Joseph and Potiphar’s wife

Gen 39:1 Now Joseph had been taken down to Egypt. Potiphar, an Egyptian who was one of Pharaoh’s officials, the captain of the guard, bought him from the Ishmaelites who had taken him there.

Kidner summarises this chapter as follows: ‘The symmetry of this chapter, in which the serene opening (1-6) is matched, point for point, at a new level at the close (19-23) despite all that intervenes, perfectly expresses God’s quiet control and the man of faith’s quiet victory. The good seed is buried deeper, still to push upward; the servant, faithful in a little, trains for authority in much.’

In a number of ways the events related in this chapter show how Joseph was prepared for later challenges: ‘In Potiphar’s household he becomes familiar with Egyptian life in general and with the elements of successful business administration. In the humiliation of the prison, however, Joseph is seasoned so that he is later able to endure being placed in an exalted position without danger of falling into conceit.’ (Leupold) Moreover, by these events his character was being refined from its earlier pride and pomposity.

‘The Nineteenth Dynasty (c. 1225 B.C.) Egyptian tale of Anubis and Bata has many similarities to the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife. In both cases a younger man is seduced by his master’s wife and then falsely accused of rape when he refuses to give in to her desires. What may have made this Egyptian story so popular (the surviving papyrus is written in a cursive style hieratic rather than the more formal hieroglyphic characters) is the common tale of rivalry between brothers (like Jacob and Esau), the high suspense and the use of folklore techniques (talking animals, intervention of the gods). Aside from the common general setting, the Joseph story has little else in common with this Egyptian tale.’ (OT Background Commentary)

Joseph experienced a number of major setbacks in his life: betrayed and deserted by his family, exposed to sexual temptation, punished for doing right, imprisoned for a long time, forgotten by those he had helped. His attitude through all of this was exemplary: rather than ask, “Why is this happening to me,” he asked, “How can I make the most of this?” The story of Joseph teaches us that the most important things is not the events and circumstances of our lives, but how we respond to them. There is no situation which God cannot turn into good, even when others intend it for evil.

‘He was sold to an officer of Pharaoh, with whom he might get acquainted with public persons and public business, and so be fitted for the preferment for which he was designed. Note, 1. What God intends men for he will be sure, some way or other, to qualify them for. 2. Providence is to be acknowledged in the disposal even of poor servants and in their settlements, and therein may perhaps be working towards something great and important.’ (MHC)

Gen 39:2 The LORD was with Joseph and he prospered, and he lived in the house of his Egyptian master.

This, together with terms such as ‘prosper’ and ‘blessing’, forms a theological thread throughout the narrative, vv2f; Gen 39:21 Gen 39:23. Though Joseph was in slavery, and outside the land of blessing, God was with him.

The narrative builds up between verse 2 and verse 6: Joseph prospered (v2); his master saw that he prospered (v3); because his master saw that he prospered his master promoted him (v4); his master was blessed because Joseph was blessed, v5; his master was blessed in everything, v6. Thus the scene is set for the attack to come.

It is a mark of the esteem in which he was held in the eyes of his master that he dwelt in Potiphar’s house and not in the servants’ quarters.

Gen 39:3 When his master saw that the LORD was with him and that the LORD gave him success in everything he did,

Gen 39:4 Joseph found favour in his eyes and became his attendant. Potiphar put him in charge of his household, and he entrusted to his care everything he owned.

We may suppose the Joseph was at first given menial tasks to do, but having proved efficient and trustworthy in these, was given greater and greater responsibility. ‘As the account progresses, we are made to feel the successive and, no doubt, gradual stages by which Joseph moved forward in the process of time: God with him; God prospering him; Joseph living in the Egyptian’s house; the Egyptian taking note of Yahweh’s blessing; his taking note of the fact that every project of Joseph’s thrived; the resultant increase of favour that Joseph enjoys, and so forth. This “favour” would seem to imply a personal attachment which the Egyptian formed for him as a result of which he “became his personal attendant.’ (Leupold)

Gen 39:5 From the time he put him in charge of his household and of all that he owned, the LORD blessed the household of the Egyptian because of Joseph. The blessing of the LORD was on everything Potiphar had, both in the house and in the field.

It is often the case that honest principles and behaviour lead to success and esteem in the eyes of the world. It is a general rule that those who are faithful in a few things will be put in charge of many things, Mt 25:21.

Gen 39:6 So he left in Joseph’s care everything he had; with Joseph in charge, he did not concern himself with anything except the food he ate. Now Joseph was well-built and handsome,

The food he ate – Perhaps figurative for ‘his private affairs’.

Well-built and handsome is slightly misleading, suggesting muscularity. His mother Rachel is the only other person in the OT who is described just as Joseph is here, and the NIV translates Gen 29:17 as ‘lovely in form, and beautiful’. So it is clear that she was ‘a fine figure of a woman’, and he ‘a fine figure of a man’, and that it was a case of ‘like mother, like son’.

Great beauty, in both men and women, can be a great temptation both to themselves and others. Humility and watchfulness are needed.

