In Genesis 39-41 we observe a young man, recently kidnapped and sold away from his home by his flesh-and-blood brothers, transported by cousins into distant Egypt, learning what it means to trust & obey the Lord in a challenging situation! Make that ~ several challenging situations ~ as God moves Joseph from slave quarters, to the master’s house, to the master’s estate, to the king’s prison, to the king’s palace (second in command of an empire). Though this part of Joseph’s story has him “alone” (in that he is not interacting with father Jacob & his brothers), Joseph is surely not apart from God, who is always with him. It is during these twenty years or so that we see illustrated sanctification principles, attitudes for those of us living 3,800 years after this Old Testament “hero” to practice in the midst of our own challenges.
- Faithful in little; faithful in much. Joseph had three “jobs” during this part of his life, and in each of them, God had him “start low” … and yet, after showing skill and excellence in the little matters, he was given more responsibility and opportunity. This fits with what Jesus said in Matthew 25:21, in His parable of the talents (the ten, the five, & the one): “Well done good and faithful servant. You were faithful with a few things. I give you charge of many.” Paul elaborates on the heart attitude under this pursuit of excellence. Colossians 3:22-25 ~ “Work as unto the Lord. It is the Lord Christ you serve.” A spoiled generation wants the fruits of success at the beginning (characterized by debt lifestyle & general dissatisfaction with “life at the bottom”), but this worldly and greedy spirit is not of Christ.
- Speaking the truth when it is easy, and when it is hard. In Genesis 40:12-19, the prison dreamers want to know what their futures hold, and Joseph is clear and honest with both. In Ephesians 4:15, one way we grow up into Christ our Head is by speaking the truth in love. In the Old Testament, there were two kinds of prophets: false ones made good livings at the palace by telling kings what they wanted to hear (the ultimate “yes-men”), while faithful prophets told the truth and sometimes ended up at the bottom of a well, or worse. We see the same division among New Testament preachers (some killed for saying the hard but essential things, others enriching themselves by scratching ears just so). Granted, it is always fun to bear good news, but an important part of our message pertains to judgment. As Eli said to Samuel, the young prophet: Don’t hold back; tell me everything!
- Regard all sin as rebellion against God. In Genesis 39:9, Joseph exclaims to the wife of his master Potiphar (who is trying to seduce him): “How can I do this great evil and sin against God?!” In Acts 5:4, according to Peter, Ananias lied not to men but to God (even though it is clear that he lied to Peter as well). In David’s famous confession (Psalm 51), the psalmist laments to God: “Against Thee only I have sinned.” In most cases, our sins are a combined offense against God & man, but the godly, growing disciple of Jesus is disturbed in the first place with what his sin (or in Joseph’s case, his opportunity to sin) would imply about his relationship with God. Loyalty to man is not enough. Ultimately, we live “Coram Deo” (before the face of God). Ironically, yet just what we’d expect, Potiphar’s wife had dozens of gods, but she seemed unconcerned about offending any of them through her actions.
- Flee from temptation. Again, Joseph is the classic exemplar of this principle, as he did literally what all of us must do literally, spiritually, emotionally, computerly, I-Phonally (however the temptation to sin is coming at you): Basically, put distance between yourself and the sensations which are luring you to sin. Joseph did the right thing, whether or not the temptation to be with Potiphar’s wife was getting to him. Paul writes to the church in licentious Corinth: Flee immorality … and flee from idolatry. Then to young pastor Timothy: Flee from greed, love of money, and youthful lusts. Flee instead toward righteousness, godliness, faith, love, perseverance, and gentleness. Pursue them; even persecute them (that is the kind of intensity you must apply as you chase them down)! 1 Corinthians 6:18; 10:14; 1 Timothy 6:10-11; 2 Tim. 2:22. There are some very strong verbs at play here: fly from, escape as a fugitive. Sin’s nature, understand, is to get our attention, attract us, allure us, break down all arguments against full participation, then entrap us, leading to bondage.
