“Suffering for Doing Right”
Genesis 39:16-23 & 40:1-15
Have you ever been falsely accused of something? How did you feel? I read about a guy called John who was driving home late one night when he picked up a hitchhiker. As they were driving along, John began to be suspicious of the guy he had just picked up. He wondered to himself, “Is he trying to steal my wallet?” As he was driving John felt to see if his wallet was in the pocket of his coat that was on the seat between him and the hitchhiker. It wasn't there! He slammed on the brakes and ordered the hitchhiker out. He said, “Give me back my wallet immediately!” The frightened hitchhiker denied he has his wallet but hurriedly gave him a $10 note instead. John drove off and when he arrived home, he started to tell his wife about what had happened. His wife interrupted him, saying, “O, before I forget, John, do you know that you left your wallet at home this morning?” Yes, that poor hitchhiker had been falsely accused.
Joseph was falsely accused and he didn’t simply come out $10 poorer. He lost his job and his good name and was thrown into prison. Joseph was falsely accused of trying to rape the wife of his boss, Potiphar. Of course the truth was he had done nothing wrong. He had refused the repeated attempts of Potiphar’s wife to get him to have sex with her, yet when she almost forced herself on him and he ran away she accused him of attempted rape!
Let us take a closer look at this woman. We read from verse 13, “When she saw that he had left his cloak in her hand and had run out of the house, 14 she called her household servants. ‘Look,’ she said to them, ‘this Hebrew has been brought to us to make sport of us! He came in here to sleep with me, but I screamed. 15 When he heard me scream for help, he left his cloak beside me and ran out of the house.’” Potiphar’s wife may have been a leading woman in Egyptian society – someone with prestige and position. As the wife of a leading official she would have been admired and envied as a successful woman. She may have been dressed in the latest fashions, she may have looked beautiful and sexy, and she certainly was wealthy. She looked good – on the outside. But of course in reality her life was a mess. Her glamorous appearance was no more than a thin cover for her flawed character. Maybe she was like so many of the glamorous & famous women in the world today – beautiful on the outside but empty and hurting on the inside.
She allowed herself to become controlled by lust. She had always, it seems, been able to get anything and anyone she wanted, until she met godly Joseph. Her lust was not able to overcome the purity in this young man’s life. Nothing she did or said would shake his sense of right and wrong. Not only was Potiphar’s wife lustful. She was also a liar. She could look straight into the face of her husband as she accused Joseph. We read in v 16-18: “She kept his cloak beside her until his master came home. Then she told him this story: ‘That Hebrew slave you brought us came to me to make sport of me. But as soon as I screamed for help, he left his cloak beside me and ran out of the house.’” It was a straight lie. She knew such an accusation against Joseph could land him in huge trouble. It could even mean the end of his life but she didn’t care. Such was the evil of this woman. Lies may get us out of trouble for a short while but in the end they cause endless pain & suffering. The Bible tells us, “The Lord detests lying lips” Proverbs 12:22.
Potiphar’s wife was also a clever manipulator. She implied that in fact the whole thing was her husband’s fault. He was the one who bought Joseph as a slave & brought him into their house. Notice in v.19 how she refers to Joseph as Potiphar’s slave. She said, “This is how your slave treated me.” Was she stressing “your slave” in order to blame Potiphar? She was a controlling, manipulating wife. What a dangerous woman! It is the last we hear of her in the story but what she did and said left behind a trail of misery & suffering.
Potiphar was understandably angry. The Bible says “he burned with anger.” This may seem perfectly natural. Any husband would want to protect his wife. To think another man had tried to violate his wife would make any man mad. However Potiphar should have stepped back before making his judgment. He should have checked the facts. Surely he should have considered the incredible record of Joseph – who had worked for him for almost ten years. By this time Joseph was 27. His godly example & outstanding character were well known to Potiphar and all in his household. Sadly, Potiphar either didn’t check out the facts or he chose to ignore them. Maybe it was loss of face for him – the fact his wife was making these accusations. Indirectly it reflected on him too. Did he even suspect his wife was not totally innocent?
Whatever the case, Potiphar allowed his anger & loss of face to cloud his judgment. It is not good to make decisions when we are angry. Anger clouds our judgment. It can even blind us to the truth. In James 1:19 & 20 we read, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for a man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.” We need to remember this as we relate to one another. It affects husbands & wives, parents and children. Whether we are talking about parents and their little kids or teenage kids or talking about grown up children & their elderly parents – remember, anger can cause much heartache. It leads to inappropriate words & unwise decisions. We need to remember this also as we relate to our brothers & sisters in the body of Christ – in the Church family.
Potiphar was extremely angry & unfortunately it prevented him from thinking clearly and acting fairly. In addition, Potiphar “allowed himself to be unduly influenced by his wife.”[i] I must say the stress here is on “unduly influenced”. Every husband is or should be influenced by his wife, and normally greatly to his benefit. I have found it is very important and helpful to listen to my wife and take her suggestions, ideas and feelings seriously. I have a godly & wise wife and would be very foolish not to listen to her. Men, you might be surprised to find your wives are actually sometimes quite sensible. It pays to listen to them. Of course, not all wives are right all the time! A Christian husband must obey God’s Word. If his wife suggests he say or do anything that is not according to God’s Word he should not listen to her. Potiphar’s wife was not a good woman. She certainly did not know Joseph’s God nor seek to follow God’s ways. Potiphar was unduly influenced by her. He was right to take what she said seriously but he should have checked out the facts & should not have been intimidated by her sharp tongue or deceived by her lies.
