Trusted, Tempted, and Tried
Topic: Sovereignty of God Passage: Genesis 39:1–39:23
“TRUSTED, TEMPTED, AND TRIED”
1 Now Joseph had been brought down to Egypt, and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard, an Egyptian, had bought him from the Ishmaelites who had brought him down there. 2 The LORD was with Joseph, and he became a successful man, and he was in the house of his Egyptian master. 3 His master saw that the LORD caused all that he did to succeed in his hands. 4 So Joseph found favor in his sight and attended him, and he made him overseer of his house and put him in charge of all that he had. 5 From the time that he made him overseer of his house and over all that he had, the LORD blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake; the blessing of the LORD was on all that he had, in house and field. 6 So he left all that he had in Joseph’s charge, and because of him he had no concern about anything but the food he ate.
Now Joseph was handsome in form and appearance. 7 And after a time his master’s wife cast her eyes on Joseph and said, “Lie with me.” 8 But he refused and said to his master’s wife, “Behold, because of me my master has no concern about anything in the house, and he has put everything that he has in my charge. 9 He is not greater in this house than I am, nor has he kept back anything from me except you, because you are his wife. How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” 10 And as she spoke to Joseph day after day, he would not listen to her, to lie beside her or to be with her.
11 But one day, when he went into the house to do his work and none of the men of the house was there in the house, 12 she caught him by his garment, saying, “Lie with me.” But he left his garment in her hand and fled and got out of the house. 13 And as soon as she saw that he had left his garment in her hand and had fled out of the house, 14 she called to the men of her household and said to them, “See, he has brought among us a Hebrew to laugh at us. He came in to me to lie with me, and I cried out with a loud voice. 15 And as soon as he heard that I lifted up my voice and cried out, he left his garment beside me and fled and got out of the house.” 16 Then she laid up his garment by her until his master came home, 17 and she told him the same story, saying, “The Hebrew servant, whom you have brought among us, came in to me to laugh at me. 18 But as soon as I lifted up my voice and cried, he left his garment beside me and fled out of the house.”
19 As soon as his master heard the words that his wife spoke to him, “This is the way your servant treated me,” his anger was kindled. 20 And Joseph’s master took him and put him into the prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were confined, and he was there in prison. 21 But the LORD was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love and gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison. 22 And the keeper of the prison put Joseph in charge of all the prisoners who were in the prison. Whatever was done there, he was the one who did it. 23 The keeper of the prison paid no attention to anything that was in Joseph’s charge, because the LORD was with him. And whatever he did, the LORD made it succeed.
Oscar Wilde was an Irish poet and playwright whose popularity reached its peak near the end of the 19th-century. Sadly, the decadent lifestyle he chose contributed to his premature death at the age of 46. His latter years were described as a quest to discover “spiritual significance.” Remembered for numerous quotes in which the serious issues of life were often coated with sarcastic humor, he once said, “I can resist anything but temptation.”
Temptation is a great test of one’s character, and in the passage that we are about to look at this morning from Genesis 39, Joseph comes off triumphant. This young man, in fact, becomes a living demonstration of the truth that we later find recorded in 1 Corinthians 10:13:“No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”
There are, of course, different sources of temptation. The Bible identifies three “culprits,” which we commonly refer to as “the world, the flesh, and the devil,” and to each the Lord has provided an antidote:
- Temptation that comes from the urge to conform to the world is met by the renewal and transformation of the mind, according to Romans 12:2.
- Temptation that can be traced to the devil is met by firm resistance, according to James 4:7.
- And, as 1 Corinthians 6:18 and 2 Timothy 2:2 adamantly declare, temptation that arises from the lust of the flesh is conquered by flight...by fleeing—getting away—from it as fast as you possibly can.
The Scriptures make it quite clear that temptation is a necessary part of human, and especially Christian, experience. The history of temptation goes all the way back to mankind’s earliest days when our first parents were tempted, sinned, and fell. And here you and I are today, testifying to its reality ever-present reality.
Just as temptation has different sources, so it takes many forms. To mention just a few there is “material temptation,” which is the lust for things. There is also “personal temptation,” which is the lust for fame or recognition. And then there is “sensual temptation,” which is the lust for another person...specifically, another person’s body. In all three of these areas, the common denominator is “to inordinately desire to possess something or someone that we do not have.”
Only days before the end of World War II, the German pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, became a martyr for Christ when he was hung by the Third Reich. Best known for his classic work entitled The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer had also penned a smaller and lesser known treatise on Temptation. It contains the following quote, which I find myself returning to time and again in my battles with temptation and sin. I have shared it with you before, but it bears repeating this morning. Who among us cannot identify with these words?
