- Rev. Sarina Odden Meyer
God with Us: Joseph in Potiphar's House
We are in the third week of our sermon series about God with Us. We are following the narrative lectionary this fall, giving us a chance to go through the Old Testament in order and to learn how God is with us through these stories. Today, the lectionary reading reminds us that the Old Testament is rated R. And this story also sounds very similar to many, many accounts of sexual misconduct and violence that we are constantly hearing about in the news. You might say, “Wait, no. This one is different because a man is the victim.” But actually, the ethics and morals of sexual misconduct and violence are the same regardless of the genders of the people involved. I want to do two things today. One is to explain how this story relates to issues of sexual misconduct and violence coming up in our society today. The second is to answer the question, “Where is God in all of this?” What do we learn about God being with us?
As I said, the ethics and morals of sexual misconduct and violence are the same regardless of the genders of the people involved. This story from Genesis has a man as the victim and a woman as the perpetrator. Most of the situations that we hear about in the news are about women who are the victims and men who are the perpetrators. And there are many other situations as well. But there are also situations just like this one about Joseph. What we learn in this story in Genesis is applicable to any situation of sexual misconduct or violence. So let’s see what we can learn.
This story focuses on Joseph, the victim. How is Joseph described? First of all, we learn in verse 1, that he is a slave. He has no power. In verse 2, we learn that God is with him (and we will come back to this later). We also learn that he is “a successful man.” And then at the end of verse 6, we learn that Joseph was handsome and good-looking. So, he is powerless as a slave, he is successful, and he is beautiful. That’s all very attractive. We also learn one more thing about Joseph. He was blameless, and powerless to stop what happened. The text is clear that Joseph is not at fault for what happens between him and Potiphar’s wife.
This is really helpful for us to know when we think about the situations of sexual misconduct and violence that keep coming up in the news. Our culture has a tendency to always want to ask what the victim must have done to deserve it, or how the victim must have provoked their attacker, or what the victim should have done differently to prevent it. But here, Joseph is gorgeous AND blameless and powerless. He did not cause Potiphar’s wife to behave the way that she did and he was powerless to stop it: he was the slave and she was one of the masters.
What exactly did Potiphar’s wife do? First, in verse 7, we see that she had feelings for Joseph, it says that she “cast her eyes on” him. She let’s these feelings take over and cause her to want to commit adultery, and then to act on it.
This all starts, in verse 7, when she does not even ask for Joseph’s consent. She commands him to lie with her, which means to have sex, because he is her slave. And in the ancient world that was one of the things that slaves were expected to do: provide sex whenever their masters wanted it. Even though this was the norm in his field of work, he says no. (Many people in similar situations don’t feel that they can say no even if they want to.) But Potiphar’s wife does not take no for an answer.
In verse 10, we see that she spoke to him about this “day after day.” That is sexual harassment. Joseph was dutifully going to work, and had to endure this harassment from one of his masters “day after day.” Some commentators say, “Joseph could have had it made, by saying yes,” but that is disrespectful of Joseph’s dignity as a human being made in the image of God. It would not have been good in any way, shape, or form, for Joseph to say yes. He knows this, which is why he keeps saying no, as we see in verses 8 & 10. And yet, he cannot escape the harassment.
This escalates in vs. 11, where it says, “One day, however, when Joseph went into the house to do his work…” Again, Joseph was there to work. But this day, Potiphar’s wife sexually assaulted him. Thankfully, she was not successful and Joseph managed to escape. Most victims of sexual assault are not able to escape, regardless of their gender.
The next part is very familiar to us from the situations we are hearing about in the news. In vs. 13, once she realized that she would be found out for what she had done, she publicly lied about what happened. In this case, in vs. 14 and 17, she falsely accused Joseph of rape. Lying about committing sexual misconduct or violence can take many forms. Most of the time, people lie by saying that nothing happened. Both denying that it happened when it did, and falsely accusing someone of doing it are wrong. We will learn in a month what God expects from someone who commits sexual misconduct or violence when we read about David and Bathsheba. God expects us to admit the truth about what happened and to repent. God expects us to take responsibility for what we did. What we learn from this story is that lying about it is wrong no matter what form the lie takes.
