We don’t know how long Joseph was in charge of Potiphar’s whole household before his wife made a move on the young Hebrew slave. But this story of temptation and response to temptation is a powerful one with lessons for all of us. The first thing we see is that Potiphar’s wife is the initiator of the temptation. Which we never want to be. She was like the woman in Proverbs 7 who is loud and flirtatious and dressed like a woman of the night to appeal to men who were led by their flesh. But Joseph is not like the one in Proverbs 7 who is described as “a young man lacking sense, passing along the street near her corner, taking the road to her house in the twilight, in the evening, at the time of night and darkness.” That young man lacked sense, or another way to say it, he was led by his glands and not his mind. He was in the wrong place on purpose, because he walked down “the road to her house.” And he was there at the wrong time, in the “night and darkness.” The young man in Proverbs 7 was seeking temptation and that is always a recipe for a fall. But Joseph was doing his job, minding his own business when Potiphar’s wife cast her eyes on him and said, “Lie with me.”
Now listen, this was a temptation. Joseph was a single young man with all the desires that God creates in every young man. He was tempted and it was not a unique temptation. None are. None of us can ever say, “Well, nobody has been tempted like I have.” That’s categorically denied by the Word of God. “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” What was the way of escape God provided for Joseph in this first attempt by Potiphar’s wife? Joseph refused and explained why. Notice what he didn’t do. He didn’t engage in flirtatious banter. He didn’t say to himself, Hey what would it hurt if I dabble around the edges a little? He didn’t see how close he could get to the line without crossing over into sin. He simply said no to her and appealed to the trust his master and her husband had placed in him. He has placed me over everything and has not kept back anything from me…except you, Joseph said. And then he looked at her and said, “How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?”
That’s a question to put on a posterboard or a sticky note at least, nearest to the place where the temptation to sin for you is the greatest. “How can I do this thing and sin against God?” Joseph had it imprinted on his mind, and it lived in his heart. And one huge motivation for Joseph was that he knew that God had something important for him to do, and that strengthened his resolve against giving in to temptation. It is the same for you and me. We will probably never be the number two man or woman in charge of a nation, but God has important work for us to do. Every. One. Of. Us.
Well, Potiphar’s wife was not done. She was nothing if not persistent, as tempters often can be. The narrator says she pursued Joseph in this way day after day, but he would not listen to her to lie beside her or to be with her. Temptation offered and refused, over and over, until finally one day, she went from talk to physical aggression. Potiphar’s wife grabbed Joseph’s outer garment and demanded he lie with her. He left the garment in her hand as he ran away. Paul may have been thinking about Joseph when he wrote, “So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.” (2 Tim. 2:22) The reason Joseph was able to run from what was wrong was because he was passionately running after what was right: righteousness, faith, love, and peace.
You know the rest of the story. Potiphar listened to his wife, never sked Joseph his side of the story, and put Joseph in prison. When Joseph was thrown into the pit, it was because his brothers rejected him. When he is thrown into the prison, it was because Potiphar rejected him. There, for at least two years, his testing continued. He had done what was right and he suffered for it, but even in prison, Joseph remained faithful to God. And God was with Joseph. As he is with you and me.
Genesis 38 is a difficult passage to read and no walk in the park to preach. Why is this story here? I think there are two reasons, the simplest being– it happened– and it further illustrates the decline of the covenant family into corruption. The second reason, and the most important one, is that from this ungodly situation, the family line of the Messiah is preserved. The story opens with Judah choosing a Canaanite woman to marry. What do we know from the patriarchs about the covenant people of God choosing to marry Canaanites? Right, it was forbidden. But Judah does so anyway, and we are told his never-named wife gives Judah three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah, an unfortunate name for a boy. He learned to fight; had to.
Judah chose a wife for his firstborn, Er, and her name was Tamar. But we are told that Er was so wicked in the sight of the Lord that the Lord put him to death. Tamar was a childless widow, and the Levirate custom of the day demanded that her husband’s closest brother be given to her so that she could produce an offspring to carry on her dead husband’s name. And so she would have children to support her in her old age. This would become law in Deuteronomy 25, and if a man’s brother refused to perform his duty, the elders of the city would take him before the widow, and she would pull off his sandal and spit in his face. You see that in the story of Ruth when the closest kinsman redeemer refused her and pulled off his own sandal. She spared him the spit, happily married Boaz, and eventually became grandmother to David.
