The story now switches back to Joseph and picks up where the end of Chapter 37 stopped. The Ishmaelites bring Joseph to Egypt and sell him as a slave to one of Pharaoh’s officials. Things go well as God blesses him and he becomes a trusted assistant to his master. But Joseph’s success is short-lived and he ends up in trouble even after doing nothing wrong. The message of Chapter 39 is that doing right isn’t always appreciated in a wicked world, and God’s will sometimes takes a long time and a circuitous route before it’s accomplished.
Once the Ishmaelites reach Egypt they sell Joseph to Potiphar, captain of Pharaoh’s bodyguard. God is with Joseph and he’s very successful in Potiphar’s house. Potiphar notices that whatever Joseph does prospers and so gives him ever-increasing responsibility and makes him his personal servant. Joseph’s success reaches the point that Potiphar puts the whole household and even his wealth into Joseph’s hands. He’s so confident in Joseph that he doesn’t check on what he oversees or worry about it at all. He concerns himself with nothing other than the food he eats.
Joseph’s success is another example – like Jacob with Laban – of God keeping His promise to Abraham to bless those who bless him (12:3). As long as Joseph is in his house God will bless Potiphar. And the blessing is so abundant that even Potiphar – an Egyptian pagan – realizes there’s a divine component (vs 3).
Verse 6 ends with a somewhat random observation about Joseph. He is handsome in form and appearance. He’s well-built and good looking (NET Bible). This is a very similar description to the one used of Joseph’s mother – Rachel (29:17). He apparently takes after her and – just like her – his looks don’t go unnoticed.
We don’t know anything about Potiphar’s wife or what her relationship is like with her husband. From the description of events in verses 7-10 we might gather that Potiphar is away quite a bit. Perhaps he’s not an attentive husband and perhaps her life is a mix of wealth, leisure time, and the frustration of being ignored.
We also don’t know how long Joseph works in Potiphar’s house before Mrs. Potiphar notices him. There seem to be roughly 13 years from the time he goes to Egypt until he ascends to the throne under Pharaoh. That being the case, it could be that he’s been in the household for a few years before she starts to have designs on him. Perhaps his maturing from a teenager into a man or his rise to overseer is what makes her take notice of him. Regardless of what it is, she does. And her interest isn’t benign. She looks at him and desires him and acts on that desire. She approaches and says, “Lie with me.” Her lack of subtlety may have to do with the fact that he’s a slave and she assumes he’ll do what she says. It may also have to do with the culture she’s in – perhaps it’s not unheard of for the mistress of the house to enjoy herself with a good-looking slave.
The Bible does not tell us anything about her looks or age, but it is worth noting that for her to make a claim later that he tries to rape her means she is attractive enough to make it credible. It is also likely that she has the money to avail herself of all the beauty enhancements of the day.
Joseph’s response to her is telling. He rehearses for her the status he has in the house and the confidence Potiphar has in him. He tells her that Potiphar has given him authority over everything he has with the exception of her – his wife. He then ends with a key statement (39:9) – “How then could I do this great evil, and sin against God?”
Joseph doesn’t just see this as the betrayal of a man who has put great trust in him. He sees it accurately as sin against God (as David will after his sin with Bathsheba – Against You and You only have I sinned, and done what is evil in Your sight – Ps. 51:4). His time of pleasure would ultimately be a sin against the One who has protected him and blessed him in Potiphar’s house. Joseph has put himself entirely in God’s hands. To take advantage of this temptation would be to violate the One he has trusted completely since leaving Canaan. Joseph has a RELATIONSHIP. How can he act against the God who has walked with him every step of the way from the time he was betrayed by his brothers, sent to a foreign land, and sentenced to a life of slavery? He walks with God and cannot fathom sinning against Him.
Notice again Joseph’s reaction to her. He isn’t tempted – he’s horrified. He doesn’t have a debate with himself like, “I shouldn’t do this! I shouldn’t do this! I really want to but I know I shouldn’t!” No – he’s appalled at the thought of betraying his master and – even more – betraying his God. Sin isn’t attractive to him. Sin is ugly and repulsive. He doesn’t look at her and see an attractive and willing woman. He looks at her and sees unfaithfulness to the One he loves and serves.
