Monday, January 5, 2009

Integrity and Seduction

Now Joseph was well-built and handsome, and after a while his master’s wife took notice of Joseph and said, “Come to bed with me!”

                        Genesis 39.6-7

The Burden of Beauty

When we entrust our lives to God’s care, He transforms the ugliness others heap on us into radiant beauty. But here’s the rub: perhaps to spare our aptitude for vanity, He doesn’t spare us the burden of beauty. Being attractive to others—if not always physically, certainly on an emotional and personal level—carries costs and liabilities. It targets us for undesirable offers and attention. It requires us to be always cautious, constantly aware, and extremely prudent in delicate, uncomfortable situations. Joseph is the perfect case study for learning how to manage seduction without compromising integrity.

Joseph far outranks his 11 brothers as his father’s favorite. He’s a dreamer who captures Jacob’s heart and as a result, receives lavish gifts of affection, the dearest being a fancy coat. His brothers can’t stand him. They sell him to slave traders and strip him of his coat, which they soak in goat’s blood to back up their story that a wild animal killed him. Joseph—scrawny, downcast, and poorly dressed—arrives in Egypt, where he’s sold to Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh’s guard. But Genesis 39.2 tells us, “The LORD was with Joseph and he prospered.” He grows stronger, more strapping by the day and climbs the ranks of Potiphar’s household until he’s in charge of its daily management while his master comes and goes on business.

The Desperate Housewife

Here the story enters familiar territory, later explored by everything from Lady Chatterly’s Lover to “Desperate Housewives”. Potiphar’s wife, bored and lonely during her husband’s prolonged absences, starts noticing what a fine man Joseph’s become. He’s a servant, purchased to answer her beck and call. So she beckons him to bed. He politely, yet firmly, declines. “My master has entrusted the entire house to my care,” Joseph explains, “except for you. How could I dishonor his trust and sin against God?” But this desperate housewife has no interest in Joseph’s welfare. She’s relentless. Finally, she catches him alone in the house and boldly pulls at his cloak. That’s all she gets, though. Joseph dashes away before she gets a tighter grip on him.

The Price of Integrity

Escaping trouble often invites trouble, as Joseph finds out. (Now we’re in To Kill a Mockingbird and “CSI” country.) Potiphar’s wife cries, “Rape!” and presents Joseph’s cloak as evidence of his assault. The husband returns, sees the cloak, believes the story, and has Joseph arrested. A young man disowned by his brothers and stranded without any rights in a foreign land, Joseph surely estimates the price of integrity to be greater than anticipated. He probably deals with regret, too. It was common for servants’ duties to include their masters’ personal pleasure; in many cultures, it was expected. He must ask himself, “Joseph, when will you learn? After all your hard work and honorable behavior, you’re right back where you started—stripped of your coat and your freedom.” Yet what looks like reversion to us sets up a classic reversal from God. (Nobody loves surprise endings better than He.) God had bigger plans for Joseph. After all was said and done, each apparent setback was really a quantum leap forward.

Our Father’s favor doesn’t sit well with others. They strip our pride, deceive those we love with lies, and sell us off without caring where we land. Then, as we grow in God’s grace and knowledge, our beauty attracts untoward attention. People of every sort tender seductions of every kind to compromise our integrity. Some insist, using our desire to serve as a lever. When we resist, it often looks like we’re back where we started. We can’t ever sacrifice our integrity and resolve, however. They’re very rare and vital to God’s plan. He will raise us to receive respect of the highest order. Joseph ended up second only to Pharaoh. Potiphar and his wife served him. His brothers, impoverished from famine, begged him for mercy and kindness. How’s that for a surprise ending?

Joseph and Potiphar's Wife (Tintoretto: 1555)

(Tomorrow: Nothing to Brag About)

No comments: