Off Limits

I think just about anyone who reads the Bible regularly or over an extended period of time has had a moment like I had last night…one of those moments when I read something I know I have read numerous times before, but I see something or catch something that somehow never registered or connected in that way before.

I was reading about Joseph, the one with the fancy coat and the brothers who hated him. This is a familiar story, even to many who are not regular readers of Scripture. But as I was reading about the events that resulted in Joseph being thrown into an Egyptian prison a similarity to the circumstances surrounding the very first sin caught my attention.

In Joseph’s case, after being sold into slavery by his brothers, he becomes the head of Potiphar’s house, second only to Potiphar himself in overseeing and administering the various elements of the household. Potiphar’s wife takes a liking to Joseph, and she tries repeatedly to seduce Joseph. Joseph resisted these efforts, and in so doing he said to Potiphar’s wife, “Behold, because of me my master has no concern about anything in the house, and he has put everything that he has in my charge. He is not greater in this house than I am, nor has he kept back anything from me except yourself, because you are his wife. How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” (Genesis 39:8-9, ESV).

Now, read these verses from Genesis 3: “And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die'” (Genesis 3:16-17, ESV).

The similarity I had never before noticed was that Adam and Eve and Joseph were placed in settings in which they had complete, unrestricted access to absolutely everything and anything with one exception. For Adam and Eve they literally lived in paradise. There was no need for them to do any work, they were given an incredibly beautiful place to live, and they had free access to the fruit of every tree but one. Similarly, Joseph had complete control and access to every aspect of Potiphar’s estate, save only his wife.

In both instances, Satan used the one thing that was off limits as a source of temptation. I do not think that this was the only possible source of temptation, either; Adam and Eve could have sinned in ways other than eating of that tree, and Joseph could have been tempted to sin against Potiphar (and God) in other ways than having an affair with Potiphar’s wife. The reality is, we tend to always be attracted to whatever it is that is off limits. Maybe we get bored with what we already have, maybe we just want to know what the forbidden is like, maybe we just have a rebellious streak and don’t like to be told no; whatever the reasons, we have a tendency to forget all that we have, and focus instead on what we don’t have or, in these instances, have been told we cannot have.

There were two different reactions in these situations, too. Eve, after having God’s commands questioned by the serpent, saw that the tree was “good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise.” So she ate its fruit, and gave some to Adam. The thing is, I feel confident that only the third of those reasons really motivated Eve. After all, I am sure that the other trees and their fruit were a delight to the eyes, and we know they were good for fruit, so it was really only the ability to become wise “like God” (the serpent said) that enticed her. Joseph, on the other hand, resisted. I suspect that Potiphar’s wife was physically attractive, and the Bible makes it clear that she was making herself available to Joseph. Like the fruit in the garden was to Adam and Eve, Potiphar’s wife was available to Joseph. In both instances there had been instruction against “partaking,” but there was nothing preventing Adam and Eve or Joseph from doing so. Just like with me, and with you, the only check against yielding to temptation was a submission to God and a commitment to doing what was right in the face of overwhelming temptation.

Notice in Joseph’s response to the advances of Potiphar’s wife he said he would be sinning against God. This, no doubt, is what gave Joseph the conviction necessary to resist her. When we are tempted, may we remember that, as with these Old Testament scenarios, we have so much that is not off limits, there is no need to go after that that is, and may we also remember that when we do cross those boundaries and go after that which we have been told we cannot have, we are in fact sinning against God.

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