In our members there is a slumbering inclination towards desire which is both sudden and fierce. With irresistible power desire seizes mastery over the flesh. All at once a secret, smoldering fire is kindled. The flesh burns and is in flames. It makes no difference whether it is sexual desire, or ambition, or vanity, or desire for revenge, or love of fame and power, or greed for money, or, finally, that strange desire for beauty of the world, or nature. Joy in God is in course of being extinguished in us and we seek all our joy in the creature. At this moment God is quite unreal to us, he loses all reality, and only desire for the creature is real; the only reality is the devil. Satan does not here fill us with hatred of God, but with forgetfulness of God. And now his falsehood is added to this proof of strength. The lust thus aroused envelops the mind and will of man in deepest darkness. The powers of clear discrimination and of decision are taken from us. The questions present themselves: “Is it really not permitted to me, yes—expected of me, now, here, in my particular situation, to appease desire?” The tempter puts me in a privileged position as he tried to put the hungry Son of God in a privileged position. I boast of my privilege against God. It is here that everything within me rises up against the Word of God.
I think we should pray before we proceed: “Father, we ask that ‘the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life’ (cf. 1 John 2:16) will not impede the purpose of Your Word from being fulfilled in our lives today. We ask this in the name of the One who came to make us overcomers...Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.”
In Genesis 39 we resume the story of Joseph. This chapter plays out in three very distinct movements. In verses 1 through 6 we find Joseph occupying a trusted position in the house of Potiphar, the Egyptian official. Then in verses 7 through 18, we are told how Joseph was tempted by Potiphar’s wife. And finally in verses 19 through 23, we see Joseph having been cast into prison and yet prospering there.
This part of the story opens with...
Joseph trusted in Potiphar’s house (Genesis 39:1-6).
When we last saw Joseph at the end of chapter 37, he had been sold as a slave by his brothers to a caravan of “Ishmaelites” on their way to Egypt. When the travelers arrived at their destination, they in turn sold him to one who is described as “an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard” (Genesis 37:36).
There are those who understand Potiphar’s role to have been that of “chief executioner,” but the exact meaning of that title is unclear. Does it suggest that it was his role to order the “execution” of those convicted of “high crimes,” or does it mean that Potiphar was the one who was ultimately responsible for “executing” or carrying out Pharaoh’s orders? We simply do not know. What we do know is that he was a trusted court official. The fact that he had servants in his home testifies to his important position.
Potiphar had purchased Joseph as merely a Hebrew slave, but in time—and in the providence of God—Joseph gained favor in his master’s eyes and “he became a successful man.” The “secret of his success” in found in opening words of verse 2: “The LORD was with Joseph.” We find parallel expressions in verse 3: “The LORD caused all that he did he succeed in his hands,” and again in verse 5: “the LORD blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake.”
As we learn from verse 4, “Joseph found favor in (Potiphar’s) sight and attended him, and he made him overseer of his house and put him in charge of all that he had.” And verse 6 adds that Potiphar “left all that he had in Joseph’s charge, and because of him he had no concern about anything but the food he ate.” Literally from “the pit” (cf. Genesis 37:24), Joseph had seemed to ascend to the “pinnacle.”
It appears over time that Joseph became more of a close family member to Potiphar than a slave. What’s more, we are told that “Joseph was handsome in form and appearance.” Interestingly, the last time that was said of anyone in Scripture was of Joseph’s mother, Rachel (cf. Genesis 29:17). In other words, Joseph possessed his mother’s “good looks.” Perhaps every time Jacob had looked at his young son he was reminded of Rachel, “the love of his life,” which would explain why he favored him above his other sons.
Verse 7 suggests that some time had passed since Joseph’s arrival in Potiphar’s house. By now, Joseph had not only “found favor in (Potiphar’s) sight,” but he had caught the eye of “Mrs. Potiphar” as well. Repeatedly, so it would seem, we find...
Joseph tempted by Potiphar’s wife (Genesis 39:7-18).
We would not be able to describe the circumstances any better than how Scripture records them in verses 7 through 10:
“And after a time his master’s wife cast her eyes on Joseph and said, ‘Lie with me.’ But he refused and said to his master’s wife, ‘Behold, because of me my master has no concern about anything in the house, and he has put everything that he has in my charge. He is not greater in this house than I am, nor has he kept back anything from me except you, because you are his wife.’”
Joseph’s statement alone leaves for us a strong moral example in dealing with temptation. But he didn’t stop there. In fact, what he added next explained the motivation for His refusal to commit an immoral act: “How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” Honestly now, what young man thinks first of “God” while being pursued by an all-too-willing seductress? It certainly wasn’t a character-trait he had learned from his family.
One cannot help but recall David’s contrition and confession following his sexual liaison with Bathsheba. Later on, in Psalm 51(:4) he poured out his heart to God, saying, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” If you haven’t already learned the lesson, learn it now and learn it well...all sin is against the holy character of God, and it is to Him that we are ultimately accountable.
