputation, and this reflects well on Potiphar. It also suggests that Potiphar suspected his wife, even if he couldn’t admit it.

It is easy to imagine how Joseph’s feelings could have rebelled even against his success in the prison, just as his feelings could have rebelled against his success in Potiphar’s household. What was the point of being put in charge of Potiphar’s household? He was still a slave. What was the point of being in charge of the prisoners? It didn’t change the fact that he was still a prisoner himself, that he still had no meaningful future. He was in his late twenties, he had been a slave and a prisoner for eleven long years. His life was passing by in this meaningless way, when the chief baker and the cupbearer to the pharaoh came under his care and had some strange dreams.

The cupbearer and the baker were put in confinement in Potiphar’s house because that was the king’s prison, the prison for those who had somehow offended Pharaoh and who might be executed. Potiphar was in charge of executions and so he would be the one to arrange the beheading of the baker later on. It was Potiphar himself who put Joseph in charge of the cupbearer and the baker. They were somewhat special prisoners and Potiphar wanted to be sure that they were treated right, and Joseph was the right one to choose when special prisoners needed special treatment. Imagine him noticing one morning that they seemed to be feeling a bit low, and then imagine him taking the time to inquire about it. How many slaves would do that for a fellow prisoner? It was not part of his job to cheer up prisoners, to coddle them; but he did it because that was who he had become.

It is interesting that they responded to Joseph’s question by saying, “We have had a dream” rather than “We have had dreams”. It is as if they knew that these dreams were the same in some strange way, though different in detail. When Joseph heard of their dreams, his response was diagnostic of all that had happened to him over a decade or so of slavery: “Do not interpretations belong to God? Tell it to me please.” What is the big deal about interpreting dreams? Doesn’t the job of interpretation belong to God? If so, God could as easily share the information with Joseph as with anyone else. Why not give it a shot? If no interpretation was forthcoming, then it wasn’t, and they could go on with their lives. There was no false humility about Joseph, the kind that leads to a hopeless inability to even try. He could have said, “Don’t interpretations belong to God? But I’m just a prisoner like you. There’s no way He would tell me anything. You need to find a real interpreter.” But Joseph had no pride to be hurt, nothing to lose. If God didn’t give him the interpretation, so what? Would anyone think less of him?

And Joseph must have been wondering about his own dreams from when he was a teenager. What had happened to those dreams? Had they meant anything? Whether they did or not, Joseph still felt an odd connection to dreams; he knew intuitively that dreams, his own and others’, were part of his life. But Joseph had no doubt, when he heard the dreams, that he knew what they meant. How did God manage to tell him the interpretation? There is no way, for those of us who are on the outside, to know what it feels like to be told something by God. In modern, western concepts, it must have been a subjective feeling of Joseph’s that he understood the dreams, and subjectivity is one of the worst of sins a western mind might commit. At some point, though, we have to simply decide that Joseph just knew, that he knew he knew, that it was different from merely holding a strong opinion or feeling. We can only understand how he knew if we happen ourselves to have a conviction that is unassailable, something that is beyond doubt even though it is unproven, something axiomatic. Joseph gave them the interpretations somewhat dispassionately, like a caring physician might give out the diagnoses to two patients, one destined to recover and one destined to die.

When Joseph was first sold into slavery, there was a destination marked for him, the very man he would need to help him accomplish his work. Any other owner and there would have been no Joseph, no interpreter of dreams, no rescue from the coming famine. No other master would have thrown Joseph into contact with the baker and cupbearer in the right circumstances. It is clear, reading the story, that God was behind all the events that had occurred in Joseph’s story, and that at this point God sent dreams to these two disgraced men so that Joseph would interpret the dreams, and so that one of the men would remember the Hebrew dream interpreter when the right time came.