Joseph practices self control not just once with Potiphar’s wife, but continually over a period of time. Verse 10 says she continues her advances day after day. The sin she represents does not go away but continues to tempt. Joseph not only continues to refuse but takes steps to not even be around her (also verse 10). He avoids the temptation where he can but repeatedly refuses it when he cannot escape it. The relationship he has with God and the power of the Spirit who walks with him continue to be stronger than the allure of the pleasure she promises.
Joseph’s example is spectacular. He’s young, he’s good looking, he’s faced with a temptation tailor-made for a man his age – and he does not give in even once. He doesn’t even consider it. He doesn’t come close; doesn’t decide to just hang out with her while convincing himself he won’t do anything dumb. He avoids her altogether and ultimately runs away when she finally loses patience and grabs him. His behavior is exemplary in the face of enormous temptation.
It is important to note a description of Joseph that is repeated in the text (verses 2, 3 and later in 21 and 23). The author tells us that the Lord was with Joseph. This is another way of saying that he’s Spirit-led. He walks with God on a daily basis and so is horrified rather than tempted by the fun Mrs. Potiphar promises.
Walking by the Spirit enables self-control because the walk itself is sweeter than the rewards and temptations of the world. When a Spirit-led man is faced with the opportunity to sin, the prospect grieves him because of what it would mean to the relationship he has with the Father. He understands intimately what it means to taste and see that the Lord is good (Ps. 34:8). Why would he want to mess up the sweet communion he has with his Father with something that is ultimately empty and harmful? And how can he offend the One who is everything to him and the center of his life? The one who walks by the Spirit is repulsed by sin not because of consequences or guilt, but because it acts against the very One he walks with. He is appalled at sin when he first sees it – not just after he acts and is filled with regret.
Joseph finally is unable to avoid her. One day when no one else is in the house, she finds him and actually grabs him by his garment and demands that he sleep with her. He twists away from her and runs outside, leaving his garment in her hand.
Mrs. Potiphar moves immediately from a lustful woman to a scorned woman. She’s been turned down for the last time and now wants revenge. She cries out to the men of her household and tells them Joseph tried to assault her and she has his garment as proof (interesting to consider their response – it’s not likely that her repeated advances on Joseph have gone unnoticed by the rest of the staff). She indirectly blames her husband by saying of him, “See, he has brought in a Hebrew to us to make sport of us; he came in to me to lie with me, and I screamed” (an indication that perhaps the marital relationship isn’t great and she’s a little bitter at Potiphar). Her reference to a Hebrew gives a racial component to her accusation.
She leaves Joseph’s garment beside her and waits for her husband to return. She wants there to be no doubt about the scene of the crime. We don’t know what Joseph does in the interim. Does he know what she’s saying? Does he know things will get dicey when Potiphar returns? Does he take any steps to defend himself?
When Potiphar gets home, his wife repeats the accusation against Joseph. She does add one element to the story; she describes Joseph as the Hebrew slave. She wants to highlight for Potiphar who and what Joseph is. He’s a SLAVE who tried to have his way with Potiphar’s WIFE. She also includes the little dig about Potiphar’s role in the mess – “The Hebrew slave whom you brought to us…” Apparently she can’t resist making a little comment at his expense (perhaps part of her bitterness from being ignored?).
[An interesting aside to this story is the role Joseph’s garment plays. This is the second time a piece of clothing belonging to Joseph has been used to deceive someone about him (his brothers used his bloody coat to deceive Jacob into thinking he was dead – 37:32). If – as some believe – Joseph is a type of Christ, then it’s interesting that he shares with Christ a garment playing a role in his suffering.]
Potiphar hears her story and is angry. He perhaps feels his confidence in Joseph has been misplaced and Joseph is in fact a fraud. He takes Joseph and puts him in the jail where Pharaoh’s prisoners are confined. In the next chapter we’ll find that this jail is actually overseen by Potiphar and apparently is in close proximity to his house (40:3-4).
