Lessons in Prison

Genesis 39-40

Alan Lewis
Elon, North Carolina
November 2015

We are studying the life of Joseph, one of my favorite characters in the whole bible.  He is a type of Jesus.  He is one of the best pictures of Jesus in the whole Bible.

There are a lot of similarities between Joseph and Jesus How is Joseph a type of Jesus in these two sections?  He was accused of a crime he did not commit.  Joseph is accused of rape in this chapter.  He is accused of a sex crime.  He suffered unjustly.  He was also tempted by Potiphar’s wife.  Jesus was tempted by the Devil.

Jesus was numbered with the transgressors and so was Joseph.  We see that in this chapter.  Jesus was crucified between two thieves.  Joseph is put in prison with the baker and the butler.  One of the thieves on the cross was saved and one was not. One of the men that were in prison with Joseph lived and one died.

Both predicted what would happen in three days.  After three days, Jesus rose from the dead.  After three days, the butler lived and the baker died.  One of them said, “Lord remember me when you enter your kingdom” and Jesus said, “Today, you will be with me in Paradise”.  Jesus told the butler to remember him but he did not.

Last week, we looked at Genesis 39.  Today, we will finish the chapter and then look at Genesis 40.  There are some phenomenal lessons in these two chapters that every Christian on the planet should study.

They are powerful.  We will learn some things about Joseph that we did not know before in these two sections.  There is a positive role model in this chapter and a negative one.  First, we see the negative role model.

Negative Role Model

The chapter contains one of the most famous seduction scenes in the whole Bible.  Potiphar’s wife tries to seduce her Hebrew slave.  Most of the chapter deals with this seduction.  This is really Joseph’s finest hour.

When did it happen?  Joseph came to Egypt as a slave when he was seventeen.  Most people reading this chapter think it happened when he was teenager.  It didn’t.  Potiphar’s wife didn’t chase Joseph around the house, asking him to go to bed with her, the first time she saw him.

If you work out the chronology, he would have been around twenty-seven when this happened.  Joseph began ruling Egypt when he was thirty (41:46).  Before he began ruling, he was in prison for a little over two years (40:1; 41:1 [cf. Jubilees 39:14; Josephus, Antiquity of the Jews, 2.5.4]).  That means that he was a slave for ten years. This happened right before he was put into prison.

This story breaks some stereotypes that people have.  We think of lust as just a problem for men.  Many think of all men as sex-crazed.  Here it is the woman who has the problem.  In this chapter, it is not the young man but the old lady who cannot control herself.  Why did she do it?  Genesis tells us.

Genesis 39:6 says, “Joseph was handsome in form and appearance“. He was good looking.  Someone called him “the Brad Pitt of the ancient world”.  Several other men in the Bible were called handsome, such as Saul (I Samuel 9:2), David (I Samuel 16:18), and Absalom (II Samuel 14:25).

Joseph must have had some of his mom’s genes.  Rachel was attractive. Genesis 29:11 says she had “a beautiful figure and a lovely face” (NLT).  She looked like a beauty queen and Joseph was good looking as well. The Bible does not say that Potiphar’s wife was attractive but it does say that Joseph was.

Genesis 39:7 says, “and after a while his master’s wife took notice of Joseph and said, “Come to bed with me!” (NIV).  This did not happen right away but AFTER A WHILE, Potiphar’s wife began to notice Joseph’s good looks.  She said literally “lie with me”.

She did not mean “let’s tell a bunch of untruths together”. This is a euphemism.  It is an indirect way of saying something.  Instead of saying someone died, we say that they “passed away”.  Genesis uses a euphemism for sex.  We do the same thing today.  We still use euphemisms for sex.  One website lists four hundred euphemisms we use today.

Most of us do not realize how bad this situation really was.  Not only was Potiphar’s wife married, she was Joseph’s boss.  When she said “lie with me”, this was not a request.  It was a command.  Joseph was the servant and she was his superior.  Potiphar tries to take advantage of a slave who does not have a lot of rights.  She tries to exploit her foreign slave.  It was not only adultery, it was abuse of power.

