As a stranger in a strange land Joseph understandably was a lonely man.
Before he was sold into Egypt the circle of his friends was very small. His mother died when he was only a young lad. His ten stepbrothers hated him and could not speak peaceably to him. His younger, full-brother was too young to afford a very rich measure of fellowship and friendship to Joseph. It was mainly his father that supplied Joseph with friendship and fellowship in his early days.
Arriving in Egypt, after being sold by his brothers, his social life was hardly existent, because he had no friends to surround him, encourage, and strengthen him. In a small way Potiphar befriended him, but he soon turned into an enemy who cast Joseph unheard into prison. The jailer befriended him, but this was cut short when the king brought him out of prison to explain his dreams. The exaltation that Pharaoh gave him erected a wall between him and the Egyptians. He became Lord over them instead of a friend among them. His work required of him extensive travel through the land to buy surplus corn and wheat, and there was little if any time for a social life. His life was at that time mainly business and travel.
Even beyond all this, and deeper than it all, was the fact that there was such a tremendous spiritual difference between him and the Egyptians, so that he knew the meaning of the word loneliness. He was a descendant of Shem; and they were descendants of Ham. He was a man with strong faith in God; and they were worshippers of Egypt’s idols. How could he, with the life of Christ in him, have concord with those who were ruled by Belial? What communion could there be between him, as a child of light, with these children of darkness?
Because of all this you can pity the man. You can have deep sympathy for him. Your heart can bleed for one who at such a young and tender age has known so much disappointment and hardship. But do not let all this move you to make excuses for him. Do not try to defend him in that wherein he may not be defended. His conduct in Potiphar’s house was highly commendable. Before Pharaoh he confessed God boldly and as an exemplary child of God. And that is why it hurts so to read what we do in Genesis 41:45. And that is also why we must be on guard not to let our pity for him lead us to make excuses for him.
Out of a clear, blue sky we read that Joseph, this same devout man of God, married an Egyptian woman who was the daughter of the priest of On. Even if we, to be charitable, take the other possible translation that his wife’s father was the prince, rather than priest, of On, the fact remains that he married outside the covenant sphere and took to himself an unbeliever for a wife. He became unequally yoked through marriage. No, he did not seek her, was not overwhelmed by some fleshly beauty, did not fall in love with a face. Young people in the church will do that, and they reveal that the love of a man or of a woman means more to them than the love of God. And although they know ahead of time that this love for a creature will take them away from a life of love for God, they are driven by their inner, fleshly emotions to go that way of the flesh. Joseph, however, had a wife given to him, arranged for and settled by the king. We read the Pharaoh gave him a wife.
There may have been political or even religious overtones in this deed of Pharaoh. The idol On was the sun god of the Egyptians; and in that light the translation of the KJV, which we have, is no doubt correct. Her father was a priest of On rather than a prince of On. Deliberately or otherwise, then, the king is bringing pressure upon Joseph’s spiritual life. At least, Satan is behind it to destroy if possible Joseph’s faith in God. On, the sun god of the Egyptians, was feared and worshiped because he was supposed to be the one who gave such abundant crops as they now enjoyed those seven years. And he would also be accused of sending the drought that brought on the famine. That god would therefore have to be appeased; and what better way would there be for the king to do so than to bring Joseph into the families of those who worship this idol?
Or, On, also being the name of the capital city of lower Egypt, being named after this idol—and having received also both the Greek name Heliopolis, from the Greek word for sun, and the Hebrew name of Beth Shemesh, after the Hebrew word for sun (Heliopolis meaning City of the Sun and Beth Shemesh meaning House of the Sun)—there is the possibility that to appease the wrath and disappointment of the prince of this city, for being passed by in favour of this Hebrew, the king arranges a union between the two families, or deems it wise to grant honours to the family by such a union.
Whatever Pharaoh’s reason was for giving Asenath to Joseph, it may be stated that she was an unbeliever, and, as we said, that Joseph married outside the covenant sphere. We find that fact stated three times. In Genesis 41:45 and 50 and in Genesis 46:20 Joseph’s wife is presented with that same description, “daughter of Potipherah priest of On.” God is saying something to us when He holds this truth repeatedly before our eyes. We do not simply read, “And Joseph took unto himself a wife, Asenath, who bore him two sons….” The identity of this woman as being anything but a descendant in the line of Shem, whom Noah blessed and to whom he in God’s name declared, “Blessed be the Lord God of Shem,” is repeatedly brought to our attention. Lest we overlook it, and fail to see its import, it is stated again and again.
