Narrative Lectionary Reflection
September 23, 2018
Americans love a good “rags to riches” story. We love hearing about the poor man (it is usually a man in these stories) who works hard and becomes a rich person. The person who helped plant these stories in the American imagination was Horatio Alger. His books, written in the 19th century, focused on you teenage boys who either worked hard or committed some act of bravery that brings the boy wealth and riches. The story basically says that if you work hard, then good things will happen to you. A religious version of this has taken hold in modern times. Called the Prosperity Gospel it says that if you follow God, you will be blessed financially.
On its surface, the story of Joseph seems like a Horatio Alger story. He was the youngest son in a large family that was sold by his brothers to Egypt. He is now a slave. But then fortuned steps in and he ends up in a place of honor. But the story here is not about Joseph working hard as it was about God being with Joseph in the good times and the bad. So, let’s look at Jospeh as he works in Potiphar’s house.
Engaging the Text
Now Joseph was taken down to Egypt, and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard, an Egyptian, bought him from the Ishmaelites who had brought him down there. 2The Lord was with Joseph, and he became a successful man; he was in the house of his Egyptian master. 3His master saw that the Lord was with him, and that the Lord caused all that he did to prosper in his hands. 4So Joseph found favor in his sight and attended him; he made him overseer of his house and put him in charge of all that he had.
Before we go into today’s text, some backstory. In our last lesson, we see God speaking to Abraham about being the father of a great nation. After a long wait, God’s promise came true in the form of Issac. Issac later had two sons, Jacob and Essau. Joseph was the son of Jacob who happened to be the grandson of Abraham. God had kept God’s promise- a nation is being built through the family of Abraham.
Joseph was the youngest of Jacob’s sons. We start to see a textbook case of sibling rivalry. Jacob doted on his youngest, keeping him from doing the really hard work. He even gave him a fancy robe, something his brothers didn’t get.
Of course, his older brothers hated their little brother. But they didn’t react by whining. Instead, they wanted to kill Joseph. Ruben, one of the brothers was able to disuade his brothers from offing Joseph. Instead, Joseph was sold into slavery and was soon on his way to Egypt.
So now Joseph is in Egypt. He is far from home, far from his family. But even when things might seem dark for Joe the passage notes that “the Lord was with Joseph.” That phrase is used 4 times in this passage and it is the phrase on which this whole story hangs on. Theologian Walter Brueggemann that this phrase is not that with God, everything will work out. He notes that three times the word is used when Joseph finds success. But the fourth time it is used is when Joseph is not successful. In essence this phrase goes against prevailing wisdom of the culture. God was not the good luck charm, but something very different.
Verse 2 notes that Joseph was “successful” meaning that he was making progress and indeed he was. He ended up as the personal attendant of Potiphar and the guy in charge of the day-to-day handling of Potiphar’s house.
Throughout these early verses of chapter 39, we find that God is continually looking out for Joseph and even bless those who treat him kindly. It seems like things were going well for Joseph and one could just end the story here, with Joseph in a nice job in an exotic locale and away from his jealous brothers.
his is where the story veers from local-boy-does-good to something out of a soap opera. The wife of Potiphar is attracted to Joseph and more than once begs, pleads for Joseph to take part in some hanky panky.
By this point, Joseph might be in his mid 20s and according to some scholars the outfit he wore what could be considered shorts and a t-shirt. Which means that in the eyes of Potiphar’s wife, Joseph is a hottie.
Joseph was in a pickle. He had to obey the wife of Potiphar, but he knew he was entrusted to look after Potiphar’s household and he also knew of his covenant with God. “How could I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” he says.
Potiphar’s wife is anything if not persistent. She keeps trying to tempt Joseph until one day she grabs Joseph and seems to jump right out of his clothes to get away from her.
