4. Responding To Injustice (Gen. 39:20-40:23)Related Media
There have been many examples of injustice in world history. Nelson Mandela was incarcerated unjustly for 27 years for his crusade against apartheid in South Africa. Alexander Solzhenitsyn was unjustly imprisoned and forgotten. In February 1945, Solzhenitsyn was arrested for writing derogatory comments about Stalin and the war. He was accused of anti-Soviet propaganda and of “founding a hostile organization.” After being beaten and interrogated, on July 7, 1945, he was sentenced in his absence to an 8 year term in a labor camp. Through his writings he helped to make the world aware of the Gulag, the Soviet Union‘s forced labor camp system. He was exiled in 1974 and didn’t return until 1994. For Solzhenitsyn this experience resulted in his spiritual conversion.
Elie Wiesel, the holocaust survivor, is another example. Unlike Solzhenitsyn, Wiesel’s experience, in his words, “consumed his faith forever.” This is what he writes:
“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God himself. Never.” (Elie Wiesel, Night, trans. Stella Rodway, N.Y.: Bantam Books, 1960, 32).
We know that in places like Cambodia and Mumbai, India, every day, women and children are stolen, sold, and abused. We know that in our own culture every day, men and women are battered by angry spouses and partners; men and women are abandoned and their lives left shattered by unfaithful spouses; people are injured and killed by drunk drivers.
Our subject in this study is: “Responding to injustice, false accusations, unfairness.” The lesson we learn from this narrative is that, When we are unjustly accused, perhaps even condemned, we must wait for God’s deliverance and vindication.
To be falsely accused is a painful experience. I have experienced it as have many of you, I’m sure. I have experienced it from my own father, which makes it even more painful than from others. But probably none of us has experienced it to the same degree as Joseph – at least we probably didn’t end up in prison because of it.
What makes false accusation particularly painful is when you are betrayed by those you trusted and served faithfully. Sometimes we need to defend ourselves, as Paul did (2 Cor). But our greatest defender is God, not self; He is our great advocate and vindicator.
Joseph was wrongly treated by his brothers. Even though his intentions in finding out how they were doing were honorable and sincere, they mistreated him and sold him as a slave into Egypt. Joseph was mistreated by Mrs. Potiphar. Again, even though his actions were honorable and sincere, he was falsely accused of attempted rape. This led to the loss of his job and a term in prison, where, as we will see now, Joseph was further mistreated, being forgotten by someone whom he had helped in prison.
Despite all Joseph’s mistreatment, we never read of him angry, depressed, bitter, rebellious against God, or self-pitying. Yet again, Joseph depicts supreme Christ-likeness even when, we might wonder, will the cycle ever stop? The cycle is obviously intended to portray the theme of his entire life that “God is sovereign – what others intend for evil, God can use for good to achieve his purposes.”
In previous studies in this series we have already seen this principle clearly displayed so far in Joseph’s story. Though he was mistreated by his brothers, the Lord was with him; the Lord did not forsake him nor leave him. Though he was mistrusted by his brothers, he was implicitly trusted by Potiphar and the prison keeper. Though he was misjudged by Potiphar due to Mrs. Potiphar’s false accusation, the Lord’s favor toward him ensured that his trust was regained by the prison keeper. Though he was misused as a slave, yet he rose to the highest ranks both in Potiphar’s house and the prison.
Notice these theological principles in our passage…
I. Faithfulness To God Does Not Exempt Us From Trouble (39:20-23)
Following the false accusation brought against Joseph by Potiphar’s wife, “Joseph’s master took him and put him into prison, a place where the king’s prisoners were confined. And he was there in the prison” (39:20). What a slap in the face for Joseph. What treatment after his faithful service to Potiphar! Surely this is not how someone as loyal and diligent as Joseph should be treated.
