November 19th, 2017

The worst pain fell on the best person and resulted in the greatest good. 

Genesis 40:1-8


The Star

Have you seen the trailers and promos for the new Christmas movie, “The Star”? Linda and I saw the movie on our date night this week. Maybe you’re wondering whether it’s worth your time, and whether it will be the classic its producers hope for.

My opinion is yes, on both counts. The writers tried to be faithful to the Bible’s storyline. They didn’t correct the popular myth that the wise men showed up the night Jesus was born, and I don’t think Mary as a Jewish girl had blue eyes. Then of course there was the creative license of talking animals and Herod sending menacing dogs to track down the newborn king.

Overall, though, we liked it, and I have to admit that I cried when all the animals and wise men and shepherds knelt at the manger, even though I’ve read the book. Nevertheless, it’s like a lot of movies – Christmas and otherwise – in that the story wraps up within an hour and a half or two. With Hallmark movies, I don’t want the story to end with the kiss. I tell my wife, “I think they need premarital counseling.” What’s the “to be continued” part of the story?

This fall we’ve been studying the book of Genesis. It’s a “to be continued” kind of book. As we make our way through the life of Joseph, for example, each chapter leaves you in suspense. Even at the end of Genesis, this is “to be continued.”

As I noted last week, Joseph’s story is not really about Joseph. It’s about his father Jacob. When we last left the story at the end of chapter 37, Jacob is grieving over the torment of his favorite son’s death. You and I know the boy’s not dead. He’s on the way to Egypt. Jacob doesn’t know that, and his grief is inconsolable.

When we turn the page, chapter 38 looks out of place. It’s a soap-opera-like saga about another of Jacob’s sons, Judah. Why is that relevant? The sordid tale sets up a contrast for chapter 39, but it is also tracking one of Jacob’s sons.

We are going to continue the story of Joseph. Jacob and his other sons will disappear from the account altogether for three chapters. Rest assured, though, this is temporary. We’re only following Joseph to find out how God’s promises to Jacob – that he will have many descendants and they will live in Canaan – will be fulfilled.

In his hand

Picking up the storyline at the beginning of chapter 39 from the end of chapter 37, we encounter again a man named Potiphar, identified as “captain of the guard.” That’s comparable to the head of the Secret Service. It’s a position of enormous responsibility for Pharaoh’s personal safety and for the security of the empire.

As soon as he arrives in Egypt, Joseph encounters the center of power in a highly advanced civilization. This must have been quite a transition for a teenager who had grown up living in tents among nomadic people. It’s a Beverly Hillbillies story as far as where Joseph came from and where he’s going. In his case, though, he’s a slave. One can only imagine that he starts with extremely tedious labor – hard work, thankless work, monotonous work. Further, he doesn’t speak their language, which to them means he’s not only unskilled and uncivilized but stupid.

They soon learn otherwise. Over the course of about a decade[1], Joseph proves to be extremely competent. He listens well, he follows instructions, he learns well, and he’s quickly promoted to places of responsibility. The narrator tells us why. “The LORD was with Joseph” is a phrase repeated several times in this chapter. This chapter is the first time we’ve run into the word “God” or his name “Yahweh” since Joseph’s father had wrestled with him and then met him again at Bethel. So much has been unfolding that looks like God has gone fishing. That’s intentional on the part of Moses as he relates this story. The stories in Genesis about Joseph’s brothers almost never mention God. It’s almost as if the faith of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob has no impact on them.

But here’s Joseph down in Egypt, and Yahweh is with him. One of the key words in this story is the word “hand,” although it disappears in many translations. Everything in Joseph’s “hand” prospers. We would say “Everything he touches.” Potiphar eventually puts everything into Joseph’s “hand.” What’s more, Yahweh blesses not only Joseph but Potiphar and his entire household, even his fields.

Now we have the irony that while Joseph is living in a powerful kingdom where nobody worships Yahweh but him, God is blessing the household of Pharaoh’s Secret Service because Joseph is there. Potiphar still guards his most private life – what he eats and his family – from Joseph’s oversight, but it’s absolutely remarkable that this uneducated and unsophisticated man rises to such a position of authority, commanding respect from Potiphar and obedience from Egyptians who work under him.

This Hebrew

All seems to be going well, except that Joseph has now matured from a teenager into a handsome, well-built, 20-something man. Even his body is blessed by Yahweh. This captures the attention of Potiphar’s wife, who attempts to seduce him, not once but regularly. As Chuck Swindoll points out, “Greater success leads to greater times of vulnerability.”[2] The first time it happens, Joseph is caught off guard. Persistent temptation follows. Both kinds of temptation make a man (or woman) vulnerable.

Joseph’s longest speech in chapter 39 comes in response to her advances. We gain insight into who he is not so much by his rise to a position of trust and authority (that’s because Yahweh was with him) but by what he says to this Egyptian woman.

No! I’ve gained your husband’s trust across these many years. He never thinks about his household affairs because they are in my hands. I’m at the top, right next to him. Everything he owns is entrusted to me except you. I can’t do such a wicked thing and sin against God.

Based on what we know of them, Joseph’s brothers would likely have jumped at this exceptional opportunity for pleasure. Joseph adamantly refuses. Then one day she catches him when none of the other household servants are around – no one will see, no one will hear. For her this is a golden opportunity and she thinks it might be for him as well. Once again, he refuses her and runs away, leaving the cloak she had grabbed in her hand (there’s that word again). Refused and humiliated, she’s had enough. Calling the other servants, she accuses “this Hebrew” (as she calls him) of making advances.

Now that she’s gone that far, she has no recourse but to follow through. Irate,  she tells her husband, whose first reaction to her tale is rage as well. He’s been taken for a fool. Joseph heads to prison.

I rather suspect that if this incident had happened a few years earlier, Joseph would have lost his life. At the least, he would have been confined to a dungeon and forgotten. Instead, he seems to be in what we call a white-collar prison, and it seems to be a prison adjacent to Potiphar’s house.

Even there, though, the LORD is with him. The prison warden likes him, and before long “this Hebrew” was placed in charge of all the other prisoners. Just like Potiphar, the warden so trusts Joseph that he goes about his other business knowing that everything in Joseph’s oversight will be handled.

This is now the third time in Joseph’s life, all before the age of thirty, that a similar scenario has played out. It’s why back in chapter 37 when Joseph reported on his brothers’ misbehavior, we understand why his father gave him a coat representing management. Everyone who’s around Joseph sees that he is destined for responsibility, destined even for power. Within whatever sphere he operates – his family of origin, Potiphar’s household, or even prison – people know Joseph has the instinct and integrity of a leader.

The dreams

And so we come to chapter 40. This part of the story features two of Pharaoh’s trusted advisors, his chief butler and chief baker. They too are placed under house arrest – not only with Joseph but under Joseph’s supervision in the white-collar prison. What did they do to offend the king? We’re not told, but a pretty good guess is that the king had food poisoning. He doesn’t know if it is something he ate or something he drank, so he puts the two men in charge of both food and drink in custody during the investigation.

One night, both the butler and the baker have dreams. Egyptians put a lot of stock in dreams, believing that dreams had the power to foretell the future. Here’s another way that God had prepared Joseph for this moment. He had been a dreamer as well – along with his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. All of them had met God in their dreams. To Joseph as well, dreams were at least potentially a way to know what God is up to.

The pivotal part of this story comes in verses 6-8. First, Joseph notices one morning that these two men are dejected. As their prison supervisor, he could have passed them by. He could have demanded they get up, eat breakfast, and go about their usual routine. Instead, he notices their emotional state and asks about it. That alone sets Joseph on a different level than most men, yours truly included. We now know that Joseph is not only a man of integrity and leadership instinct, he is a man of empathy. People around him matter.

When Joseph asks what’s going on, they answer, “We both had dreams, but there is no one to interpret them” (8). In Pharaoh’s court, there was likely a dream expert, but not in prison. They have a sense that these dreams are important to their fate, and possibly to the fate of the empire. But they need help.

Joseph then utters the central words of this part of his story. “Do not interpretations belong to God? Tell me your dreams” (8).

This is a window into Joseph’s soul, a declaration of his faith. He’s in a land where, as far as we know, no one embraces his faith in Yahweh. No one knows or cares about the one true God. Joseph has held on to God, but every time he rises to the top he’s batted back down. He’s in prison now – for doing the right thing! And his own dreams – dreams of his brothers and parents bowing down to him – nothing has come of them nor is there any evidence anything ever will. He has every reason to think nothing belongs to God, especially the unfolding future represented by dreams.

Not only his faith that God’s in charge is on display, however. He believes he is God’s channel, his mouthpiece. “The interpretations belong to God, so tell your dreams to me,” he says. “I have enough trust in the God who is with me to believe that he will unfold his plan for you to me.” That’s more faith than I think I would have had.