Mrs. Potiphar becomes a sexual predator. She was older.  This older cougar is tempting young Joseph.  An older wealthy woman takes advantage of a poor younger man.   This was not just temptation, it was harassment.

Potiphar’s wife did this “day by day”.  It was an obsession.  The more he rejected, the more she pursued him.  She would not take no as an answer. Harassment turned into assault.  She grabbed Joseph.  When he runs, she grabs his coat (39:12).  Once again poor Joseph loses one of his coats.

Positive Role Model

Joseph is the role model of character. Joseph had more integrity than some Christians today.  He did not have a Bible.  He didn’t have the OT.  He did not have the NT.  He did not have the Ten Commandments.  He had no commandment that said “Thou shalt not commit adultery”.

Joseph called it “wickedness”. Genesis 39:9 says, “How then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” (KJV)  How did he know this?  He had no Bible?  He did not just call it wickedness, he called it “GREAT wickedness”

He called it “sin AGAINST GOD”.  He did not just sin against Potiphar. He sinned against God.  Joseph had less revelation that we have.  We have sixty-six books of the Bible and he had none and yet he lived on a higher plane than many Christians today.  That is amazing.

Lessons on Temptation

What is the lesson for us in this story?  It is a lesson on temptation.  We learn several things about temptation from this passage.

1) Temptation is individual

We are faced with all sorts of temptation today. Temptation takes many different forms. What you are tempted by may not be a temptation for the person sitting next to you.

People who talk a lot is more likely to sin with their mouth than people who are very shy and quiet.  We are all different and so are our temptations.  Joseph got this temptation because he was so good looking.  If he was ugly looking, Potiphar’s wife would not have come near him.

2) Temptation is unavoidable

Paul said, “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man” (I Corinthians 10:13 NIV).  Everyone will be tempted.  Even Jesus was tempted.  This temptation was sexual in nature.  Joseph did not go after this temptation.  He did not seek it.  He did not want it.  He did not cause it.  It came to him.

3) Temptation is powerful

How would you have responded to this temptation?  Would you do what Joseph did or what most people in his situation would have done?

Most men, especially young men would have had trouble resisting this temptation. Joseph was single.  He had never had sex before.  He may have not even kissed a girl yet.  He had hormones like everyone else.  Judah had to pay for sex with Tamar.  Potiphar’s wife is offering it to him for free. This was temptation was powerful.

4) Temptation is resistible

It may not be easy to resist but temptation can be resisted.  Joseph resisted it. He had to run out of the house to do it.  He did not just reason with Potiphar’s wife, he avoided her company and ran from her.

That is why Paul says in the NT to “flee immorality” (I Corinthians 6:18).  He does not say “refrain from sexual immorality”.  He says “run from it”.  Most people today are running to it.  Let’s think how amazing this response of Joseph was.

  • Joseph said, “No” even though it was something that he wanted to do
  • Joseph said, “No” even when even though he probably could have gotten away with it.  They were alone.  No one would have found out about it.
  • Joseph said, “No”. He said “No” even though he was breaking a direct order.  Joseph was a slave.  He was supposed to do what he was told to do but there was a line he would not cross.  Any time you are told to sin or do something unethical, you should always say “No” and obey God, rather than man.
  • Joseph said “No” even if it meant that he would suffer for it.  He was willing to suffer the consequences.  Mrs. Potiphar was the wife of a high government ranking official.  She was wealthy and powerful.  Her word can send Joseph to prison without any trial.  How many of us would do the right thing if it meant that we would suffer for it?

As we move to Genesis 40, we see Joseph in prison.  In the last chapter, we saw that this was not an ordinary prison.  It was a special prison.  It was called “the king’s prison” (39:20).  It was a royal prison.

It was a privileged prison, an upper class prison.  It is the prison for political prisoners.  Joseph did not meet a child molester and an ax murder there.  He met the baker and the butler. In this chapter, we learn something else about this prison.  It was located in Potiphar’s House (40:2-3).

