Four times in Genesis 39 we read that God was with Joseph (39:2-3, 21, 23). The statements form a set of pillars at either end of the story of Joseph’s initial experience of Egypt. On the one end, they come at the beginning of the story after Joseph has been sold by the Ishmaelites to Potiphar, the pharaoh’s “captain of the guard” (39:1). The point of the description is to show to us that God’s presence “prospered” Joseph (39:2). He was a “successful man” (39:2) because “the Lord was with him” (39:3). William Tyndale translated it, “the Lord was with Joseph and he was a lucky fellow!” The point is that the presence of God in the life of Joseph prospered him. He was put in charge of Potiphar’s entire house entrusting everything that he had to Joseph. God was there, in the good times. True, he was a slave, but life was good.
It is relatively easy to reason that when things are going well that this represents blessings of God. Most of us fall into it by default: things are going well and we thank God for “every good and perfect gift that comes from above.” We count our blessings and name them one by one. In the abundance of provision and security of a life where things are going well for us, it is reasonable to conclude that God is in the midst of all of this.
But Moses, in writing the account of Joseph, has a more profound theology than this. As the story develops, things suddenly, and without warning, turn bad. Joseph finds himself the victim of a false accusation of sexual assault—rape, if you will. It is a nightmare scenario where we are told unequivocally that he is utterly innocent. But accuse someone of rape, and some are bound to believe it no matter how loud the protest. Joseph has no recourse to law. “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” wrote William Congreve in The Mourning Bride (1697), and Potiphar’s wife, a jilted woman to be sure, cries foul, and, understandably, the husband has only one course of action at his disposal: Joseph is imprisoned. The fact he was put in the “King’s prison” (39:20), certainly not the worst Egyptian penitentiary, probably indicates that Potiphar may well have doubted his wife’s integrity.