JOSEPH breathed in the thick, warm air, noticing the scent of lotus blossoms and other water plants. He was being led by a caravan of traders now traversing the lowlands of the vast Nile delta. Picture a line of men leading their camels along a watercourse toward yet another Egyptian town, occasionally startling a wading heron or an ibis into flight. Joseph thought again of his home in the windswept highlands of Hebron, hundreds of miles away; he was in a different world now.
Imagine monkeys chattering and screeching from the tops of date palms and fig trees. To Joseph, the speech of the people they passed seemed hardly more intelligible. Perhaps he tried to pick up any words or phrases that he could. He might as well learn. As far as he knew, he would never see his home again.
Joseph was scarcely more than a boy—17 or 18 years old—yet he faced challenges that would daunt many grown men. His own brothers, consumed with jealousy because Joseph was their father’s favorite, had come close to murdering him. Instead, they had sold him to these traders. (Genesis 37:2, 5, 18-28) Now, after journeying for weeks, the traders were likely growing more and more lighthearted as they neared the great metropolis where they intended to reap profits by selling Joseph as well as their precious wares. How did Joseph keep despair from taking root in his heart and crushing his spirit? And how can we today keep life’s challenges and setbacks from destroying our faith? We have much to learn from Joseph.
“JEHOVAH WAS WITH JOSEPH”
“Now Joseph was taken down to Egypt, and an Egyptian named Potiphar, a court official of Pharaoh and chief of the guard, bought him from the Ishmaelites who had taken him down there.” (Genesis 39:1) In those few words, the Bible account helps us to imagine the humiliation of a young man as he was sold once again. He was mere property! We may think of Joseph following his new master, an Egyptian court official, through bustling city streets crowded with bazaars as they head toward Joseph’s new home.
Home! It was a far cry from anything Joseph had ever called home. He had grown up in a nomadic family who dwelled in tents as they moved frequently and tended their flocks of sheep. Here, such wealthy Egyptians as Potiphar lived in elegant, brightly painted houses. Archaeologists report that the ancient Egyptians were fond of lush, walled gardens with shade trees and quiet pools for growing papyrus, lotus, and other water plants. Some houses sat secluded within gardens, with porches for enjoying the breeze, high windows for ventilation, and many rooms, including a large dining room and quarters for servants.
Was Joseph overly impressed with such opulence? It seems unlikely. More than anything, he probably felt keenly how alone he was. The Egyptians were foreign to him in language, dress, and grooming—and even more so in religion. They worshipped a dizzying array of gods, practiced occult and magical arts, and held a morbid fascination with death and the afterlife. One thing, though, kept Joseph from being crushed by loneliness. The Bible account tells us: “Jehovah was with Joseph.” (Genesis 39:2) Joseph surely poured out his heart to his God. The Bible says that “Jehovah is near to all those calling on him.” (Psalm 145:18) How else did Joseph draw near to his God?
The young man refused to give in to despair, and he set about doing his work as well as he could. He thus gave Jehovah much to bless, and Joseph soon gained the favor of his new master. Potiphar saw that his young servant was being blessed by Jehovah, the God of Joseph’s people, and such blessings no doubt brought more prosperity to the Egyptian’s house. Joseph gradually rose in his master’s esteem until Potiphar entrusted everything into the hands of this capable young man.—Genesis 39:3-6.
Joseph set a vital example for young people who serve God today. For instance, when they are in school, they may at times find themselves in an environment that feels strange and foreign, a world fascinated with the occult and bound up with a grim and hopeless outlook on life. If you are in that situation, remember that Jehovah has not changed. (James 1:17) He still proves to be with all those who stay loyal to him and who seek to work hard in a way that pleases him. He blesses them richly, and he will do the same for you.
In the meantime, the account tells us, Joseph was maturing. The youth became a man, and a “well-built and handsome” one at that. Those words suggest that danger was looming, for the gift of physical beauty often brings unwanted and inappropriate attention.
“HE NEVER CONSENTED”
Joseph valued loyalty; Potiphar’s wife, though, did not. We read: “The wife of his master began to cast her eyes on Joseph and say: ‘Lie down with me.’” (Genesis 39:7) Was Joseph tempted to give in to this pagan woman’s bold advances? The Bible gives us no reason to assume that Joseph was immune to the desires and drives common to young men or that this woman, the pampered wife of a wealthy and influential court official, was physically undesirable. Would Joseph rationalize that his master would never know? Would he be tempted by the thought of the material advantages that such a liaison might offer?
In truth, we cannot know all that passed through Joseph’s mind. But we have a clear indication of what was in his heart. It shines through in his answer: “Here my master does not know what is with me in the house, and he has entrusted everything he has into my care. There is no one greater in this house than I am, and he has not withheld from me anything at all except you, because you are his wife. So how could I commit this great badness and actually sin against God?” (Genesis 39:8, 9) Picture the young man speaking those words with earnest intensity. It hurt him even to contemplate the deed she wanted him to commit. Why?