Joseph is clearly operating on a higher spiritual plane. His example should challenge us to the core...we who live in an unrivaled age of sexual permissiveness and promiscuity where “anything goes.” It would have been neither easy for him as a young man, nor safe for him as a slave, to resist her. He could have reasoned that it was a small price to pay to keep his job. After all, this was a powerful and influential woman. He might have argued that it could actually be to his advantage to yield to her charms. It might have gotten him up another rung on the vocational ladder. Or he could have just given in to his own lustful feelings and said, “I can’t help myself.”
Such are the reckonings of our sinful human hearts that so often present us with “good reasons” for doing the “wrong things.” But he refused because his desire to remain faithful to God was stronger than his desire to yield to sensual pleasure.
End of story? Not quite. Verse 10 tells us that this married woman offered herself to him “day after day.” And the implication is that her sexual flirtations intensified with the passage of time. How long can a virile young man be expected to refrain from the allurement of a “ready” woman who was willing to give herself over to him with “no questions asked”?
As the tension continued to mount and Potiphar’s wife became more and more persuasive in her attempts to seduce Joseph and lure him into her bedroom, a day came when they found themselves alone in the house. She drew near to him and hastily reached for his clothing. “Lie with me,” she repeated. At first her words were an “invitation,” but now they were said with “insistence.” She tugged on his garment and it fell from him and into her hands. What was Joseph’s response? Four times in this paragraph we are told that he “fled.”
You may be familiar with the line from a late 17th-century British play: “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” One suspects that the writer of that play may have had “Mrs. Potiphar” in mind when he penned those words. We read of her reaction to Joseph’s refusal and subsequent flight this way:
“As soon as she saw that he had left his garment in her hand and had fled out of the house, she called to the men of her household and said to them, ‘See, he (meaning her husband) has brought among us a Hebrew to laugh at us. He came in to me to lie with me, and I cried with a loud voice. And as soon as he heard that I lifted up my voice and cried out, he left his garment beside me and fled and got out of the house.’”
In an immediate attempt to deflect any culpability from herself, she played the role of the “innocent victim,” blamed her husband for bringing “a Hebrew” into their home, and accused Joseph of attempted rape. The word that is translated “laugh” (“sahaq”) has a sexual connotation, with a possible meaning of “fondling.” With her story now in place, she awaited the arrival of her husband at the end of his work-day. When he entered the house, “she told him the same story” and laid the blame squarely at his feet: “the Hebrew slave, whom you have brought in among us...”
This was now the second time in Joseph’s story that we see his clothing being used to bring a false report about him. And both times, he pays a steep price. In the paragraph that follows, we find...
Joseph tried in Pharaoh’s prison (Genesis 39:19-23).
As we proceed with Joseph’s story, we need to keep in mind Joseph’s response when he was first propositioned by Potiphar’s wife. In verse 9, he had adamantly stated, “How...can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?”
So what was Joseph’s “reward” for remaining faithful to God and “fleeing” temptation? Verse 20 says, “And Joseph’s master took him and put him into the prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were confined, and he was there in prison.” That is certainly not what we might have expected.
Verse 19 states that upon hearing his wife’s version of the incident, Potiphar’s “anger was kindled.” But the passage is not clear in revealing the object of his rage. We would naturally assume that his “anger” would have been directed toward Joseph, but that may be a hasty assumption. Are we to imagine that Potiphar had never noticed the subtle ways in which his wife has looked at or smiled in the direction of his “handsome,” young servant? Surely he had not been blind to her flirtatious and seductive manner around the “hired help.” This was likely not the first time something of this sort had happened.
Being cast in prison was bad, but it could have been worse. In fact, it seems on the surface to have been a rather light punishment for being charged with the attempted rape of an Egyptian officer’s wife. A death sentence would seem to have been more appropriate...if the wife’s story had been believable. But Potiphar appears to have had his doubts.
So, why punish Joseph at all? Maybe it was to “save face.” “Mrs. Potiphar” had already blurted out her version of the story for others to hear. It would have caused him much humiliation and embarrassment if word got around that his wife had taken the initiative to pursue another man—least of all, a Hebrew sleave—in order to find sexual fulfillment.
If you think that I may be introducing too much interpretive speculation into this story, then go back to the earlier verses of the chapter. Potiphar had entrusted “all that he had” to Joseph, and in return “the LORD caused all that he did to succeed...the blessing of the LORD was on all that he had, in house and field.” It would appear that Potiphar trusted Joseph more than he trusted his wife.
The concluding verses of this section reveal an interesting symmetry with verses 1 through 6. In both scenes, things begin poorly for Joseph but have a positive outcome. Now here in verse 21 we read—just as we read in verse 2—“the LORD was with Joseph.”