Joseph’s Inmates

This chapter introduces us to two of Joseph’s cell mates in the king’s prison.  We are told two of the inmates of this prison, the baker and the butler. What do we know about these two men?

1) They both worked for the government

They both had a government jobs.  They worked directly for Pharaoh.  They were two of his most trusted officials.  They were not low-level government officials.  These were senior government members.  They were members of the White House staff.  They were Pharaoh’s CHIEF cupbearer and CHIEF baker (40:2).

2) Both of their jobs had to do with food.

One made the king’s food.  The other made sure that the food made was not poisoned.  One was in charge of food preparation and the other was in charge of security. They were both close to Pharaoh.

One was the cook and the other was the food-tester.  The word “butler” (KJV) is better translated “cupbearer”.  He was the wine-taster, although we know for history that the ancient Egyptians drank more beer than wine.  Wine was scarce. He must have been very close to Pharaoh.  He had a dangerous job.  He took risk all the time.

3) They both were put in prison.

Pharaoh was angry with them for some reason (40:2).  We don’t know why.  Maybe he thought they were trying to poison him, so he threw them into prison. While they were in prison, they met Joseph.

4) They both had strange dreams.

Both of these dreams took place the same night.  They both had to do with their work.  The butler or cupbearer dreamed about a vine that produced grapes that he pressed into Pharaoh’s cup.  The baker dreamed of a basket of baked food for Pharaoh.  It was on the baker’s head and the birds kept eating out of the basket.

These dreams were not like the dreams that we have when we go to sleep.  They were not ordinary dreams that we have at night.  They were not natural dreams but supernatural dreams.  They were divine in origin. They were prophetic dreams.  They predicted future events.

The baker and the butler knew that these dreams were important but they could not make sense out of them and it bothered them.  Joseph knew what these dreams meant and he told them.

We learn something new about Joseph that we did not know before.  He had the ability to interpret dreams.  He interpreted the butler and the baker’s dreams.  The first dream was good news for the butler.  The second dream was bad news for the baker.  Joseph told both.

Joseph was not the type of preacher that just told people positive and uplifting things to people.  He told people the whole counsel of God.  He told people the things people wanted to hear and the things they did not want to hear and what he said came to pass down to the very details.  Here we learn something else about Joseph that we did not know.

Joseph had the gift of prophecy.  In  this chapter, we see Joseph as a prophet.  It is one thing to interpret dreams, it is another thing to predict the future.  Joseph’s prophecy in this chapter came true.  That was the true test of a prophet if what you said actually came to pass.

“On the third day, which was Pharaoh’s birthday (which happens to be the first birthday in the Bible), he made a feast for all his servants and lifted up the head of the chief cupbearer and the head of the chief baker among his servants. He restored the chief cupbearer to his position, and he placed the cup in Pharaoh’s hand. But he hanged the chief baker, AS JOSEPH HAD INTERPRETED TO THEM. Yet the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph, but forgot him” (40:20-22 ESV)

Now, I have read many sermons on Genesis 40.  Some of them are very good.  Some of them are pure foolishness. Many preachers have used this chapter to describe Joseph as a dream maker or a dream keeper or a dream releaser.  That sounds really good.  It is original.  It is very creative but it is not biblical.

Joseph does NOT make any dreams here.  The dreams come from God, not Joseph and he does NOT release the dreams into people’s lives or help them to achieve their dreams.  All he does is to help them understand their dreams.

He interprets them.  He is a dream interpreter, not a dream releaser or dream maker.  The baker’s dream involves a violent death.  It is not positive but negative.  Joseph was not helping him achieve what he wanted in life.

This section does raise an interesting question worth thinking about.  God can speak to people through dreams, even today.  He does that in many Muslim countries.  That is how many of them come to faith but those dreams do not need to be interpreted.

People have dreams of Jesus.  These dreams came from God but needed to be interpreted.  The baker and the butler didn’t know what they meant? Why did they have them? This type of dream is not as common today.

