In The Beginning

Genesis Chapter Thirty Nine

I

“God loves you and He has a wonderful plan for your life.” 

Have you heard this statement (or one like it) before? While it's true that God does love us and does have a wonderful plan for our lives, there's another side to this saying as well. You see, while people are often quick to focus on the good things that a statement like this implies, we somehow never seem to imagine that God's "wonderful" plan might also include some painful, hurtful things that we can't easily explain.

This was something that was clearly demonstrated in the life of Joseph, a man who is one of the most interesting character studies in the entire Bible. You see, there was a time in Joseph's life when he held a position of approval and honor as the favorite son of his father. He had been given the clothing of someone with privilege, status, and respect. And all of these things disappeared from Joseph's life in just a few short hours.

You see, Joseph had been thrown into an empty water well and left for dead by some members of his own family. Then they changed their minds and sold him as a slave to a group of traveling merchants. These merchants forced Joseph to travel about 300 miles (500 km) away to the nation of Egypt where he was sold like a piece of merchandise to the highest bidder (Genesis 37:36). 

So Joseph had been taken to a foreign country to live in a strange place with unfamiliar customs. He was now a slave in a home with people he didn’t know, who spoke in a language that he didn't understand. He had been cut off from his family, friends, and everything that had been familiar to him. But as we'll see, Someone was there for Joseph- and that Person was quietly orchestrating the events of his life to serve a higher purpose.

"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" (Genesis 39:1). 

We should remember that Joseph had spent his entire life up to this point living on his family's ranch back home. This provided Joseph with a good deal of knowledge about the needs of an agricultural economy and the care and feeding of animals. But things were very different in Egypt and Joseph would have to quickly learn a new set of skills if he wanted to survive there.

II

"The Ishmaelites took Joseph to Egypt and sold him to Potiphar, the king's official in charge of the palace guard" (Genesis 39:1 CEV).

The nation of Egypt was perhaps the most powerful nation on Earth during that time. The Egyptian culture was advanced and sophisticated for it's day, and it was a long way from the rural farming life that Joseph was familiar with from his previous work as a shepherd. If Joseph wanted to survive in this fast paced new environment, he was going to have to learn a skill set that was totally different from the one that he already had. 

Now the verse quoted above tells us that Joseph was purchased as a slave by a man named Potiphar (pronounced "pot-tiff-far") after he arrived in Egypt. Potiphar’s name meant “devoted to the sun” which probably indicates that he worshiped an Egyptian “sun god.” This verse also identifies Potiphar as the "captain of the guard" in the New International (NIV) translation of the Scriptures. This tells us that Potiphar served as commander of the security force that was responsible for the protection of the Egyptian ruler named Pharaoh (pronounced "fah-row").

It's likely that the person serving in this position also held the responsibility of carrying out any execution orders that were imposed by the Egyptian king. This meant that Joseph was now working as a slave for a political insider and someone with plenty of experience in killing anyone who caused trouble. This put Joseph in a potentially dangerous position, but remember that Someone else was quietly working for him behind the scenes...

"The Lord was with Joseph and he prospered, and he lived in the house of his Egyptian master" (Genesis 39:2). 

We're told that Joseph "lived in the house of his Egyptian master" during this time, which probably means that he involved in some kind of inside work at Potiphar's home. While this might not have been something that Joseph was familiar with given his previous experience as a shepherd, it was certainly better than working as a laborer in the fields under the hot sun all day.

This verse also tells us that "The LORD was with Joseph and made him successful..." (GNB). This is a statement that we'll see repeated three times other in this chapter and it tells us why Joseph did so well- if the Lord is with someone, then that person can prosper in whatever circumstance or situation that he or she may experience in life.

III

"When his master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord gave him success in everything he did, Joseph found favor in his eyes and became his attendant..." (Genesis 39:3-4a). 

While Potiphar was surely not a follower of the Biblical God, he was still able to understand and recognize the reality of God’s existence through Joseph’s example. We know this because the Scriptures tell us that Potiphar "... saw that the LORD was with Joseph..." (GNB). In other words, Potiphar learned about God from the example of Joseph's life.

So in light of this, here's a question: what does your life tell people about God? You see, the same thing that was true for Joseph and Potiphar is also true for people today. For instance, you may live and work and go to school with people who are totally uninterested in reading God's Word, but they will read you as a Christian. 

To borrow another Biblical illustration, your life is like a letter, text, or email that is seen and read by everyone, and people can learn a lot about God's reality by reading the text of your life (see 2 Corinthians 3:2). The important thing is to make certain that people are learning the right things about God whenever they look at your example.