Gen 39:7 and after a while his master’s wife took notice of Joseph and said, “Come to bed with me!”

Gen 39:8 But he refused. “With me in charge,” he told her, “my master does not concern himself with anything in the house; everything he owns he has entrusted to my care.”

Joseph refuses her advances, arguing from his loyalty to his master, v8, and his loyalty to the Lord, v9.

Gen 39:9 “No-one is greater in this house than I am. My master has withheld nothing from me except you, because you are his wife. How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?”

Adultery was viewed very seriously in the ancient Near East. Moreover, Joseph was acutely aware of his responsibilities before the Lord. Cf. 2 Sam 12:13 Job 31:1 Ps 51:4.

For Joseph, it is a moral impossibility that he should commit this sin, and ‘it is good to shut out sin with the strongest bar, even that of an impossibility.’ (MHC)

‘Note, Gracious souls look upon this as the worst thing in sin that it is against God, against his nature and his dominion, against his love and his design. Those that love God do for this reason hate sin.’ (MHC)

J.I. Packer writes, ‘Commandment-keeping is the only true way to love the Father and the Son. And it is the only true way to love one’s neighbor, too. When Paul says that “he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law” (Rom 13:8; cf. 10), he explains himself by showing that love to neighbor embraces the specific prohibitions of adultery, murder, stealing, and envy. He does not say that love to neighbor cancels them! When my neighbor, echoing the pop song, says “Come on, let’s sleep together,” or sin together some other way, I show love to him (or her) not by consenting, but by resisting and showing why the suggestion should be withdrawn, as Joseph did. (Gen 39:8) (Growing in Christ)

Gen 39:10 And though she spoke to Joseph day after day, he refused to go to bed with her or even to be with her.

Her repeated advances added to Joseph’s temptation, but he did not yield to it. His brothers had stripped him of his fabulous coat, but they could not take from him his virtue.

He not only refused to go to bed with his, he even refused to be with her. ‘Note, Those that would be kept from harm must keep themselves out of harm’s way.’ (MHC)

Gen 39:11 One day he went into the house to attend to his duties, and none of the household servants was inside.

Gen 39:12 She caught him by his cloak and said, “Come to bed with me!” But he left his cloak in her hand and ran out of the house.

NIV’s his cloak suggests an outer garment, but it was more likely to have been an under-garment.

‘The temptation he was assaulted with was very strong. Never was a more violent onset made upon the fort of chastity than this recorded here. (1.) The sin he was tempted to was uncleanness, which considering his youth, his beauty, his single state, and his plentiful living at the table of a ruler, was a sin which, one would think, might most easily beset him and betray him. (2.) The tempter was his mistress, a person of quality, whom it was his place to obey and his interest to oblige, whose favour would contribute more than any thing to his preferment, and by whose means he might arrive at the highest honours of the court. On the other hand, it was at his utmost peril if he slighted her, and made her his enemy. (3.) Opportunity makes a thief, makes an adulterer, and that favoured the temptation. The tempter was in the house with him; his business led him to be, without any suspicion, where she was; none of the family were within; (Gen 39:11) there appeared no danger of its being ever discovered, or, if it should be suspected, his mistress would protect him. (4.) To all this was added importunity, frequent constant importunity, to such a degree that, at last, she laid violent hands on him.’ (MHC)

‘It is better to lose a good cloak than a good conscience.’ (MHC)

‘He who would be safe from acts of evil must haste away from occasions of it. A covenant must be made with our eyes not even to look upon the cause of temptation, for such sins only need a spark to begin with and a blaze follows in an instant. Who would wantonly enter the leper’s prison and sleep amid its horrible corruption? He only who desires to be leprous himself would thus court contagion. If the mariner knew how to avoid a storm, he would do anything rather than run the risk of weathering it. Cautious pilots have no desire to try how near the quicksand they can sail, or how often they may touch a rock without springing a leak; their aim is to keep as nearly as possible in the midst of a safe channel.’ (Spurgeon)

Gen 39:13 When she saw that he had left his cloak in her hand and had run out of the house,

Gen 39:14 she called her household servants. “Look,” she said to them, “this Hebrew has been brought to us to make sport of us! He came in here to sleep with me, but I screamed.”

Hebrew – This term refers to all the descendants of Eber, Gen 11:16, and therefore is wider in its scope than the later term ‘Israelites’.

Make sport of us – This appears to be a euphemism for rape.

Gen 39:15 “When he heard me scream for help, he left his cloak beside me and ran out of the house.”

True love is faithful, though slighted. How quickly lust turns to hateful revenge!

The servants may have been quite happy to believe that this foreign slave, who had made such a good reputation for himself, had disgraced himself.

Gen 39:16 She kept his cloak beside her until his master came home.

Gen 39:17 Then she told him this story: “That Hebrew slave you brought us came to me to make sport of me.”

Gen 39:18 “But as soon as I screamed for help, he left his cloak beside me and ran out of the house.”

Even those who have maintained a good conscience may not be able to maintain a good reputation.