The reason in God’s mind for calling this to our attention, and for displaying this weakness and sin in Joseph is that we must repeatedly, in Old and as well in New Testament, see and learn this humbling yet comforting truth that we are saved by grace: “not of works, lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2:9), and ‘…it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy” (Romans 9:16). We who slip and slide, stumble and falter must repeatedly be comforted by this; and God’s glory as a merciful God must shine forth before us.
All the above implies that it was sinful for Joseph to accept this wife. The king gave her; but Joseph received her. We do not read that the king gave her at Joseph’s request, and that he fell so far from his righteousness that he could begin looking for a wife at all costs and simply with fleshly considerations. But the passage clearly reveals that he put up no protest and did take her to live with her and to raise up children there in Egypt through her. Whether he feared the king, and this was now his weakness, or whether it was the loneliness coupled with the realization that he would have to stay there in the king’s service for many years to come, the fact is that he stumbled; and all this was in God’s counsel that we might be furnished once again with the truth of His tender mercy and amazing grace that saves us by the perfect obedience and death of His only begotten Son.
And Joseph did in this way get some relief from his loneliness and tears. We read after the birth of his firstborn son, whom he called Manasseh, which means forgetting, that Joseph stated, “For God hath made me forget all my toil, and all my father’s house” (Genesis 41:51). By toil he means the rough road on which he had to walk since his brothers sold him into Egypt. Physically he did not have such a rigorous life of toil and labour. He had nothing yet compared with what Jacob’s descendants will have there in the land of bondage. But it was very hard on his soul. He had grief, and he knew misery in great measure. His soul had been busy, working overtime; and seldom was he without the agonies of his unjust treatment and hatred of men.
That he forgot all his father’s house means that the separation forced upon him, and which he could not change, no longer brought him the grief that it formerly caused him to have in his soul. He did not forget who his father was. He did not forget what his brothers had done to him. He remembered that he had a younger brother at home by the name of Benjamin. But the loneliness that he felt was gone. He had a family; and he had a son who now occupied much of his attention. He did not now live with himself—and perhaps talk to himself—because there were no friends to fellowship with as his soul desired. When he came home at night after his work, or from his travels across the country, he did not sit with himself in silence and in the gathering dusk to review in his mind the past and its hardships, with his heart going back to his father’s house, where he wanted to be. He had this child to come home to, and to take on his knee. He had joys and new experiences that pushed away from his mind that sordid past.
And above all, his faith is what sustained him and enabled him to endure all that hardship. That faith displays itself when at the naming of his firstborn son he said, “God hath made me forget….” He did not lose his faith in God. And God in His mercy had preserved in this child of His a true faith, even though he had slipped and been unfaithful in taking such a wife. Surely “the steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord; and he delighteth in His way. Though he fall, he shall not be utterly cast down; for the Lord upholdeth him with His hand” (Psalm 37:23-24).
But God does more. Joseph is given another son, whom he calls Ephraim, and which means fruitful. His aged father Jacob on his deathbed agreed with Joseph’s evaluation expressed in this name. For Jacob had gathered his sons in order to tell them what would befall them. Of Joseph he said, “Joseph is a fruitful bough, even a fruitful bough by a well, whose branches run over the wall” (Genesis 49:22). He who was formerly alone has now begotten two sons.
Both Jacob and his son Joseph, however, ascribe it all to God, and neither one boasts of doing anything in his own power. And if the birth of Manasseh could move Joseph to say that he had forgotten his toil and his father’s house, how much more the birth of another son should fill his heart with gladness and fill his days with remembrance of what God is doing for him, instead of what men had done unto him. He knew a mercy without measure.
And let us never doubt God’s mercy or fail to find comfort in His works. Sinful though we be, wholly unworthy of the smallest part of any blessing as we are, God’s mercy forgives and blesses the sinner for whom He sent His Son to make atonement, and who knows himself as one of these because his sins bother him. Isaiah cried it out so wonderfully in Isaiah 40:1, 2. “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” That is right: double for all her sins. She receives the forgiveness of these sins. But she also receives heavenly blessings. She is given a pardon, but also a blessing. Her sins are taken away, but she is given a place in God’s house of many mansions.
The courts may set a man free after his punishment has been suffered the predetermined length of time. But the courts do not take him out of prison, furnish him with a new home, a new automobile, and a million dollars in the bank. The God of all mercy sent His Son to suffer our punishment and took all our guilt away. But also out of prison He brings us into the house of many mansions and makes us exceedingly rich with heavenly treasures. No wonder Paul, in Ephesians 2:4-6, declares that “God Who is rich in mercy…hath…made us sit in heavenly places in Christ Jesus