- Store up for the day of adversity (Genesis 41:33ff). We are not told that God gave this specific plan to Joseph (how the Egyptians should put back 20% of the harvests in the years of plenty), but the fear of the Lord is the beginning of all wisdom. In Proverbs 6:6-8 we are challenged to consider the ant, who diligently plows and plants today in order to have a harvest later. Some call this powerful, unpopular habit “delayed gratification.” A strange parable Jesus told in Luke 16 about a shrewd (unethical) manager has one simple point: “Plan ahead!” Certainly, this is a challenging balance for Christians to maintain, as we are called to live by faith, to not be worried about tomorrow, to be generous toward the needy, and yet prepare ourselves for the possible future trials. For those of us who lack wisdom in this vast area, I am glad to know where we may get it (James 1:5)!
- Give all glory to God (Genesis 40:8; 41:16,51,52). Joseph credits God alone as he seeks to encourage the downcast prisoners, to take in Pharaoh’s praise, and to name his two boys. Peter, John, & Paul did well in this also: We are only men! These deeds were accomplished in the name of Jesus. Herod, you may recall, did not return glory to God! Humanly speaking, Joseph overcame much and exhibited strong character; the temptation facing him as his story began to take a comedic upturn might have been: “After all that undeserved suffering, it is about time that I get some recognition!” No, for Joseph, all glory was directed to his God. For Joseph, Yahweh would be his portion, not the false praises of man.
- Spreading the blessing around. In Genesis 39:5, we see no hint in Joseph of resentment toward his captors. Part of the Abrahamic Covenant is that God blesses those who bless us. We see this in the Jacob/Laban relationship while they were living together; the world that visited wise King Solomon was blessed through that interaction. The Christian is to be like a preserving, savoring, flavoring salt in/for his world, and we are to actively pray and work for the blessing of the places where we live (even places like Babylon). Well, it is a fine thing to say that this kind of thing will happen. It is even better to rejoice when it happens, to marvel at God’s power to use us in this way, to pray for more examples of this means of God’s grace to the world, and to intentionally bless our neighbors (even enemies) as we are able.
- Facial counseling! In Genesis 40:6-7, Joseph notices much by observing the faces of his fellow prisoners. At a minimum, this is because Joseph cares to look! We see God doing a similar thing in Genesis 4:6, concerning Cain. Mark 6:34 tells us of the compassion of Jesus, who perceived the multitudes as sheep without a shepherd. Those of us who are called to care and to keep cannot let “the job” replace God and people. Care for and about the one. Consider the many other Egyptian prisoners Joseph may have encouraged during his years of managing that place. As a man of God, it would have mattered very little to him if that ministry “paid off” in the end by improving Joseph’s lot. He was concerned for others.
- Upholding the just cause. Again, this requires a careful balance. In Genesis 40:14-15 we find Joseph speaking up on behalf of his own just cause when he is given opportunity. It is clear that Joseph does not believe he deserves to be in prison, and he wants to be released soon! Some will say that this episode of speaking up for himself did not work, for Joseph remained a forgotten prisoner for two more years; but it did work later when the butler remembered! Paul on several occasions utilized the fact of his Roman citizenship rights to avoid beatings, to appeal to Caesar, and to minister in Rome. See, a Christian does not want to be abused! It is good to speak up for justice, whether the episode of injustice you are protesting is harming yourself or others. We must balance with God’s wisdom the charge to “turn the other cheek” with being part of the just and righteous solution.
- Getting over it (or “It’s okay to be happy”). Genesis 41:50-52 depicts Joseph forgetting, rejoicing, and moving on. We are only halfway through this grand story; Joseph does not know about the happy family reunion still to come. Through the careful and faithful naming of his sons (Manasseh and Ephraim … God helps me to forget my previous troubles and Fruitfulness in a land of affliction) we understand that it is good to enjoy what we can of our half-finished stories. Ecclesiastes 3:11-14 memorably informs that, by God’s design, there is a time for everything (some of these “everythings” are sad or hard), and yet we can be happy, and do good as we live. Many find it hard to give up their bitterness, but it is a big part of pressing on and it is essential for those who want to grow to be more like Jesus Christ.
So in sum, we see that Joseph was not alone during these decades in Egypt; God was with him. Let us follow Joseph as he followed Christ! Even more, see King Jesus (the Prince of peace) ordering all these circumstances for the well-being and secure future of all His people.