The locks were checked, the bread was slid
Beneath the doors, the keys were hid
Where only Joseph and the head
Of Pharaoh's prison knew. The red
And golden rays of dusk, that he
Had come to love, shone silently
Through iron shafts around the porch,
And made each window like a torch
Of heaven's fire, with shadows thrown
Like slender pillars on the stone,
Reminding Joseph: though he be
A trusted man, he was not free.
They sat together on this night,
And talked of many things, as light
Gave way. And which dark figures were
The warden or the prisoner
Was hard to tell, nor did they care,
So trusting was the spirit there.
Twelve years had passed since Joseph came
To Egypt as a slave. The shame
He felt in early years was all
But gone, though he could still recall
The days when he was doubly scorned
As shepherd slave, and often warned
To keep his distance from the maids,
Who swished their skirts, and wore their braids,
And called him “boy,” and brushed against
Him in the barn, and when he tensed,
Would roll their eyes, and sometimes curse:
“A virgin is a fool, or worse.”
Twelve years of chastity, and now
A prisoner, because the vow
He never broke was not believed,
And Potiphar, with craft deceived,
Put Joseph in the prison where
The king's defectors lie. And there
The hand of God, from year to year,
Was daily with him, and the fear
Of God grew deeper night by night,
As Joseph set his heart to fight
The fear of man, and put his trust,
Against each doubt and painful thrust
Of disappointment, yet in all
The promises of God, and call
On him for wisdom how to be
A pris'ner for his majesty.
The keeper of the prison turned
To Joseph, as the twilight burned
Its fiery red into their eyes,
And said to him, “Do you despise
The woman? She must fill your mind
With rage, because you've been confined
Here seven years for nothing – just
A lie – a young man gathering dust,
Like some forgotten souvenir.
How long had you been there, a year?”
“Five years. They bought me when I was
Almost eighteen. And then, because
The Lord was good to me, the man
Gave me authority to plan
The purchasing of all his wares,
And told me often that his cares
Were lifted, since I served his house.”
The jailer said, “One lustful spouse!
And you spend seven years in jail,
And maybe all your life! No bail,
No friends, no relatives to bring
You gifts, the malice of the king,
Who trusts the captain of his guard,
And would as soon let you be tarred
As hang his baker by the neck.
And yet, she didn't get a speck
Of fault on you. Now tell me, was
It easy all those years? Or does
Your body work another way?
She's beautiful, and bid you lay
“My body doesn't work
Another way. My passions lurk
Like every man's, and steal up from
Behind my eyes, awaiting some
Allurement. And hers was not small,
Nor was it only once in all
Those years. And it was so much more
Than physical, or what she wore.
In early days, when I first came,
She was the one who used my name.
She'd call me Joseph, as if we
Were friends. And she would say, ‘I see
You dreaming after work. You must
Be lonely here. It seems unjust,
I guess, for you to be cut off
From everyone you love. Some scoff,
I know, and call you “boy,” but I
Think you're a man.' Thus she would try
To steal my heart, before I knew
She had designs on more. All through
Those years she tried to undermine
My hope in God. ‘It is a sign,'
She'd say, about my slavery,
‘That your great, holy God would see
You stolen from your home, and look
The other way while traders took
You captive as a slave. What kind
Of God is that? Or is he blind?'
‘No ma'am, he is not blind,' I'd say,
Nor did he look the other way.'
In time she took away the veil
And said, “Because you are a male
Your noble vow and long travail
With purity is bound to fail.
Your God demands what cannot be.
The flesh is not for chastity.
Your soul perhaps may be;
Your body has been made for me.
And mark this, Joseph, I can make
You ecstasy, or I can break
You with one word.'
‘You do not know my God, and err
At almost every point. I grant
You that what God commands I can't
Perform, and that there is an ecstasy,
Of sorts, that you could give to me,
And that, if I decline, you can
Indeed dispose of such a man.
But what I do not grant, and you
Cannot conceive, though it is true,
Is this: God gives what God demands.
Although I may be bound with bands
Of passion in my flesh, one word
From my Creator God, unheard
By human ears, will make me free,
And I will see this “ecstasy”
You offer me for what it is,
And with revulsion turn to his.
You have the power, even now,
To break my back, not my vow.
So mark this ma'am, I will not plow
My fields with someone else's cow.'”
The warden smiled at Joseph on
The prison porch. “You could have gone
To feed the lions for a tongue
Like that. Perhaps you would have sung
A diff'rent tune, if you had fears
That it would cost you seven years.
Perhaps today you would be free.
It seems a waste, don't you agree?”
“Sir, I would rather lose my life,
Than even touch another's wife.
Let lions feed on Hebrew meat
Before I touch the scented feet
Of Lady Potiphar. You know
I don't agree. And I can show
You why. My father chided me
For dreams. My brothers, for a fee,
Sold me to Egypt like a sack
Of corn tossed on a wagon back.
My master's crafty wife betrayed
Me with a lie. Yet I obeyed
The word of God. And now for these
Twelve months the royal butler sees
The light of liberty, and leaves
Me here to die. My friend, it grieves
Me, I admit; but I believe
With all my heart, that God will weave
These dark and deadly strands of my
Short life into a cord before I die,
To save the people of my birth,
And free the scepter of the earth.”
Now let the flame of purity
Ignite the light of candle three.
And let both man and woman say,
With Joseph on this advent day,
“We will not recompense our pain
With lawless pleasures, nor disdain
The promises of God, as though
He will not on our lives bestow
The highest rapture we could know,
And deepest gladness here below.
So let us then the Lord obey,
And pluck out our right eye today,
Before we look in lust to find
Delights that God has not designed
For us to have. But let us feed
On this: God gives us what we need;
And sweetest pleasures are in store
At his right hand for evermore.