Hebrews 11:22; Genesis 37, 39-50: Joseph

By C.R. Wheeler

Hebrews 11:22  “By faith Joseph, when he was dying, made mention of the exodus …”

The Hebrew writer mentions Joseph because he trusted God to cause the exodus of his people from the land of Egypt to posses the land that he had promised to his great-grandfather Abraham. Joseph’s confidence was a great manifestation of his faith. However, this was only one incident from Joseph’s life. His life was the epitome of a life of faith.

Joseph entered the Old Testament narrative as a seventeen-year-old boy who angered his brothers when he gave an unfavorable report of their work. Joseph was the youngest of eleven brothers (Gen. 37:3). They came to despise him after he had two dreams that portrayed his reigning over them. They conspired to kill him, but Reuben, seeing an opportunity to curry favor with his father by rescuing Joseph, insisted that they merely abandon him in an empty cistern. In the end, Judah’s plan to sell him to a caravan of traders on their way to Egypt prevailed.

To conceal their treachery, they soaked Joseph’s cloak in goat’s blood and returned it to Jacob pretending not to know to whom it belonged. When Jacob saw the cloak, he immediately recognized it as Joseph’s. “And he said, Surely I will go down to Sheol in mourning for my son” (Gen. 37:35). Ten of his sons had lied to Jacob. He believed the lie. He could not have been any more distraught if Joseph were actually dead. A lie believed is a powerful thing.

In Egypt, Potiphar, an Egyptian officer who answered directly to Pharaoh, purchased Joseph. Potiphar quickly realized that the Lord was with Joseph because, “the Lord caused all that he did to prosper in his hand” (Gen. 39:3). To capitalize on Joseph’s favor with the Almighty, he appointed him to be his personal servant and the overseer of his household (Gen. 39:4).

Christians must realize that Abraham’s blessings did not Though a slave, Joseph came to enjoy relative ease in the house of Potiphar. His master had put him in charge of the other slaves and made him responsible for the day-to-day administration of the house. Joseph would have been content to live out his life as a servant. However, something happened that changed the course of history, not only for him, but for the entire nation of Israel. Genesis 39:7 records that one day while Joseph was about his duties, Potiphar’s wife ordered him to have sexual intercourse with her. He refused, but she was persistent. She grew even bolder and continued to tempt him “day by day” (Gen. 39:10). Finally, one day she took hold of his garment to force him to lie with her, and Joseph fled from her leaving his garment in her hands. When Potiphar came home, she accused Joseph of rape. Enraged, Potiphar cast the innocent Joseph into prison.

Joseph had every reason to commit fornication. His own family had rejected him because he believed the visions that God sent him. From that, he could have easily concluded that God had forsaken him. He was, by now, at the height of his sexual prime. He was living far from home where his parents could never discover what he had done. Henotheism, the doctrine of a god in each place, was common through out the ancient world. He could have reasoned that he was far enough away from home to escape Jehovah’s watchful eye. Jonah’s attempt to escape from God in a boat is a good example of that mentality (Jonah 1:3). Furthermore, he knew that Potiphar’s wife would cause him trouble if he did not obey her. Nevertheless, Joseph stood his ground.

He refused to commit adultery for two reasons. First, he appreciated the trust that Potiphar had in him. Potiphar had made him the chief servant and enjoyed relative ease. He could not betray his earthly lord. Second, Joseph understood that to commit adultery would be an abomination in God’s sight. (Gen. 39:8-9) He could not betray his heavenly Lord. From where did this devotion come? Proverbs 22:6 says, “Train up a child in the way he should go, Even when he is old he will not depart from it.” Joseph must have learned godliness from his parents. His answer is a tribute to Jacob’s teaching.

Pausing here to examine the authorship of the text is important. Joseph’s story begins in chapter 37, but chapter 38 tells an unrelated narrative. Chapter 39 picks up where chapter 37 leaves off. Liberal scholars, who contend that Moses was not the author of the Pentateuch, claim that this is a “textual insertion.”

However, scrutiny reveals that this is not so. Chapter 37 shows the separation of Joseph from his brothers. Chapter 38 tells the story of Judah and his three sons in Canaan. (Two of his sons were so wicked that the Lord killed them. Judah, him-self, had sex with a woman whom he believed to be a temple prostitute but who was really his daughter-in-law. Indeed, Genesis 38 does not record a sparkling moment in Jewish history.) Chapter 39 tells the story of Joseph and his life in Egypt.

Moses wrote Genesis 38 to show the contrast between Judah and Joseph. On the one hand, Moses portrays Judah living in his native land. He is free, wealthy, and married. In Genesis 39, Moses describes Joseph living alone with neither mate nor friend in exile. He is a slave tempted by a powerful woman. Yet Joseph displays faithful virtuous living while Judah commits sin. The message of the two chapters is clear. Wealth and surroundings do not determine righteousness. It is possible for us to sin even when we are among others of like holy faith. It is also possible for us to remain faithful in the face of overwhelming odds. Faithful living is a worthwhile endeavor even when it involves great personal loss. These are particularly appropriate lessons for Moses to give to his people at this time.

Though Potiphar cast Joseph into prison, he remained faithful. The Lord blessed him by giving him favor in the sight of the jailer. While in prison, he interpreted dreams for Pharaoh’s butler and baker. His interpretation came to pass. So when Pharaoh told the butler about his dream, the butler remembered Joseph and recommended that he tell the dream to him. Because Joseph understood Pharaoh’s dream, Pharaoh made Joseph his second in command. Joseph’s wise counsel enabled both the Egyptians and his own people to survive a horrible drought.

There is a sense in which Joseph’s story parallels the life of faithful men in every age  including our own. Joseph’s story is about prospering in exile. He wrestled with the conflict between assimilation into the immoral, cultural norms of the society around him and the ostracism that comes from standing apart as a servant of God.

This is the very same struggle that you and I face every day as we struggle to survive and prosper in a world that is not our own. There is a sense in which all spiritually minded Christians are living in exile because we are living far away from our home in heaven. Rightfully do we sing, “This world is not my home, I’m just a passing through, my treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue.” Jesus said that we are in the world but not of the world (John 17:15-16). We have to balance our energies between being successful in this life and being prepared for the next.

Unlike most, Joseph found the balance between being in and being of the world. His faith in God was strong and he was able to forget his troubles and be fruitful in God’s service and the service of his fellow men. Hence he named his firstborn Manasseh (causing to forget) and his second-born Ephraim (I shall be doubly fruitful).

May God bless you and give you the courage to stand for what is right in the face of persecution and the faith to forget your troubles and live for God each day. May you have the strength of Joseph.

Guardian of Truth XLI: 7 p. 14-15
April 3, 1997