I preached on the Joseph story and came across something that should be a great encouragement to Christians facing difficult circumstances.
If you’re familiar with the story, you know that Joseph goes through a whole lot of ups-and-downs. He’s sold into slavery by his brothers (Boo!), but soon rises to #2 position in his master’s house (Yay!). He’s thrown into jail for something (actually, someone) he didn’t do (Boo!), but then he gets put in charge of his fellow-inmates (Yay! Sort of). Then, it’s all good, as Joseph becomes Pharaoh’s right-hand man and saves his people from the potentially devastating effects of a seven-year famine.
The point of the story, of course, is that NOTHING—including a dysfunctional family where a husband and father plays favorites with his wives (Oh, Rachel!) and his children (Oh, Joey & Benny!)—can derail God’s plan to use Abraham’s offspring to fix the mess Adam made. God, it turns out, has been in control throughout the whole scenario, as Joseph himself recognizes at the end of the story: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Gen 50:20).
So, God was with Joseph all along the way. But, interestingly enough, the narrator only explicitly says so two times in the whole account—right at those two places in the story where circumstances appear most hopeless for Joseph.
In Genesis 39:1b, we read, “Potiphar, an Egyptian who was one of Pharaoh’s officials, the captain of the guard, bought him from the Ishmaelites who had taken him there.” The very next verse begins with the statement, “The LORD was with Joseph.”
Then, once again, after Potiphar’s wife had falsely accused Joseph of attempting to “make sport” of her (gotta love those biblical euphemisms), the Holy Spirit wants us to know that even here—in what is arguably the darkest moment in Joseph’s life—God was close at hand: “But while Joseph was there in the prison, the LORD was with him…the LORD was with Joseph” (39:21-23).
Now we know that God was with Joseph throughout the story. God’s sovereign intervention on behalf of His people is the point of the whole saga. But only when (a) Joseph is sold into slavery and (b) thrown into prison do we encounter the phrase “The LORD was with Joseph.” It is as if the Holy Spirit is saying to us, When things are the darkest, and God seems farthest away, the LORD is with us!
But there is more. Notice the capital letters in the word “LORD” in the above passages. As many of you are aware, those caps tell us that the name in view is God’s covenant name, “Yahweh,” the special relational name God gave to his chosen people.
Well, I did a little word search and (you’ve probably guessed it by now), except for a single appearance among the blessings of Jacob (49:18), “Yahweh” also occurs in the Joseph narrative only in Genesis 39, where Joseph is sold into slavery and thrown into prison.
Now the obvious explanation for the selective use of “Yahweh” is, of course, the various sources (JEDP) that now constitute the Pentateuch. Genesis 39 was written by the ‘J’ source. The rest of the story came from the ‘E’ source.
NOT! If you buy that explanation, you’ve been eating too much alphabet soup, and I’ll be happy to sell you a house on a great surfing beach in Nebraska.
No. The only possible reason for the selective use of “Yahweh” in the story—and for Genesis 39 being the only place that Moses writes, “The LORD was with Joseph”—is that God wants his kids to know for certain that “The LORD is with us,” particularly when circumstances are at their worst, when it feels (to some of us, at any rate) that God is a million miles away.
It was the last thing Jesus—Yahweh in the flesh—said in the Gospel of Matthew: “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”