Gen. 39:1 “Now Joseph had been taken down to Egypt. And Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, captain of the guard, and Egyptian, bought him from the Ishmaelites who had taken him down there.”
I can just picture Joseph on that first night in Egypt, can’t you? Exhausted both physically and emotionally, he lies down on his back, stretching his body out on a meager bed consisting of hay. No doubt by the close of the day, he feels every bruise with intensity…including the one in his heart. The cacophony of thoughts in his pounding head finally slow, and begin to drift towards home. Because he shares his surroundings with other slaves, he stifles the sobs that rise up from the very center of his being. Hot sorrow begins to leak from the corners of his eyes, and with each blink, spill downward, toward the nape of his neck. I wonder if he could feel God kneeling beside him, tenderly collecting his tears?
The way in which Egyptian slaves were treated changed over different historical time periods. At the time Joseph lived, unlike the brutal conditions within the Roman Empire, Egyptian slavery wasn’t as harsh or widespread and slaves were even afforded a few basic human rights. Two of the most common reasons for the acquisition of slaves at the time, were war and indebtedness due to abject poverty within the country. There were Egyptians who sold themselves and their families into slavery because they were better off than trying to subsist as peasants. Jobs assigned to slaves included: agricultural, domestic and temple work. The most dangerous job was mining. Slaves with special skills and those who could read or write were considered more valuable and served the wealthy. If they did well, there was the possibility of being promoted as managers of their master’s estates.
One thing is for certain. No matter how well he was treated as a slave, Joseph was no longer free or the person he had been a mere 24 hours earlier. Once he arrived in Egypt, no one cared who Joseph was, where he came from, what his story was, or least of all, how he felt. Everything that had made him uniquely Joseph, no longer mattered. He was no longer known by those around him. Think about that for a moment.
Identity and security come from being known.
No one in Potiphar’s household knew what his favorite food was, or what activity he most enjoyed. They didn’t know how he got that scar on the bottom of his chin or that he was accustomed to his father’s nightly embrace before turning into bed. It was of no consequence that he had grown up with a rich Godly heritage. He was no longer Joseph: son of Jacob, grandson of Isaac, great-grandson of Abraham. Now he was simply Joseph: slave to Potiphar. And as a slave, he was expected to blend in amongst all the other pagan slaves.
We’ve all experienced moments, days or seasons in our lives when we were in situations where no one knew us; whether it was the first day of a new school, new job, new neighborhood, new church, etc. And while those situations may seem innocuous compared to Joseph’s, it helps us understand, at least in part, how he must have felt. Scared, nervous, lonely, perhaps invisible.
Joseph had to just pick up and start living a completely different life… but God… Don’t you just love that? Our situations can look more dire and devastating than they’ve ever looked…but with God we have hope. We can feel alone and forsaken and without an identity, but if we know Jesus, we are never alone.
“The Lord was with Joseph…” Gen. 39:2a
“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; He will never leave you or forsake you.” Deut. 31:6 “For the LORD will not reject his people; He will not forsake his inheritance.” Ps. 94:14
Any other time, I might have admired the red and white décor in the ice cream parlor. Instead, I sat empty of all emotion as we waited on our order. I kept my eyes cast downward as my natural mother tried without success to engage me in conversation.
“Your school has a choir and I know you like to sing. I don’t know if you can get in or not since it’s late in the school year, but if you want, we can ask.” She nervously stirred her ice water with a straw as she prattled on. I shrugged my shoulders, hoping to convey what I was feeling ~ complete disinterest.
When she finally paused, I looked up. She turned her wristwatch toward her, checking the time, then glanced around, looking for our waitress. “We can’t be late to our meeting with the principal. We’ve got to get you registered for school today. ” I noticed a hesitance before she went on.
“I don’t quite know how to bring this up, but we’ve got to talk about what last name you’re going to use now.”
Now. I suddenly hated that word. I hated my now. I desperately wanted yesterday back, or tomorrow to come. I wanted anything that would transport me out of my here and now.