Back to Tamar and her dead husband. Onan, the second born son was called to fulfill this obligation on behalf of his brother. And he was happy to play the part with Tamar and go through the motions several times, but he made sure that he did not help her have a child. Why? Moses tells us, “because he knew that the offspring would not be his.” I told you, it’s a sick and sordid tale. This selfishness of Onan was wicked in the sight of the Lord, so the Lord took his life as well. The action God took against Er and Onan, Kidner writes, “emphasizes the steep moral decline in the chosen family, which only the outstanding piety of Joseph would arrest for a while. This tendency to an immediate plunge from grace, whenever faith is no longer an active force, is evident more than once in Genesis, but the pattern is most explicitly worked out in the book of Judges.” There is one bright spot in this story. Tamar. But she was told by Judah to go home and wait until his third son, Shelah, was ready to marry her and carry on the family name.
Tamar must have spent years wearing a widow’s garment, waiting for the time when Shelah would be old enough and that time had come and passed. Tamar knew that Judah would not keep his word and give his third son to her. He had deceived her, so she planned to deceive him. Tamar changed out of her widow-wear, put a veil over her face so she could not be recognized, and went to a place where she knew Judah would be traveling. Tamar knew enough about Judah and his character that if she posed incognito as a harlot, just for him, she would be successful. But she was also risking her life. Allen Ross writes, “Tamar qualifies as a heroine in the story, for she risked everything to fight for her right to be the mother in the family of Judah and protect the family…She did what justice and the death of her husband demanded of her—but by a very dangerous scheme.” Did I tell you this was a sordid story?
Judah gave her his seal and his staff as a promise that he would send her a goat in exchange for her services. But she had no use for the goat, which is why she wasn’t in the same place when Judah’s man came looking, dragging a kid goat behind him. It was the signet she had wanted, and it was the signet of Judah that would save her life. Allen Ross writes, “It is not appropriate to judge her by Christian ethics, for in her culture at that time, her actions, though very dangerous for her, were within the law.”
When it was discovered that Tamar was three months pregnant, Judah heard about it and called for her to be burned to death. Bring her out! Set her on fire for this terrible sin! As they dragged her out to be burned, Tamar sent word to her father-in-law that the man who was responsible for the baby she was carrying is the owner of this signet, cord, and staff. Judah’s gear. It was then that her exoneration came. Judah said, “She is more righteous than I, since I did not give her to my son, Shelah.” Yes, Judah, she was! If it were left up to Judah, the covenant family of God would have assimilated with the Canaanites and been destroyed. Tamar was the rescuer.
God’s plan is perfect and it is eternal. When Peter wrote to the “elect exiles” in his first letter, he says they are (we are!) elect exiles “according to the foreknowledge of God the Father.” The foreknowledge of God with regard to his people does not mean that God looked down the long corridor of time in eternity past and said, “Hmm, there’s a couple of good ones. Tamar is good. Ruth is good. I will save them.” No, these were broken women in a corrupt and broken world! Same as you and me. To be foreknown by God means that Tamar and Ruth and you and me who are saved and co-heirs with Christ were the objects of God’s affection and loving concern from all eternity, along with God’s own Son!
Ruth’s rally and Tamar’s triumph helped secure our victory over sin and death through their descendant and our only Savior, Jesus Christ.
Joseph’s brothers, ten of the other twelve “tribes” of Israel hated him so much that they conspired together to kill him. Not to beat him or to bully their brother, but to commit murder. It was only Judah’s suggestion, self-motivated though it was, to sell him that spared Joseph’s life. After they sold him to the Ismaelites, the brothers decided the best way to handle this was not to tell their father the truth. Better for him to think he is dead than that Joseph was alive but sold into slavery. Let’s tell him that beasts devoured him, they say, and all that was left was this bloody coat. Well, that was a shred of the truth, but the only beasts that devoured Joseph were his brothers. We find another irony in their deception of their father that depended on goats’ blood. Years earlier, Jacob’s deception of his father Isaac depended on his brother’s cloak and two goat skins.
