Genesis 39 Contemporary English Version (CEV)
39 The Ishmaelites took Joseph to Egypt and sold him to Potiphar, the king’s[a] official in charge of the palace guard. 2-3 So Joseph lived in the home of Potiphar, his Egyptian owner.
Soon Potiphar realized that the Lord was helping Joseph to be successful in whatever he did. 4 Potiphar liked Joseph and made him his personal assistant, putting him in charge of his house and all of his property. 5 Because of Joseph, the Lord began to bless Potiphar’s family and fields. 6 Potiphar left everything up to Joseph, and with Joseph there, the only decision he had to make was what he wanted to eat.
Joseph was well-built and handsome, 7 and Potiphar’s wife soon noticed him. She asked him to make love to her, 8 but he refused and said, “My master isn’t worried about anything in his house, because he has placed me in charge of everything he owns. 9 No one in my master’s house is more important than I am. The only thing he hasn’t given me is you, and that’s because you are his wife. I won’t sin against God by doing such a terrible thing as this.” 10 She kept begging Joseph day after day, but he refused to do what she wanted or even to go near her.
11 One day, Joseph went to Potiphar’s house to do his work, and none of the other servants were there. 12 Potiphar’s wife grabbed hold of his coat and said, “Make love to me!” Joseph ran out of the house, leaving her hanging onto his coat.
13 When this happened, 14 she called in her servants and said, “Look! This Hebrew has come just to make fools of us. He tried to rape me, but I screamed for help. 15 And when he heard me scream, he ran out of the house, leaving his coat with me.”
16 Potiphar’s wife kept Joseph’s coat until her husband came home. 17 Then she said, “That Hebrew slave of yours tried to rape me! 18 But when I screamed for help, he left his coat and ran out of the house.”
19 Potiphar became very angry 20 and threw Joseph in the same prison where the king’s prisoners were kept.
While Joseph was in prison, 21 the Lord helped him and was good to him. He even made the jailer like Joseph so much that 22 he put him in charge of the other prisoners and of everything that was done in the jail. 23 The jailer did not worry about anything, because the Lord was with Joseph and made him successful in all that he did.
I belong to a Facebook group of pastors who preach the same scriptures I preach. It’s a great place to discuss how we are going to interpret the text for the coming Sunday.
About a week ago, one of the members was complaining about another pastor who only preached issues like immigration and racism and poverty. He was so happy when that pastor was replaced by someone who preached only the sacrifice and love Christ.
My first reaction was “Guilty as charged.”
My second reaction was “What a great way to protect yourself from the sufferings of others!”
My third reaction was, “What did Jesus do?”
As far as I can tell, Jesus did not just talk about scripture—-which he had memorized since he was a child. He could have. He could have played the part of rabbi, looking only at what was on the scroll in front of him. I think preachers are expected to fulfill a similar role: “Preacher, just read me the word of God. Don’t bring in all this extraneous stuff. I come to church to get away from all the crap on the television.” “Stick to the Bible.”
Jesus stuck to Scripture, but He believed that Scripture was more than an academic pastime. Scripture was only the beginning. Jesus used Scripture in two different situations. One was to show how he was the fulfillment of prophecy. The other was to remind his hearers that God had given commandments that were still applicable.
So how are we supposed to use Scripture? Is it for entertainment? Is it because we “love to tell the story?” Is it for guidance? Is it to hold us accountable? I lean in that direction. Why? Because Jesus put Scripture into action. Jesus summarized the commandments of Scripture in two sentences. Love God. Love your neighbor. Then Jesus went on to put his words into action. He did not stay in the synagogue—-that would have been an easy thing to do. He could have attracted crowds there But Jesus never stayed put. And he never separated himself from the people, except to find time for prayer and conversation with his Father. He hung out with all kinds of people from temple rulers to centurions to lepers. He got his hands dirty, he risked his reputation, he put himself in danger.
If Jesus had arrived in this century, where would we find him? Watching the news? Or in the news? Would he be making news by breaking rules that oppressed the poor and elevated the powerful? Would he be favored by one network over another?
My question is not “What would Jesus do?” My question is this: “What should I do?”
The selection of this Scripture for September 23, 2018 could not be more timely nor could it be more deadly. Is this coincidence? Am I supposed to ignore this coincidence?
Mrs. Potiphar has accused Joseph of rape. Dr. Ford has accused Judge Kavanaugh of attempted rape. What’s the difference? Woman accuses man. Same story. What’s the difference?
The difference is power. Who gets the benefit of the doubt? The one with power.
Potiphar is the king’s official in charge of the palace guard. Joseph is sold to Potiphar, who soon acknowledges and appreciates how God helps Joseph to survive and succeed.
How did Joseph get in this predicament? That is a fascinating story, but briefly, his brothers sold him as a slave and told their father, Jacob, that he’d been killed by a lion. Very possible for a young man walking out to find his brothers in the pastures. Jospeh ends up in Egypt, ends up making, in some rather miraculous ways, a good impression on Potiphar, who gives him a job and keeps promoting him.