In fact, faithfulness to God may land us right in bad circumstances. Obedience to God may cause us all kinds of injustice, false accusations, loss of employment, or ridicule from others. You may be exactly where God wants you to be, living in obedience to His word, seeking to walk worthy of the gospel, bearing the name of the Lord boldly, and yet in spite of that you may be facing deeply troubling and difficult circumstances. That’s when you need to decide whether to live with and for the Lord (and perhaps face years of trouble), or turn your back on the Lord in your attempt to have an easier life.
That was the choice that Victor Frankl had to make. Frankl was a Viennese psychiatrist who survived the Nazi death camps at Auschwitz and Treblinka. He discovered that the imprisoned person who no longer had a goal, who no longer could find meaning and purpose in life, was unlikely to survive. Frankl concluded: “Everything can be taken away from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s way. The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering that it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, give him ample opportunity – even in the most difficult circumstances – to add deeper meaning to his life.” (Cited in John Ortberg, “If You Want to Walk on Water You’ve Got to Get out of the Boat,” 108-109),
Even though we read repeatedly that God’s favor rested upon Joseph, He did not preserve Joseph from going to prison. Nonetheless, the Lord was with Joseph in the prison. “The Lord was with Joseph and showed him mercy (steadfast love)” (39:21a). This means that Joseph would experience the favor of God even in prison. Joseph would experience God revealing himself even in prison. Joseph would know God’s presence in a powerfully, life-transforming way even in prison.
Just how did Joseph experience this? Well, one way was that the Lord “gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison” (39:21b). Though we may face bad circumstances, one thing we can count on is “the Lord is with us.” Sometimes our circumstances are such that it’s hard for us to appreciate or grasp that the Lord really is with us. But God does not limit the experience of his presence and power to mountaintops. In fact, we can experience God’s presence and power, perhaps in even greater ways, when we are facing the tough challenges of life.
I had Lyme disease for 18 years prior to a diagnosis. During those years there were some very dark periods, yet in them all, though I could not figure out and did not know how or when it would all end, nonetheless I was profoundly aware that “the Lord was with me.” Indeed, I learned more about God in those dark days than I ever did in the good, easier days. I learned about his fathomless grace, his unconditional love, his uncompromising faithfulness.
Now, notice these parallel cycles and phrases in Joseph’s life:
1. The favor of others toward Joseph
(1) “The Lord was with Joseph” (39:2, 21).
(2) “Joseph found favor in (Potiphar’s) sight” (39:4); “the Lord granted gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison” (39:21).
2. The appointment to a position of trust and responsibility
(1) Potiphar “made him overseer of his house and all that he had he put under his authority” (39:4). And, “the keeper of the prison committed to Joseph’s hand all the prisoners who were in the prison; whatever they did there, it was his doing” (39:22).
(2) Potiphar “left all that he had in Joseph’s hand, and did not know what he had except for the bread which he ate” (39:6). “The keeper of the prison did not look into anything that was under Joseph’s authority” (39:23).
3. Joseph’s success and prosperity
“His master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord made all he did to prosper in his hand” (39:3). And, “The keeper of the prison saw that the Lord was with him; and whatever he did, the Lord made it prosper” (39:23b).
4. The connection between God and Joseph’s performance
Both Potiphar and the prison keeper recognized the connection between Joseph’s God and Joseph’s character and success (39:3-4; 39:21-23).
But don’t think because God was with him that life was easy. His initial prison experience was anything but easy. Psalm 105:18 tells us about Joseph that, “They hurt his feet with fetters. He was laid in irons. Until the time that his word came to pass, the word of the Lord tested him.”
Eventually, however, Joseph was rewarded and vindicated. He was given a most unique position in the prison – he, a prisoner, was put in charge of the other prisoners (39:22). Like Potiphar, once the prison keeper had delegated this to Joseph, he didn’t think about it again: “He did not look into anything that was under Joseph’s authority.” Why? “Because the Lord was with him and whatever he did, the Lord made it prosper” (39:23).