Anyway, Potiphar's good experience with Joseph eventually led to a nice job promotion...

" …Potiphar put him in charge of his household, and he entrusted to his care everything he owned. 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" (Genesis 39:4b-5). 

Its clear that Joseph was someone who honored God wherever he happened to be and that God blessed him as a result. And because Joseph lived the kind of life that honored God, many other people had the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of God's blessing on his life as well.

"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..." (Genesis 39:6a).

This tells us that Potiphar trusted Joseph so much that he never even bothered to check up on him at all.  So Joseph acquired a good reputation and he eventually rose to a position of great leadership and responsibility under Potiphar. But in doing so, Joseph also caught the eye of someone else as well.

IV

"...Now Joseph was well-built and handsome, and after a while his master's wife took notice of Joseph and said, 'Come to bed with me!'" (Genesis 39:6b-7).

There was a time when Joseph was just another common slave among all the others who served in Potiphar's home. During that time, Joseph would have been a "nobody" in the eyes of someone like Potiphar's wife. But now things were different. 

Now that Joseph had been appointed to an important position with power, authority, and responsibility, he began to attract some undesired attention from the wife of his boss. And even though she will become very prominent in this chapter, Potiphar's wife is never actually mentioned by name- she is simply referred to as "his master's wife" just as we see above. 

These verses also tell us that Potiphar's wife "took notice" of Joseph but in reality, she did more than just that. You see, the original language that was used to write this portion of the Bible more literally says that Potiphar's wife, "cast her eyes upon Joseph." This implies that Mrs. Potiphar checked Joseph out from top to bottom- and since Joseph was a well-built, good looking guy, she definitely liked what she saw. 

Although Joseph had risen to a position of authority in Potiphar's home, we should remember that Potiphar's wife also held an important and powerful position within their household too. And as the wife of a high ranking government official, Mrs. Potiphar was probably an attractive lady as well. It also appears that Potiphar's wife was someone who knew what she wanted and wasn’t shy about asking for it. Notice that she wasn't subtle and she didn't give Joseph any hints that she was interested in him- she just came right out and said, “Come and sleep with me” (NLT).

Now as you might expect, this put Joseph in a very difficult situation. To understand why, let's say that Joseph decided to take Mrs. Potiphar up on her offer. That choice would involve a deliberate and intentional sin against God. It would also serve to undermine all of the trust that Potiphar had placed in him up to that point. 

But what if Joseph simply said no to her offer? Well in that case, Joseph ran the risk of creating a powerful enemy in Potiphar's wife. If he rejected her, then she would be certain to work against him and do her best to make Joseph's life as miserable as she could. 

So what choice would you make in this situation? Well for Joseph, there was no question about what his choice would be, and we'll look at his answer next.

V

So the wife of Joseph's boss had invited him to go to bed with her- but Joseph was quick to respond...

"...(She) said, 'Come to bed with me!' 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. 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?'" (Genesis 39:7b-9). 

It's clear that a relationship with Potiphar's wife was not an option for Joseph. There were no debates, discussions, or considerations of any kind. Joseph was determined to be faithful to God and faithful to carry out the responsibilities that had been entrusted to him- and that meant that a relationship with Mrs. Potiphar was something that he just couldn’t do.

Unfortunately, Potiphar's wife was not the sort of person who was willing to take “no” for an answer...

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

This was a very smart move on Joseph's part. Joseph knew that he couldn't be involved in a relationship with Potiphar's wife so he took some precautions to make sure that nothing would ever happen. This meant making sure to avoid being around her whenever possible. So despite her best efforts, Joseph not only refused to sleep with her but also made sure to avoid being with her as well.

Now before we go on with this story, here's a question: would you say that Joseph was going through a test or a temptation in this situation with Mrs. Potiphar? 

Well, remember that a test (or a trial) is something that happens externally while a temptation is something that happens internally. A test is something that serves to prove what someone is really all about spiritually. On the other hand, a temptation represents an internal desire to do something wrong- and while God may allow tests to come into your life from time to time, a temptation to do something wrong never comes from God (see James 1:13-15). 

Since it doesn't appear that Joseph had an internal desire to do something wrong by sleeping with Mrs. Potiphar, we can say that Joseph was probably being tested in this situation. But even though Joseph tried to avoid all contact with Potiphar's wife, she decided to make one last effort- and we'll see what happened next.

VI

"And though she spoke to Joseph day after day, he refused to go to bed with her or even be with her. One day he went into the house to attend to his duties, and none of the household servants was inside. 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" (Genesis 39:10-12).

