Neil spoke to us this week about the story of Joseph and challenged us to live out the virtues of accountability and integrity. It is also the final week of our month of prayer.
You can download the prayer notes for this week here: Harvest Prayer 22-28 October 2017
You can listen to Neil’s sermon again here:
I recently spent two weeks playing for the UK tour of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s questionable musical ‘Joseph & The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat’. It was an intense schedule, which gave me an opportunity to appreciate the story in a fresh way. A lot had been missed out or glossed over for the purposes of making an accessible show, but there is still so much of value in the story. Knowing I had this preaching date coming up, I decided to dive into it again and see if there was anything new or perhaps underappreciated – after all, a huge amount of the book of Genesis is devoted to the narrative. We first encounter Joseph in chapter 37 and he is involved either directly or indirectly with pretty much everything that goes on until his death in chapter 50, so it’s safe to assume the writer of Genesis (largely considered to be Moses) obviously thought this story was of value. Over my next few sermons I hope to look at various aspects of the story and see what we can take from it. Some key themes include forgiveness, dealing with betrayal, humility, God’s gifts, accountability and integrity; today we’ll be looking at the last two in that list: accountability and integrity.
First, a summary of the story for those that may not be familiar with it:
- Jacob had twelve sons – Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Joseph and Benjamin. Benjamin was the youngest.
- Joseph was the youngest, so Jacob made him a robe of many colours. We don’t know why he did this specifically, and it made his brothers jealous.
- Joseph has dreams about ruling over his family and his brothers bowing down to him. He shares these dreams with his father and his brothers, which obviously does very little to help their relationship.
We pick up the narrative in verse 12 of chapter 37:
“Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock near Shechem. And Israel said to Joseph, “Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem? Come, I will send you to them.” And he said to him, “Here I am.” So he said to him, “Go now, see if it is well with your brothers and with the flock, and bring me word.” So he sent him from the Valley of Hebron, and he came to Shechem. And a man found him wandering in the fields. And the man asked him, “What are you seeking?” “I am seeking my brothers,” he said. “Tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock.” And the man said, “They have gone away, for I heard them say, ‘Let us go to Dothan.’” So Joseph went after his brothers and found them at Dothan.
“They saw him from afar, and before he came near to them they conspired against him to kill him. They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits. Then we will say that a fierce animal has devoured him, and we will see what will become of his dreams.” But when Reuben heard it, he rescued him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.” And Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but do not lay a hand on him”—that he might rescue him out of their hand to restore him to his father. So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the robe of many colors that he wore. And they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.
“Then they sat down to eat. And looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels bearing gum, balm, and myrrh, on their way to carry it down to Egypt.
Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers listened to him. Then Midianite traders passed by.
And they drew Joseph up and lifted him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver. They took Joseph to Egypt.
“When Reuben returned to the pit and saw that Joseph was not in the pit, he tore his clothes and returned to his brothers and said, “The boy is gone, and I, where shall I go?”
Then they took Joseph’s robe and slaughtered a goat and dipped the robe in the blood.
And they sent the robe of many colours and brought it to their father and said, “This we have found; please identify whether it is your son’s robe or not.” And he identified it and said, “It is my son’s robe. A fierce animal has devoured him. Joseph is without doubt torn to pieces.”
Then Jacob tore his garments and put sackcloth on his loins and mourned for his son many days. All his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted and said, “No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.” Thus his father wept for him.
Meanwhile the Midianites had sold him in Egypt to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh,
the captain of the guard.” (Gen. 37:12-36)
SOME POINTS ABOUT JOSEPH
Nothing is mentioned about the individual faith of Joseph or any of his brothers, but we can make some assumptions. Firstly, he is a son of Jacob, who was Abraham’s grandson, so he would have been surrounded by people with a strong faith in God and this would have affected him. There is a strong tradition in Judaism of passing down family values and traditions, so he would almost certainly have heard about and experienced the things of God during his life. Secondly, he had a lot of dreams – two are mentioned early in the chapter, but his brothers refer to him as “this dreamer” (v. 19) which they almost certainly wouldn’t have done if those were the only two dreams he’d had. Throughout the book of Genesis dreams are associated with divine revelation, so these would not have been the bizarre meanderings of a subconscious mind; they would have carried meaning and would only have occurred in the mind of someone who is walking with God. Maybe if Joseph’s brothers had been close to God they would have had the same dream, rather than being offended by them, or at the very least they might have acted more graciously… This is just speculation, but maybe Joseph had a particularly special relationship with God, and maybe this is why Jacob favoured him? This might also explain their actions in the passage we’re looking at this morning.
