Back to Bible Basics - the Story of Another Joseph

Genesis 39

Joseph’s rise and betrayal

39 When Joseph had been taken down to Egypt, Potiphar, Pharaoh’s chief officer, the commander of the royal guard and an Egyptian, purchased him from the Ishmaelites who had brought him down there. 2 The Lord was with Joseph, and he became a successful man and served in his Egyptian master’s household. 3 His master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord made everything he did successful. 4 Potiphar thought highly of Joseph, and Joseph became his assistant; he appointed Joseph head of his household and put everything he had under Joseph’s supervision. 5 From the time he appointed Joseph head of his household and of everything he had, the Lord blessed the Egyptian’s household because of Joseph. The Lord blessed everything he had, both in the household and in the field. 6 So he handed over everything he had to Joseph and didn’t pay attention to anything except the food he ate.

Now Joseph was well-built and handsome.

7 Some time later, his master’s wife became attracted to Joseph and said, “Sleep with me.”

8 He refused and said to his master’s wife, “With me here, my master doesn’t pay attention to anything in his household; he’s put everything he has under my supervision. 9 No one is greater than I am in this household, and he hasn’t denied me anything except you, since you are his wife. How could I do this terrible thing and sin against God?” 10 Every single day she tried to convince him, but he wouldn’t agree to sleep with her or even to be with her.

11 One day when Joseph arrived at the house to do his work, none of the household’s men were there. 12 She grabbed his garment, saying, “Lie down with me.” But he left his garment in her hands and ran outside. 13 When she realized that he had left his garment in her hands and run outside, 14 she summoned the men of her house and said to them, “Look, my husband brought us a Hebrew to ridicule us. He came to me to lie down with me, but I screamed. 15 When he heard me raise my voice and scream, he left his garment with me and ran outside.” 16 She kept his garment with her until Joseph’s master came home, 17 and she told him the same thing: “The Hebrew slave whom you brought to us, to ridicule me, came to me; 18 but when I raised my voice and screamed, he left his garment with me and ran outside.”

19 When Joseph’s master heard the thing that his wife told him, “This is what your servant did to me,” he was incensed.20 Joseph’s master took him and threw him in jail, the place where the king’s prisoners were held. While he was in jail,21 the Lord was with Joseph and remained loyal to him. He caused the jail’s commander to think highly of Joseph.22 The jail’s commander put all of the prisoners in the jail under Joseph’s supervision, and he was the one who determined everything that happened there. 23 The jail’s commander paid no attention to anything under Joseph’s supervision, because the Lord was with him and made everything he did successful.



Thoughts on the passage:

There are two Josephs that are talked about in scriptures. There is Joseph the husband of Mary and the step-father of Jesus. Then there is the man he is named for, Jospeh, one of the twelve sons of Jacob, of amazing technicolor dream coat fame. Today we will be learning about that Joseph and the lessons we can gather from this story of his rise and fall.

Joseph was born into a family of twelve brothers. He was a child of Jacob’s old age and so was beloved by his father. This love was so great that his father gave him a beautiful robe (an amazing technicolor dream coat). The obvious favoritism of Jacob rubbed the other sons the wrong way. They grew to resent Joseph for this. Matters were only made worse when Joseph reported having a dream once that all his brothers would one day end up bowing before him. Hot tip for you, if your brothers are already jealous of you, don’t tell them you have dreamed that some day they will be serving you. The brothers decided they’d had enough, and they threw him in a pit and sold him to slavery. So it was that Joseph came to be in the house of Potiphar.

In chapter 39 of Genesis that we read from today we see how even as a slave, Joseph’s talents were quickly recognized. He is given a great deal of freedom and trust by his master. What is more, we see how he is able to be successful with the things that are entrusted to him. This is a theme that will be repeated several times over the course of the story, both with Potiphar, the jailer, and then later Pharaoh. Despite his circumstances in life, God is with Joseph. Maybe this is part of what attracted Potiphar’s wife to Joseph when she tries several times to seduce him. In the end, being unable to tempt him, she falsely accuses him of rape and has him arrested.

