In the last couple of weeks, we have begun an in-depth study into the life of Joseph as recorded in the closing chapters of the book of Genesis. So far we have looked at Genesis chapter 37, where Joseph and his dysfunctional family are introduced to us. There is the doting father, Jacob, the dreaming boy, Joseph, and the hate-filled brothers. The hatred of the brothers comes especially in response to Joseph’s dreams, which are clearly God-sent, and which foretell a time when Joseph will rule over both his brothers and his parents. The brothers want to kill the dreams, and so they make plans to kill the dreamer, Joseph. But, under the guiding hand of God’s providence, Joseph’s life is spared, and he instead is sold into slavery and transported to Egypt. That is chapter 37, and today we pick up the story of Joseph, in Egypt, from chapter 39.
You will notice, there is a chapter missing here, chapter 38. What happens in Genesis 38? And how is it connected to the story of Joseph? Before we get to Joseph in Egypt, let us answer those questions.
In Genesis 38 we have the story of Joseph’s prosperous brother Judah and his adulterous relationship with his daughter-in-law, Tamar, who is a Canaanite. There are two things in chapter 38 that connect it to the story of Joseph.
The first is the contrast between Judah and Joseph. In prosperity, Judah falls into adultery. In poverty and slavery, Joseph is kept from and resists the same sin. There is an important biblical principle and warning here. Psalm 62:10 puts it this way: “If riches increase, set not your heart upon them.” Wealth and prosperity and power are not evil in themselves, but they are dangerous; they open up to us added opportunities for temptation. Think of Solomon and how his wealth and power brought him down. And you do not have to look far in our society to see the same thing playing out among the wealthy and famous. There is a warning here, especially for the wealthy and prosperous. Look out, be on your guard, continue in prayer, ask for wisdom, so that your position, power, and prosperity do not become the occasion for a serious fall into sin. That is Judah in chapter 38.
And then in contrast you have Joseph in chapter 39. We are not going to get to this part of the story in today’s message, but you are familiar with it. Joseph is a young man, a slave, far from home. His life is extremely difficult. Beyond any of our experiences. And yet, when Potiphar’s wife tries to seduce him, he is faithful in temptation. I believe it was through his difficult circumstances that God prepared him for the hour of temptation. His difficult times brought him closer to the Lord, and so he was ready when temptation came.
The second connection to the story of Joseph in chapter 38 is this: the longer Jacob and his family are in Canaan, the more they become like them, and the more absorbed they become into the people of Canaan. God does not want this. He intends to prepare them to be a separate people, a holy nation, set aside to serve Him. And so, Joseph is sent into Egypt as the advance man, to prepare the way for Jacob and his entire family to come, peaceably and intact, into Egypt, where they will be treated as a distinct people, and where they will grow into a great nation. Judah’s sin in chapter 38 threatens the distinctiveness of God’s people, and so they must go to Egypt.
Well, so much for chapter 38. Let us move on to chapter 39, where today we will consider just the first six verses. Here we find Joseph in Egypt. Verse 1 tells us that the Ishmaelite slave traders bring him down to Egypt, and there sell him to an Egyptian named Potiphar. We do not know any details of this transaction, but we can be sure that the Ishmaelites made some money on this deal. As a traveling merchant, you want to buy low and sell high, and the fact that Potiphar was their buyer indicates that they sold high. Potiphar is a man of great importance and wealth in Egypt. His occupation as captain of the guard meant that he had a high position in the Egyptian military, working very close to the Pharaoh. It could be compared to the position of the head of the secret service in our day. This position, as we see later in the chapter, took him away from his home for extended periods of time, probably traveling with the king and directing the king’s personal bodyguards. Also, Potiphar seems to have a large estate, with a number of slaves to take care of his affairs.
Now, rather than bore you with the details of where Joseph is, I want you to think about Joseph’s situation, and imagine yourself in his shoes.
Think of his age. Seventeen-years old. How many parents would let their 17-year-old go off and live away from home? How long would any 17-year-old last before becoming homesick, crying to come home?
Think of his position. Kidnapped, the object of human trafficking, he is now a slave, put to work on menial tasks. Driven, perhaps beaten. And that, after being a favored boy, who rarely left the side of his doting father, and who had a supervisory role in his father’s business.
Think of his isolation. After living in a loud and boisterous family, here he is away from it all, in a strange place, with a strange language. How he must have missed his father and his family. And there was no communication. No letters, no email, no texting, no Facebook.
Think of his separation. He had grown up in a believing home, where his parents had taught him to love the Lord, and where there was a rich oral tradition and frequent worship and sacrifice. And now he is surrounded in Egypt by their false religion. Even Potiphar’s name means Gift from the Sun God.
