Chapter 39 of Genesis comes to us in three parts. The middle part, verses 7-20, tell us of a concrete incident in the life of Joseph. Here we find a slice of life – here we can see the content of life for a Hebrew slave, at least for that particular moment in time. Verses 1-6 and 21-23 introduce and conclude our story, and contain the theological statements and the affirmations of faith which illuminate and frame the events of Joseph, Potiphar, and Potiphar’s wife.
We are first told that Joseph was taken to Egypt and sold as a slave to an Egyptian official named Potiphar. But we also discover that an invisible force – a hidden agenda – was at work. God was with Joseph so that Joseph prospered and gradually was put in charge of everything Potiphar owned. And so we are introduced to the context of Joseph’s life. God was with him. Joseph lived out of a faith and trust in God. The invisible plans of heaven and the dreams of the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob now focused on this one slave. Joseph became the dream-bearer for God. But the question is, how does the dream-bearer fare or even survive in the alien empire of Egypt?
For much of the Hebrew Scriptures, Egypt is a powerful symbol of evil and decadence. Egypt represents power without conscience, greed without limits, promises without integrity, and religion without compassion. Our passage is the first of three stories which tell of Joseph the dream-bearer surviving in the evil empire of Egypt.
It tells how he was misread by Potiphar’s wife who failed in her attempts to seduce Joseph in spite of her desperate determination and the obvious advantages Joseph could have enjoyed had he played the game. Our story tells how from all visible appearances her duplicity and lies triumphed over his honesty and integrity–how her wealth and might in an evil empire can overrule truth and justice. It tells with naked honesty how the real world operates and how difficult, costly, painful, and anxious the content of life can be, especially for the disenfranchised who want to be faithful to God.
The tale, as far as Potiphar’s wife is concerned, begins when Joseph came to her household, and it ended when he was carted off to prison, only to be replaced by another slave boy who would perhaps understand the expediency of playing by the rules of the Empire.
The chapter ends with Joseph in prison and with the repeated faith affirmation that God was with him. And perhaps we would understand if Joseph, like Tevye of “Fiddler on the Roof,” asked God to go and be with someone else for a change. But time passes, and Joseph, the dream bearer of God, survives and even flourishes in prison so that in time Joseph the prisoner runs the prison and, with a renewal of hope, this part of the Joseph story ends.
Walter Brueggemann in his marvelous commentary on Genesis in the Interpretation series says that this chapter is “a story that struggles with the contact of real life with real faith. It makes affirmation about both, convinced that they belong together.” Within this account, we have wisely stated the context and the content of life. The context of Joseph’s life was God’s plan for him and his relationship of trust in and obedience to God. The content was the real world represented concretely by a self centered woman as an extension of an evil empire. And Joseph had to live in that empire – in that real world – and likewise he had to live within the context of his life, a context given by God.
There are some people who try to live only in the context of life. They embrace the theological affirmation that God is with us, that God can be trusted, and that everything will work out. These people, if they were reading Gen. 39, would never get past v. 6. Such people want to “sit on their blessed assurances” as they let the world go by without ever letting themselves experience life’s fullness, challenges, and opportunities. Yes, we can trust that the ultimate context of life rests in the hands of a faithful and loving God. But such trust does not exempt us from the eventualities of the real world. God calls us to live faithfully and lovingly in that world, and everyone who tries to do so must struggle with the ambiguities and injustices of life as well as its challenges and opportunities. From a Christian perspective Jesus calls us to follow him into our world, but to see it with God’s eyes, to hear it with God’s ears, and to love it with God’s heart. If we walk that path we will face difficulties, doubts, struggles, and pain. But we will also participate in the very way and life of God who is absolutely committed to our growth and joy and the world’s healing and redemption.
It’s strange, isn’t it, that we tend to make saints out of people who ignore the content of life. Historically, the church has condemned people for the sin of over-living (going beyond limits and boundaries). But we make saints of those who commit the sin of underliving. And underliving may in fact be the graver sin because those who underlive squander the greatest gift of God–the gift of life and the opportunity to live and to make a real difference in a real world.