Faithfulness to God, then, does not exempt us from trouble. But notice also that…
II. In All Our Troubles, God Is Providentially At Work (40:1-22)
Joseph first experienced God’s providential intervention in his life through the prison keeper, who recognized in Joseph his honesty, reliability, loyalty. He recognized that Joseph was not a threat to others nor a potential escapee. Then one day, in a seemingly “natural occurrence”, two new prisoners arrive, two senior officers of Pharaoh’s household - the butler (cupbearer) and the baker. We don’t know what these two men had done, but it was serious enough to warrant prison. Interestingly, these two “special” prisoners were put into Joseph’s custody, and it would appear that the very person who consigned them to Joseph’s keeping was none other than Potiphar himself, “the captain of the guard” (40:3-4; cf. 39:1). If it was Potiphar, he must have known that Joseph did not try to rape his wife. Otherwise why would he give Joseph the responsibility for these two men in prison? If it was Potiphar, his influence over the prison keeper would explain why the prison keeper’s treatment of Joseph paralleled Potiphar’s treatment of him.
And notice this: these two prisoners were senior management from the royal household. Perhaps this was the connection that would lead to Joseph’s vindication. Perhaps this was a case of “it’s-not-what-you-know-but-who-you-know.” Was all of this coincidence? No! Was it God’s providence? Yes!
Like Joseph these men had held senior, trusted positions. In fact, they were closely related positions in that both men were responsible for the health and safety of Pharaoh. The baker was entrusted with all Pharaoh’s food preparation and the cupbearer was responsible for tasting the food and drink before Pharaoh – just to make sure there were no poisons in it! So, the cupbearer had to trust the baker or else he would pay for it with his life.
In prison, they were attended to by Joseph (40:4), and in prison they experience their remarkable dreams (40:5-19). Both men had a dream on the same night in prison. Both of their dreams related to their jobs in Pharaoh’s household. Instinctively, they knew that these were no ordinary dreams – they weren’t the product of eating garlic the night before! These dreams had special significance and implications, which, though they did not understand, caused them great anxiety. Noticing their downcast faces, Joseph asked them: “Why do you look so sad today?” (40:7). If you would expect anyone to be downcast, it would be Joseph. But he doesn’t focus on his own situation but on that of the others.
Don’t you so often find that in some people? Perhaps you go to visit someone who is in dire circumstances, sick or aged or unemployed, and instead of you encouraging them, they encourage you. I wonder in your own life, when you have passed through dark circumstance, if you have been used by God to bring light and hope to someone else. That’s what Joseph did in prison. Undoubtedly, God was using Joseph, perhaps even changing Joseph for greater tasks ahead. Before entering into the reality of his vision years before, he had to experience oppression, rejection, false treatment, and suffering. He had to be the sacrificial lamb, if you will, who would pay the penalty for his brothers’ sins in order that they could enter into the blessings that he would provide for them. Joseph was going to find out that before God uses us, he tests us. Someone in the church I pastored once said: “You’ll never know that God is enough until He’s all you’ve got.”
The two new prisoners explained to Joseph that the cause of their sadness was that they had both had dreams which they didn’t understand without an interpreter. To which Joseph replied, “Do not interpretations belong to God? Tell them to me please” (40:8).
Joseph knew that only God could interpret dreams. His invitation for them to tell the dreams to him indicates that he knew that God would help him interpret them; he was aware of his very special relationship with God. Isn’t it ironic that the dreamer himself is now the interpreter of other people’s dreams? And isn’t it ironic that we know the rest of the story – that Joseph’s boyhood dreams of dominating others would ultimately come true but in a very circuitous manner?
