Potiphar’s Wife

Last week we said that Chapter 38, the story of Judah and Tamar, seemed like an interruption of the main story of Joseph. This week we pick up the story again but, clearly, there is an intentional comparison of Judah and Joseph.

In a way, this is a story of how one man is seen through four different sets of eyes: Potiphar, his wife, the prison warden, and God.

First, Potiphar. The text says, “When his master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord gave him success in everything he did, Joseph found favor in his eyes and became his attendant.”

From the beginning of his life, it is clear that Joseph has inherited the promise the Lord made to Jacob. “I have been with you and I will be with you.” As he promised Jacob as he was leaving home and on the run from Esau, “I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”

Again, when Jacob moves to Bethel with his family, he tells them they are to worship the God who “answered me in the day of my distress and who has been with me wherever I have gone.”

While it is not evident in the lives of the other brothers it is in Joseph’s. It is so deeply embedded in him that the Lord is with him that it becomes obvious to others as well.

What is the evidence that the Lord is with him? He gives him success in everything he did. This is the first evidence we have that Joseph has a particular skill. As a boy growing up, we did not see this and certainly, his family never saw anything like this. One of my favorite images of the young man Joseph is when his father sends him off to find his brothers he is found by a man wandering around in the fields. The picture we have here is one of a person who has discovered something about himself that was hidden before and it has become obvious to everyone around him.

There is nothing about ambition in Joseph. He does not do anything to earn the robe his father gives him. He does not have dreams the way we normally speak of someone who has great dreams of success. He is a born caretaker who is trusted by other people. He doesn’t want to own what they have. He is not envious. He has the gift of trust that comes naturally to him and is so obvious that others see the hand of God in his life.

I am often asked the question about how someone can find a job working for a foundation. What courses should they take or what kind of career would prepare them best for the work? How do they meet people who would hire them to do the work? I finally wrote something in response.

”If I were giving advice to anyone wanting to get into this field, it would be something that sounds completely simplistic. Be trustworthy in whatever you are doing. You can never know when a person creating a foundation will begin to think about staffing but I can tell you this. Whenever I hear them talking about why they picked a particular person it is rarely their professional skills that attracted them. They talk about their ability to trust them. They don’t talk about their professional preparation for the work (although that may be true five or ten years from now) but about their personal trust and regard for their integrity. The old saying is true: “Trust comes on foot and leaves in a Ferrari.” It takes years to build and is often gone in a moment.”

That was the case with Joseph and Potiphar. Nothing in Joseph’s past would have prepared him to do the work of a caretaker or a steward. When the brothers were taking care of sheep Joseph was at home with Jacob. But, something became engrained in his life: “God will be with you and will be with you wherever you go.” Even when he is thrown in prison there is no attempt to defend himself or complain to God or Potiphar. There is a confident poise to this young man that can only come from the certainty that God is with him.

As well, look at the other evidence of Joseph’s character. “From the time he put him in charge of his household and of all that he owned, the Lord blessed the household of the Egyptian because of Joseph. The blessing of the Lord was on everything Potiphar had, both in the house and in the field.”

Egypt was a totally secular culture and yet the presence of one faithful man was a blessing to the entire country. God did not say to Joseph, “Conquer the culture and make it over into your own.” Instead, the very smallest presence of righteousness can benefit even the worst of places. Of course, whenever the presence of righteousness is seduced by the secular power the result is idolatry and catastrophe.

Second, more and more we hear the phrase “finding favor” to describe success. There are thousands of books and hundreds of ministries that are focused on finding favor with God. One of the most popular Google searches is “What is the favor of God and how can I get it?” Everyone wants special treatment or favor. Everyone wants the ears or eyes of God and the perpetual question is how to do that?

I like this spoof:

“Sam and Victoria Gutman have always been smart shoppers, but they have gone to another level during the recent recession, buying automobiles, computers and more from distressed owners.

“God continues to bless us,” says Sam. “All things really do work for good for those who love him and are called according to his purpose. We’re living proof.”

Last week they bought a Lexus coupe from a man who lost his job — and pension — when his employer collapsed.

“He was weeping when he gave me the keys,” Sam says. “I got that car for a third of what it’s worth. Beautiful leather seats, new tires. God is so good.”

Victoria fondly recalls buying a bedroom suite from a couple going through an acrimonious divorce.

“That was one of our best deals yet,” she says. “They drove the price down just to spite each other. That lovely set adorns our bedroom and is a lasting testimony to God’s favor.”

It’s true that there is much in the Bible about people who have found favor with God.

“For you bless the righteous, O Lord; you cover him with favor as with a shield.” Psalm 5:12

“Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands…” Psalm 90:17

“For the Lord God is a sun and shield; the Lord bestows favor and honor; no good thing does He withhold from those who walk uprightly.” Psalm 84:11

Favor is not the same as favorite. It is not having special privileges, finding a parking place or winning the lottery. It is not a formula and it is not something we can earn. It is unmerited and a gift of God. It does not come and go with circumstances. It is not something we receive for our own benefit but it is the distinguishing mark of a life that speaks of God to those around us. It is not a lucky or charmed life but a life that has substance and points people toward God.

Oswald Chambers says the characteristic of a life of favor is not people being impressed with our holiness.

”It is a snare to imagine that God wants to make us perfect specimens of what He can do; God’s purpose is to make us one with Himself. Christian perfection is not, and never can be human perfection. I am called to live in perfect relation to God so that my life produces a longing after God in other lives, not admiration for myself. Thoughts about myself hinder my usefulness to God. God is not after perfecting me to be a specimen in His show-room; He is getting me to the place where He can use me.”

