Joseph Tempted by Potiphar's Wife [Genesis 39 Study]

Although Joseph was tempted and falsely accused by Potiphar's wife, God remained with Joseph. God showed him steadfast love, favor, and grace.

Joseph Tempted by Potiphar's Wife [Genesis 39 Study]
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Genesis 39 continues where we left off at the end of Genesis 37.

Remember in Genesis 37,

  • We saw Joseph’s special status as Rachel’s firstborn son
  • We saw Jacob’s favoritism toward Joseph through the gift of the multicolored robe.
  • Joseph’s brothers grew in hatred toward him.
  • Then Joseph shared his two divine dreams that further enraged his brothers.
  • We saw Jacob sending Joseph to Shechem to get a report on his brothers.
  • Joseph’s brothers ambush him and sold him to Midianite traders.
  • We saw Jacob grieving when Joseph’s brothers returning without Joseph.

The end of Genesis 37 reads:

“Meanwhile, the Midianites had sold him (Joseph) in Egypt to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard.” (Genesis 37:36)

Before reading Genesis 39, I want to review some background information about Ancient Egypt during the time of Joseph.

1. Introduction to Ancient Egypt

  • Egypt’s beginnings

    • Egypt first became a nation a little before 3000 BC. Egypt had been a large, successful kingdom for over 1000 years before Joseph’s arrival.
    • There were at least 30 Egyptian dynasties before Egypt was finally conquered by the Greeks and Alexander the Great.
  • Egypt’s timeline

    • Early Dynastic Period (3050 to 2686 BC)
    • Old Kingdom (3rd to 6th dynasty from 2686 to 2181 BC)
      • pyramids of Giza and the Great Sphinx were constructed during this time.
    • First Intermediate Period (2181 to 2055 BC)
      • Egypt was divided between two competing powers in Lower Egypt and Upper Egypt
      • These two powers came into conflict, leading to the conquest of Lower Egypt by the Theban kings in Upper Egypt and the reunification of Egypt under a single ruler, Mentuhotep II, during the second part of the Eleventh Dynasty.
    • Middle Kingdom (2055 to 1650 BC)
      • 12th dynasty was powerful and lasted from 1991 to 1802 BC
      • After the 13th dynasty ended, Egypt again became divided which led to the second intermediate period.
    • Second Intermediate (Hyksos Period - 1650 to 1550 BC)
      • Hyksos people entered Egypt around 1730 BC and gained full control of Egypt by 1680 BC.
      • The 15th Dynasty of Egypt was the first Hyksos dynasty.
    • If we accept an early dating, which I do, then Joseph and his family likely entered Egypt during the Middle Kingdom and the powerful 12th dynasty.
    • Some hold to a late dating and will place Joseph entering Egypt during the second intermediate period when the Hyksos people were in power in the 15th dynasty.
  • Egypt’s possessed great wealth and power, especially during the 12th dynasty.

    • Land was fertile from the Nile river, and annual floodwaters brought rich topsoil to the valley and delta.
    • Egypt depended greatly on the Nile river
    • The country was long and narrow with most people living within a few miles from the Nile river banks.
    • The land of Goshen was east of the river delta.
    • The delta region was called Lower Egypt, and the area south was called Upper Egypt.
      • The term Lower and Upper refer to their elevation.
      • The Nile flowed from south to north.
    • Land was rich in natural resources
      • Fish, birds, game
      • Papyrus plants for fiber
      • Fine mud for clay
      • Limestone for masonry
      • Copper and Gold
    • Egypt had no neighboring enemies, protected naturally by surrounding desert.
    • With no nearby enemies and abundant natural resources, Egypt was perhaps the wealthiest most powerful nation during the Middle Kingdom in 19th century BC.
  • Egypt’s religion (pagan polytheism)

    • each local community had its own gods whom the people worshipped.
    • there were local gods and national gods who were higher in rank.
    • gods of Egypt were centered on three natural forces: the Nile river, the land, and the cloudless sky with its brilliant sun.
    • During the Old Kingdom, the chief deity was Ra. But in the time of Joseph, it was Amon.
  • Egyptians believed in life after death. They believe that their status in the afterlife was determined based on their works completed in the present life. Like all other religions besides Christianity, Egyptians’ religion was works based.

    • Trusting the Genesis narrative, this polytheist paganism was not a primitive original religion. Rather, this was a degeneration of the worship of the true God in Genesis 2.
    • The Egyptians were worshipping hundreds of gods, and for the past 1000 years, they had experienced material blessings. During this time, they may have been the wealthiest nation on earth.
    • We will soon learn that Joseph’s character and his trust in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob would not be compromised living in the pagan culture of Egypt.