I hadn’t even thought about my last name. It was part of me and who I was since I had entered high school. It had been offered to me, and I had gladly accepted it, proudly signing my moniker on all my school papers, official documents and my driver’s license. It wasn’t just a name. It was my identity. To me it meant that I was loved and belonged to someone special. Someone who had wanted me enough to make me part of their family. But that was then and this was…now.
“I don’t know,” I said flatly. “I haven’t had time to think about it.”
“Well, I’d just like to pretend that I raised you,” she said in a dreamy sort of way.
“What?” I asked, confused. I couldn’t believe she had just said that.
“I just mean that if I introduce you to people and we have the same last name, they’ll just assume I raised you. And that would sure save a lot of questions for both of us, right?” she asked, looking rather sheepish. “We wouldn’t have to explain anything to anyone. Of course my friends would know, but no one else needs to know how you got here or that I didn’t raise you.”
Just then, the waitress appeared, setting the ice cream sundaes down in front of us. Sensing the tenseness at the table, she quickly totaled the bill, then retreated without saying a word.
“But you didn’t raise me,” I said defensively. The last thing I felt like doing was going along with any absurd games.
“I know. But that wasn’t my fault,” she said with fierce intensity. “Your dad took you and your brother from me for no reason.” Her eyes flashed fiery anger as she emphasized the word “took”. “He collected false information from the neighbors; lies about me, to get custody of you. I never did anything wrong.” She took a deep breath, then leaned in as if she was about to tell me a secret. “But I have you now.”
There was that word again. I bristled at the thought of being used as a pawn in a chess game between two people that had divorced well over a decade earlier. More than that, I resented the suggestion that my entire life be denied and rewritten. Every experience that had brought me to this place didn’t seem to matter to her.
“Did your foster family legally adopt you?” she asked. I answered with a barely audible “No,” and wondered if it made any difference.
“Well, we’ve talked it over and my husband is willing to legally adopt you—that is, if you want him to of course. Then we’d all have the same last name,” she said, then abruptly added, “but you don’t have to decide now. It’s your decision.”
I set my spoon down. What was normally a favorite treat, tasted bitter in my mouth. My gut sensed that now-all-too-familiar feeling of entrapment and that it really wasn’t my decision. “Why would your husband want to adopt me? He doesn’t even know me.”
“Well, it would give you a legal last name.” She kept stressing the word legal as if that held any significant importance to me. As if it’s okay to go about flippantly changing last names to suit the situation–as long as it’s all legal.
“Besides, he fell in love with you at the family reunion,” she gushed. “And I’m sure you’ll come to love him in time. He’s a really good guy Caryn. But it’s totally up to you. Until you decide though, what do you think about using his last name?”
And there it was. I felt completely manipulated and used. My natural mother wanted me to change my last name. Not to give me an identity, but to give her an identity. She wanted to be my mother without having mothered or raised me.
I wanted to fight with her. I wanted to stand up, right there in front of God and everybody and ask her who she thought she was. Didn’t she know what I’d just gone through? Didn’t she care that I’d just lost my entire family and all of my friends—and that I was hurting? Didn’t she know that I didn’t want her to be my mother? Did she really expect me to just pick up and live a completely different life?
But I had no fight left in me. I was beyond emotionally exhausted. I felt like the mere shell of a person; like someone who’s insides were dead, but who’s body refused to die. So I said nothing.
Before the afternoon was over, I signed my new name—and—months later acquiesced to being adopted by her husband. It didn’t matter. I no longer felt like I belonged… to anyone.
But the Lord was with me.
“I will lead the blind by a way they did not know; I will lead them in paths they have not known. I will make darkness light before them and crooked paths straight. These things I will for them and not forsake them.” Is. 42:16
“The LORD himself goes before you and will be with you; He will never leave you or forsake you. Do not be afraid. Do not be discouraged.” Deut. 31:8
If you’re just joining us, this is a series where I am sharing the life of Joseph and paralleling it with my own story. You can read the previous stories by clicking here:
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