If the story of Joseph ended at the beginning of Genesis 39, we would hear a story about a good man who was blessed with good things because God was with him. After a difficult start, because his father’s doting affection led to treacherous sibling rivalry, Joseph, now, has a nice job in an exotic locale, away from his jealous brothers. He is – we are told – prospering.
Then the story turns. It makes us remember that God is with Joseph in the midst of an epic struggle between good and evil, power and powerlessness is unfolding.
The wife of the man who Joseph work’s for makes what are clearly sexual advances toward Joseph. Potiphar’s wife pursues Joseph until, one day, she grabs him. When he still resists and flees, she turns against him.
Reading through one lens, the story is one of temptation and integrity. The Jewish Midrash has such a reading. It reminds us that Joseph was a man, and portrays him as a sexual being, who was tempted to a dalliance with Potiphar’s wife. Being a man of righteousness, though, Joseph has moral qualms about engaging with another man’s wife. In the Midrash, we are told this was the first and last time that Joseph’s steadfastness deserted him. He was on the point of complying with the wish of his mistress, we are told, when an image of his forebears appears to him, bringing Joseph to his senses. “How could I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” Joseph cries. He resists the temptation and suffers the consequences of false accusations. And God is with him.
Another reading of the text sees the enormous power differential between Joseph and Potiphar’s wife. Joseph is an enslaved man. His life depends on the goodwill of his owner. He is expected to do what is good for his master’s well-being, not his own. Joseph is caught in a predicament entirely common to those in slavery. He must choose between what one person in power tells him to do and what another person in power tells him to do.
This reading is especially potent in this time of uncovering sexual abuse and harassment in its many forms, through generations and even now.
We tend to think of sexual harassment and abuse as men dominating women. That has been a common expression of sexual manipulation in our culture because of the common power differential between men and women. Yet sexual abuse is less about sex than it is about power. Change who has power and the perpetrator and the victim change.
Joseph is an enslaved man, of another race, in a foreign culture, and likely younger than Potiphar’s wife. He has far less power than she. In a textbook case of abuse, submitting or not submitting will both have poor outcomes for the victim. Joseph goes from the confines of slavery to the confines of prison. And God is with him.
The Hebrew scholar Walter Brueggemann offers a different perspective on the chapter. He sees Joseph and his owners as representative of God and empire. Joseph is the righteous way of God. Potiphar and his wife – stand-ins for one another – are the systems of the world that work against God’s goodness for all people. In this reading, when the Potiphar family take advantage of Joseph’s management and agricultural skills – or take advantage of him bodily – it is an example of the powerful seeing themselves as beyond the reach of morality. Those with the position and power, in Brueggemann’s analysis, see themselves as a god, use and manipulate others for their own ends.
In this way, Brueggemann says, Joseph’s story is not unlike the temptations that so many politicians face. They enter into a system – perhaps with the best of intentions – but the empire has its own agenda. The less powerful are turned into slaves or pawns that are rewarded when they increase profit but are expected to fall into line and into unrighteousness. It is the righteous, like Joseph, who speak truth to power and refuse the ways of the empire. “How could I do this terrible thing and sin against God?” asks Joseph. For refusing to be seduced by the empire, he is punished. And God is with him.
Wherever Joseph goes, God is there. When Joseph is the in the bottom of the well his brothers threw him into, God is there. When Joseph is sold into Potiphar’s house, God is there. When Joseph is in prison, God is there. Through good times and bad, God is with Joseph.
Blessing is not about having it all. God blesses us by being with us.
God reveals this in an extravagant way in the gift of Jesus. One of the names of this man born of the same lineage as Jacob is Immanuel – which means God with us. In Jesus, God is with us.
Wherever we go, God is with us. When we face mighty temptations, God is with us. When we are treated unfairly and falsely accused, God is with us. When we have to make a choice between God and the empire, God is with us. When we are enslaved to addictions or relationships, God is with us. When we are at home or at work or in-between, God is with us. When we are imprisoned by difficult situations or chronic illness, mired in grief, God is with us. God is God is with us, blessing us to be a blessing.
The rest of the story of Joseph is that he is freed from prison and through his work manages to save the people of Egypt and his own family, who are the forebears of Jesus. Joseph tells the brothers who sold him into slavery: “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as God is doing today.”
All of us, who follow Jesus, are blessed by God. We are blessed in the good days and the bad. Today, God is here working through us, for the good of all. God is always with us.