I think the ultimate evidence of finding the favor of God is finding wisdom. The life distinguished by virtue, wisdom, and confidence in the Lord’s presence is the life that has found favor.

Proverbs 8:35 says, “For those who find me [wisdom] find life and receive favor from the LORD.”

Third, the wife of Potiphar. There is no more familiar story in the Bible than this one. Again, look at the eyes of Potiphar’s wife.

“Joseph was well-built and handsome, and after a while, his master’s wife took notice of Joseph and said, “Come to bed with me.” The word here for taking notice is far more than a casual glance or a sudden awareness of Joseph. It means she fixed her eyes on him and became obsessed with him. She speaks to him day after day. In Scripture, to see something or someone was more than observation. It was a way of being engaged with someone. One commentator said, “sight represents a total person, including the mind.” Potiphar’s wife was completely absorbed with Joseph and everything he did.

Today, we would call that workplace harassment and Joseph could have filed a complaint and gone to court. As we know too well, this is something that women have had to put up with far more than men but it does happen with men as well. We don’t understand all the motivations for it but in most cases, it is less about sex than it is about power over someone.

The security consultant Gavin de Becker wrote the book The Gift of Fear in 1997 and has recently been in the news for his role in digging out the story of who turned the selfies of Jeff Bezos over to the National Enquirer. In his description of the threatening letters from the Enquirer to Bezos, he says,

“Most human predators . . . seek power. To destroy or damage something is to take its power. This applies equally to a political movement, a government, a campaign, a career, a marriage, a performance, a fortune, or a religion.”

I can see the same in the wife of Potiphar. She is an arrogant woman and used to getting what she wants. No one thinks this is the first servant she has propositioned. Joseph is something she does not have and, in her mind, someone who has the power that she wants to either control or destroy. She wants to conquer him and not just sleep with him. What is his response to her persistence? “No one is greater in this house than I am.” Joseph is not a victim the way he is many times represented in the art that focuses on his running from the house. Again, there is confidence that is not arrogance. He is, as we saw last week in his reporting his dreams to his family, simply stating the facts. He truly is the most powerful person in the house and it is that power – not just his physical features – that she desires to possess or destroy.

(His cloak, like the robe of a Supreme Court justice, is a sign of his authority given to him by Potiphar. It is not just a piece of clothing but something that represents the trust and respect of his office in the house. That is what she grabs and that is what he leaves behind him. She uses not only as evidence of his attempt to rape her but to say he has misused his authority. For someone like Joseph, that is worse than her accusation of rape.)

I don’t think there is any sexual temptation on the part of Joseph. The wicked thing in his mind is to betray the trust that has been placed in him. That would be even worse adultery. It is probably one of the most constant temptations of those who are trusted – to betray the trust. It comes in many ways but it is always whispering in the ear. “You can have this. You deserve this. You have earned it. This is yours for the taking.”

When she looks at Joseph she is not just obsessed with him physically. She wants something he has that will make her greater than him. In a sense, she wants his cloak more than she wants him physically. She wants to be the greatest in the house of Potiphar. There is a danger in people who desire the cloak of greatness. They want the deference they believe comes from authority. They resent most of all that they do not have it and grasping at it becomes their obsession. They want the trappings of power. Their greatest fear is that they will be discovered and exposed – and laughed at. And when they fail they immediately shift the blame to someone else.

Fourth, we see Joseph through the eyes of the warden. “But while Joseph was there in the prison, the Lord was with him; he showed him kindness and granted him favor in the eyes of the prison warden. So the warden put Joseph in charge of all those held in the prison, and he was made responsible for all that was done there. The warden paid no attention to anything under Joseph’s care because the Lord was with Joseph and gave him success in whatever he did.”

It is not only that the warden trusts Joseph but he does not have to pay any attention to anything where Joseph is in charge. He literally takes his eyes off whatever Joseph’s eyes are on. I really wonder what was left for the warden to do? Joseph simply accumulated more authority and responsibility again. That is the theme of his entire life. No matter his circumstances he is trusted to the point of becoming the most powerful person in the house. He does not need the title or the position. He does not want to be Potiphar. He does not want to displace the warden. He does not want to have the position of Pharaoh.

My father told me there are two kinds of power. Both can be used for good or misused. The power of position that comes and goes with a title. It is transferable and temporary. The second kind of power is personal. The title does not confer this kind of power. It is often informal but just as effective. It is what we see in Joseph. He does not need the position or the title. He does not look to be the power behind the throne or the kingmaker. He is not ambitious for what others have. He simply has the confidence that goes with knowing God is with him. It is what Jesus calls meekness. It is great power under control.

However, unlike the warden whose job is made easier by the presence of Joseph, Joseph’s reward for faithfulness is being given even more responsibility.

When I read the parable of the minas and the pounds in Luke 19 and 22, I understand that the faithful servant received not only more wealth but even more responsibility. It was not “Well done and now you are rich enough to retire” but “Well done and now I have more responsibility for you.” In other words, the reward is responsibility. The more you accomplish the more responsibility you will have. I am not making you a king. I am making you a manager of even more cities. I am not making you a benefactor but a servant.

I think about these things more now. Even after a lifetime of hearing the way to wisdom is the path of a servant, I still desire to choose my own place and my own definition of serving. I want to be a volunteer – not an employee. I want to be special – the pinnacle of creation – not a yard man in God’s garden. I want to offer my time and talents – but not have them controlled by someone else. I want to have less responsibility as a reward for service – not more. I want less stress and more privileges. I would rather have fewer cities than more. That’s not how God prepares us for eternity, is it? He never stops rewarding us with more. He never stops preparing us for what is next. As much as we might like it, there is nothing in Scripture about His giving us responsibility for 60 years and then rest. The nature of the responsibility changes, but it never goes away.

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