Life of Joseph Timeline(fn)

  • Joseph was born in Haran in 1916 BC
  • Jacob leaves Haran in 1910 BC (age 6)
  • Joseph is sold to slavery in 1899 BC (age 17)
  • Joseph is falsely accused and thrown in prison around 1889 BC (age 27)
  • Joseph is released from prison, and Isaac dies in 1886 BC (age 30)

Genesis 39 Outline

  • Joseph’s Success in Managing Potiphar’s House (v.1-6a)
  • Joseph’s Success in Resisting Temptation (v.6b-10)
  • Joseph’s Success Leading to False Accusation (v.11-18)
  • Joseph’s Success Continuing in Prison (v.19-23)

2. Joseph’s Success in Managing Potiphar’s House (v.1-6a)

Now Joseph had been brought down to Egypt, and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard, an Egyptian, had bought him from the Ishmaelites who had brought him down there. The LORD was with Joseph, and he became a successful man, and he was in the house of his Egyptian master. His master saw that the LORD was with him and that the LORD caused all that he did to succeed in his hands. So Joseph found favor in his sight and attended him, and he made him overseer of his house and put him in charge of all that he had. From the time that he made him overseer in his house and over all that he had, the LORD blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake; the blessing of the LORD was on all that he had, in house and field. So he left all that he had in Joseph’s charge, and because of him he had no concern about anything but the food he ate. (Genesis 39 v.1-6a)

Genesis 39 continues where we left off with the last verse of Genesis 37. Joseph arrived in Egypt, and Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officials, the captain of the guard, bought him from the Ishmaelites. The Hebrew word Yahweh is used here for God throughout Genesis 39. Remember that the Hebrew term Elohim emphasizes the God of the universe, while Yahweh emphasizes the personal nature of God. Yahweh was the unseen force directing Joseph’s life. Yahweh was with Joseph, and Joseph became successful.

At the beginning of Genesis 37, we saw that Joseph was looking after his father’s business, managing his brothers in their roles as shepherds. Now Joseph was managing Potiphar’s business.

Recognizing that God caused everything Joseph did to succeed, Potiphar made Joseph his attendant, or head administrator, of all that is done in the house. Potiphar trusted Joseph, so he put all details and duties in his care. And from the time Potiphar delegated everything to Joseph’s care, God prospered Potiphar.

Hebrew word “overseer of the house” (ESV v4) used again in Genesis 41:40 when Pharaoh made Joseph “over his house.” The Joseph’s “steward of the house” (Genesis 43:16 and 44:1) is the same word.

  • Genesis 12:3 - God promised Abraham, “I will bless those who bless you.”
  • Genesis 30:7 - Laban tells Jacob, “The LORD has blessed me because of you.”

This parallels the success God had given Laban because of Jacob. God blessed Laban through Jacob.

These examples point to God’s promise to Abraham back in Genesis 12.

I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12 v.3)

The ancient Egyptians had particular dietary practices. (Genesis 43 v.32) Therefore, some believe Potiphar did not wanted Joseph in charge of his food, but he entrusted Joseph with every other aspect of his household management. Other believe Joseph took care of every aspect of Potiphar’s life; all that Potiphar had to concern himself with was what he ate.

3. Joseph’s Success in Resisting Temptation (v.6b-10)

Now Joseph was handsome in form and appearance. 7 And after a time his master’s wife cast her eyes on Joseph and said, “Lie with me.” 8 But he refused and said to his master’s wife, “Behold, because of me my master has no concern about anything in the house, and he has put everything that he has in my charge. 9 He is not greater in this house than I am, nor has he kept back anything from me except you, because you are his wife. How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” 10 And as she spoke to Joseph day after day, he would not listen to her, to lie beside her or to be with her. (Genesis 39 v.6b-10)

Verse 6 described Joseph as literally “well-built and good to look at.” Both Abraham’s wife Sarah and Isaac’s wife Rachel were described this way, but this is the only occurrence in the Pentateuch these words are used to describe a man—probably because Joseph is the only male in the Bible whose looks played a major role in his fate.

So Joseph’s handsome appearance and his success attracted the attention of Potiphar’s wife. She began to lust after him. She entreated him to go to bed with her saying, “Lie with me.” Joseph refused, saying that Potiphar had been entrusted Joseph with everything in the house of his master with one exception, Potiphar’s wife.

