As part of my daily life, I try to practise my Hebrew translation skills by translating certain Hebrew texts into English. Lately I’ve been working on the Joseph narrative. In a recent translation I did, something struck me as I was translating it. This seems to happen a lot when I translate the text from its original language because I’m forced to focus on every single word of the text and its meaning in its context. Let me list my translation before I continue, from Genesis 39:19-23, which is after Potiphar’s wife frames Joseph for seducing her:
19, When his master heard the words that his wife spoke to him, “This is the way your servant treated me,” his anger burned. 20, So Joseph’s master took him and put him into prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were imprisoned, and he was there in prison. 21, But YHWH was with Joseph and stretched out to him His lovingkindness and gave him favour in the eyes of the chief of the prison. 22, And the chief of the prison put in Joseph’s charge all the prisoners who were in the prison. All that was done there, he was the one who did it. 23, The chief of the prison did not see anything in Joseph’s charge because YHWH was with him. And whatever he did, YHWH made it succeed.
Whenever this part of the Joseph narrative is preached from the pulpit or studied in bible study class, the focus is always on the amazing grace God gives to Joseph in the midst of his suffering. This is a true and great focus to teach on and study, but I want to focus on something else that we often overlook, which is verse twenty-three. Even in prison, Joseph was given authority. Those who are familiar with the Joseph narrative know that what Joseph did in prison caught the king’s interest, but it wasn’t this. Later we know it’s because of Joseph’s gift to interpret dreams; it’s not because Joseph showed great leadership skills over the others in the prison.
The way this is described in verse 23 is highly interesting because it’s a causal sentence (“because”). The man in charge of the prison didn’t see anything—or pay attention—to the work Joseph was doing BECAUSE God was with him. So if God wasn’t with Joseph, the chief of the prison would’ve noticed him? What are we to take from this?
Well, is there anything in our current lives that can help us understand this? Certainly. In a narrow way, we can learn from this that God can use any situation we’re in to minister to people. But in a broader way, it speaks on godly integrity. Joseph’s good actions went unnoticed. In our own times, the good actions of Christians often go unnoticed. The media is constantly covering celebrity happenings, political uproars, and covers any opportunity it gets that sheds Christians in a negative light. Even when Christians are the victim in the story, the media spins the story in a way that makes Christians out to be the enemy (e.g. Christian bakers denying service to homosexual weddings so as not to infringe upon their moral conscience).
Any Christian who’s familiar with our missions efforts knows the tremendous amount of good we do in the world both foreign and domestic. Sometimes it can become discouraging, however. We’re doing all this good in the world and for what? To continue to be ignored by the world and hated by them? Paul gives words of encouragement, “And let us not grow weary in doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:9-10).
We don’t perform good works so we may be recognised by the world. We do good works because we love our neighbour. How can the rest of the world see and acknowledge what we’re doing when it wants nothing to do with Christ? Hence godly integrity. I never understood what integrity was until I enlisted in the Army. Before I enlisted, in job interviews the interviewers would always ask me to define integrity. I had absolutely no idea, so I would just make something up. But the Army gave a good definition, “Doing the right thing legally and morally even when no one is looking.” Thus, godly integrity is obeying God even when no one is looking and especially when no one notices.
If you’re obeying God’s will for attention, you’re doing it wrong. God never told us to do good works so we may be honoured and recognised by men. This may happen at times, but it’s not the sole reason for why we do good works. God tells us to do good works so that others may know who He is. So even if we’re like Joseph, doing good things for our neighbour while no one notices, we have no need to worry because we’re not doing it for the world. We’re doing it for that person we’re ministering to. More importantly, God knows, for He is with us in the process.
Yet I do want to mention that I think verse 23 is indicative of Joseph’s trustworthy character. At the beginning of chapter 39 we find out Potiphar put Joseph in charge of everything he had. Joseph was a Hebrew slave, and yet Potiphar trusted Joseph enough not to steal anything. Joseph never had to be watched. Indeed, Potiphar’s trust in Joseph was rightfully placed. So the fact that the chief of the prison paid no attention to what Joseph was doing in prison could also simply speak to Joseph’s trustworthy character. Here, I think the text is simply reminding the reader of Joseph’s trustworthy character in spite of the false accusations of Potiphar’s wife. I think everything I said above is true as an allegorical lesson from Joseph’s experience, but staying strictly within the text I think it’s a reminder of Joseph’s trustworthy character, and yes, even his godly integrity.