The best of stories contain bigger stories within them. The characters are more than heroes, villains, or victims stuck in an isolated narrative; they embody the ugly and the beautiful in life. The bigger story in Charlotte’s Web is how love and sacrifice and friendship enrich our own lives. The larger story in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Huckleberry Finn, and The Grapes of Wrath is the American story—a national narrative that’s a mixture of hope and horror. These best of stories are double-narratives, you might say, for they are tales of single individuals who are simultaneously iconic of whole populations.
The ancient rabbis read the stories of the Old Testament, especially those in Genesis, in a similar way, but with a prophetic nuance as well. They would say, “What happened to the fathers, happened on account of the sons.” What they meant was that you could divine Israel’s future in her past. What happened to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph foretold what would happen to Israel. The lives of the patriarchs were prophetic; these individual lives foreshadowed the future life of the nation. That’s why, for instance, Abraham journeys into Egypt because of a famine, gets into trouble with Pharaoh while there, God smites Egypt with plagues, and Abraham and his family finally leave Egypt laden with wealth from the country (Genesis 12). All of this happened as a mini-exodus. In the story of father Abraham you read the bigger story of the exile, captivity, suffering, and eventual redemption of Israel in Exodus.
On an even grander scale, the same is true of Joseph, whose life in multitude of ways points to the story of Christ and the lives of Christians around the world, especially those who are bearing the cross of persecution. To illustrate this, let’s take one story from Joseph’s life and read within it a much more expansive narrative.
The Seductress Turned Persecutor
Though sold as a slave in Egypt, Joseph performed so faithfully as a servant in Potiphar’s house that his master put him in charge of everything. All was going well until Potiphar’s wife, eyeing Joseph as “handsome in form and appearance” (Genesis 39:6), decided she wanted him as a lover. “Have sex with me,” she urged him, to which Joseph gave this famous refusal: “Behold, because of me my master has no concern about anything in his house, and he has put everything that he has in my charge. He is no greater in this house than I am, nor has he kept anything from me except yourself, because you are his wife. How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” (39:8-9). Undeterred by his rebuff, the seductress continued, day after day, to woo him to her bed, but Joseph would have nothing to do with her. One day, when Joseph literally ran away from her lustful advances, she grabbed his outer garment as he fled outside. That was the last straw. As if to prove that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, she accused Joseph of attempted rape, proffered his garment as evidence, and Joseph wound up in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.
What is most instructive about this episode is what Potiphar’s wife did to Joseph and why. She might have simply had a good cry over her unsuccessful liaison. She might have made his service there a living hell. But, no, that wasn’t enough. This Hebrew servant rejected her will, refused to submit to the evil she desired, for the express reason that he “could not do this great wickedness and sin against God.” There you have it. Ultimately, it was not Joseph who was keeping Joseph from her; God was the barrier. His holy will thwarted her will. His commandment kept Joseph out of her bed.
Whether she realized it or not, this Egyptian woman was at war with the Lord of Israel. Her will was pitted against His will. Her desires were battling God’s desires. Joseph was caught in the crossfire. Or, rather, Joseph embodied the divine enemy. He was the image of God who represented to her the foe who opposed her. Therefore, when she decided to persecute Joseph for not submitting to her wishes, she was in reality persecuting God. For when a person, out of fidelity to the Lord and His word, refuses to submit to evil, the one who is refused lashes out at the faithful child of God because, in truth, the persecutor is at war with heaven itself.
Potiphar’s Wife as the Matriarch of ISIS and Boko Haram
If the best of stories contain bigger stories within them, what is the bigger story in this narrative of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife? How did what happened to this “father” foretell what would happen to the “sons”? In Joseph we see the bigger story of Christ and His followers, who suffer persecution from a world at war not so much with the church as with God Himself.
We have mourned with our Christian brothers and sisters in Iraq who have been systematically and brutally murdered, tortured, and driven from their homes by ISIS. We have witnessed many of the same atrocities committed against Christians by Boko Haram in Nigeria. The reason for this persecution goes beyond the political aspirations of these terrorist organizations. It is deeper than any cultural or sociological divide between Christians and their Muslim persecutors. The reason is even more profound than their radical Islamic views, based upon their interpretation of Quranic passages about the killing of infidels [read: Christians]. The foundational reason that Muslims are persecuting Christians is that faithful Christians refuse to submit to the evil these Islamists desire; they cannot do this great wickedness and sin against God; they steadfastly reject spiritual adultery with those who worship a lie. Though they would never admit it, ISIS and Boko Haram see in the Christians whom they persecute the image of the true God whom they reject, whom they hate, with whom they are at war.
To Persecute Christians is to Persecute Christ
Long ago, when a persecutor of Christians named Saul was on his way to terrorize more of the faithful, the Lord Jesus appeared to him, saying, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4). When Saul said, “Who are you, Lord?” He responded, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” (9:5). Saul’s persecution of the church was his persecution of the God of the church, Jesus Christ. The Lord had promised as much when He warned His disciples that “you will be hated by everyone because of me,” (Matthew 10:22). Peel back the layers of prejudice, jealousy, fear, religious ideology and whatever other motivations there might be for the actions of Potiphar’s wife, ISIS, Boka Haram, and other persecutors of the faithful, and you will find the core reason is that the persecutor is at war with God Himself.
As we stand with our fellow Christians who bear the brunt of this violent hatred, let us remember that, more importantly, the resurrected Lord stands with them. This Jesus, whom ISIS persecutes, is the Jesus who was martyred by crucifixion, but who rose from the grave and joins His followers to that saving death and resurrection in the waters of Baptism. And let us pray for the Islamists. The Lord has a proven track record of turning persecutors into prophets, apostates into apostles. Who knows but that one day a former member of ISIS may preach the same Gospel he once despised. And finally let us, with our fellow believers, be faithful even unto death, that we too may receive the crown of life from Him who is our life, the Lord Jesus Christ, who loves even those who hate Him and His church.
What we need in our fragmented world, full of hurting people, is the love of Jesus Christ, who welcomes home sinners with a grace that knows no bounds. My book Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons, is packed with reflections that go that extra mile of grace. Again and again, they present the Christ who is crucified and risen for you. Please take a moment to check it out here. You may also be interested in my collections of hymns and poetry entitled, The Infant Priest, which you can purchase here. Both books are also available on Amazon, as is my booklet Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing (also on Kindle). Thank you for your prayers and support!