As you probably know by now, one of the questions that I like to ask is who are you in this story? It can be natural to identify with Joseph. After all, he is the hero of the story. He is also someone that many of us might want to be: smart, good-looking, beloved by his parents, blessed by God. Still, I wonder if we are better off seeing ourselves as one of the other people in this story. I say this because I know that while I wish I was Joseph, that very fact makes me much more likely to be one of the other characters who jealously watches his rise.

To illustrate this point a little further, I want to tell you the story of another Joseph. Once there was a boy from Chicago who travelled down to Mississippi to visit his family members. He was only 14 years old when he was accused of grabbing the waist of a 21-year-old woman and uttering obscenities. In retaliation for this, two men kidnapped the boy, beat and mutilated him, shot him in the head and then dumped his body in the river. Now his name was not Joseph, his name was Emmitt Till. His crime was being black. The woman that accused him later admitted that she lied about the interaction. The two men who brutally murdered him were acquitted by an all-white jury. A year later, protected by double jeopardy, they openly admitted to their actions.

These stories seem remarkably similar. Fueled by hatred and jealousy, people in positions of privilege and power lash out against another person. In Joseph’s case it leads to first slavery when his brothers do it, and prison when Potiphar’s wife does it. In the case of Emmitt Till it leads to death. Now, I am not saying that any of us is guilty of causing the imprisonment or death of another person, but I do think we are all guilty of letting jealousy destroy relationships and cause harm.

The story of Joseph is not just about what God does in Joseph’s life, but how those around him react to it. Some are able to see God at work in another person and rejoice in it, like Jacob, or listening to it, like Potiphar, the jailer, and later Pharaoh. Others however are not able to celebrate it. Instead, the light of God that shines in Joseph only serves to illuminate their own darkness and they seek to destroy that light. Joseph’s brothers seek to get rid of the light. Potiphar’s wife wants it for herself and when she cannot have it, she too wants it destroyed.

What do we do, when we are confronted with the great things that God is doing in others? Are we willing to trust in and celebrate that good work, or do we find ourselves jealous? Are we willing to let God’s light shine through another, or do we want that light just for ourselves?

These are hard questions to ask of ourselves and they are not easy to find the answers to. We have a dark legacy in our country of trying to shut out the light in others. Our history is stained with the crimes of racism and sexism. We have enslaved and destroyed cultures that were different then our own. We have denied people the right to vote because of skin-color and gender. We are still actively silencing the voices of many who seek to speak out.

There is a phrase that is getting used more and more in some circles, “centering marginalized voices.” What it means is deliberately stepping back and creating room for other voices to be heard, especially those voices that have been pushed to the margins. It is not an easy thing to do. It requires a lot of humility and patience to step back and let another voice be heard. The fact is, it is not about us, it is about the people around us who have been unable to speak. Joseph was the younger child and a Hebrew slave; his voice was not one that people would have listened to when he spoke. Centering the marginalized voices would mean listening and giving credit to what he had to say, not merely what his brothers felt or what Potiphar’s wife had to say about the incident. Emmitt Till’s voice was not allowed to be heard, but even before he died, do we really think that white people in Mississippi would have listened to him over the testimony of a white woman? Certainly, the all-white jury was willing to listen more to the voices of the two white men accused of the crime and not any of the evidence that pointed to their guilt.

The story of Joseph is the story of the amazing things that God is doing all around us. The question is, how do we react. Do we believe that God can be at work in people who are not like us, or are just not us? Are we able to see God at work in people who look very different whether because of their gender, their skin, their style of dress, or anything else about them? Humility is not merely avoiding being boastful about our own gifts, it is also being able to celebrate the gifts in others.

Jesus came to earth as a dark-skinned child, born out of wedlock, from the backwater town of Nazareth. In this most unlikely of persons, we find the Son of God. Our own assumptions of power and privilege are challenged when God shows up in unexpected ways and faces. We are challenged to see God in those around us and respond like Potiphar and the jailer. We need to get past our own jealousy and desire and let God do amazing things.

Questions to Ponder:

What stands out to you about the story of Joseph?

When is a time where your jealousy has gotten the better of you?

What can you do to recognize God’s gifts and graces in the people around you?


God you show up in this world in wonderful and amazing ways. Help us to see you at work in the lives of those around us. Help us to remember that your blessings come to us not always directly but through the loving hands of others. Open our eyes to see you and our hearts to love you in all the shapes and forms you take in the world. Amen