We read straight away in verse 12 that the brothers had gone away to Shechem (roughly sixty/seventy miles) to find better pasture for the sheep. No indication is given as to why Joseph remained behind, but now we read that Jacob sends him away to make sure everything is okay. It transpires that they’re not in Shechem anymore and have moved further north to Dothan. We read in verse 18 that they “saw him from afar” and started plotting his demise. I think it’s interesting to note that this all happened the best part of a hundred miles away from home; being away from their father the patriarch must have made them feel empowered to act with impunity. In the time between them recognising Joseph and his actually reaching them, they had managed to conspire to kill him and dispose of the body, and then change their minds and come up with a new plan. He cannot have been very far away, so they must have plotted quickly – this shows little regard for unwanted outcomes or potential consequences. As if the initial act of leaving their brother to starve to death in a pit was not bad enough (“the pit was empty” – v. 24), they then had to cover their tracks and lie to their father about what had happened to Joseph, saying they’d found his robe covered in blood (v. 32). The lack of accountability led to one very bad decisions, which in turn led to several other bad decisions.
Another situation where a lack of accountability led to sin is outline in the story of King David and Bathsheba (2 Sam 11). David didn’t go out to fight with his armies and instead remained in Jerusalem on his own, and this was when he spotted Bathsheba bathing; her husband Uriah was also away, since he was in David’s army. He summoned her and, no doubt feeling empowered by the assumption that people wouldn’t find out (not to mention his position as king!), he slept with her. And again, the initial bad decision had its own bad consequences since Bathsheba became pregnant, but it also led to more bad decisions in an attempt to cover his tracks – he tried to stage a kind of conjugal visit between Bathsheba and her husband so that people would assume the baby was theirs, and when all his scheming proved unsuccessful he effectively made sure Uriah was killed in battle by having him placed in the front line.
Accountability is not to be viewed in a legalistic sense. God’s best for our lives is not about making sure we don’t do all the fun stuff, but it’s about protecting us from what is tempting but harmful or damaging. In our church, we have a pretty solid accountability structure. All the teams have somebody who is ultimately in charge, each in turn report to the church council, who are overseen by the elders, of which Graham is in charge, and he is ultimately accountable to Elim head office. Even outside the Church, knowing you are accountable is helpful in the workplace: we feel supported through our own struggles and protected from other people’s. It’s not about checking in all the time and having someone make sure we’re toeing the line, but is about protecting ourselves. As parents, we don’t say no to our kids out of spite; we say it because we know what is in their best interests (or we think we do).
Be wary of not feeling accountable to somebody in your Christian walk, and be equally wary of people – particularly leaders – who are not accountable to anybody else. Maybe find a person in the church who you respect and ask them if they’d like to be your accountability partner, or maybe even your mentor. It doesn’t have to be anything formal, just a way for us all to feel supported. It’s on the York Elim newsletter every week but doesn’t get mentioned enough. A friend of mine likes to say that if your husband/wife asks you what that day and you can’t answer then you probably shouldn’t have done it. Accountability can help us avoid doing those things, and help us to maintain our integrity.
So accountability is important, but is it possible to maintain our integrity without it? Let’s jump to another part of Joseph’s story (39:6b). At this point in the narrative Joseph has been serving in Potiphar’s house for a while and Potiphar had noticed that “the Lord was with Joseph” (v. 3) and that he was making a success of everything. He was promoted to the overseer of Potiphar’s house, which we can infer from several verses was basically as good as it gets as far as servitude is concerned. We pick up in the second half of verse six:
“Now Joseph was handsome in form and appearance. And after a time his master’s wife cast her eyes on Joseph and said, “Lie with me.” But he refused and said to his master’s wife,
“Behold, because of me my master has no concern about anything in the house, and he has put everything that he has in my charge. He is not greater in this house than I am, nor has he kept back anything from me except you, because you are his wife. How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” And as she spoke to Joseph day after day, he would not listen to her, to lie beside her or to be with her. But one day, when he went into the house to do his work and none of the men of the house was there in the house, she caught him by his garment, saying, “Lie with me.” But he left his garment in her hand and fled and got out of the house. And as soon as she saw that he had left his garment in her hand and had fled out of the house, she called to the men of her household and said to them, “See, he has brought among us a Hebrew to laugh at us. He came in to me to lie with me, and I cried out with a loud voice. And as soon as he heard that I lifted up my voice and cried out, he left his garment beside me and fled and got out of the house.” Then she laid up his garment by her until his master came home, and she told him the same story, saying, “The Hebrew servant, whom you have brought among us, came in to me to laugh at me. But as soon as I lifted up my voice and cried, he left his garment beside me and fled out of the house.” As soon as his master heard the words that his wife spoke to him,
“This is the way your servant treated me,” his anger was kindled. And Joseph’s master took him and put him into the prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were confined, and he was there in prison.” (Gen. 39:6b-20)
Firstly, it’s worth noting that here again is an example of someone feeling as though nobody was watching. Potiphar’s wife was effectively alone with Joseph (v. 11 – “none of the men of the house was there…”) and so, at that moment, was lacking accountability. She’d already been trying to seduce Joseph for some time and obviously saw this as her chance. It’s unclear whether she initially intended to accuse him of rape because he’d spurned her advances or whether she’d just intended to use their time alone as an opportunity to take her seduction up a level, only resorting to falsely accusing him after he rejected her again, but one thing is very clear: Joseph wasn’t going to give her what she wanted because he knew it was wrong.
