Joseph’s Self-Mastery

We know, of course, that Joseph was not sent to the mines or the chain gangs but to Potiphar’s estate, a man who happened to be a highly placed official of Pharaoh himself, the captain of his guard (Gen. 39:1). There Joseph prospered, not particularly because he was more clever, able, or lucky than the other slaves, but because YHWH was “with” him. (The chapter is framed by an inclusio with the phrase “YHWH was with Joseph”: cf. 39:2, 3 with verse 23.) YHWH is not “with” just anyone, at least not in the same sense as He was with Joseph. He is “with” those He has singled out for His own relational pleasure and personal purposes. When God is “with” someone in this sense, He follows in their shadows, moves obstacles out of the way, protects from danger, and directs the pondering of the mind so that they prosper in everything they do. Though they get knocked about, they somehow always end up on their feet. This Presence always raises the soul above the outward circumstances; the soul is ever aware, deep within, that it will reach the destination God destined it no matter how low it is shoved. The fact of God’s presence surrounding someone may not be obvious at first glance, but upon closer observation, there is something indefinable, something unusual about that person. In time Potiphar saw this in his Hebrew slave, and it did not take long for him to elevate him to the highest position in his estate.

Joseph caught the eye of Potiphar’s wife as well, for with his spiritual persona was a handsome physique. Throughout Scripture pagan women, as we have observed already with Esau and Judah, embody the downward pull of sensual gratification, that urge to give up all that is eternal in a single moment for that which is transient. We are told that she offered herself to him daily, placing the young man in a constant state of temptation. Joseph had to deal not only with a woman who spared no expense in cosmetics and revealing attire, but also with the possibility of furthering his advancement if he yielded and the potentiality of disaster if he refused. The possibilities for sensual fulfillment and for rationalizing were legion. Yield he did not, both out of loyalty to his master and, what was more, out of fear of God. This places Joseph in direct contrast to his brother Judah and his uncle Esau, who had no fear of God in these matters but followed the lower parts of their natures. Joseph emerges out of this episode as a master of his senses rather than being mastered by his senses.

To become a master of the senses is no small thing. No one achieves this without pain. It is not a quirk of nature or a favorable DNA pattern that sets a fortunate few above the passions. Nor do we find ourselves free from lusts after divine encounters or profound religious experiences. The assumption in our story is that Joseph was very deliberate and intentional in keeping himself pure, both soul and body. Here the parallel with Daniel, his counterpart and soul-mate of a future generation, is revealing. We know that when Daniel was in Babylon suffering similar circumstances as Joseph, he refused to eat the food placed before him by his masters. It is not clearly stated why he did this. Whether he feared contamination with foods not according to the Mosaic standards of holiness or losing his Hebrew identity in a pagan environment, we can fairly assume that this took a great deal of personal discipline. There is an avoidance of giving into the senses on Daniel’s part. Indeed, there are various instances where he fasts with the purpose of seeking God. Implicit is that when one is ruled by one’s sensual appetites, one is darkened to spiritual realities. Joseph and Daniel become masters of the flesh, and they became so by starving their sensual desires, whipping them mercilessly into submission to their higher powers.

Such power often unleashes the wrath of hell; it did so for both of these men. Whereas Daniel was persecuted out of jealousy, Joseph was brought down by the wrath of a woman spurned. By the time he faced this ordeal he had made deep advances in the way of the spirit. He discovered the goodness and honesty of humility after his adventures in the pit and as a slave. Moreover, he carefully nurtured his resolve to keep himself pure; his self control was probably admired throughout the estate. In a community like this we may well imagine that the latest gossip revolved around the master’s chief servant who dared to spurn the advances of the mistress. Perhaps Joseph began to notice his emerging powers and reputation and secretly took delight in them. Pride is an awful beast; there is nothing which it cannot feed on, even the fruits of the Spirit. True, the story doesn’t let us into Joseph’s inner thoughts, but we do know that God saw fit to bring him down low again. This time it was a dungeon. Joseph must endure yet another trial to further refine his soul. While the pit became the place where he lost his illusion of being the center of reality, the dungeon became the place where he lost his reputation. Here his integrity was questioned. He no longer could be certain that others saw him justly. In the eyes of many he was just another grabber who would stab his master in the back, an adulterer caught in the act. Joseph is brought very low, almost to the very floor of his soul. And so it is, when God means to build high, he digs deep.

It is essential to notice, however, that this episode in the life of Joseph ends as it begins. Sold as a slave to Potiphar, he rises to the top because God was “with” him. Tossed into the dungeon, he rises to the top again, because God was “with” him. We find Joseph running the dungeon for the chief jailer much like he ran Potiphar’s house. Moreover, God showed him there His loving-kindness. He was not alone. In the most austere and unlikely place God surrounded, sustained, and even prospered him where the souls of most would sink in despair.

One Response to “Joseph’s Self-Mastery”

  1. What a powerful message. Josph was prosperous because god was there. It was interesting the to mature josph he had to bring to low places. God taught him to control his senual senses.

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