As Joseph said, his master trusted him. Potiphar had put his whole household in Joseph’s hands, holding back nothing but his wife. How could Joseph betray that trust? He abhorred the thought. But there was a deeper revulsion: the thought of actually sinning against his God, Jehovah. Joseph had learned much from his parents about God’s view of marriage and fidelity. Jehovah performed the first marriage and made his feelings clear. Man and wife were to stick together, becoming “one flesh.” (Genesis 2:24) Those who attempted to violate that bond risked incurring God’s wrath. For example, the men who came close to violating the wife of Abraham, who was Joseph’s great-grandmother, and the wife of Isaac, Joseph’s grandmother, came perilously close to disaster. (Genesis 20:1-3; 26:7-11) Joseph had learned that lesson well, and he intended to live by it.
Potiphar’s wife did not like what she heard. Why, just imagine this lowly slave turning her down, actually referring to her offer as “great badness”! Nonetheless, she persisted. Perhaps her vanity and pride were stung, making her determined to turn Joseph’s no into a yes. She thus showed a spirit like that of Satan, who tempted Jesus. Satan’s attempt failed too, and instead of giving up, Satan just waited for “another convenient time.” (Luke 4:13) Faithful people thus need to be determined and steadfast. That was how Joseph handled himself. Though this situation went on “day after day,” he would not budge. We read: “He never consented.” (Genesis 39:10) Potiphar’s wife, however, was a determined seductress.
She picked a moment when the servants were all out of the house. She knew that Joseph would have to come inside in order to do his work. When he did, she sprung her trap. Grabbing hold of his garment, she made her plea one last time: “Lie down with me!” Joseph acted quickly. Wrenching away from her grasp, he pulled back—but she held fast to his garment. He twisted free, leaving it behind in her hands. And then he fled!—Genesis 39:11, 12.
We might be reminded of the apostle Paul’s inspired counsel: “Flee from sexual immorality!” (1 Corinthians 6:18) What an example Joseph set for all true Christians! Life may force us into proximity with those who have no regard for God’s moral laws, but that does not mean that we have to give in to wrong influences. Whatever the cost, we must flee.
In Joseph’s case, the cost was high. Potiphar’s wife wanted revenge. She immediately began screaming, summoning the other servants into the house. She claimed that Joseph had attempted to rape her and had then run off when she screamed. She kept the incriminating garment and waited for her husband’s return. When Potiphar came home, she presented the same lie, implying that it was all her husband’s fault for bringing this foreigner into their home. Potiphar’s reaction? We read: “His anger blazed”! He turned Joseph over to the prison to have him incarcerated.—Genesis 39:13-20.
“WITH FETTERS THEY BOUND HIS FEET”
We know little of what Egyptian prisons were like in those days. Archaeologists have found the ruins of such places—great fortresslike structures with cells and dungeons. Joseph later described the place with a word that literally means “the pit,” which suggests a lightless and hopeless place. (Genesis 40:15, footnote) In the book of Psalms, we learn that Joseph was subjected to further torment: “With fetters they bound his feet; his neck was put in irons.” (Psalm 105:17, 18) The Egyptians sometimes put prisoners in restraints that pinioned their arms behind them at the elbows; others bore iron collars clasped at their necks. How Joseph must have suffered to be so mistreated—when he had done nothing to deserve it!
What is more, this was no brief setback. The account says that Joseph “remained there in the prison.” He spent years in that terrible place!* And Joseph did not know if he would ever be released. As those first shocking days dragged into weeks, then months, how did he keep from falling into hopelessness and despair?
The account gives us this reassuring answer: “Jehovah continued with Joseph and kept showing loyal love to him.” (Genesis 39:21) No prison walls, no fetters, no lightless dungeons can keep Jehovah’s loyal love from reaching his servants. (Romans 8:38, 39) We may well imagine Joseph pouring out his agony to his dear heavenly Father in prayer and then receiving the kind of peace and calm that only “the God of all comfort” can provide. (2 Corinthians 1:3, 4; Philippians 4:6, 7) What else did Jehovah do for Joseph? We read that he kept granting Joseph “favor in the eyes of the chief officer of the prison.”
The prisoners were evidently given work to do, and Joseph again gave Jehovah something to bless. He worked hard, doing his best at whatever task was assigned him and leaving the rest to Jehovah. With Jehovah’s blessing, Joseph gained trust and respect, just as he had in Potiphar’s household. We read: “So the chief officer of the prison put Joseph in charge of all the prisoners in the prison, and everything that they were doing there, he was the one having it done. The chief officer of the prison was looking after absolutely nothing that was in Joseph’s care, for Jehovah was with Joseph and Jehovah made whatever he did successful.” (Genesis 39:22, 23) What a comfort for Joseph to know that Jehovah was caring for him!
We may come upon some devastating twists and turns in life, even some cruel injustices, but we can learn from the faith of Joseph. If we keep close to Jehovah in prayer, stay loyal to his commands, and work hard at doing what is right in his eyes, we will give him something to bless. In Joseph’s case, Jehovah had even greater blessings in store, as we shall see in future articles in this series.