But what about the other extreme symbolized by Potiphar’s wife? What about those who live the content of their lives without any awareness of the context–without any understanding that they belong to God and are meant to funnel into the content of their lives meaning that can only come from communion with God? There are legions of people just like Potiphar’s wife -those who squander their lives without purpose or without honorable purpose–who play the games of life by rules alien to the will and character of God and alien to the health and salvation of their souls and their world – who, for a lack of a better word, are lost, adrift, wrongheaded, and empty-hearted.
But surely we are not like this. We care about God and God’s will. The fact that we are here in church, worshiping, indicates that we appreciate the context of life which is the grounding we have in God. And likewise, it’s doubtful that any of us have gone the other extreme of being so narrowly defined by the context of life that we fail to live the content. We all live in the real world, at least in our part of it. We all experience the paradoxes, struggles, questions, and realities that come from trying to live in the world. So, you might ask, “What’s the point of this sermon, anyway?”
While it is true that none of us live totally within the context or in the content of life, the real question is this: Do we know how to live the content of life while simultaneously living out of the context of life? Are we able to really live the days that are ours, AND at the same time live out of an awareness of God’s purpose for and presence in our lives? It is the simultaneous experience of both that is the issue.
I believe our usual pattern is to compartmentalize our lives – this for God – this for me – this for family – this for work – this for country – this for friends – this for church.
So that when we worship, we are aware of the context of our lives–the call of God and the ultimate meaning behind why we are here on earth. But when we go home, when we go to work, when we deal with our neighbors, when we make business, political, or social decisions, we perhaps too easily forget that context. Rather than the simultaneous experience of the context and the content of life, we alternate between the two. And perhaps we even occasionally have both at the same time – when life is lived in the real world out of the context of God’s purpose. But is this our usual, customary pattern? Have we really found the healthy, intended balance between really being in the world without being ultimately of the world?
So how can we do it? On the surface Genesis does not seem to tell us how. Instead, it simply tells the story of a man named Joseph who with difficulty found the delicate balance which is both true to life AND true to God. There doesn’t seem to be any blue print or “how to” manual in these chapters–no real advice until we realize the ingredient Joseph had to add to the formula of his life. In short, he had to want that balance. Perhaps above all else he had to want to live in the world in concrete ways but at the same time in ways which defined him according to God’s character and agenda.
Perhaps the first step for us toward striking that balance between the context and the content of life is to answer the question, “How much do we want it?” How much do we want to live–really live in our world making the most of the opportunities given to us, and how much do we want to live– really live out of the purpose of God, and how much do we want to combine these in ways which will make a difference for our world and for God?
It’s not easy to find the balance. It’s like walking a tight rope. And in walking a tight rope you also have to really want to do it if you are to succeed in achieving the balance that will keep you on the narrow course which leads to authentic and abundant life.
More and more I sense the question facing me and perhaps you is not, “How we can achieve this balance?” The primary question is, “How much to we want it?” For you see, the bottom line in biblical religion is this: the intensity of our desire will determine the outcome of our lives.
Communion: The words of institution for the Lord’s Supper given by the Apostle Paul begin with the content and the context of Jesus’ life. “The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you.’”
“On the night he was betrayed” reminds us of the content of that life. He was betrayed, denied, abandoned, beaten, wrongly accused and sentenced, scourged and crucified. The evil empire of Egypt has simply been replaced by the cold pragmatism of Rome and those Jewish aristocrats who controlled the Temple.
But then there is the context – Bread and Wine, symbols of God’s love for a broken and twisted humanity – symbols of how much and how deep God’s love is for us. And there is the thanksgiving: “And when he had given thanks.” How could Jesus give thanks for bread and wine when the night would only get darker with humanity’s evil and his suffering? Thanksgiving is possible, even in the most horrible of circumstances, when we know there is an ultimate context for our faithful living. At this Table we find the content and the context of Jesus’ life life given in love so that we might be made whole.
Commission: As we leave this Altar, representing the context of our lives, we journey into a world eager to provide the content of our lives. If we are to be faithful to the life celebrated and shared at this Table, we must live our days out of an awareness of the presence and purpose of God. We must combine the content with the context of our living. Only then can God become present in our world through us. Only then can God and God’s will move from the heart of the eternal into the flesh of time and space. May we nurture the deep desire and the delicate balance of living fully and faithfully to the glory of God and for our and the world’s healing.