One reason was to get Joseph out of prison.  Joseph’s dreams got him into trouble.  When he told his family his dreams, they said, “Are you going to rule over us?” They mocked him and threw him into a pit but the gift of interpretation is going to get him out of trouble.  He is going to get released from prison because of that gift

There is another reason.  The ancient Egyptians were big on dreams. They believed that everything in your dreams had a meaning and that your dreams could tell the future.  There is a ten dollar word for this.  It is called oneiromancy.

Archaeologists have discovered some ancient Egyptian dream books.  One was discovered in the 1930s in Egypt.  It records one hundred and eight possible dreams that you can have.  It tells is each one is good or bad and what it means.  This Egyptian dream book comes from the same time period that Joseph lived. It is now in the British Museum.

Lessons from Prison

1) You can have a ministry anywhere.

Many think that you can’t have a ministry unless you are in the spotlight but we learn in this chapter that you can have a ministry anywhere.  Joseph had a prison ministry in prison.  It was a ministry of dream interpretation.  He was doing something that no one else could do.  No one else had his gift.  You can have a ministry in the worst of circumstances.

2) Be humble about the gifts God has given you

Joseph had an unusual gift.  He had a gift that no one else has.  He could not only interpret dreams, he could predict the future but he does not brag or boast about it.  He is not arrogant but humble.  He gives God the credit.

He says, “Do not interpretations belong to God?” (40:8).  He does not say, “Don’t you know that interpretations belong to me.  I am the best one on the planet to interpret dreams”.  How many people do we know that are extremely gifted but also extremely humble.  That is pretty rare.

3) Serve God with confidence

The butler and the baker had a need.  They had a dream that they could not interpret.  What did Joseph say to them?  He said “Tell me your dreams” (40:8). Now that is very interesting.  Genesis 40:8 says, “Then Joseph said to them, “Do not interpretations belong to God? Tell me your dreams.”

He did NOT say, “only God can interpret your dreams.  Go ask God what your dream means”. He said “TELL ME YOUR DREAM”.  Joseph acknowledged that the ability to interpret dreams came from God but he also acknowledged that God gave him that gift.

He displayed an unusual confidence.  Joseph not only knew what his spiritual gift was, he had a confidence about it.  He could have said ” I am the wrong one to ask about dreams.  I had a dream before about ruling over others and look at me now.  I am not on the top.  I am on the bottom.”

Instead, we see confidence and we will see next week the same confidence when he stands before Pharaoh.  We should have confidence about what God has called us to do and the abilities he has given us.  We saw this in King David when he went against Goliath (cf. I Samuel 17:33-37).

4) Be sensitive to the needs of others.

Joseph had a lot of bad things happen to him but he does not appear to be angry or bitter. He is not depressed. He is not down on himself.  He does not seem to hold a grudge against all of the people who mistreated him.  He is not self-absorbed. He does not just focus on his own problems.

When Joseph came to them the next morning, he saw that they were dejected. So he asked Pharaoh’s officials who were in custody with him in his master’s house, “Why do you look so sad today?” (40:6-7 NIV).

He notices that his fellow prisoners were upset about something. He did not only notice it, he was concerned about them.  He asked them what was wrong.  We can learn from Joseph here.  Philippians 2:4 says “look not to your own interests but to the interests of others”.  We often tend to just focus on ourselves, our own needs and our own problems.

5) Don’t rely on people to solve your problems

People will fail you.  You can’t always rely on them. The chapter ends with these words, “The chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph; he forgot him” (40:23). This chapter is not only about dreams, it is about disappointment.   Joseph helped the baker when he needed it and he completely forgotten.  He never repaid him back.

Jeremiah 17:5 says, “This is what the LORD says: ‘Cursed is the one who trusts in man, who draws strength from mere flesh and whose heart turns away from the LORD’” (NIV).  People forgot Joseph but the Lord never did. That is where we will pick up next week.

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