First, the chief butler’s dream (40:9-11). In his dream, he saw a vine with 3 branches which budded, bloomed, and bore grapes. Then he squeezed the juice out of the grapes into Pharaoh’s cup and gave the cup to Pharaoh. Joseph’s interpretation of the dream (40:12-13) was that within 3 days the chief butler would be reinstated to his position. This was great news! And Joseph seized this opportunity to make a request of the butler: “But remember me when it is well with you, and please show kindness to me; make mention of me to Pharaoh, and get me out of this house. For indeed I was stolen away from the land of the Hebrews; and also I have done nothing here that they should put me into the dungeon” (40:14-15).
Surely this was the least the butler could do for Joseph. After all, not only had Joseph given a favorable interpretation of the dream but now the butler knew why Joseph was in prison, and that Joseph himself had been unjustly treated by his brothers and unjustly accused by Mrs. Potiphar. Surely, there was sufficient affinity between Joseph’s and the butler’s situation that the butler would “remember” Joseph when he was restored to his position in the royal palace.
This was Joseph’s self-defense. There is a time when we need to speak up in our defense against false accusations. There is a time when we should ask for help from others, even though we know that ultimately our life is in God’s hands. There is no contradiction in this - we trust God and make the need known to others. But we must be sure of God’s timing. Joseph waited until this opportune time when he thought God was at work in his life.
But it’s so easy for us to get ahead of God, to push for answers, to try to open doors that God isn’t opening. So often what we want and try isn’t God’s timing or God’s way; he isn’t urging us to move forward at that time. And it’s so easy to defend ourselves at the wrong time. When we try to vindicate ourselves at the wrong time, it comes off as being defensive and self-serving, perhaps even insincere.
Then, the chief baker’s dream (40:16-17). Recognizing Joseph’s ability in interpreting dreams (and liking his interpretation of the butler’s dream), the chief baker now relates his dream to Joseph, hoping for a similar outcome. In his dream, the chief baker was carrying on his head 3 baskets of food for Pharaoh but, as he walked, the birds ate the food out of the baskets. Joseph’s interpretation of the dream (40:18-19) was that within 3 days, Pharaoh would execute the chief baker and hang him on a tree: “And the birds will eat your flesh from you” (40:19b). This was very bad news indeed, exactly what the baker did not want to hear.
The Outcome (40:20-22). Within 3 days, the outcome was just as Joseph had said. On his birthday, Pharaoh threw a feast for all his servants at which time the chief butler was reinstated to his previous position, but the chief baker was executed. Evidently, by this time Pharaoh has discovered the truth about what had happened as between the butler and baker. It would appear that the chief baker was guilty of whatever had happened that caused the two men to be thrown into prison in the first place, whereas the chief butler was declared innocent. That would explain the different outcomes and it would explain why the chief butler was reinstated to his position of trust again.
In any event, from a human perspective it looks like Joseph’s situation is going to improve. After all, he has connections now to the highest authority in the land. Surely this would be the ticket to Joseph’s release from prison. Finally there seems to be light at the end of the tunnel - at least, there is a glimmer of hope.
Faithfulness to God, then, does not exempt us from trouble. But in all our troubles, God is providentially at work. Nevertheless..
II. God Does Not Always Act As And When We Would Like (40:23)
An ironic twist intervenes in the progress of Joseph’s experience. Despite Joseph’s kindness to the chief butler and despite the similarity of their circumstances - both being falsely accused (Joseph by Mrs. Potiphar and the chief butler by Pharaoh); both being mistrusted and mistreated; both being innocent men in prison - nonetheless, “…the chief butler did not remember Joseph, but forgot him” (40:23).
Why did the chief butler forget? Don’t you think that would have been uppermost on his mind? Don’t you think he should have been so grateful to Joseph, that he would have attended to this matter immediately? Perhaps he purposely “forgot” in order to protect himself. After all, if he told Joseph’s story to the king, the king might be offended that the butler was raising the issue of false accusation again – this time as it pertained to Joseph rather than himself, which was probably a sore point for the king given that he had just falsely accused the butler. The king might also be offended that the butler was accusing one of the king’s senior officers (Potiphar) of mistreatment, injustice etc.
