Today we move from God’s call to Abram and Sarai down through several generations to a story of one of Abraham’s great-grandsons, Joseph. A LOT has happened in between these two stories, so I’m going to try and hit the high points for you, and not get bogged down in too many details. After a long time and a couple of trips down to Egypt when there were famines in the land of Canaan, as well as Abraham having a son named Ishmael with Sarah’s slave, Hagar, Abraham and Sarah finally have a son named Isaac when Abraham is 100 years old and Sarah is 90. God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac to him and, at the last minute, spares Isaac’s life and has Abraham sacrifice a ram instead. Sarah dies, and Abraham sends his servant back to his home country to find a wife for Isaac. The servant comes back with a woman named Rebekah, who marries Isaac. Abraham dies, and after this, Rebekah has twin sons, named Esau and Jacob. Jacob, the younger of the two, tricks his older brother Esau into giving him his birthright, and then tricks their father Isaac into giving him the blessing instead of Esau. Esau starts making death threats against Jacob, and Jacob hightails it back to the home country, where he meets his mother’s family, Laban and Laban’s daughters, Rachel and Leah. Jacob falls in love with Rachel, but Laban tricks Jacob into marrying Leah first, since she is the older daughter, and then Jacob gets to marry Rachel. Over the years, Jacob has twelve sons and one daughter with Leah, Rachel, and two concubines. Eventually Jacob returns home with his large family, and he is reconciled with his brother Esau.
And now the story narrows in on Joseph. Joseph is the favorite son because his mother was Jacob’s favorite wife, Rachel. Jacob gives Joseph a multi-colored coat, and Joseph starts telling his brothers about dreams that he’s had where he is ruling over them. One day, the brothers have had enough of their snobby little brother who’s too big for his britches. They sell Joseph to a caravan of slave traders who are heading down to Egypt, and then they trick their father Jacob into believing that Joseph has been killed by wild animals. In the meantime, the caravan of slave traders has reached Egypt and has sold Joseph to Pharaoh’s captain of the guard, Potiphar. This is where today’s story begins.
There are a number of reasons why the story that we have heard today is very troubling in our 21st century North American context, but perhaps the primary reason is that it involves a story of sexual harassment and a false accusation of attempted rape. It sounds familiar to our ears today, except for one thing: the person who is in power and who is doing the harassing and the false accusation is a woman, and the person who is the victim is a man. In our society, it tends to be the other way around. Now, let’s add another thought to this: the person who wrote this story down was most likely a man living in a patriarchal society who perhaps wanted to make Joseph look good, since he was the hero of the story. Could there have possibly been some truth to the accusation of attempted rape that Potiphar’s wife makes against Joseph? And could the author have rewritten the story to cover up what really happened and make Joseph into the victim rather than the perpetrator?
Well, those questions on authorship are probably best left to the scholars writing Ph.D. dissertations. I will say that it is okay to regard today’s story with a bit of suspicion, but for lack of proof, we will need to take the story of Joseph’s encounter with Potiphar’s wife at face value and wrestle with it for a blessing, to use a metaphor from one of the stories about Joseph’s father, Jacob. And the first thing I want for us to notice about the story is the power differential. Joseph rose up through the ranks of Potiphar’s slaves relatively quickly until he was the overseer, because, according to the story, God was with him and caused all of his work to prosper. But, even though Joseph was the overseer, he was still a slave. When Potiphar’s wife approached Joseph and commanded him to lie with her, Joseph had a choice: He could say yes and perhaps gain more favor from his master’s wife. But then he would risk Potiphar finding out and probably killing him. Or, Joseph could say no, risking the woman’s anger but preserving his integrity and his life. This is the textbook definition of a no-win scenario. Faced with this no-win situation, Joseph chose to keep his integrity and risk the anger of Potiphar’s wife, and he said no. From then on, he did his utmost to avoid her, but that was going to be hard when he was performing his duties as the overseer. And then, one day, she caught him alone, and the rest was history. This time her proposition must have involved actual touching, for he left his garment in her hands and fled. Now she has the evidence to frame Joseph for attempted rape and get her revenge on him for refusing her.
In this case and in all cases, sexual harassment is not about genuine love or even desire for another person. Rather, it is about one person who is in power over another seeking to exercise that power in unholy ways. And, even though in today’s society, most cases of sexual harassment happen with a man who is in power over a woman, there are some cases, as demonstrated in this story, where it happens with a woman who is in power over a man. And this misuse of power demonstrates itself by the person who has power seeking to use that power in the most sacred space: power over another person’s body, so that the person who is harassed will feel as if they don’t have the freedom to say no and as if they don’t have power over their own lives. This is what sinfulness looks like.
Looking at the general age of people in this congregation, you might think that this is not relevant to you. You might be tired of hearing everything in the news about #MeToo, about the sexual abuse scandal among priests in the Roman Catholic Church, and about the current nominee to the Supreme Court. I admit that I am a bit weary of it all, myself. But even if something like this has never happened to you, I guarantee that it has happened to someone you know. And I’ll briefly tell my story right now. I was the recipient of unwelcome touch by a man in a congregation that I served many years ago. I went to the pastor, trusting that he might speak to this man and tell him that he needed to stop. I found out that mine was not the first report by a woman about unwelcome touch from this man. But the pastor did not do anything about it. So, then I spent Sunday mornings trying to avoid this man, who was actually a prominent member of the congregation. I felt as though he was more important to the pastor than I was. And I did feel like my personal, sacred space, had been violated. And so, I will tell you now, that if any of you comes to me with a report of someone violating your boundaries, I will believe you. I will listen to you, and we will confront the situation. God has created each one of us as beautiful human beings in God’s sight, and in God’s church, we will respect one another. We will not abuse our power, perceived or real.
In our story today, when Potiphar’s wife makes her accusation against Joseph and tells Potiphar about what happened, Potiphar throws Joseph into jail. Yes, this is unfair, but again, there is a power differential going on here: Joseph was a slave, and even if Potiphar might have suspected that his wife was making this story up, he needed to make sure that Joseph knew his place: Joseph was still a slave. And as we look at Joseph’s life up to this point, we see him going from beloved son to nameless slave, then rising to overseer and going once more to nameless slave, this time in prison. We might think that Joseph just can’t win—except for this one line that the text gives us: But the LORD was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love. The LORD loves Joseph and stays with him and loves him no matter what.
And that is the good news for us today as well. The Lord is with us in every situation in life and loves us no matter what. If you have ever been sexually assaulted, no matter when it happened in your life, God is with you; God mourns for you and with you, and God loves you. And as God’s beloved community, we are called to love, support, and advocate for those beloved children of God who have been sexually abused and assaulted. We are called to say to these beloved children of God that we believe them—no matter what their gender or sexual orientation is—and to say that we mourn with them, that God loves them, we love them, and we will give them whatever help we can.
At the end of today’s story about Joseph, we read that God is raising Joseph up once more, so that he gets put in charge of the care of all of the prisoners. And, we don’t get the rest of Joseph’s story, but Joseph will eventually get out of prison and be raised up to be Pharaoh’s right-hand man, and Joseph is able to preserve the people—including his family, who comes down to Egypt—during a famine. While God does not cause bad things to happen, God is able to bring good things out of bad. God is able to bring good things out of something even as bad as sexual assault. It may take a long time—and for many survivors, it takes a very long time to heal. God is calling us to be part of that healing process by surrounding survivors with hope, love, and advocacy, and thus participating in the coming of God’s kingdom on earth. So let us help bring that healing, love, and hope to this hurting world around us. Amen.