The final callousness of the brothers is breath-taking. When they arrived back in Hebron, they showed the bloody coat Jacob had given to his beloved son and say to him, “This we have found; please identify whether it is your son’s robe or not.” They cannot even conceal their hatred for Joseph in the face of their father’s grief. They don’t call him “our brother,” but “your son.” They don’t console their father for his loss, but simply ask him to identify the evidence of it. Do you, umm, recognize this coat?
Jacob’s grief was profound. He identified the robe and said, “Joseph is without doubt torn to pieces.” He tore his garments, put on sackcloth, and mourned for many days. The whole family tried to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted, saying, “No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.” Translation? Jacob had nothing to live for and indeed did not want to live. But his severe depression was based on a lie told to him by his sons. They lived with him for 20 years and let him continue in that false belief that his son was devoured by wild animals, and that he would never see him again until death. This lie shaped Jacob’s life, as any lie we believe will shape our life as well.
How do we make sure we are not living as a slave to a lie that someone told us, even a parent or a pastor or a teacher or a friend? Hold it up to what the Word says. If you grew up hearing that God only loves you if you dress a certain way or if you work really hard to do everything right and you are always happy and never struggle, that’s a lie that will shape your life, or “mis-shape it.” Hold it up to the truth of what the Bible really says. If on the other hand you grew up hearing the Word from your parents and the church and now you hear from others that it really doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you are true to yourself and your feelings, that also is a lie that will mis-shape your life. Hold it up to the truth of what the Bible really says. Jesus said it like this: “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” You will be “put back into shape.”
The truth would have set Jacob free, but those who knew the truth withheld it from him. We must not do that with our children or our parents or our brothers and sisters in Christ. Or with our friends who are lost.
Joseph is a favorite biblical character for a lot of people. And he was clearly Moses’ favorite, if the amount of ink he got is any indication. Moses wrote more about Joseph than he did about Abraham, the father of faith and the friend of God! Or Jacob, the man who wrestled with God and was named Israel, the “prince of God.” Why is Joseph such an important figure? I like what David Guzik wrote about the godly men in Genesis:
Enoch shows the walk of faith. Noah shows the perseverance of faith. Abraham shows the obedience of faith. Isaac shows the power of faith. Jacob shows the discipline of faith. Joseph shows the triumph of faith.
Joseph will have to overcome many trials and much suffering, but he triumphs because God’s hand is on him, and his faith is in God. This story has been called a masterful narrative and volumes of books have been written about it. Even Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice got excited about the story and wrote a musical for a school chorus, suggested by friends, in 1968. Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat later became a smash hit in London and then around the world. It was one of my favorite shows I performed in with the Gallery Players in the 80’s.
Typology refers to historical people, places, even objects in the Old Testament which point us to the life and work of Jesus Christ in the New Testament. Noah’s ark was a type of Christ because all who went into it were saved. Joseph is a type of Christ as well. The world will come to him during the famine to be saved. But more than that, James Boice wrote, “He was loved and hated, favored and abused, tempted and trusted, exalted and abased. Yet at no point in the one-hundred-and-ten-year life of Joseph did he ever seem to get his eyes off God or cease to trust him. Adversity did not harden his character. Prosperity did not ruin him. He was the same in private as in public. He was a truly great man.” Joseph was certainly not perfect, but his life is a powerful picture that points to the sacrifice and suffering and ultimate triumph of the one who was and is perfect, Jesus Christ.
Others have pointed out that the genealogy of Christ includes a Joseph. The earthly father of Jesus was Joseph, and his father was Jacob! Roland Warren wrote about the two Josephs in Jesus’ life, one who was present at his birth, and the other who was present at his death. Both of the Josephs adopted one who was considered illegitimate. Joseph of Nazareth adopted Mary’s son as his own and raised him to be a carpenter. And Joseph of Arimathea took Jesus’ body down from the cross. In that culture, if someone was crucified and no one claimed his body, it was as if that person was illegitimate from birth.
Joseph the dreamer may not be written about much in the Bible after Genesis. But he and his namesakes later, three Josephs, each played very important roles in the story of redemptive history.