Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, my lord my God and Redeemer.
There was a point, early in the years when I came back to church after a time away, when I had a sense that okay, now I’m Christian, it’s plain sailing from now on, life will be much simpler, there will be fewer trials and tribulations because God is with me. We’re becoming good pals now so it’ll all be fine.
Turns out, only some of that was true,
And only some of that is true for Joseph. We’re now in the fourth week of our series on his journey and life, so if this was the musical, it would nearly be time for the interval and a chance to stretch your legs, hoping you hadn’t lost the ticket for the drinks you ordered before the show…
Last week we heard how Joseph found favour with the Pharoah and saved the people of Egypt from famine by interpreting Pharoah’s dreams. This week we take a step back to the moment before this.
In today’s reading, Joseph is still a slave and is sold to Potiphar who is the Captain of Pharoah’s guard. At that time, we are often reminded, Joseph was greatly blessed by God, and he quickly become someone of great responsibility in the household.
He was handsome and charming and had control over everything. This drew the attention of Potiphar’s wife who, we are told, tried to seduce and tempt him.
But Joseph resisted, to the point where after being alone in the house with Potiphar’s wife, he had to leave his shirt behind as he fled.
A shirt which she then used as evidence to accuse Joseph of attacking her, so that he ended up in prison. Once again though, his charm and favour with God put him in a good light with the Jailer who put him in charge of the jail.
So, wherever misfortune occurred, Joseph would usually come out of it smelling of roses, rather than anything else.
After this passage in Genesis, while in prison, Joseph went on to interpret the dreams of some prisoners, including the Pharoah’s butler.
The butler is later released and when the Pharoah has confusing dreams,
the butler remembers Joseph who is summoned from prison to help interpret the Pharaohs dreams, which eventually is what we heard about last week, being able to use our talents as well as we can.
The central theme of our story today though, is the injustice suffered by Joseph from Potiphar’s wife. To be tempted, resisting then being falsely accused and going to prison.
Joseph’s story is certainly full of ups and downs and in the musical, it’s this moment in prison where he sings the song, “Close every door to me.” He is at another low point, wondering what will happen.
Injustice is also at the centre of the story about Jesus we heard in the Gospel today. Joseph’s descendent was sentenced to death by a mob whipped into a frenzy of revenge by the temple leaders.
Pilate would try to release Jesus but gave in to false accusations by people with ulterior motives.
The offence may have been different but the situation for Joseph was similar.
He was falsely accused with no opportunity to present a case, have a fair trial, submit evidence or be judged fairly. He was simply thrown straight into jail as Jesus was simply sentenced to crucifixion.
Now there are some underlying questions for me in the story about Joseph. It is possible that Potiphar’s wife did falsely accuse Joseph. And this is the only story in the Bible where a woman is accused of attempted sexual assault while the reverse does happen a few times in the Old Testament.
And it is true that men get do assaulted by women, it is less common, there is a stigma about it and as ever, it is difficult to prove. So it is important to listen and believe whenever anything seems to be not quite right.
So, knowing this but also, that the Bible was written by men, for temples run by men, from stories recounted by men, and that Joseph, a man, is the main character and the hero of the story, I would be wary to assume this story is completely true.
After all, can we be sure that a woman unnamed in this story, is really someone we can be confident is the only aggressor, that she really has a voice in such a patriarchal world.
Yes, she was the wife of a powerful man, so would have had some influence, and could have felt undermined by Joseph being promoted so quickly.
Interestingly, the same story is also told in the Qur’an where Potiphar’s wife is named as Zuleikha.
Here she is seen as obsessed with Joseph, and the poet Rumi describes this obsession with Joseph as being a symptom and manifestation of the soul's great deep longing for God (for Joseph is fully blessed by God).
For this, he insists, is true of any person's deep love for another.
There are parallels throughout. Joseph lost his coat of many colours when thrown in a pit, here he lost his shirt, thrown into jail.
Zuleikha is one of very few women in the Bible to express desire, the other example being in the book Song of Songs, and by contrast, Joseph is seen as being very passive, unusually for a male protagonist.
Is this a realistic portrayal or a convenient plot device?
In our culture today, issues around consent and safeguarding have become more significant as we now understand that someone being even touched without permission is not acceptable.
Certainly, children in our schools learn about this very early now, so that things like hugging, tickling or anything else need to be done in an open environment of consent.
Clearly, as the account is recorded, Joseph did not consent to be propositioned by Potiphar’s wife.
It is possible that she has been unfairly portrayed in this account and through history, we can’t really be sure. She was believed by her husband which is a comfort, but the outcome of Joseph simply being thrown in jail was clearly unjust.
It’s interesting to note that time after time through the Bible and through history, people who were blessed, who were called or born to be a king, prophet or messiah, very rarely had an easy time of it.
So often they would be arrested, stoned, crucified, exiled and so many other things, that one would question whether being blessed or called by God was such a good thing.
Yet, the outcome, in the end, for every story would be one of redemption, resurrection or restoration.
The people would be saved from the flood, the people would be saved from famine in Egypt, the people would be saved from slavery being led by Moses through the wilderness. The whole of humanity would be saved through Jesus Christ being born, living, dying on the cross and being born again.
None of these events, none of these journeys or lives were easy. None of these prophets, leaders or kings, except Jesus, were truly good, many had flaws, committed sins, broke laws and had to be redeemed.
It has always been through the suffering, the trials of life that we form the resilience to run the race before us. I do wish I could say that being a follower of Christ makes life easier, but we face the same challenges as everyone else.
The difference is that we are not alone in our struggles. We are never abandoned or forsaken, God is with us now. We are held, consoled and blessed as Joseph was in prison.
He must have felt that his mission to do God’s work was being hampered at every turn.
That he may not be able to do what needed to be done. But his faith and trust held him fast.
And this is what I hold onto when life is difficult, when I confront a situation which seems like it is too much. When I thought being a follower of Jesus would make things easier, knowing that God remains with me, always, through faith is a reassurance and a comfort, as it was for Joseph and as it is for us all today.
That however difficult things get, God is with us all, always, to guide us and just be there for us.