The Bible Exposes Sexual Harassment

The media is currently awash with public exposures of sexual harassment, harassment that had been going on behind closed doors for a long time. Its victims knew it all along, but “polite” society tended to avoid the topic publicly.

The Bible reflects a culture very different from our own. Genesis recounts stories from an ancient Middle Eastern culture in which women lacked many of the rights that we take for granted today. Nevertheless, Genesis reveals quite openly the dangers that some women faced. Granted, Genesis recounts these stories to show God’s protection of Israel’s ancestors, and thus to affirm how the Israelites owed even their very existence to God. In their world, attacks on women’s sexuality also entailed attacks on the men to whom the women were attached.

Yet no one could hear these accounts and not recognize that harassment was an ever-present danger. When Abraham goes to Egypt, Sarah faces severe threats to her sexual security there (Gen 12:14-15). In Egypt, Joseph faces threats to his sexual security (Potiphar’s wife held less direct physical power to enforce her harassment, but because Joseph was a slave she exercised plenty of coercive power in other respects). When Isaac stays in Canaan, Rebekah also faces potential threats to her sexual security (26:7, 10). The Bible also reports terrible incidents of sexual violence (Gen 34; 2 Sam 13) and God’s punishment on David for his affair with, and abuse of power regarding, Bathsheba. Such actions always appear negatively in Scripture.

Cultures have changed, but human nature has not. Biological impulses designed for procreation are not bad; we owe our existence to them. But they need to be controlled and channeled appropriately (biblically, within marriage in which one who wants access to another’s person also commits one’s life to them). Scripture opposes people overstepping their bounds and demanding from others something not their due, action that effectively reduces another human being to merely an object of gratification for one’s biological urges. God summons us, and welcomes us, to something better than that.

Dreams and Destiny: the Lord is in control—Genesis 37:9

In Genesis 37:9, Joseph dreamed that the sun, moon, and twelve stars bowed down to him. Joseph was just seventeen years old, and there was no way that he himself could have planned his destiny and imposed it onto a dream. This was God’s plan for him, God’s choice, no less than God’s choice of Jacob when he and Esau were both in the womb (25:23). These dreams are God-initiated rather than Joseph-initiated; God remains the main Actor behind the scenes.

It made sense neither for Joseph to boast as if it were his own plan (though the text does not specify that Joseph was boasting) nor for Joseph’s brothers to be jealous as if they could control their own destinies. It was God’s plan—and ultimately it would prove to bring about the deliverance of them all.

As in the case of Cain’s jealousy of Abel, however, there was something in the character of the human actors that would be consistent with God’s plan. Sin was crouching in Cain’s heart, leading to his murder of Abel (4:5-8), and many of Joseph’s brothers would want to kill him (37:20). Joseph, by contrast, kept serving the Lord, (39:9) and in his hardship continued attributing the honor to the Lord (40:8; 41:16). God has planned it so that human responsibility is part of his plan; God’s sovereignty and human responsibility are complementary, not mutually exclusive, options.

Yet despite the grandeur of the sun-moon-and-stars imagery—a step above his brothers’ sheathes bowing to him in 37:7—God does not reveal that all Egypt and Canaan will bow down to Joseph. Joseph will not need advance warning about that; when it happens, Joseph will have no reason to refuse it! God reveals only that his family will bow down to him, because Joseph will later need to recognize that as God’s plan.

Joseph’s exaltation over Egypt would rescue his generation of Egyptians and Canaanites. Yet the restoration of his family was a key part in God’s plan, since God had a special plan for his family that would extend beyond that generation and through history. Joseph may have been satisfied to be exalted over Egypt, but when his brothers unknowingly bowed down to him in Gen 42:6, Joseph remembered his dreams (42:9). God calls us, but we do not know all the details in advance. He is the one who orchestrates our lives, and he works through our obedience even when we do not understand.

We tend to exalt the human heroes of the stories when we retell them to children. But the real hero, though often behind the scenes, is the Lord himself. Let’s neither be proud of ourselves nor jealous of others that God exalts. Let’s praise the wise Lord of history and embrace gladly his wise plan.

Obedience even before much faith—Exodus 4:18-21

God’s signs had put the fear of God in Moses, enough to make him obey. But Moses’s obedience is still half-hearted, and (as will become obvious in the next lesson) incomplete.

After receiving this astonishing commission and these signs from God, Moses returns to his father-in-law and asks permission to go visit his siblings in Egypt (Exod 4:18). Moses owes respect to his father-in-law (e.g., 18:7), and it was respectful not to take leave of one’s family service prematurely (Jethro is a much friendlier in-law to Moses than was Laban the Aramean to Jacob; Gen 31:27-31). Did Jethro by now (vs. Exod 2:19) understand that Moses was an Israelite rather than an Egyptian? It may not have made a difference, but certainly by Exodus 18:1 Jethro knows, so it is not unlikely that he understood this earlier.

While Moses dare not disobey this God who called him, however, he says nothing to Jethro about God’s commission. He is still half-hearted, not knowing what will happen in Egypt. He says he wants to go to see if his relatives are alive (4:18). (His concern as to whether his relatives remain alive may also be legitimate; Moses is about eighty in this narrative, and his brother and sister are even older; 7:7. Many Israelites Moses knew may have by now passed away.)

Possibly a more urgent concern regarding survivors of his generation is whether those who wanted him killed are still alive. Thus, before Moses leaves Midian, the Lord again calls him to return to Egypt, informing him those who had sought his life are now dead (4:19).

Yet the Lord does not make Moses’s calling easier at this point by watering down what Moses will face. In fact, he warns him up front what he is in for. God will harden Pharaoh’s heart (4:21) and Moses is to warn Pharaoh that God will kill Pharaoh’s son for his disobedience (4:23). One needs little imagination to envision how Pharaoh, who fancied himself divine, would take an ultimatum and threat from the god of his slaves.

What God calls us to do often leads through serious hardships. Our hearts may not even be in his calling at first. That can be true whether we are thinking of God’s calling for all of us to make disciples, or of more specific aspects of our calling. But God has a plan, and one dare not disregard God’s commands—as Moses will soon discover. Confronting Pharaoh may be dangerous, but disobeying God nearly gets Moses killed (4:24).