Genesis 39: Joseph and Potiphar's Wife

By Mary Jane Chaignot

After the Judah narrative, the story follows Joseph’s life in Egypt. Potiphar buys him as a slave; Potiphar is one of Pharaoh’s officials - the captain of the guard. That makes him a very prestigious man in a very prestigious city.

The text reads: “The Lord was with Joseph and he prospered in everything he did. He lived in the house of his Egyptian master and 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.” The interesting thing about this is that somehow Potiphar understands that things are going well with Joseph because Yahweh is with him - that somehow, Joseph is under Yahweh’s blessing and guidance. This is the first time that God is called Yahweh in the Joseph story. This phrase will be repeated thrice more. Not only does it provide a literary framework for these events, but it also provides a reason for the great change within Joseph.

This is a very uncertain time for him. Up to this point, he has been described as a rather arrogant seventeen-year-old, strutting around, needling his brothers, and getting favors from his father. Now he is in an unknown land, separated from his father and brothers. He is no longer a free man but a slave. His entire life has been upended. Yet, as the narrator repeats, he is not alone: The Lord is with Joseph, and because of this, he will prosper in everything he does.

Unfortunately, we are not given a glimpse into the mind of Joseph. Does he make this connection? Having been kidnapped and sold into slavery would definitely rank as one of those life-defining moments. His life changes at that point. But he could have become rebellious or bitter. There is no guarantee that an indulged child is all of a sudden going to see the light and change his ways. Sometimes things continue to worsen. Not every person has a positive response. But Joseph takes that defining moment and does make it positive. And he is not only a changed person, but it is also evident to others. His master knows that there is something special about Joseph.

How much Potiphar knows or understands about Yahweh is not addressed. He simply sees the outcome of Joseph’s successes and is enjoying the benefits of them. He might be unaware of Joseph’s previous family struggles and shortcomings. It is likely that Joseph’s change of heart happened quickly. Being alone in a foreign country and knowing he can’t do things on his own, he is entrusting himself to the Lord; the Lord has to take care of him. That is quite an amazing change from before.

Potiphar puts him in charge of his household and entrusts everything into his care. From the time he puts him in charge, the Lord blesses the household. This is, of course, Potiphar’s household. The blessing is on everything Potiphar owns – his fields, his house, his possessions. The only thing Joseph is not in charge of is Potiphar’s food. Perhaps, Joseph was unaware of Egyptian rituals involving the preparation and serving of food. It is not likely that Potiphar was concerned about being poisoned. Everything else, however, is under Joseph’s purview. He has, undoubtedly, attained a very high stature. Is this plausible? Yes. Egypt has a slave-based culture, and some of those slaves rise to such a level of importance that they run everything. Joseph really is in charge. He is the one wheeling and dealing; he is the one brokering the accounts. That enables Potiphar to do whatever he needs to do. As an established man in

Then, Joseph is described as being well-built and handsome. These are the same Hebrew words attributed to Rachel in 29:17. No doubt, he has inherited her good looks. Such comments here introduce the next story. Joseph excels not only in proficiency, but also in attractiveness. Perhaps because of this, his master’s wife invites him to lie with her. Joseph immediately refuses because of his master’s trust.

It is noteworthy that this scene predates the Ten Commandments by about 400 years. Yet, there is a moral quality within Joseph. He doesn’t need the Ten Commandments to tell him that this would be wrong. Indeed, he says this would be a great wrong and a sin against God. And though Potiphar’s wife speaks to Joseph day after day, he refuses to lie with her or even be alone with her. From a textual standpoint, her words are brief. “Lie with me.” Joseph’s refusal, on the other hand, is extensive and expounds on his thinking.

One day, however, he goes into the house and all the servants are out – because Potiphar’s wife has planned it that way. She sets up this scenario on her own; Joseph has done nothing to encourage the situation. Alone together, she catches him by his cloak; but he manages to free himself and runs out of the house. It is not at all clear what article of clothing is left behind or what he is still wearing. As a slave, he might have only been wearing one garment.

After he flees, she is left holding the article of clothing. Exacting revenge for his rejection, she calls to her servants saying that the Hebrew has been brought into the house to make sport of them – in a sense blaming her husband for this misfortune. She is quite calculating in referring to him as a Hebrew, identifying him as an outsider. She, of course, insists that Joseph has initiated the encounter, that he has tried to force himself upon her. She continues her story by saying that she screamed “for her life.” That scares him off, and he leaves his garment near her – a slight change from having it in her hand.

By calling the household servants, she makes sure they will serve as her witnesses. They see how upset she is and will see the very garment as evidence. She keeps his clothing beside her until her master comes home. There is no mention of anyone going to get him or how long she has to wait. When he arrives, she tells him that the Hebrew slave you brought into this house has tried to make sport of her. He has taunted her, forced himself on her, humiliated her – and this is all Potiphar’s fault because he’s the one that brought him into the household. Of course, it is also a bold-faced lie. Nonetheless, when Potiphar hears the lie, he burns with anger.

And why wouldn’t he? The presumption of innocence lies with his wife. Potiphar chooses to throw Joseph into prison – the one where he works. But isn’t it interesting that he doesn’t kill him outright? He could easily have killed the slave. Slaves have no rights; no trial is needed. No jury would have been called up. It would have happened quickly. He certainly would have been within his rights if he had been convinced of his wife’s story. So maybe he had some doubts. Perhaps Joseph was given an opportunity to respond to her charges. Perhaps Potiphar really was very fond of him.

But he also has to save face in the community. The servant, the slave, is expendable. The wife is not. There would be no criminal repercussions if a husband killed a slave for accosting or raping his wife. That’s pretty much how it worked at that time. And if there was any indication that the wife was involved, he could have killed her as well. That, too, would have saved his honor.

But Potiphar doesn’t do any of that; he puts Joseph in the prison. Maybe he doesn’t believe that Joseph would have done something like that. Deep down, maybe he just knows the kind of person Joseph is. But, he can’t embarrass his wife either because that would embarrass himself. This is a culture that is based on shame and honor. So if Joseph’s actions even remotely bring shame upon him, he has to take some steps to restore that balance. If there’s a possibility that his wife has shamed him, he has to take steps to restore the balance. But it’s highly unlikely that he is convinced of the story, because if he had been, he would have had Joseph killed on the spot. That means Potiphar is a man of great integrity.

Regardless, Joseph is now in prison. Since Potiphar is in charge of the king’s prisoners, it is possible that this enclosure is on his property. And again, the text says that “the Lord is with him,” providing the ending framework for this storyline. This is important information because after his change of heart, Joseph has been doing good work. He hasn’t done anything wrong. Having God with him precludes being bitter now that he’s in prison. It is true that as a slave, so he has no recourse. He has no rights. He cannot ask for a second chance; he has no witnesses.

The text is clear that he has been unjustly thrown into prison. Yet it says, “The Lord was with him.” The Lord shows him kindness and shows him favor in the eyes of the warden. Within a short time, the warden sees his competencies and puts him in charge of all those who are held in the prison. He is responsible for all that is happening there. He has risen through the ranks of the prisoners. The warden doesn’t even need to supervise him. That probably frees the warden to go off and do whatever he wishes. Just as Potiphar left everything in Joseph’s command, the warden has put him in charge of everyone in the prison – which would mean, at the very least, keeping order among the prisoners. This sets up the venue for the story that follows.