The last part of this story that I want to highlight is the result of Potiphar’s wife’s lie. She was the one in power. Joseph was a slave. He had no power. He had no voice. In fact, when she lied to Potiphar about this, Potiphar didn’t even ask Joseph what happened. He just sent Joseph to prison. Joseph, as the victim, ends up getting punished. This is very similar to the problem that we’ve been having in our society, which is that victims of sexual misconduct and violence have traditionally had no voice. When they tried to speak up no one believed them. And in fact, those who spoke up were punished.
It’s like the story of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African American who was lynched for being accused of “offending” a white woman. The people who lynched him were acquitted.
It’s like the story of the young white woman who falsely accused 2 black Sacred Heart University football players of rape. At her conviction, one of the football players said, “I did nothing wrong but everything in my life has been altered because of this.”
It’s like the story of Kristine Blasey Ford who has accused Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault. She has had to flee from her home with her family because of death threats.
It’s like the story of a teenager who the CBC called L. whose rape case was deemed unfounded over twenty years ago. She suffered terribly in the aftermath of her trauma. It’s like the countless number of people, both in the news and not, whose lives have been devastated or taken by situations of sexual misconduct or violence. What’s happening now is that many, many people are saying, “That’s wrong.” It’s not just women; it’s people. People are saying, “This needs to change.” And it is, slowly, but, hopefully surely. L.’s case was reopened and her abuser was convicted. Investigators said that they have learned a lot in the last twenty years about the way that trauma victims talk about their experiences. This was one factor that led to this case being the first to go from unfounded to closed with a conviction.
With humility and patience, courage and steadfastness we can work together to change our culture, our institutions, and our justice system so that they work to protect people from sexual misconduct and violence instead of enabling people to commit sexual misconduct and violence. This is what we are trying to figure out how to do as a society right now. As Christians, we can be on board with that, and should be helping to bring about this positive change.
Now, what do we learn about God being with us from this story? Often, we think that if God is with us that nothing bad will happen to us. God is with Joseph throughout this entire episode in his life. At the beginning of this passage, God is with Joseph when he is sold into slavery and remains with him while he is working in Potiphar’s house. Then at the end, when Joseph is thrown into prison, it says in vs. 21 that God was with Joseph. And yet, during all this time, Joseph had suffered cruelly. What we learn about God being with us is that sometimes we suffer because of other people’s sin. Sometimes bad things happen to good people. It’s not what God wants. God grieves with us when bad things happen.
Often we think that when bad things happen, like what Potiphar’s wife did to Joseph, we think that God will abandon us. That God will want to have nothing to do with us anymore. But that is not true. God stayed with Joseph the whole time, no matter where he went. Joseph had a rough life up to this point. He started as an arrogant teenager whose brothers betrayed him and left him in a pit. Then he was captured and sold into slavery. Then he had this horrible experience in Potiphar’s house. Then he was thrown into prison. It just seemed like things would never get better. But God never left his side. And throughout all of it, God was constantly working to bring redemption into Joseph’s life. If we were to read on for several more chapters we would learn how God brought redemption into Joseph’s life by using his time in prison to enable him to save the whole Ancient world from famine. God doesn’t want us to suffer. God doesn’t make bad things happen to good people. But in this life, sometimes we suffer. In this life, bad things happen to good people. But God doesn’t abandon us to those bad things or to our suffering. God walks with us through it, and helps to bring healing and wholeness and redemption to what otherwise would feel like completely hopeless situations.
What it says about God being with Joseph in verse 21 is this: “The Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love.” This word translated steadfast love is Hesed in Hebrew. It means loyalty, kindness, devotion, steadfast love. At the lowest point in Joseph’s life, when he had been betrayed by everyone, God was right by his side, showing him loyalty, kindness, devotion, and steadfast love.
In the midst of the lowest points in our own lives, God is right by our side. God is there with us, showing us loyalty, kindness, devotion, and steadfast love. Thanks be to God, Amen.