Then, think of the circumstances that had led him here. The hatred of his brothers, the deep pain that must have caused. He had begged for mercy, but they would not hear. And now, there is a cover-up. Will he ever be remembered, will he ever be set free? How he must have longed to escape and to go home.
It makes me think of young men, maybe underage, going off to war, and then being captured by the enemy and put into a POW camp for years, and never hearing from their parents or loved ones, but instead being beaten and tortured.
This is Joseph’s situation. Maybe you have experienced loneliness, or separation, or demotion, or beating, but I doubt that many, if any, of our listeners today, have experienced what Joseph went through here. But to understand this passage, and indeed this chapter, we need to think of Joseph’s situation.
Verse two tells us that in this situation the Lord was with Joseph. Those are extremely comforting words—for us, too. In these very difficult circumstances, the Lord was with Joseph.
We noticed in chapter 36, where we were introduced to Joseph, that God is never mentioned directly. It is not that He is absent, but in the experiences of Joseph with his brothers, it seems that God is absent. Now we see, in far away Egypt, that God is present with Joseph. Eight times in this chapter God is mentioned, and the name used is His personal, covenant name, Jehovah, or Lord in most English translations. Eight times. And then, in contrast again, He is mentioned by that name only once more in the remaining 11 chapters of Genesis.
That’s remarkable. The Lord, Jehovah, was with Joseph.
That means, first, that the covenant God who had made the promises to Joseph’s father, Jacob, his grandfather, Isaac, and his great grandfather, Abraham, was with Joseph. The covenant promises, the patriarchal promises, the promise of a land, of a nation, of prosperity, of a seed who would be the Savior, this God went with Joseph. What it means is this, that Joseph knew those covenant promises, and believed them, and knew that God would keep them, also for himself. God was fulfilling those promises, through the difficult circumstances of Joseph’s life.
It also means for us that, in the most difficult circumstances of our lives, God never abandons us. He never leaves any of His own people to fend for themselves, He never abandons them to the tyranny of circumstances. No, God is always with us. Jesus’ parting promise, one of the most beautiful promises in the whole of the Word of God, was this, “Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.” Just as God was with Joseph, so His promise is that He will remain with and be the strength of His people in every age and in every difficulty. Joseph was not alone. No, the Lord was with him.
Now, how did Joseph know this? How did he know that God was with him?
Back in Genesis 28, when his father Jacob was hated by his brother, and he headed out on his own to Haran, God appeared to him at Bethel in a dream. You remember the ladder from heaven, with the angels ascending and descending, and God said (Gen. 28:15), “Behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest, and will bring thee again into this land; for I will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of.”
Does Joseph have a vision like that? The answer is, NO. All that Joseph had were the dreams of his own future exaltation, and the story of his father’s dream at Bethel. And all alone in Egypt, believing that God was with him, Joseph experienced the gracious, presence of God.
That experience came to Joseph in this way, that God prospered him in the house of Potiphar and that God brought a blessing to the house of Potiphar through him. In verse 2 we read that he was a prosperous man in the house of his master.
Verse 3 tells us that his master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord made all that he did to prosper in his hand. That’s remarkable. Joseph did not even have to say anything. Potiphar saw the hand of God in and through the life of Joseph.
Verse 4 continues by saying that Joseph found grace in Potiphar’s eyes as he served him. That is, Potiphar liked this man. He could see that Joseph was a diligent and responsible worker. He saw a godliness and faith in Joseph. Joseph did not complain about his wages, he did not try to get the gravy jobs, he was not two-faced with his boss. He simply served him. He had Potiphar’s interests and goals as his own. He was not laboring for himself. And the result was that Potiphar made Joseph the overseer or steward of all that was in his house. He did not have to concern himself with anything now, except to make a choice (v. 6) of what he would eat. All other decisions were left to Joseph.
And, for Joseph’s sake, God blessed the house of Potiphar (v. 5). It came to pass from the time that he had made him overseer in his house, and over all that he had, that the Lord blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake. And the blessing of the Lord was upon all that he had in the house and in the field.
Now we should notice that this verse does not say that God blessed Potiphar, but rather that He blessed his house, for Joseph’s sake. God’s blessing is not in material things, and God’s blessing is not universally distributed to believing and unbelieving homes alike. In fact, Proverbs 3:33 says, “The curse of the Lord is in the house of the wicked.” Here, for Joseph’s sake, that is, because Joseph was there, and for Joseph’s preservation and preparation, God brought His blessing on this home. Joseph was the unique object of God’s grace here. God, as it were, singled him out, and for his sake made it plain that He was with him.