There is a lot that can be unpacked from this encounter. One way to think about this is that Joseph was tempted. Jewish midrash suggests that Joseph was a sexual being that was tempted to have a fling with Potiphar’s wife. But the midrash goes on to say that just a the moment he gives in he remembers his relatives. Jewish theologian Louis Ginzberg explains:
[Zuleika] stood before him suddenly in all her beauty of person and magnificence of raiment, and repeated the desire of her heart. It was the first and the last time that Joseph’s steadfastness deserted him, but only for an instant. When he was on the point of complying with the wish of his mistress, the image of his mother Rachel appeared before him, and that of his aunt Leah, and the image of his father Jacob.… The vision of the dead, and especially the image of his father, brought Joseph to his senses.1
The midrash shows Joseph was a human being who was tempted, but remembers who he is and comes to his senses.
Bruggeman sees this as a set up between God and empire, with Joseph and Potiphar’s wife as stand-ins for each. Her desire to take advantage of Joseph is an example of the powerful seeing themselves beyond the reach of the Torah and ultimately God. But Joseph saw this as a road to ruin. ” How could I do this terrible thing and sin against God?” he says.
Joseph’s story is not unlike the temptation that so many politicians face. You could see this story play itself out in our hall of power, our state capitals, Congress and the White House. He could have said yes to the temptations of what Brueggeman calls “empire” or what some say the ways of the world, but he had to say “no.” This was not God’s way.2
Realizing that she was never going to get her man, Potiphar’s wife then runs to her husband and makes up a story of Joseph trying to take advantage of her. His days at the House of Potiphar were over.
But God was with Joseph. The common punishment for rape in that time as death, not imprisonment. Why didn’t Potiphar have Joseph executed? Is this an example of God being with Joseph? Potiphar might have known what his wife was doing and opted for the least bad option.
But Joseph is now back at square one. He went from running the house of one of the most powerful men in Egypt to now being a common criminal. But then there’s that phrase again: the Lord was with Jospeh. Joseph ended up being the person in charge of all the other prisoners. He was still a prisoner, but something good came out of this injustice.
This is where the story ends. We learn later that Joseph is released from prison and becomes second in command to the Pharaoh. He saves Egypt from famine as well as his family who come to live with him. Through the good times and the bad, the Lord was with Joseph.
What does it mean to be blessed? There is a common understand among some people that God means for us to be happy and wealthy. The Prosperity Gospel mentioned earlier that God intends for good things and when those good things happen, God is blessing us.
But is blessing only about good things? Joseph was good person, maybe even blessed, but that didn’t prevent him from becoming sold by his brothers or getting falsely accused or ending up in prison.
The Lord was with Joseph. That phrase tells us a lot. No matter what was going on in Joseph’s life, God was with him. God was with him as he rose to favored position in Potiphar’s house and was there when Joseph was in prison.
We all need to be blessed. But that blessing is not about having it all. God blessed Joseph by being present in Joseph’s life and Joseph responded by following God, even if it meant losing it all.
In Paul’s letter to the Romans he says in chapter 8 verse 28 that “all things work together for good[a] for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
The point of this verse isn’t that good can come out of some horrible experience as it has sometimes been interpreted as. No, it is that God remembers us in the good times and the bad.
There is a saying that I’ve heard many times over the years. It’s goes like this, “God is good. All the time. All the time, God is good.” God is good. Sometimes we have a hard time believing this. We might wonder where was God during certain points of our lives. We may wonder if God is good when we are diagnosed with cancer. Was God good when a child dies? How about when your job is eliminated and you are left wondering how in the world you are going to make it financially.
But the reality is, God is good, not because God is a spiritual Superman that comes in and saves the day. God is good because we are not forgotten by God. God didn’t forget Joseph.
The rest of the story of Joseph is that he is freed from prison and again rises in power to become the second most powerful person in the land of Egypt. He reunites with his brothers whom he forgives. His whole family moves to Egypt and after Jacob dies, his brothers wonder if he will bear a grudge. Joseph responds, “ Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.”
All of us who call ourselves Christ followers are blessed by God. We are blessed in the good days, when we have a good job and good health and we are blessed when we are laid off and dealing with a chronic disease. God is there working for the good of all, working to remind us we are loved by God and that God is always with us.
- Ginzburg, Louis. The Legend of the Jews. The Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 2003.
- Brueggemann, Walter. Genesis: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (p. 313). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation, Louisville, 1986.
Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century.