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Two men on the temperance spectrum

Read: Genesis 39 and 2 Samuel 11

There are many stories in the Bible that speak to us about temperance.  Here we will look at two of them, one as an example of virtue and the other as an example of vice.

Joseph: an example of temperance.  In Genesis 39 we find that, after many difficulties, Joseph’s life is finally taking a positive turn.   But then something happens.  He was well built and handsome (39:6) and Potiphar’s wife wants to go to bed with him.

So here is the context in which temperance is needed:

  • You may be coming out a difficult situation and feel that you deserve something.
  • You are presented with an opportunity for pleasure, but you know that it is a ‘wrong combination’.  Potiphar’s wife, in Joseph’s own words, was ‘withheld from him’ and did not belong to him (39:9).
  • Pleasure is there for you without any apparent negative consequences.  Potiphar’s wife, in the story, offers herself to him ‘when there is no one in the house’ (39:11). Intemperance rules when you are convinced that no one will see or know.

And here is what character with temperance looks like:

  1. Joseph governs himself through reason.  His actions are not driven by desire but by the reflection that to take Potiphar’s wife would be an act of wickedness against both Potiphar and God (39:9).
  2. Joseph is content with his own state, recognising that ‘no one in this house is greater than I am’ (39:9)
  3. Joseph is able to tame appetites, meaning that he is able to say no when necessary. The text never says that Joseph did not like Potiphar’s wife, but it does say that even as she insisted ‘day after day, he refused to go to bed with her’ (39:10).
  4. Joseph takes actions to support his self-control.  At times temperance takes control-before-the-time and planning to avoid situations where we know control is more difficult.  Here we see a notable little clause, ‘he refused to even be with her’ (39:10).

Joseph’s character holds firm but sadly, the story does not end well for him.  Potiphar’s wife accuses him unjustly and he is sent back to jail. And here is an important side lesson for us.  Good character does not always yield immediate success, and virtue does not always improve our circumstances.  We are virtuous because it it right, not because we are better off.

David: an example of intemperance.  The story of David and Bathsheba is more familiar perhaps. But although the circumstances are similar (there is an opportunity for pleasure without any apparent consequences), David exhibits a character of intemperance that is just the opposite of Joseph.

He does not governs himself through reason.  His actions are driven by desire alone. He is not content with his own state and wants more than what he already has. He does not tame his appetites, and does not choose not to say no when necessary.

Here we see that David’s intemperance does not get off free and there are dramatic consequences as the story unfolds.

A prayer:  Lord, may I be like Joseph. Temperate in my actions, words and choices in whatever circumstances because it is the right thing to do.  And help me not be like David, who relaxed and fooled himself that his good track record in the past exempted him from the ongoing exercise of virtue.


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