Joseph and Potiphar's Wife

Genesis 39:1-23 Commentary

Power, Sex, and Serving God in Prison

This passage has all of the drama of a soap opera.  The scene opens with Joseph having moved from his abysmal treatment at the hands of his brothers to serving the captain of Pharaoh’s guard. It is likely that Potiphar is the head of Pharaoh’s armed forces.  In other words, Potiphar has power. Joseph as his servant also has power.  Joseph is given the title attendant, which is a little deceiving.  This is not a man-servant butler like Bertie Wooster’s Jeeves, or Batman’s Arthur. This is closer to the Chief Executive Officer of a major corporation.  He runs everything.

Right away we see a man using his gifts (and power) to be a blessing to those around him, even unbelievers.  In fact at this point, Joseph doesn’t appear to be of any benefit to the people of God.  His work is solely among a people who do not acknowledge his God as God.  Doesn’t this run contrary to the way we often tend to think?  There seems to be a stream of thought in the church that says God uses men and women to do great things for the kingdom, which means in the church.  Even reformed churches holding on to the Kuyperian cry, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” can fall into the trap of equating ‘spiritual’ with the church so that the real spiritual giants end up as pastors or missionaries and the ‘spiritual lessers’ go into business or medicine or arts or some other field.

This stratification can make it difficult to see that God can and does use men and women in every sphere of life: in medicine, law, business, and the arts.  At this time in his life Joseph is such a man.  God uses Joseph’s business acumen to be a blessing to those around him.  Only later in his life will Joseph become the government leader who saves God’s people because of his skillful preparation for famine.  God used Joseph to be a blessing, as Joseph wielded power not for himself, but in service of those around him.  This is precisely what made him great.  Joseph is a testimony to Jesus’ words, “Whoever would be great among you must be a servant, for the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many.”

It is striking that Joseph didn’t have to use his power this way.  More than one powerful person in history has used power for self-promotion and personal gain.  Certainly more than one has used power in order to be able to take advantage of just the situation Joseph finds himself in when Potiphar’s wife throws herself at him.  It seems not a month goes by without hearing of some sort of sex scandal in Washington D.C. from among our nation’s leaders.

Joseph however, flees the scene!  The apostle Paul alludes to this in 1 Corinthians 6 when he says, “Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body?  For it is said, ‘The two will become one flesh’……so flee from sexual immorality.’  In our oversexed culture that increasingly looks to find new ways to use sex for self-gratification, there is an easy word here for our congregations.  The Bible promotes a sexual ethic which is more than self-gratification, but rather an act of giving the whole self to another in such a way that ‘two become one’.

Timothy Keller often when preaching on a text that brings up the Bible’s sexual ethic reminds his people that if sex is had outside of marriage, then what we’re really saying is, “I want physical oneness, but not whole-life oneness.  I want you but I don’t want to have to entrust myself to you completely and I don’t want you completely.”

C.S. Lewis said that ‘to have sex outside of marriage, to want pleasure without a promise or commitment, is like trying to eat and taste food and then vomit it up.’  Wanting the taste of the food and not the ramifications of eating it, not wanting it to become a part of you.  And of course we call that bulimia which does all kinds of physical and emotional harm.  Since this runs so counter to how our culture thinks about sex today, it is important to communicate in such a way that we don’t just heap guilt on them, but rather help them to see God’s ‘whole-life’ plan for sex, so that our people would be people of integrity, integrating our bodies with our whole lives, knowing that the catechism is right when it says that we don’t belong to ourselves, but belong body and soul, in life and in death to Him who died for us.

Notice too, how Joseph categorizes the sin.  He doesn’t say it is ultimately a sin against Potiphar, but rather a sin against God.  The strength to overcome the sin is by looking to God Himself, expressing his love of God and his desire to please and honor God.  This is really how to defeat temptation.  As James says, “Submit yourselves then to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you.”  I think there is a tendency for many of us to think the way to defeat temptation is to say to ourselves, I will not give in, I will not give in, I will not give in.  Focusing solely on our desires and attempting to use will power alone to suppress those desires and to overcome.  Joseph, by naming God as the one whom he would please, is actually demonstrating that he may or may not have been tempted (the text doesn’t say) but his strength to do the right thing came from the overarching desire of his heart, which is a love of God Himself.  The answer to our temptation then is not to love the things of this world less, but rather to love God more.

Finally, Joseph lands in prison as the tawdry tale of sex, lies, (and no video tape) angers Potiphar enough to have Joseph imprisoned.  And unlike Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat, Joseph doesn’t seem to suffer utter despondency and depression.  Instead, the text says that God was with him so even in prison he prospers.  Is this how we look at our lives when everything seems to fall apart even after we do the right thing?  How much would it benefit us when we find ourselves in trouble to remember the sovereignty of God in all things?  Even when things were falling apart for Joseph, God was working out an ultimate plan.  Joseph probably had little to know idea what that plan was, but he knew his God was with him.  Surely when we find ourselves in the thick of things and unable to see any of God’s purposes, we can trust that God is in control in our situations as well.  But it is crucial for us as Christians to know this well before the cold winds of life blow.  For we live in a time of great pressure to think that if we live right, life will go right.  But of course, into every life rain must fall.  And if we haven’t grasped that God is in control and always works for His ultimate glory and His people’s best, then every time we find ourselves facing trials we will likely be crushed by them.

Textual considerations

-Notice the text begins and ends with Joseph prospering.

-The language Potiphar’s wife uses to try and get Joseph to bed with him is softened by our English translations.  In actuality only two Hebrew words are used.  They could be translated, “Sex! Now!” There is a strong contrast from the way she uses her power to gain for herself, and the way Joseph uses power to serve others.

-Potiphar’s title is the same given to the Babylonian general who wipes out Jerusalem in 2 Kings 25.


Augustine’s City of God lays out the contrast between the citizens of the city of God as the best citizens of any earthly city, because of the way they use power to serve others whether that be medicine, law, business, government or the arts. The citizens of the city of men, on the other hand, use power to serve themselves.

Christ in the Text

Ultimately Joseph points to Jesus Christ, who like Joseph was innocent, yet treated as a criminal. “He was numbered among the transgressors.” Isaiah 53.  Joseph was led to the depths of prison only to be raised up to the Pharaoh’s right hand. Jesus Christ perfectly resisted all temptation and his life circumstances completely fell apart leading him to the depths of the cross for the sake of our sin, and yet God raised Him from the dead.


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