- Just as he had been able to earn the respect and trust of Potiphar, so now “the LORD...showed him steadfast love and gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison.”
- And just as Potiphar had “made him overseer of his house and put him in charge of all that he had,” so now “the keeper of the prison put Joseph in charge of all the prisoners who were in the prison.”
- And just as Potiphar “left all that he had in Joseph’s charge, and...had no concern about anything but the food he ate,” so now “the keeper of the prison paid no attention to anything that was in Joseph’s charge.”
Although Joseph will remain in prison for a “crime” he didn’t commit, this chapter closes on a positive note: “the LORD was with him. And whatever he did, the LORD made it succeed.” Faced with extremely trying circumstances and informed with far less revelation from God than you and I have today, his character remained in tact.
I am reminded of another man who was later unjustly incarcerated. While being detained he wrote, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:11-13).
Temptations and trials are the common experience of man. Being a Christian does no exempt us or immunize us from them. In fact, it sometimes causes them to be more intense. While never easy to endure, they should be thought of as the means by which the Lord is conforming us “to the image of his Son” (cf. Romans 8:29).
There is not one person—including Jesus Himself—who has not faced temptation. In fact, it is only those who have resisted temptation who know its true power. The common experience for most of us—and it occurs far more often that we care to admit—is that we fall before we feel its full weight.
The story of Joseph found within this chapter points us to Jesus, “who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). His bout with Satan in the wilderness (cf. Matthew 4:1-11) was only a sample of the temptations our Savior encountered and endured during His lifetime.
From time to time we may find ourselves thinking, “Why, of course, Jesus didn’t yield. He was God and, therefore, perfect. He could not sin.” But before you go there, let me point out the sheer intensity of the assault, the pressure to give in, the inducements to yield to the devil’s temptations were far greater in Christ’s circumstances than anything you and I will ever experience. If you doubt that for a moment, then consider the temptation put before Him to forego the cross on the eve of His death (cf. Matthew 26:36-46).
Far from meaning a shorter, painless struggle with temptation, Jesus’ testings involved Him in protracted resistance. Precisely because He did not yield as we would have, the devil was forced to deploy all of his wiles and all of his resources. The very fact that Jesus was invincible meant that He endured the full force of temptation’s ferocity, until, in the words of Liam Goligher, “Hell slunk away, defeated, and exhausted.”
Against us, a little temptation suffices. Against Jesus, Satan found himself forced to push himself to his limits...and still fail! In every instance, our Lord overcame temptation and sin on Your behalf. In light of that, isn’t He worthy of your utmost trust?
There are several “takeaways” that can be gleaned from this story. Let me suggest four, hoping that we will be able to recall them the next time we are met with temptation:
- The first is to realize that temptation is often strongest in the midst of prosperity. We tend to think the fertile breeding ground for temptation is adversity, and it often it is. But prosperity can be a more unsuspecting danger, especially when we are tempted to relax our guard and feel as if we are not as susceptible to its attacks.
- Second, temptation is seldom “one and done.” Yesterday’s victories cannot be applied to today’s temptations and trials. We must be vigilant at all times, if for no other reason than because “(our) adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (cf. 1 Peter 5:8). The “overcoming” of one temptation may actually set the stage for an even more difficult time of trial “waiting in the wings.” Therefore, we must be prepared!
- Third, temptation can be neutralized by considering the high “cost of sin.” No sin, no matter how alluring the bait or how pleasing to the palate the initial taste, is worth the price that one pays in welcoming it. The next time you are tempted to minimize that cost, pause to consider the high price that Christ paid for your sins in order that you wouldn’t have to.
- And fourth, temptation can be overcome by trusting and appropriating the promises of God. The Lord has said that He would provide “the way of escape” for every temptation that you face. Do you truly believe that? Through this one story that we have looked at this morning, Joseph has left for us an example. As we move forward in his story over the next few weeks, we will see how even this temptation moved the story-line of God’s sovereign plan toward the fulfillment of His eternal purpose.
Advocates of “Open Theism” want us to believe that God doesn’t know the future in any meaningful sense. “Bad things happen,” so they say, “because God wasn’t aware that they were about to take place. And even if He did, He probably wouldn’t have been able to prevent them.” Like us, so they say, all He can do is “react.” I ask you, what kind of “God” is that?
We are contending, however, that not only does the Lord possess knowledge of all things past, present, and future, He orchestrates and controls them. Rather than reacting to circumstances, God is proactive and shapes them for His purposes. He is the One who has written the script, set the stage, chosen the actors who will play the parts.
That’s what it means to possess absolute sovereignty...
...and absolute sovereignty is what it means to be God.