Joseph and the Suffering of the Righteous

Continuing a plan to get through the entire Bible in a year, follow as I journal through the reading. I have chosen a straightforward approach that begins in Genesis and ends in Revelation. This will not be an in-depth study or a comprehensive commentary. There are plenty of sources for such material. This is stage one Bible reading, taking the text at face value and sharing impressions.

Today’s reading comes from the book of Genesis, chapters 38 through 40, dealing primarily with the trials and blessings of Joseph in Egypt. Some impressions from the text:

  • The account of Onan in Genesis 38 proves awkward. This is one of those passages which, if portrayed in film, would warrant at least an R-rating. There’s a lot more of that in the bible than believers tend to acknowledge.
  • Onan’s punishment for wasting his semen has been cited as a rationale for certain doctrines over the years, from prohibitions on birth control to warnings against masturbation. Sexual sin is real and ought to be an ongoing concern of every believer, but this passage is not speaking to those things. Onan’s sin was that he acted dishonorably, “what he did was wicked in the sight of the Lord.” That was why God put him to death. It was not about birth control as such.
  • The account of Judah and Tamar is another awkward affair. Having first been married to Judah’s son Er, then widowed and treated dishonorably by Onan, Tamar was effectively shut away by Judah and denied the opportunity to conceive an heir. She was to marry Judah’s son Shelah once he was grown, but Judah never allowed it to happen. So Tamar engaged in an odd scheme. She posed as a prostitute with a covered face and got Judah to lay with her. She conceived and later revealed the scheme to Judah when he threatened to have her burned for immorality. This passage doesn’t lend itself to cursory interpretation. There don’t seem to be any good guys here. But then, life is like that, isn’t it?
  • It’s worth noting that Potiphar prospered, not due to his own position or merit but because “the Lord blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake.” This leads us to recall the words of Jesus when he said in Matthew 5:45, “For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” The world tends to think of earthly prosperity as a karmic reward or divine blessing gifted for merit. The bible teaches something different. Good people suffer. Bad people thrive. The reason for either isn’t always apparent.
  • Potiphar’s wife was truly despicable. Her effort to draw Joseph into adultery was not an isolated act of passion, but an ongoing persistent campaign meant to wear him down. We know nothing of her marriage outside this account. But whatever the circumstances, nothing could justify or minimize the gravity of her sin. Joseph, by contrast, did everything he could to avoid her advances, culminating in literally running away. Her scheme to have him punished as the sexual aggressor proves utterly abhorrent, and continues the chain of abuses which Joseph endured.
  • “But the Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love and gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison.” ‘But the Lord’ is a recurring phrase in the biblical narrative, and always marks a transition from bad news to good.
  • “Do not interpretations belong to God?” This is Joseph’s response when he learns that his fellow prisoners, Pharaoh’s chief cupbearer and chief baker, have each had strange dreams which trouble them. They are unable to interpret their dreams because they turn from their source, the God of Joseph. Today, many claim to be able to interpret dreams. The test of their veracity lies in the accuracy of their predictions. God was always right, every time, and explicit in what would happen.
  • We have no insight into what kind of men the cupbearer and baker were. We don’t know what offense they made which landed them in prison beside Joseph. We don’t know whether the cupbearer deserved to be restored to his former position, or whether the baker deserved to be executed. We only know that each man’s fate occurred according to Joseph’s interpretation of their dreams, granted by God. This was a credential, both for Joseph and for God.

Return soon as we continue our year-long journey through the text of the Bible.

(See: Joseph: Portraits through the Ages)

Catch up on the previous entries:

In the Beginning: The Creation, His Rest, Our Fall – Genesis 1-3

An End of All Flesh: Abel’s Murder, Man’s Corruption, and the Great Flood – Genesis 4-7

Noah’s Flood Led to History’s First Post-Apocalyptic Society – Genesis 8-11

Abram Believed: The Pre-Gospel Gospel – Genesis 12-15

Abraham, the Father of Faith, Also Harbored Doubt – Genesis 16-18

Twin Cities of Sin: The Judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah – Genesis 19-21

Was Abraham a Psychotic Child Murderer? – Genesis 22-24

Isaac Follows in His Father’s Footsteps – Genesis 25 and 26

Deception and Fraud, Not of God, But Used for His Purpose – Genesis 27-29

Jacob’s Dysfunctional Polygamous Family – Genesis 30 and 31

Jacob Wrestled with God and Man, and Prevailed – Genesis 32-34

Joseph Betrayed and Sold Into Slavery – Genesis 35-37