Mrs. Potiphar had made a decision. She knew exactly what she wanted- and what she wanted was Joseph. Her patience had run out and there would be no further requests, no more suggestions, and no more friendly invitations. She cornered Joseph when no one else was around, grabbed his clothes (perhaps to start taking them off), and said, “Come on, sleep with me!” (Genesis 39:12 NLT). Since Potiphar's wife was probably someone who was used to getting what she wanted, she apparently decided that she wasn’t going to let Joseph say "no" to her anymore.

Now perhaps Mrs. Potiphar thought that Joseph wasn't really being serious when he refused to sleep with her. Maybe she thought that Joseph didn't really mean it when he said, "How could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?" (Genesis 39:9 GW). Or maybe she thought that she could eventually wear down his resistance. If any of these things were true, then she probably didn't expect what happened next: "He tore himself away, but as he did, his jacket slipped off and she was left holding it as he fled from the house" (Genesis 39:12 TLB)

If Mrs. Potiphar thought that Joseph hadn't been serious before, there was no room for any doubt now. Joseph had sent a clear message that he was not interested in a relationship with her- and that led to what happened next…

"When she saw that he had left his cloak in her hand and had run out of the house, 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. When he heard me scream for help, he left his cloak beside me and ran out of the house'" (Genesis 39:13-15). 

It's hard to know exactly what was going on in the mind of Mrs. Potiphar at the moment that Joseph ran away from her. But we'll try to imagine this scene and then take an educated guess at what she was thinking next. 

VII

"Potiphar's wife grabbed hold of his coat and said, 'Make love to me!' Joseph ran out of the house, leaving her hanging onto his coat. 

When this happened, she called in her servants and said, 'Look! This Hebrew has come just to make fools of us. He tried to rape me, but I screamed for help. And when he heard me scream, he ran out of the house, leaving his coat with me'" (Genesis 39:12-15 CEV).

As Joseph turned to run away from her, it suddenly became clear to Potiphar's wife that Joseph really didn't want her in the same way that she wanted him. If we wanted to recreate this scene for a movie or a stage presentation today, we might imagine Mrs. Potiphar watching in stunned amazement as Joseph left, and then looking down at the cloak that she was still holding in her hand. And at that point, we could say that Potiphar's wife started to become very, very angry. 

You see, Mrs. Potiphar was probably someone who was used to getting her own way and it may be that Joseph was the only person who was actually willing to stand up to her and tell her "no." Because of this, it's likely that she said to herself, "Nobody treats me that way. If  Joseph isn’t going to give me what I want, then I’m going to make sure he pays!" And the way that she planned to make Joseph pay was by accusing him of the very same thing that he was trying to avoid.

"She kept his cloak beside her until his master came home. Then she told him this story: 'That Hebrew slave you brought us came to me to make sport of me. But as soon as I screamed for help, he left his cloak beside me and ran out of the house'" (Genesis 39:16-18).

Notice that Potiphar's wife first brought up the subject of Joseph's race by saying, "That Hebrew slave you brought..." (emphasis added). In fact, Potiphar's wife made it a point to mention this twice- once to the other servants who responded to her and once again in her conversation with Potiphar. But in reality, the truth was that Joseph's racial status had nothing to do with anything that happened between them. So why did she make it a point to mention it anyway? 

Well, Potiphar's wife was making the same ugly insinuation that people make whenever they discriminate against other human beings on the basis of external things like race; her implication was, "He's not one of us." 

VIII

“'That Hebrew slave you’ve brought into our house tried to come in and fool around with me,' she said. 'But when I screamed, he ran outside, leaving his cloak with me!'” (Genesis 39:17b-18 NLT).

Notice that Mrs. Potiphar also tried to put the blame for for this "incident" on Potiphar by saying, “'That Hebrew slave you’ve brought into our house..." (emphasis added). This was cleverly designed to make Potiphar feel responsible for punishing Joseph since he was the one who brought him into their home in the first place.

Potiphar's wife also tried to portray herself as an innocent victim by claiming that Joseph made fun of her, probably in some sort of sexual manner. Perhaps she was trying to suggest that Joseph said something like, "You want a real man? I'll show you a real man." Of course, this would be sure to infuriate her husband and get Joseph into as much trouble as possible.

Finally, Mrs. Potiphar produced the "evidence" to back up her accusations: "'But when I screamed, he ran outside, leaving his robe beside me'" (GNB). Unfortunately, this is the second time that a piece of Joseph's clothing had been used to lie about him. 

"When his master heard the story his wife told him, saying, 'This is how your slave treated me,' he burned with anger" (Genesis 39:19). 