And Joseph himself was prospered by God in a unique way. When God prospered Jacob while he worked for Laban, it was with wealth. But Joseph is not prospered with wealth. All the wealth goes to Potiphar. God prospers Joseph with, not wealth, but wisdom and great skill in management. When Solomon became king, he realized that he would need wisdom, above wealth, to govern so great a nation. That is the gift that God, very obviously, has given here to Joseph. And God uses this to prepare him for his position, later in life, as governor in Egypt.
So God was with him. Yes, Joseph was still a slave. He was still far from home, and from where he wanted to be. But he knew the presence of God, and he knew that his present circumstances were a part of the purpose of God for him. So he faithfully went about his work, not doing it for the praise of men or for personal wealth and gain, but as unto the Lord.
There is one feature of this passage that is easy to overlook. It is this, that Joseph had a secular occupation, and that God had specifically called him to this job.
A word or idea that has largely been forgotten in our Christian vocabulary is the word “vocation.” It means, simply, calling. It refers to this, that whatever your occupation is, God has called you to it. Every believer has a vocation. In our day, the idea of vocation has been replaced with the idea of “Christian service.” Today, instead of teaching a biblical work ethic and godliness in the workplace, churchgoers are being pressured to “do something for the Lord.” Instead of seeing themselves as already called to serve God where they are, they are thinking that they need to do something spectacular with their lives if they are really going to serve God.
I want to say a few things about that, because it fits right here in the story of Joseph. There are three things to take note of here.
First, Joseph had a secular occupation. Initially, he was a servant or slave on an estate. Maybe he worked in the fields or in the stables. Later, he had some domestic duties, maybe sweeping floors and making beds. Then, soon, he was promoted to position of overseer. He was in management, and he took care of the affairs of the estate of the wealthy Potiphar. Each of those positions was a secular job. That is true also of his position, later in life, as ruler in Egypt. Joseph was not a prophet, he was not a priest, and he was not a king and ruler in God’s Israel. In fact, Joseph was far away from having any spiritual influence or recognition with God’s people. His was the most secular of all the occupations you’ll find in the Bible. Through his work, animals got fed, a house got cleaned, Potiphar got rich, and, later, Egypt, a godless nation, was prepared for a famine. These were his vocations. This was what God called him to do.
But, second, I want you to see that Joseph’s secular occupation was important to God and ends up being used by God in ways that Joseph could never have guessed. One of the important themes in the life of Joseph is God’s sovereign providence. And what we see is that God uses Joseph’s position as a slave to serve His purpose for the salvation of His people. Here is God’s man in Egypt, the advance man, sent ahead to prepare the way, and he is working as a slave. Joseph, for the majority of his life, works in the secular arena, but perhaps no one in Genesis is so used by God for the carrying out of His promises and purpose for Israel.
Third, not only was Joseph’s occupation important to God, but God was important to Joseph in this occupation. Joseph is working out of faith, and his faith affects how he does his work. Joseph is not working for personal gain, he does not view his work as a necessary evil that he has to do simply to stay alive, he is not out there to win the evil world for the Lord. No, he is simply exercising his gifts and position to the glory of God, and God is with him. He is living for the Lord in the position God has placed him.
What we have here is a superb example of the biblical work ethic. About 80% of our life is spent in the workforce, and these three things about Joseph’s work are important for us to remember as we do our work.
Any work that we are called to do, so long as it is not immoral or illegal, is a vocation from God. Yet, so often, in Christian circles, the only vocation we recognize is some sort of call to the ministry, and people who serve in some capacity in the church are elevated so much that if you are not serving in the ministry of the church, you are somehow not serving the Lord. That is absolutely wrong and unbiblical. We have vocations in our families, we have vocations in the workplace, we have vocations in society. What is important is not what we do, but rather what God does through us, and that we do our best to His glory.
What is a mother doing in the home? Let us not judge her calling by the world’s standard, but see what God is doing through her. She is providing food for the family, and she is having a massive influence in the lives of her children.
Through farmers God feeds us. Through carpenters God gives us houses. Through policemen and the military, God gives us safety. Through nurses and doctors, God gives us good health. And so on. Just as God was the invisible hand behind Joseph’s work, so He works today through every occupation that He calls us to.
This should charge our everyday lives and our mundane activities with a spiritual significance. It should give us a diligence and desire to do our best for God’s glory. In the New Testament, it is put this way (Col. 3:22-23): “Servants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh; not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but in singleness of heart, fearing God: And whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not unto men.”
May God help us, whatever our calling, to live for Him.
Let us pray.
Father, we give thanks for the work we have been given to do, and we are glad to know that no matter how menial it may seem to us, Thy sovereign hand uses it to serve Thy purposes. Help us, Lord, to be diligent in our work, living before Thy face. Amen.