Joseph in Prison
- Main Text: Genesis 39:1-23
- Accompanying Text: Matthew 5:11-12
Genesis 39 tells the story of Joseph in the household of Potiphar. It reminds us that God’s ways are not our ways. We are called to trust in God even though we may not see how he is working in a given situation. God is faithful and present in the midst of every situation, no matter how dark and desperate it may seem. There is no situation that God cannot redeem and use for his good purposes.
There are two points previously revealed which are worth bearing in mind. First, Joseph had dreamt that his family would bow down to him, thus implying a destiny beyond that of a slave (Gen 37:6-11). Second, Joseph became a slave through the treachery of his brothers and arrived in Egypt without family or friends (Gen 37:12-36).
Despite Joseph’s ignoble arrival in Egypt as a slave, we are told that God is with him (a theme that runs strong throughout this text, see 39:2,3,5,21,23), and that he had caused him to prosper. As with Noah and Abraham, God’s initiative of grace comes before Joseph has done anything to merit it. Joseph was the victim of his brothers’ envy and jealousy, and yet God’s purposes were not thwarted by this. God blessed not only Joseph, but he also blessed those around him. Potiphar recognises that God was with Joseph. Despite the dark circumstances Joseph was a light to those around him (as we are called to be in Matt 5:16).
A modern motto today is that the only person you can rely upon is yourself. In Joseph’s situation, having been betrayed by those closest to him, it would be easy to forgive him, had he adopted such a perspective. His life seemed a far cry from the promise of his dream and he could have thought that, if he wanted to achieve his dream, he would have to do it his way, on his terms. Yet Joseph chooses to rely on God, not on himself or in the ways of the world.
Joseph’s success and good looks attract the daily attention of Potiphar’s wife. This would have been a considerable temptation for Joseph. Not only is there the appeal of being desired, but Joseph, who had neither family nor friends to support him, was also being offered the solace of a lover. Potiphar’s wife could also be a powerful ally if he were to seek his own interests and desires. Morally he could try to justify it to himself with the argument “the woman made me do it” as Adam had done in the Garden of Eden (Gen 3:12).
In verse 8-9 Joseph turns down her advances saying that to be with her would be a wickedness against both Potiphar and God. These two verses speak powerfully of the mindset of Joseph. Despite his being a Hebrew and Potiphar an Egyptian, and his being a slave and Potiphar his master, Joseph considered Potiphar as his neighbour, and thus sleeping with his wife would have been both a sin against God and an affront against Potiphar (compare with the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37).
Potiphar’s wife frames Joseph for a crime he did not commit. This is the second time that Joseph has been innocent and has suffered at the hands of others. The reference to the cloak links clearly the two events.
Potiphar’s response is one of fury, although it is not clear if it is against Joseph, his wife or both of them. His wife’s public accusation would have left him no choice but to take some action, and most commentators agree that it is unusual that Joseph got off so lightly. Slaves had no rights in ancient Egypt, no way of protesting innocence, and thus Joseph had to accept whatever fate Potiphar decided. Most likely a slave would be killed for such a crime.
The final verses of this chapter end as they begin. They tell us that God was present with Joseph in his time of affliction and tell us of God’s steadfast love (ḥeseḏ in Hebrew) for Joseph. Consequently, God’s plans for Joseph are not thwarted and through God’s blessing Joseph rises to a similar position in the jailor’s prison as he had had in Potiphar’s household.
The sovereignty of God
John H. Walton highlights that this passage reflects God’s sovereignty: ‘God’s sovereignty and blessing can be found in what appear to be the most heinous crimes and the most disastrous circumstances. This does not mean that God approves of the crimes or that he enjoys bringing disaster into our lives. It is simply a testimony to his ability to bring good out of evil… there is no choice that we can make, however sinful or fallen, that can interfere with his plan.’1
For Joseph, this knowledge had to be lived out in faith. He had the dream of his future but, as a slave and in prison, he would not have been able to see how things could be turned around, how his dream could become reality. As Christians, we are in a similar place in our own lives. We have hope in Jesus Christ and trust that God is in control and that all things will work out for his loving purposes, but, we cannot always see how the evils and suffering in our lives work towards that purpose. What we do have is threefold: God’s presence in our lives through the Holy Spirit, a God who in Jesus Christ has suffered as we suffer, and a God who blesses and strengthens us in our persecution (Matt 5:11-12). This is perhaps why Stephen tells the story of Joseph before his stoning in Acts 7.
How does this text testify of Jesus Christ?
Although Joseph had his weaknesses and problems just as we all do, in some ways he foreshadows Jesus Christ. Joseph was innocent and yet suffered due to the sins of others. He also became a servant and brought God’s blessing to others, even those who sinned against him. In addition, again, similarly to the story of Jesus, Joseph trusted that God’s sovereign plan for him would be accomplished no matter what obstacles or sins got in the way. In the case of Jesus, Jesus was obedient even to the point of death knowing that not even death could thwart God and his purposes.
- Hebrews 13:4-6
- Numbers 6:24-26
- Psalm 105:16-22
- Acts 7:9-14
John H. Walton, NIV Application Commentary Old Testament Set: Genesis, digital edition.