This temptation reminds me of Genesis 3. Adam and Eve had been given dominion over everything with one important exception, the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Likewise, Joseph was given authority and dominion over everything in Potiphar’s house with one exception, Potiphar’s wife.

Typical gender roles were reversed in this encounter: The woman, Potiphar’s wife, was the person in the position of power and the one who sought inappropriate sexual relations while the man, Joseph, was particularly good-looking, in the vulnerable position, and the one who said no.

It is often difficult for a man to resist a woman’s invitation to be with her.

Joseph provides three reasons for refusing Potiphar's wife's advances.

  • He did not want to betray his generous master.
  • She was a married woman.
  • He did not want to sin against Elohim God.

Notice Joseph’s strong conviction. He asked a rhetorical question. “How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” Joseph understood well that lying with Potiphar’s wife was not only a human crime of betrayal and adultery. It was committing sin against God. His fear of God guarded him against this temptation.

Compare Joseph’s obedience to God in resisting sexual temptation and Judah’s disobedience in Genesis 38.

Notice also Potiphar’s wife’s persistence. Passing off Joseph’s refusal, Potiphar’s wife continued to entice him to lie with her. The text reads, “she spoke to Joseph day after day.” Each time, Joseph did not listen to her, to lie beside her or to be with her.

The events from verses 1 to 10 spanned about 10 years.

4. Joseph’s Success Leading to False Accusation (v.11-18)

But one day, when he went into the house to do his work and none of the men of the house was there in the house, she caught him by his garment, saying, “Lie with me.” But he left his garment in her hand and fled and got out of the house. And as soon as she saw that he had left his garment in her hand and had fled out of the house, she called to the men of her household and said to them, “See, he has brought among us a Hebrew to laugh at us. He came in to me to lie with me, and I cried out with a loud voice. And as soon as he heard that I lifted up my voice and cried out, he left his garment beside me and fled and got out of the house.” Then she laid up his garment by her until his master came home, and she told him the same story, saying, “The Hebrew servant, whom you have brought among us, came in to me to laugh at me. But as soon as I lifted up my voice and cried, he left his garment beside me and fled out of the house.” (Genesis 39 v.11-18)

Here’s the climatic scene. One day, Joseph entered the house to work, and Potiphar’s wife was the only one present. Taking advantage of the occasion, she grabbed his cloak and plead with him to come to bed with her. Terrified of having his integrity compromised, Joseph pulled away. Leaving his cloak in her hand, he ran out of the house.

So distraught that she failed to seduce Joseph and seeing his cloak in her hand, Potiphar’s wife instantly contrived a plan to humiliate Joseph. She summoned her household servants in order to make them witnesses to her accusation against Joseph.

Interesting that the main descriptive identification of Joseph was his ethnicity. Potiphar’s wife referred to Joseph as a Hebrew. She explained that this Hebrew had come in to sleep with her; so she screamed, and he fled, leaving his cloak beside her.

By referring to Joseph as “a Hebrew,” she emphasized Joseph’s alien status, hoping prejudice against foreigners would help turn the servants against him.

She portrayed Joseph as disrobing before her in order to force himself on her. She won the servants over by showing them Joseph’s cloak and by defaming him with racial slurs: “this Hebrew has been brought to us to make sport of us!” Her assertion that she had screamed was important, for it supported her lack of compliance with Joseph. (Deut 22 v.25–27).

Potiphar’s wife kept Joseph’s cloak beside her to show her husband. When he returned, she testified against Joseph, ridiculing Joseph’s high standing by calling him a slave and a Hebrew. She even implicated her husband since he brought in this slave. She then cleared herself by emphasizing that she screamed for help.

5. Joseph’s Success Continuing in Prison (v.19-23)

As soon as his master heard the words that his wife spoke to him, “This is the way your servant treated me,” his anger was kindled. And Joseph’s master took him and put him into the prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were confined, and he was there in prison. But the LORD was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love and gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison. And the keeper of the prison put Joseph in charge of all the prisoners who were in the prison. Whatever was done there, he was the one who did it. The keeper of the prison paid no attention to anything that was in Joseph’s charge, because the LORD was with him. And whatever he did, the LORD made it succeed. (Genesis 39 v.19-23)

On hearing his wife’s report, Potiphar became very angry.