That Potiphar puts Joseph in jail is revealing. The expected penalty for a slave who attempts to sexually assault the woman of the house is death. Yet Potiphar seems to have mercy on Joseph. Could it be that after his anger burns he doubts his wife’s story? Knowing both people as he does, perhaps he concludes that Joseph isn’t as guilty as his wife says and so can’t in good conscience order his execution? The text doesn’t say, but Potiphar’s actions may speak loudly about his belief in his wife’s credibility and Joseph’s character.
Amazingly, God continues to be with Joseph even in jail. The same thing happens with him there as happened in Potiphar’s house. The chief jailer decides that Joseph is implicitly trustworthy and commits every prisoner to his charge. Just like Potiphar, he concerns himself with nothing that Joseph oversees. God extends kindness to Joseph and gives him favor in the sight of the chief jailer.
Joseph’s actions form a primer on how to respond to temptation:
- Walk by the Spirit. Joseph wasn’t tempted; he was horrified by Mrs. Potiphar’s proposition. The best way to respond to temptation is to not be tempted at all. When we have a renewed mind filled with the pleasures of serving and loving our Creator and filled with the glory and love inherent in the gospel, then we look at sin with revulsion rather than longing. We see sin and react with horror over what it means to our Creator and Savior. Walking by the Spirit causes temptation to lose its allure. But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh (Gal 5:16). [God cannot be tempted by evil (James 1:13). It makes sense, then, that those who walk by His Spirit and grow in His likeness are not as easily tempted either. It sounds simplistic, but the more we walk with God the more we become like God and the less enamored we become with sin. We become more self-controlled as we grow in godliness.]
- Make no provision for the flesh. Joseph refused to even be with Mrs. Potiphar. The one who wants to remain pure before his Creator does not allow for even the remote possibility of giving in to temptation. We must not tempt ourselves or put ourselves in a position to sin. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts (Rom 13:14).
- Fight every day. Joseph resisted temptation day by day as Mrs. Potiphar repeatedly propositioned him. We must remain vigilant and never relax. Sin – even when it appears to be dormant – never rests. We must take up our cross daily and deny ourselves. We must have a fighter’s mentality every day or we’ll be unprepared for surprise attacks by the Enemy. A relaxed view of sin is a vulnerable position set for failure. Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour (I Pet 5:8). If sin be subtle, watchful, strong, and always at work in the business of killing our souls, and we be slothful, negligent, foolish, in proceeding to the ruin thereof, can we expect a comfortable event? (John Owen, The Mortification of Sin in Believers; 12)
- Flee. Joseph couldn’t have been prepared for the final encounter with Mrs. Potiphar but his reaction was correct – he ran away. When faced with sudden temptation we need to change the venue. If it pops up unexpectedly, get out. Sometimes the only fitting response to temptation is to run.
Joseph’s life at this point also teaches us about God’s mysterious ways. Joseph was the favorite son of an immensely wealthy man and God sent him two dreams that seemed to show he’d one day rule over his brothers and parents. Since the occurrence of those dreams, however, he’s been thrown into a pit by his brothers, sold into slavery by those same brothers, falsely accused of sexual assault, and unjustly imprisoned. God told him he’d be special and his life has done nothing but spiral down ever since. As we’ve concluded so often in this study, God doesn’t do things the way we think He should or expect He will, or do them in the time we allot. But just as our expectations and clock do not affect His actions, so they shouldn’t impact our faith. Whether or not we understand what’s going on, we’re called to trust, obey, and follow.
Ever use a GPS? Ever thought that what it’s telling you makes no sense based on your understanding of where you are and where you need to go? But have you ever continued to follow it and then come to your destination with a sense of, “Oh – now I understand!” That’s oftentimes how it is with our Creator. At times we can’t fathom how in the world what’s happening in our lives can have any purpose, or how the way He’s leading could possibly come out OK. But in the end He’s omniscient and we’re not; and we’re called to follow, not render judgment on the Leader.