So, perhaps this was a matter of saving his own skin. Whatever the reason, he “did not remember Joseph but forgot him.” To “not remember” someone or something is probably a Hebraism for consciously not calling something to mind. You see this in, “For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more” (Heb. 8:12, 17) – i.e. God consciously chooses to not remember our sins. Whereas, to forget is perhaps an unconscious matter. So, in that sense, perhaps what the chief butler did to Joseph was either consciously choosing to put it out of his mind or unconsciously forgetting.
The irony here is that once again, Joseph is mistreated, this time by someone who “owed” him a favor, this time by someone who had experienced the same injustice that he had, and that makes it doubly unjust. In fact, Joseph remained in prison for two more long years.
But there is another dramatic irony here. We know what’s coming next – another opportunity that was far greater than the one that had just eluded Joseph. It would not come for another 2 years (41:1) but come it would. How disappointed Joseph must have been as time went by and he did not hear from the chief butler. Yet what he did not know is that, in God’s providence and sovereign direction of his life, the next opportunity would be far greater than the one that just passed him by.
Perhaps you can think of a time in your life when you might have felt like Joseph, when you were unfairly treated. Perhaps at work you were passed over for a promotion that was given to the boss’ favorite who was less qualified and hadn’t been with the company as long as you had. When you were falsely accused, perhaps someone else implicated you in something that happened, in which you weren’t involved at all. Perhaps your supervisor at work jumped to conclusions and blamed you for something you didn’t do.
We all suffer from this at some point in our lives. Children suffer from it and come home in tears over some wrong done to them by their friends or teacher. Young people suffer from it when other students pass the blame on to them or lie about them. Adults suffer from it in their marriages and places of employment. Injustice can take many different forms, be it criticism, rumors, backstabbing, rejection, abuse (physical, emotional psychological, spiritual, sexual), personal condemnation, or the demeaning of your person. So…
1. What Do We Learn From Joseph About Injustice?
a) We must not allow injustice to control us emotionally. We must not allow the mistreatment and unfairness of our situation to take over our emotions. It’s so easy to allow “a root of bitterness to spring up and cause trouble, and by this many become defiled” (Heb. 12:15). We may not have control over our circumstances, but we can control how we respond to them. We can control our attitude to them.
We must not let the hurt degenerate into unchecked anger. I’m not suggesting that such treatment should not make us angry, for it often does. But we must keep a check on our emotions by not letting “the sun go down on our wrath nor give place to the devil” (Eph. 4:26-27), “not falling into reproach and the snare of the devil” (1 Tim. 3:7).
Anger can so easily degenerate into sinful behavior, “for the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:20). Anger can consume us and become so destructive in our lives.
b) We must not allow injustice to control us psychologically. Don’t let others’ treatment of you to control your thinking. Otherwise you can become cynical, scornful, critical of everything and everyone, resentful, bent on revenge. In fact you can become paralyzed by bitterness and anger.
You may recall Corrie ten Boom’s own story. She stood strong, like Joseph, even when she was put into a Nazi concentration camp for hiding Jews during WWII. Her sister, Betsie, died there and Corrie certainly struggled with issues of forgiveness, especially when, after the war was over, she came face to face with one of the prison’s most cruel guards. Corrie ten Boom had just spoken to a crowd of people in Germany about forgiveness and no sooner was the meeting over than this guard confronted her. He didn’t know that she had been one of his prisoners whom he had cruelly treated with his leather whip. He told her that he had been a guard at Ravensbruck (where she had been a prisoner – although he didn’t recognize her) but that since then he had become a Christian. Then he thrust out his hand asking for her forgiveness. Corrie ten Boom recounts how her blood froze. She knew she had to forgive him. And she knew that since the war, those victims of Nazi brutality who were able to forgive their enemies were able to also rebuild their lives, but that those who nursed their bitterness remained invalids.