Joseph is also very good looking and single. Mrs. Potiphar is possibly bored with Mr. Potiphar, possibly looking for someone more attractive than Mr. Potiphar. Joseph fills the bill. She is obsessed with Joseph. After getting nowhere with Joseph, she, scorned, humiliated, and furious AND powerful sets Joseph up to be arrested and killed. Potiphar has a little mercy on Joseph, because after all, Joseph has been a God- send to him. So he only puts Joseph in prison. Again, God finds ways for Joseph to be restored to Potiphar’s good graces and the story has a happy ending.
But what about current events? God thrived on current events! God influenced current events. God WAS current events: creation! the flood! the birth of a baby to old people! Jesus was current events! Jesus made the news in Galilee and Judea. All media was oral back then. Word of mouth was the printing press of the time. You can bet people were hearing and talking about Jesus. And what was Jesus doing? Eating with sinners! (taxpayers) Being in the same room with a dead person! (Jairus’s daughter!) Touching lepers! (Mark 1)
So. What should I be preaching about? Jesus touching a leper in the first century or about how we can be Jesus in the twenty-first century? What’s in the news today?
I’m focusing on just one item that’s clogged the news this week, and that’s probably because I’m a woman. And yet I sympathize with Joseph. Joseph was wrongly imprisoned. If such a heinous crime were not in the news right now, we could talk about how well God cared for Joseph, how Joseph escaped from this blasphemous charge of assault, how God made sure that Joseph was restored to his rightful position.
On the surface, the story is woman accuses man. But the bigger story here is who has the power. The one with the most power wins. Mrs. Potiphar won. I’m predicting that Judge Kavanaugh will win.
I went to a training a few weeks ago. It was for pastors. The title of the presentation was “Start by Believing.” The purpose of the presentation was to teach us pastors how to respond to someone who comes to us and says, “I’ve been assaulted.” Most pastors don’t have a degree in counseling, nor a specialty in counseling assault victims. Why was the title, “Start by Believing” so important? Because, traditionally, women (96% of assaults are against women, 4% against men) are not believed. They are asked how much they had to drink. They are asked why they were “there,” whether it be a party, a street, or their own homes. They are asked what they were wearing. They are asked what they said. The purpose of each of those questions is to help the investigator figure out why the woman was assaulted. The hidden agenda implies that the assault is the victim’s fault. The even more hidden agenda is “Maybe you are lying.” “Maybe it’s all your fault.” The fallacy of this method of investigation is that it says right from the beginning, “I don’t believe you.” The implication is that “You deserved this,” “It’s your fault.”
If I begin the conversation with “I believe you,” I am giving the victim back some of the power ripped from her (or him.) I am giving the victim credit for her integrity, for her trauma, for her grief, for her shame.
Why do I think you need to know this? Chances are, no one is going to come to you to confess this act of violence. Chances are, you won’t ever have to talk to anyone who has been a victim of assault. But life is strange and people are protective. Chances also are that all of you have been on one side or the other of this situation. And chances are you didn’t know what to say or do. That is the case before the senate judiciary committee right now. Why didn’t Dr. Ford report this when she was 17 years old? Why doesn’t Judge Kavanaugh remember this incident? Who was there for either of them?
Jesus was known for hanging with sinners. But he also hung with the victims of sinners. We are never far from sinning ourselves or being sinned against. Why can I say that? We refer to it every day of our lives when we repeat the Lord’s Prayer. Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Jesus wouldn’t have included it in that prayer if it weren’t a daily concern.
The more I thought about the wrongdoing in this story, the more I wondered if the assault was the real issue. And what do you need to hear from me? Am I focusing on the wrong sin? What is the real issue here? It is lying. It is not assault. Mrs. Potiphar lied. Either Dr. Ford or Judge Kavanaugh is lying.
And the danger, the lie I have fallen prey to is using Scripture for my own purpose. The issue of sexual assault is important to me. The timing of this Scripture and the current events seem made for each other. And yes, Scripture is always timely. There is never a day or situation which does not have a parallel or an example in Scripture to any of the conflicts we face.
But what is the real sin, the real conflict in this sad story? It is lying. And when we lie or are lied to, the situation becomes messy and complicated and causes more pain.
Why do we lie? To protect ourselves, to protect those whom we love, to protect ourselves from our own actions or the actions of others.
So, this sermon is peripatetic; that is, it wanders. But that’s one way we come to understand Scripture, that is how we strengthen our own faith. We wander, we wonder, we ponder the words in our sacred Scripture. We study Scripture not because we are students of ancient texts, but because we are followers of Jesus. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we are constantly forming and reforming our faith.
Who will suffer the consequences of assault? As far as we know, only Joseph suffered, Mrs. Potiphar probably went on to harass another servant. Who will suffer the consequences of an act committed nearly 40 years ago? We know that both parties will suffering. Both parties are professionals with excellent reputations. Yet someone is lying. O, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive!
The happy ending of this passage from Genesis is that God did not desert Joseph. Joseph certainly kept God busy. He made his brothers jealous, he was sold into slavery, he was thrown in jail, and yet, if you read through the rest of Joseph’s story, he lived happily ever after and was even reunited with his dear father and his brothers. Sadly, his mother died giving birth to his younger brother, but that younger brother played a part in reuniting the family.
We keep God busy, too. Fortunately, the Ten Commandments are not presented in scorecard format. They are guides for us, guides to keep us walking in the right direction, guides to show us what to do and what to say and what to think. God never deserted Joseph. God never deserts us. Let that knowledge encourage us all the more to never desert God. Amen.