Let’s be clear that the text does not explicitly say why Potiphar was angry. One Jewish commentator suggests that he may have been angry at the whole situation that forced him to lose the best attendant he had ever had(fn)

He took immediate action against Joseph and put him in prison. The usual penalty for attempted rape is death. That Potiphar did not have Joseph executed showed that he still favored him.

  • He may not have fully believed his wife’s accusation
  • Perhaps Joseph had defended himself convincingly.

Throughout human history, God has used prison for his purposes both for the guilty and innocent. The New Testament apostle Peter and Paul were thrown in prison.

Joseph was not sent to just any prison. We learn in Genesis 40 that this prison was where Pharaoh’s prisoners were confined. This is a foreshadowing of the next phase in Joseph’s providential journey, Pharaoh’s court.

We see three things about Yahweh in verse 21.

  • Yahweh remained with Joseph. He never left Joseph. He was always there.
  • Yahweh showed Joseph steadfast love. (Hebrew word chesed pronounced heed).
    • Chesed is used 244x in the OT. One of the most important purposes of the book of Ruth is the explain and illustrate the concept of Chesed love.
    • In the Jacob and Joseph narrative here in Genesis, it’s used 4x.
    • Genesis 32 v.10, 39 v.21, 40 v.14 and 47 v.29
    • In Genesis 32, Jacob prayed, “I am not worthy of the least of all the deeds of steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps.”
  • Yahweh gave Joseph favor. (Hebrew word chen pronounced hen)
    • This is first stated in verse 4 when Joseph found favor with Potiphar.
    • The same word is used when Joseph found favor with the keeper of the prison.
    • But we understand that this favor is God given.
    • This is the Hebrew word for grace.

The keeper of the prison puts Joseph in charge of all the prisoners and whatever was done there. Joseph needed no supervision. The parallels between this final scene and the first scene with Potiphar is striking.

  • Just like Potiphar, the keeper of the prison delegated all power to Joseph.
  • Just like in Potiphar’s house, Joseph was successful in everything he did in the prison.

Joseph will remain in this prison for one full year before we start the next scene in Genesis 40.

How can I best summarize Genesis 39?

  1. Yahweh was with Joseph.
    • v.2 “Yahweh was with Joseph”
    • v.3 “His master saw that Yahweh was with him.”
    • v.21 “But Yahweh was with Joseph”
    • v.23 “because Yahweh was with him.”
  2. Yahweh showed Joseph chesed (steadfast love)
  3. Yahweh showed Joseph chen (favor and grace)

God’s presence, steadfast love, and grace with Joseph

  • as a slave in Potiphar’s house.
  • amidst temptation by Potiphar’s wife.
  • despite false accusation.
  • as an innocent man in prison.

Based on this narrative, we can draw at least three practical truths

  • God remains present, loving, and gracious even in our worst circumstance.
  • Obedience to God does not guarantee favor and success.
    • Obedience can bring more hardship.
  • No matter how bad things are, they can still get worse.
    • Joseph goes from Potiphar’s house to prison.
    • “The secret things belong to the LORD our God” (Deuteronomy 29 v.29)

Bible Studies on the Story of Joseph

  1. Introduction to the Joseph Narrative in Genesis
  2. Joseph the Dreamer (Genesis 37:2–11)
  3. Joseph Sold to Slavery (Genesis 37:12–36)
  4. Judah and Tamar (Genesis 38)
  5. Joseph Tempted by Potiphar's Wife (Genesis 39)
  6. God Remembers Joseph in Prison (Genesis 40)
  7. Pharoah's Dreams Interpreted (Genesis 41:1–36)
  8. Joseph Made Prime Minister (Genesis 41:37–57)
  9. Jacob's Sons' First Trip to Egypt (Genesis 42)
  10. Jacob Accepts Judah's Guarantee (Genesis 43:1–14)
  11. Joseph Reunites with Benjamin (Genesis 43:15–34)
  12. Joseph Plants His Silver Cup (Genesis 44:1–17)
  13. Judah's Plea for Benjamin (Genesis 44:18–34)
  14. Judah Becomes Surety for Benjamin (Genesis 44)
  15. A Portrait of Forgiveness (Genesis 45:1–8)
  16. It Is Enough (Genesis 45:9–28)
  17. Prepared to Die (Genesis 46)
  18. God Rescues Egypt (Genesis 47:1–26)
  19. "God Will Be With You" (Genesis 47:27–48:22)
  20. Lion of Judah: When All Is Said and Done (Genesis 49)
  21. God Meant It For Good (Genesis 50)