The men tell Joseph their dreams, and he interprets for them. The butler’s dream, Joseph tells him, means that he will be freed from prison in three days and restored to his position. Joseph asks the butler to remember him when he’s back in the palace. The baker sees that went quite well, so he presses Joseph for the meaning of his dream. The news is not so good this time. The baker’s dream means in three days he’s going to have his head cut off. Apparently, Pharaoh has learned that it was the food, not the wine, that made him sick.

It happens just as Joseph had said it would. Three days later, Pharaoh has a birthday party. The butler is restored and the baker is executed. Either because he jumps right into the busyness of his role in the palace or because he is afraid of how association with Joseph might damage him, the butler forgets about Joseph for two years. Two years! Joseph languishes longer, out of sight and out of mind.

To be continued.

Give thanks

This story can alter your Thanksgiving. For what will you give thanks this week? Let me offer three suggestions.

First, give thanks for hands. As I said, “hands” are a significant part of this story. The story invites us to ask what’s in our hands. Everything in Joseph’s hands prospers because the Lord is with him. All Potiphar’s wife has in her hands is Joseph’s cloak, a symbol of her sin – her lust, her deceit, her self-destructive behavior.

What’s in your hands? On Thanksgiving Day, we tend to join hands as we bless the hands that prepared the meal. Why not follow the “hands” theme this Thanksgiving Day? Invite the younger children to trace their hands. Maybe a teenager or other geek would like to Google the anatomy of a hand. The definition of a hand is “the terminal part of the vertebrate forearm,” or, more simply, “the end of the arm.” The hand is also “the grasping organ” of the body. Have a discussion, or just a reflection, on what you’re grasping.

For your Thanksgiving prayer, alone or around the table, have everyone put their palms up as they share what God has placed into their hands. Give thanks that your family and your life are in God’s hands. Joseph’s life wasn’t in the hands of Potiphar or his wife. It wasn’t in the hands of Pharaoh or even In Joseph’s own hands. His life and every detail of it was in God’s hands. “This too belongs to God,” he said.

Second, give thanks for pain. More than once Joseph was the victim of severe injustice. He also had to think regularly, “I don’t deserve this. I don’t deserve being sold by my brothers, I don’t deserve the lies told about me by Potiphar’s wife, I don’t deserve being forgotten by the butler.” It would be understandable for Joseph to lower himself into a cistern of self-pity, self-absorption, self-interest. He could be bitter and angry. Yet somehow, he retains a positive focus, which he demonstrates is both a God-focus and a people-focus.

The contrast between Joseph and his brothers is telling. The stories about them include sordid behavior, deception, hate, even attempted murder. And God almost never comes into play in their stories. Yet here’s Joseph, who experienced more pain than all of them, being hated, sold, sent away, marginalized, ridiculed, lied about, and forgotten, and he is at the center of God’s redemptive plan. It was the pain that humbled him. It’s never a bad thing to need God.

Toward the end of the Bible, the Apostle Paul will say, “We rejoice in our sufferings” (Romans 5:1). James adds, “Consider it pure joy when you face trials because suffering produces perseverance” (James 1:3). Peter says when we suffer we “participate in the sufferings of Christ” (1 Peter 4:21). Jesus is our example. The greatest pain (the cross) inflicted on the best person (Jesus) resulted in the greatest good (salvation). Give thanks for pain that transforms your character and keeps you dependent on the Lord.

Finally, give thanks for God. It’s easy to give thanks for food, family, friends, blessings, and forget whom we’re thanking. Don’t forget to be explicit to give thanks to God for God. As you pray, name his faithfulness, holiness, love, grace, and his constant presence. The Lord is with you as he was with Joseph.

It is only because of who God is that we have hope. Every story in Joseph’s life ends with “to be continued.” Even when he dies, the story is “to be continued.” All Jacob’s family dies and is buried in Egypt, but you know that’s not where they are supposed to be. Every part of the Bible ends with “to be continued.” The only way I can be comfortable with a story that’s “to be continued” is if I know that there is a God who was, and is, and is to come. In his hands, every part of my story, present and future, is safe. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Joseph was 17 when he received the coat from his father (Genesis 37:1), and spent at least two years in an Egyptian prison (41:1) before rising to become Pharaoh’s prime minister at age 30 (41:46).

[2] Joseph, 27.

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