Corrie went on to say that when she finally summoned up enough strength to hold out her hand to the guard, that, in that moment as their hands clasped each other, she knew the love of God like never before (Cited from Gene Getz, “Men of Character, Joseph,” 80-83).
We must not allow mistreatment to control us emotionally or psychologically, and ...
c) We must not allow injustice to control us spiritually. So many people turn against God when they encounter injustice, unfairness, mistreatment, false accusations, betrayal. When things don’t go well it’s easy for us to blame God. We never read that Joseph blamed God for his circumstances. In fact, we don’t read that he blamed anyone – not his brothers, father, Potiphar, Mrs. Potiphar, the butler, the baker, or the prison keeper.
When bad things happen, so many Christians stop living like a Christian. When things go against them they stop going to church, stop reading their Bible, stop praying. If there was ever a time when we need to turn to God and deepen our spiritual lives, it’s when life deals us a body blow. Joseph seemed to grow in his spiritual life during this experience. Even in prison, he attributed the ability to interpret dreams to God.
d) We must not allow injustice make us impatient while we wait for God to open up the way before us, while we wait for God to vindicate us, while we wait for God to reward us openly.
Joseph spent a good portion of his time in Egypt in prison and, some of that time, he knew that one man on the outside could probably attain his freedom, but he forgot Joseph. The following 2 years must have been interminably long for Joseph as he must have despaired of ever getting out - that opportunity had passed; would there ever be another?
If he ever wondered where God was in all this we don’t read about it. Did he wonder if God had abandoned him? Did he ever doubt whether God actually existed at all? We hear of people all the time in the news who have been condemned to prison for crimes they have not committed. And I often wonder how they deal with that emotionally, psychologically, socially, spiritually. After 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela went on to live a productive life.
As Christians, we have a divine resource that non-Christians do not have and yet that is the resource that Satan turns us against, just when we need the Lord the most. Only He can protect us from self-destructing under these circumstances.
2. What Do We Learn From Paul About Injustice?
Paul was mistreated, misunderstood, unfairly criticized, unjustly imprisoned, stoned, shipwrecked, starved etc. But he said, “Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, along with all malice. And be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ has forgiven you” (Eph. 4:31-32) . That’s the Christian principle for responding to false accusations, unfairness, and injustice. Paul reminds us: “If your enemy hunger feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in doing so you will heap coals of fire on his head. Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:20). That’s hard when we’ve been mistreated but so necessary.
3. What Do We Learn From Peter About Injustice?
Peter writes to Christians who were suffering for their faith in Christ - unfairly, unjustly mistreated. He reminds us of a basic Christian principle: “For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God” (1 Pet. 2:20). Peter reminds us of the example of Jesus “who committed no sin, nor was deceit found in his mouth; who when he was reviled did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten but committed himself to him who judges righteously” (1 Pet. 2:22-23).
4. What Do We Learn From Jesus About Injustice?
All of this, of course, points us to One greater than Joseph, One who cast aside his royal robes, took upon him the form of a servant, One who came to his own but his own did not receive him, One who was given a purple robe of mockery by those who called for his death. But the One who was abased, God highly exalted to be a Prince and a Savior.
Jesus teaches us much about responding to injustice, both in the ways He responded to injustices perpetrated against Him, and in His teachings. Jesus said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you” (Lk. 6:27). “To him who strikes you on the one cheek, offer the other also. And from him who takes away your cloak, do not withhold your tunic either” (Lk. 6:29). The response of a Christian to the offenses of life (mistreatment, false accusation, injustice etc.) should be entirely different from that of a non-Christian, because we live according to a counter-cultural lifestyle. Our responses are turned on their head so that instead of revenge, we bless; instead of bitterness, we forgive.
The overall lesson that we learn from this study is that… When we are unjustly accused, perhaps even condemned, we must wait for God’s deliverance and vindication.
Related Topics: Character Study, Christian Life