Twists and Turns

For the week of December 24, 2016 / 24 Kislev 5777

Stelvio Pass

Va-Yeshev
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 37:1-40:23
Haftarah: Amos 2:6-3:8

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 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. (Bereshit/Genesis 39:23)

The story of Joseph is full of twists and turns. Father’s favorite, dreams of supposed grandeur, facing murderous hatred from his brothers, sold into slavery instead of being killed, father Jacob deceived by brothers as to Joseph’s fate (not sure if Jacob ever believed them), greatly respected and trusted by master, remains faithful to God in the face of master’s wife’s seduction, framed by master’s wife resulting in imprisonment, put in charge of prisoners, accurately interprets two prisoners’ dreams, later interprets Pharaoh’s dreams resulting in release and being made second-in-command over Egypt, brothers come to buy food from Joseph due to predicted famine, eventually reconciles with his brothers and settles his whole clan in Egypt, remains free from bitterness throughout.

There is one twist in the story that is easy to miss, however. It has to do with Potiphar, Joseph’s Egyptian master, the husband of the seductress. It strikes me as strange that Joseph wasn’t executed for his alleged crime. It is doubtful that the ancient Egyptian legal system would limit the penalty for attempted rape by a slave, to imprisonment. When Potiphar heard the accusation against Joseph, we read “his anger was kindled” (39:19). But why? And with whom was he angry? We reasonably assume that he was angry at Joseph for attempted rape, but if his anger was directed at Joseph, then, as I mentioned, one would think he would have been executed, which he wasn’t. Besides that, it doesn’t seem to be too long that we find Joseph having favor with the keeper of the prison, who put him in charge of the other prisoners (39:21-23). But who was the keeper of the prison? Later on in the story when we are introduced to fellow prisoners (Pharaoh’s baker and cupbearer) whose dreams eventually lead to Joseph’s being made known to Pharaoh, we are told that the prison was in the house of the captain of the guard and it was the captain of the guard who put Joseph in charge (40:3-4). And the captain of the guard is no other than Potiphar (37:36; 39:1)!

Perhaps Potiphar had mercy on Joseph because he thought so highly of him. That certainly had been the case, but why would he continue to have such high regard for a slave who so abused his master’s trust by doing one of the two things expressly forbidden to him (39:6, 9)? We cannot say absolutely for sure, because the Scripture doesn’t spell it out for us, but I propose that Potiphar knew his wife well enough to know that Joseph was indeed innocent.

But if that’s the case, then why did he not let him off the hook? There’s no way Potiphar could take sides against his wife and especially not on behalf of a slave. So, the best he could come up with was imprisonment in his own dungeon, while giving Joseph as much freedom and responsibility in that horrible environment as he could.

If anyone understood that life isn’t fair, it was Joseph. He didn’t do anything to suffer yet again – this time due to the dysfunctions of his master’s family. But it could have been worse had he been executed—not only worse for him (though he may have wished for death on more than one occasion)—but for his family of origin whom he would one day save, not to mention that the Plan of God for the entire world was riding on his prophesied destiny.

You might wonder if it was really necessary for Joseph’s life to take all these twists and turns. Could not God have preserved the fledgling nation of Israel without all this intrigue and suffering? Did Jacob’s family really have to move to Egypt? If so, was there no other way to get them there? Did Joseph have to endure hateful jealousy, slavery, wrongful accusation, and confinement in a dungeon? Was there no other way to install him as Prime Minister in Egypt? The more I look at it, I don’t think so. Each and every twist and turn appears to contribute something essential to the outcome. I am not saying that every single thing that happened to Joseph absolutely had to happen in exactly that way. But certainly, every difficult, confusing, painful, and unjust situation and circumstance was not wasted.

It’s the same for you and me. Life can be really crazy at times. Disappointing. Frustrating. Discouraging. But God knows what he is doing. And however he does it, whether by orchestrating each and every plot twist or walking with us around every turn, he has promised his children that he would be with us (see Matthew 28:20) and work everything out for our good (Romans 8:28). He knows what he is doing!

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible

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2 thoughts on “Twists and Turns

  1. Hi Alan: I always enjoy your Torah Bytes and look forward to receiving them each week–I am not sure if there is one this week, as I have not received it yet. Anyway, to comment on a portion of your Byte, so to speak, I thought Joseph was imprisoned for 13 years before he was brought before Pharaoh(thrown into cistern at 17, brought before Pharaoh at 30)and I would consider that a long time and Joseph, as well, I expect, rather than a short time as you intimated–however, in a biblical account, it could be regarded as a short time since they seemed to pass so many generations so quickly–the families grew so quickly. What do you think? Blessings. Richard

  2. Richard, I agree Joseph was imprisoned for a long time. I didn’t think I implied otherwise. – Alan

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