‘Those who have broken the bonds of modesty will never be held by the bonds of truth.’ (MHC) She who had the nerve to say, ‘Have sex with me,’ had the nerve to say, ‘He tried to have sex with me.’

‘Note, It is no new thing for the best of men to be falsely accused of the worst of crimes by those who themselves are the worst of criminals. As this matter was represented, one would have thought chaste Joseph a very bad man and his wanton mistress a virtuous woman; it is well that there is a day of discovery coming, in which all shall appear in their true characters.’ (MHC)

Gen 39:19 When his master heard the story his wife told him, saying, “This is how your slave treated me,” he burned with anger.

It does not say that he ‘burned with anger’ against Joseph, and this may be significant. He may simply be vexed by the whole situation. He could scarcely take a foreign slave’s word against that of his wife – although he may have wished he could.

Gen 39:20 Joseph’s master took him and put him in prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were confined. But while Joseph was there in the prison,

This is a surprisingly mild punishment. He was not executed, and not even sent to the common prison, but to the place where the king’s prisoners were confined. Perhaps so because of the esteem in which Joseph was held and because the truthfulness of the wife’s account was doubted

We do not know if conditions in the king’s prison were more or less severe than those experienced in an ordinary prison. However, we do know that Joseph found there access to Pharaoh’s court and to new opportunities for success and advancement.

‘But to be incarcerated in a royal prison on a false charge was a tragic fate for such a loyal servant as Joseph, though he was not the last to suffer for righteousness sake. (cf. Mt 5:10-12 1 Pet 2:21-25) Joseph is often regarded as a type1 of Christ, the perfect servant who was unfairly condemned, and those who follow Christ may well find themselves walking in the footsteps of Joseph and Jesus.’

‘The wisdom of God is seen in doing his work by that which to the eye of flesh seems quite contrary. God intended to advance Joseph, and to make all his brethren’s sheaves bow to his sheaf. Now, what way does he take? First Joseph is thrown into the pit; then sold into Egypt; then after that put in prison. Gen 39:20. By his imprisonment God made way for his advancement. For God to save in an ordinary way would not so much display his wisdom. But when he goes strangely to work, and saves in that very way in which we think he will destroy, his wisdom shines forth in a most conspicuous manner. God would make Israel victorious, and what way does he take? He lessens Gideon’s army. ‘The people that are with thee are too many.’ Jud 7:2. He reduces the army of two and thirty thousand to three hundred; and by taking away the means of victory makes Israel victorious. God had a design to bring his people out of Egypt, and a strange course he takes to effect it. He stirred up the hearts of the Egyptians to hate them. ‘He turned their heart to hate his people.’ Ps 105:25. The more they hated and oppressed Israel, the more God plagued the Egyptians, and the more glad they were to let Israel go. Ex 12:33. The Egyptians were urgent upon Israel, that they might send them out of the land in haste. God had a mind to save Jonah when he was cast into the sea, and he let the fish swallow him up, and so brought him to the shore. God would save Paul, and all that were in the ship with him, but the ship must break, and they all came safe to land upon the broken pieces of the ship. Acts 27:44. In reference to the church, God often goes by contrary means, and makes the enemy do his work. He can make a straight stroke with a crooked stick. He has often made his church grow and flourish by persecution. ‘The showers of blood have made her more fruitful,’ says Julian. Ex 1:10. ‘Come, let us deal wisely with them, lest they multiply;’ and the way they took to suppress them, made them multiply. Verse 12. ‘The more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied;’ like ground, the more it is harrowed, the better crop it bears. The apostles were scattered by reason of persecution, and their scattering was like the scattering of seed; they went up and down, and preached the gospel, and brought daily converts. Paul was put in prison, and his bonds were the means of spreading the gospel. Php 1:12.’ (Watson)

Gen 39:21 the LORD was with him; he showed him kindness and granted him favour in the eyes of the prison warder.

It would have been natural for Joseph to feel lonely, isolated, and angry at his unjust imprisonment. But he was not alone, the Lord was with him. No iron gate can shut out God’s presence from his people. But, again, if the Lord was with him, why did he continue to languish in jail? Yet it will become increasingly clear that the Lord uses suffering as the pathway to glory, cf. Php 2:5-11.

‘As a prisoner and slave, Joseph could have seen his situation as hopeless. Instead, he did his best with each small task given him. His diligence and positive attitude were soon noticed by the jail warden, who promoted him to prison administrator. Are you facing a seemingly hopeless predicament? At work, at home, or at school, follow Joseph’s example by taking each small task and doing your best. Remember how God turned Joseph’s situation around. He will see your efforts and can reverse even overwhelming odds.’ (HBA)

Gen 39:22 So the warder put Joseph in charge of all those held in the prison, and he was made responsible for all that was done there.

Gen 39:23 The warder paid no attention to anything under Joseph’s care, because the LORD was with Joseph and gave him success in whatever he did.

‘Note, Wisdom and virtue will shine in the narrowest spheres. A good man will do good wherever he is, and will be a blessing even in bonds and banishment; for the Spirit of the Lord is not bound nor banished, witness St. Paul, Php 1:12-13.’ (MHC)