November 4, 2016 will see the release of the movie Hacksaw Ridge - the story of Desmond Doss, an army medic who refused to carry a gun because of his strongly held beliefs that God did not want him to kill or harm anyone. He wanted to serve his country simply by saving lives. Despite massive and sometimes violent opposition from his peers, sometimes his family, and from the military itself, Doss went on to save 75 men at the Battle of Okinawa, and was awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroic deeds.
The whole time, Doss ran the risk of being seriously harmed or even killed because he would not carry a weapon. But he never wavered in his conviction. Doss maintained his integrity.
Why do you do the right thing? Is it because you’re afraid you’ll get in trouble? Because you don’t want to disappoint your parents or friends? Because your conscience will bother you? What if you knew that you could break the rules and get away with it?
The news is full of politicians and celebrities who thought they could get away with one thing or another, and found out that they were gravely mistaken. Scandals of this nature are so common, in fact, that it’s almost more surprising when someone does choose to do the right thing.
In Genesis 39, we find an example of this kind of integrity in Joseph’s story. Here, the strength of his character is demonstrated, even as his circumstances take a further turn for the worse.
At the end of chapter 37, we learned that Joseph was sold as a slave into the household of Potiphar, the captain of the Pharaoh’s guard. He doesn’t stay a mere household slave for long, though – Joseph is naturally talented and blessed by God, and finds himself in charge of more and more of Potiphar’s household. Eventually Potiphar appoints him steward, trusting him to manage all of his households, lands, and business affairs, to the point where Potiphar “did not concern himself with anything except the food he ate” (39:6 NIV).
Then comes the test of everything he has worked for. The writer notes that Joseph was “well-built and handsome” (39:6 NIV). It’s easy to imagine the local Egyptian girls and slaves alike swooning over him. What Joseph probably didn’t expect was that his master’s wife would be among his admirers.
One day, when he’s alone in the house, she approaches him and invites him to have sex with her. As a slave, Joseph has very few prospects for getting married, and he must be lonely. His master’s wife is beautiful, desirable, powerful – and capable of keeping a secret. Giving in to her advances could mean pleasure without punishment – but Joseph stands firm. Again and again, Potiphar’s wife tries to seduce him, and again and again he turns her down.
Eventually, she gets angry. Joseph deserves punishment. This time, she holds onto him by his flimsy linen garment, and when he tries to escape she rips it free of him and starts to scream. Joseph has tried to rape her, she claims. It’s her word against his, and no one would ever believe a slave’s word over a noblewoman’s.
This is where things get interesting. In her novel Joseph, Terry Fivash suggests that Potiphar did not really believe that Joseph had tried to rape his wife. The punishment for rape or attempted rape was execution, especially for a slave. Egyptian prison was not a long-term institution, yet Joseph is sent to prison indefinitely instead of facing death. With this in mind, it’s possible that Potiphar is doing Joseph a kindness by sending him to jail, sparing his life while simultaneously upholding his wife’s honor.
Even if it is a kindness, it feels monstrously unfair. “With integrity,” Zig Ziglar claims, “you have nothing to fear, since you have nothing to hide.” Yet it is Joseph’s integrity that lands him in prison.
The Bible is full of promised rewards for the righteous. Proverbs 2:21-22 says that “the upright will live in the land, and the blameless remain in it; but the wicked will be cut off from the land, and the unfaithful will be torn from it” (NIV).
What must have run through Joseph’s head, forgotten in a jail cell because he did the right thing? “Character,” an old saying goes, “is what you are in the dark.” When he was in the dark, Joseph did the right thing – and lost everything.
Thankfully, this isn't the end of his story.
- The text says that “The Lord was with Joseph,” leading him to successfully manage Potiphar’s household, and that because of this success “His master saw that the Lord was with him,” so he put all of his responsibilities in Joseph’s hands. Do you think this means that Potiphar recognized God’s hand, or just Joseph’s success?
- Why do you think God allows us to be in situations where followings his law doesn’t go well for us?
- Which do you think is more difficult: maintaining your integrity when you’re in a position of power, or when you’re not?
- Read Genesis 39:20-23. Even while Joseph was in prison, God was with him and caused him to rise to a prominent leadership position within the prison. Joseph maintained the same kind of consistency even in the worst circumstances. What might we learn from this about the relationship between integrity and consistency?
- In the modern world, Desmond Doss (Hacksaw Ridge) is one example of a brave person maintaining integrity in the face of overwhelming odds. Can you think of any others who you would consider good examples of integrity?