And so, godly faithful Joseph finds himself falsely accused and thrown into prison. Verse 20 says, “Joseph's master took him and put him in prison, the place where the king's prisoners were confined.” We learn that this was a dungeon. It was not a clean, modern prison with a decent bed, blankets, writing desk & chair, toilet, exercise yard, and a library – as one might find in New Zealand. No, it was dark & dirty with little fresh air and no comfort. Those of you who have visited old castles in the UK or Europe might have visited the dungeons in those castles. They were scary, dark & damp - not the sort of place anyone would like to be. I read a report about prisons in Zimbabwe today. It said, “Zimbabwe's prisoners are suffering untold horrors in Zimbabwe's jails. The State is locking them up in hell-holes, condemning them to slow starvation and possible death from nutrition-related illnesses or the vast array of other diseases they are exposed to through unhygienic conditions.” The report went to say “… Zimbabwe's prisons constitute a unique & especially cruel form of torture that has both physical & psychological impacts on the people affected.” What Joseph faced in prison was probably very much like this and like many in Zimbabwe’s prisons today he was not a criminal and didn’t deserve to be there.
What a price Joseph had paid for his desire to honour God and live a pure & upright life! As a reward for his hard work, his honesty, his loyalty, & his integrity he was given a one-way ticket to the dungeon. He didn’t even have time to pack his stuff. I wonder what was going through Joseph’s mind as the bottom seemed, once again, to fall out of his world. Would he start to complain to God? Would his faith begin to crumble? Would he start to question God’s goodness? Would he start to question the value of living a godly life based on the principles of right and wrong? Would it not have been better to compromise a little and avoid getting into such a mess? Would it not have been more sensible to act according to pragmatic considerations rather than to act according to principle? Was it fair to suffer like this for doing what was right?
Joseph may have been tempted to ask such questions but it seems he chose to hold on to his faith and his integrity – even in the dungeon. Whether he was the manager of a large estate or a prisoner wearing chains in a dungeon, Joseph on the inside was the same guy. He was a man of faith and a man of principle. He was not a believer only when everything seemed to be going well for him. Even when everything seemed to be going horribly wrong Joseph determined to trust God.
There is an old song that goes like this:
“God has not promised skies always blue,
Flower strewn pathways all our lives through;
God has not promised sun without rain,
Joy without sorrow, peace without pain.
But God has promised strength for the day,
Rest for the labour, light for the way,
Grace for the trials, help from above,
Unfailing sympathy, undying love.”
God has not promised we shall not know
Toil and temptation, trouble and woe;
He has not told us we shall not bear
Many a burden, many a care.
God has not promised smooth roads & wide,
Swift, easy travel, needing no guide;
Never a mountain rocky and steep,
Never a river turbid and deep.”
Dear friends, when the bottom seems to fall out of your world, when everything seems to be going wrong – don’t give up. Don’t despair. Don’t question the love and the sovereign grace of God in your life. He has a plan. He will not let you down. He will be with you. Indeed that is what Joseph experienced right there in the dungeon. The Scripture verse goes on to say, “But while Joseph was there in the prison, the LORD was with him; he showed him kindness and granted him favour in the eyes of the prison warden.” (v. 20 & 21) The Lord was with him, right there in the prison.
As a prisoner and also a slave, with no rights and no chance of a fair trial, Joseph might have seen his situation as totally hopeless. Yet even there in that terrible “hole” God began to work on behalf of Joseph. God used an unusual person to show him kindness. It was the prison warden. Prison wardens are not normally chosen for their position because they have good people skills or are nice, kind people. A typical prison warden, I imagine, would be a big muscular man, a rough tough sort of guy - someone you would not want to mess with. A prison warden has power to make life extremely miserable for any prisoner. They are not known for being soft-hearted. Yet God moved upon this prison warden’s heart and made him kind to Joseph. Even in that horrible place God’s love was to shine upon Joseph. God was with him in prison.
There was another godly young man who found himself in prison not because he was a criminal but because he refused to stop preaching the Gospel. And God was with him in prison too and used him to write a book that has been translated into more than 200 languages and has blessed countless numbers of people in many nations. His name was John Bunyan (1628-1688), the author of Pilgrim’s Progress. God had a plan for John Bunyan while he languished in prison, and He had a plan for Joseph too. He has a plan for you as well – no matter what you are going through. Like Joseph, when you are falsely accused or ill-treated, will you trust in the Lord? In many ways Joseph reminds us of our wonderful Saviour for Jesus Himself was falsely accused. On the cross He prayed for those who nailed Him there saying, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34) When we face unfair treatment, when we are falsely accused or criticised, let us learn to be like Joseph. Indeed, let us learn to be like Jesus.