It is inspiring to read such stories and to be awed at the care God took to accomplish His purposes here. But what is so surprising about it? Why are we moved, inspired, horrified by the fact that God can manipulate historical events, that He can cause the right person to be present and in need of a slave at the right time, that He can arrange two officials to get in trouble and meet Joseph, that He can send dreams to whoever He wants whenever He wants? If you buy that God created all things, then a little manipulation of daily events is not a very strenuous undertaking. What is rather frightening is that He took all that care and trouble to do it. He is an artist, a dramatist. It could all have been done in a thoroughly boring fashion, but God has style. He wanted this to be a good story. And like any really good story, there are some incidentals to the story that merit reflection.

First, consider the whole story from the viewpoint of the chief baker. His role in God’s story was to have a dream predicting his own execution, and then to be executed, just so that he could be remembered as an example of Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams. It isn’t fair, is it? Was he a bad person? Was he a worse man than the cupbearer? Was that why the cupbearer got to be the one who lived, who was restored, and who was in the right place at the right time to mention Joseph? Or is the reason both more and less arbitrary than the simplistic one? I do not think, and the Scripture does not encourage us to think, that bad people are given bad roles to play in the script of life, and that good people get the good roles. It is more complicated than that; more complicated in the sense that we will not be able to figure out the rule for the assigning of the parts. In the end, the baker was killed because God chose him, appointed him to that role, and the cupbearer lived because God appointed him to that role. It was arbitrary from the viewpoint of people who are not privy to the Playwright’s designs or conversant with the craft of running a universe.

On the other hand it was as far from being arbitrary as it is possible to be. It was no more unfair than Joseph’s imprisonment had been, and it was also no more arbitrary. That we do not know what was going on does not mean that nothing was going on. It is this same unfairness that forces us into a dilemma: we have to choose how to think about God’s meddling with the affairs of the world, just as Joseph was forced to decide how to think about it. If God meddled like that in ancient Egypt, then no one is safe; there is no way to feel safe anymore; there is no way to know that He is not meddling in my life right now, that my parents, my children, my grief, my disappointments and successes, are not just part of some design in some bigger story I don’t know. If He is a meddling kind of God, then there is nothing we can do to stop Him. The dilemma is always the same: either we choose to grow bitter on behalf of the baker and our own griefs, or we choose to trust. There is no answer given when we ask for a reason. My suffering, your suffering, the suffering that goes on all the time around us is either pointless or it isn’t. In either case, it is useless to ask questions that will not be answered. We must all fall into despair or else fall into hope.

Second, consider the whole story from a more personal angle. It has become a tiresome cliché in our day to say, “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” It is no doubt true, but it is neither informative nor helpful. The fact is that that “wonderful plan” for your life may be to give you a role like that of the baker. The Wonderful Plan for your life may not look so wonderful while it is going on. The Wonderful Plan for your life may feel much more like the proverbial Bitter Pill. We do an injustice – actually we lie – when we tell people that God has a wonderful plan for their lives and imply that it will seem sweet and good to them as it unfolds. Maybe it will and maybe it won’t. But woe to that evangelist who leads a person to Christ and leads him to believe he will now have an easy and pleasant life and leaves him to grow offended at the reality when his misconceived hopes fade away. Woe to the Christian witness who makes it sound as though we are all called to be Josephs. Woe to them all, but most of all woe to the evangelist who misleads.

Of course, when the play is ended, when the curtain is brought down and we see our role in the finished product, I believe we will all stand up and give the Writer and Producer and Director a standing ovation. But the truth is that until then it can, and probably will, seem pretty grim and meaningless. We all experience sooner or later what it means to be stuck in the prison with Joseph, or find to our horror that our dreams mean we are about to die. That is when we must choose to trust or not.

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2 Comments on “66. Genesis 39:19 – 40:23”

  1. Vivian Says:

    While God used the baker in Joseph’s story and we have that recorded, the baker had his own story just as intricatly woven and carefully painted stroke by stroke (mixed metaphors) by s God of infinite grace and love. And so did Potiphar’s wife…and the cupbearer..and so on..and so on. All our stories are interwoven and none are periferal.


    • Yes, just that they aren’t written down, usually, for the whole universe to see. But just as intricate. The main point is that while they are all equally important for the integrity of the fabric and the beauty of the design, they may not feel the same from the inside. We can not see the meaning of our part unless we can step outside of the tapestry and see it from some distance.


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