Although nothing is explicitly mentioned about her (unlike Joseph), Potiphar’s wife was probably an attractive woman because it seems as though Joseph may have felt tempted by her. In verse ten it says he wouldn’t listen to her, “to lie beside her or to be with her”. He even avoided her company altogether – possibly because he found her persistence incredibly annoying, possibly because he was actually tempted and didn’t want to put himself in a potentially compromising situation. I suspect probably a combination of the two, and this is a lesson in how we can maintain our integrity: by avoiding temptation altogether. We all know what are weaknesses are and what we could be susceptible to, and if we want to keep ourselves holy then it is our responsibility to actively avoid those things. To be clear, I’m not advocating any kind of legalism here, but I am highlighting the fact that we are all different and we all have our own individual struggles.
To emphasise this point further, look at Joseph’s actions is verse 12:
“… he left his garment in her hand and fled and got out of the house.” (Gen. 39:12)
He literally ran away! Joseph’s righteousness was so important to him that left his clothes behind and fled the scene. The term used here isn’t the same as the one for his ‘coat of many colours’ so we don’t know what it actually was, so I did some research! All Egyptian men wore a wrap-around skirt that was tied at the waist with a belt. Sometimes the material was wrapped around the legs as well. They were topless (Egypt is HOT), so it’s possible that Joseph was naked when he ran away. Imagine the humiliation and embarrassment of running through town completely naked! And yet Joseph chose to do that rather than sleep with Potiphar’s wife. Sometimes temporary shame or hardship is the price of holiness, and maybe we can all think of a time in our own lives when we faced ridicule or shame for choosing to do the right thing. I want to assure you that God saw you make that choice; He knows your heart, He knows you chose to honour Him and He knows how hard it perhaps was for you to make that choice. Because even when we feel like nobody’s watching, or that we’re alone or unaccountable, God knows and God sees. Joseph knew that:
“… Behold, because of me my master has no concern about anything in the house, and he has put everything that he has in my charge. He is not greater in this house than I am, nor has he kept back anything from me except yourself, because you are his wife. How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” (Gen. 39:8-9)
Notice that Joseph begins by saying all that his master, Potiphar, has done for him and implying that he could never bring himself to betray Potiphar’s trust, but finishes by saying he would be sinning “against God” (v. 9). Joseph knew that, ultimately, He was accountable to God regardless of who else was or was not around to see. King David obviously found that out eventually as well when he wrote Psalm 139:
“Where shall I go from Your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from Your presence?” (Ps. 139:7)
It’s interesting to note that this portion of the story is a close parallel to the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. God told them they could eat the fruit from any tree in the garden except one, and Potiphar gave Joseph access to everything in his house except his wife – the key difference here being that Joseph made the right choice and resisted the serpent’s advances (ie. Potiphar’s wife). Joseph showed tremendous integrity here, no doubt due in no small part to the fact that he had been in relationship with God for several years at this point, as we postulated earlier. Even when nobody was watching Joseph, chose to do the right thing.
“Integrity is doing the right thing; even when nobody is watching.” (C. S. Lewis?)
But… What if he hadn’t? What if Joseph had been like King David? It can be difficult to be so totally disciplined for our entire lives, we all know that, and whilst the above may seem like a challenge to us all, it’s worth mentioning that God doesn’t abandon us if we fail. The Bible is very clear on that:
“I am He who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.” (Is. 43:25)
“And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Joel 2:32)
“There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Rom. 8:1)
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.
Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Heb. 4:15-16)
God does not require us to be perfect in order to accept us or use us. It’s what He wants for us all, but thankfully it’s not what He requires. What He wants is our hearts, our intentions, our sincerity. God has used a multitude of sinful men through the ages, many of which are in the Bible. Moses was a murderer, David was an adulterer (and a murderer!), Samson was a womaniser, Jonah was disobedient and ran away, Matthew was a tax collector, Saul had killed Christians. Peter denied even knowing Jesus, and yet God used them all to accomplish great things. God doesn’t wait until we’re perfect before using us, otherwise He’d be waiting forever – instead, He perfects us through using us.
“… he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 1:6)
The two incidents we’ve looked at both happened relatively early on in Joseph’s life. He was only seventeen years old when his brothers sold him to the traders, and after the incident with Potiphar’s wife there was a good deal of time before he was reunited with them – during which an awful lot of other things happened to him and through him. We are all a work in progress, which is why we need to allow ourselves to be held accountable from time to time, so that we may have the strength of character and the surety of God’s love for us that enables us to show real integrity as men and women of God.