Now it's important to read this verse carefully because it can be easy to assume the Potiphar was angry at Joseph. But that’s not what it says, is it? If you look carefully, you'll find that we're simply told that Potiphar became "furious" (GNB), or "very angry" (CEV) but notice that we're not told who Potiphar was angry with. But if Potiphar's anger wasn't directed at Joseph, then who or what was he angry about?

Well, perhaps Potiphar knew Joseph well enough to know that he wasn't really guilty of what he had been accused of. If this was true, then it means that Potiphar was angry because suspected that his wife wasn’t being truthful with him. It also meant that Potiphar would have to punish an honorable slave even though he had a suspicion that his wife was lying.

You see, there was no way that Potiphar could take the word of a slave over the word of his own wife- and that meant that Joseph would have to be punished. So it's possible that Potiphar was angry because he was going to lose his top assistant- and all because his wife was mad that Joseph refused to have sex with her.

IX

"When his master heard the story his wife told him, saying, 'This is how your slave treated me,' he burned with anger. Joseph's master took him and put him in prison, the place where the king's prisoners were confined" (Genesis 39:19-20a).

There's another clue to suggest that Potiphar didn't really believe the accusation that had been made against Joseph. You see, Potiphar held a high-ranking position in the Egyptian government and Joseph was just a common slave. Because of this, no one would have cared if Potiphar had simply decided to execute Joseph, especially considering what he had been accused of. 

But Potiphar didn't execute Joseph, even though he had the power and ability to do so. Instead, he decided to put Joseph "...into the jail where the king's prisoners were locked up" (MSG). This was the detention facility that held the king's political prisoners. In other words, this was the place where state criminals or political enemies of the king were kept. 

So the good news was that Joseph had escaped the executioner. The bad news was that he was now in prison with the likelihood that he would have to spend the rest of his life there. But once again, Someone else was quietly working for Joseph behind the scenes...

"But while Joseph was there in the prison, the Lord was with him; he showed him kindness and granted him favor in the eyes of the prison warden. So the warden put Joseph in charge of all those held in the prison, and he was made responsible for all that was done there. 

The warden paid no attention to anything under Joseph's care, because the Lord was with Joseph and gave him success in whatever he did. (Genesis 39:20b-23).

Joseph's experience brings to mind something that God would later inspire another Biblical author to write about in the Old Testament book of Proverbs: “When a man's ways are pleasing to the LORD, he makes even his enemies live at peace with him” (Proverbs 16:7). You see, God had given Joseph the ability to be a good administrator and he had a real talent for managing other people and things. He was someone who could see things that needed to be done and the best way to accomplish those things- and he didn’t stop using those God-given abilities just because he was stuck in jail. 

Instead, Joseph decided to use the skills, talents, and abilities that God had given him as God provided him with the opportunity to use them.

X

"The LORD also put Joseph on good terms with the warden. So the warden placed Joseph in charge of all the prisoners who were in that prison. Joseph became responsible for everything that they were doing" (Genesis 39:21b-22 GW).

In the New Testament book of 1 Peter we read, "Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others..." (1 Peter 4:10). This tells us that every Christian has received some kind of gift from God in the form of a talent, skill, or ability. There are no exceptions because we're told that "Each one should use whatever gift he has received..." (emphasis added). This means that God has definitely given you a talent, skill, or ability that is unique to you. 

These gifts from God -whatever they may be- also have a specific purpose: to serve others. In other words, we are not allowed to hoard those God-given talents, skills or abilities for our own use- we are supposed to use them to serve others. In a sense, we are managers of the gifts that God has given us and our responsibility is to use them them to help others. That’s what Joseph did, and he provides us with a good example to follow. 

Remember that Joseph had plenty of time to sit around in prison and think about what Mrs. Potiphar had done to him. He could have become bitter and resentful as he thought about how unfairly he was treated. Joseph could have been consumed by the question of why God had allowed him to be thrown in jail for a crime that he didn't commit. But he didn’t do any of those things. 

Instead, Joseph got busy and began using the tools that God had given him. He didn’t wait around for a better circumstance or opportunity. He simply did what he could where he was- and we’ll see how God dramatically changed his circumstances later on.

But there is one last thing to think about before we leave this chapter. You see, Genesis chapter 39 represents the first and last time that we will ever read about Potiphar's wife in the Scriptures. While Joseph is recognized today as a person of honor and integrity because of the way that he conducted himself with Mrs. Potiphar, she is remembered in a very different way today.

Joseph left with a legacy of dignity, honor and respect- and Mrs. Potiphar left with a very different legacy. So the question is, “How do you want to be remembered? What kind of legacy are you building today?”

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