Joseph and Potiphar’s wife is the second of the two narratives in Genesis 38 & 39 that make some important contrasts between two of Israel’s most prominent sons – Judah and Jacob. Here is the first. Joseph handles temptation in a much better way in Genesis 39 than Judah did in the previous chapter, yet his reward will be a prison cell. Potiphar, a senior officer in Pharaoh’s court, bought Joseph from the Ishmaelite traders. (Remember in Genesis 37 that his brothers had sold him into the slave trade because they were jealous of him and angry with him.) Joseph turned out to be quite a bargain for Potiphar. His slave, as we have already seen, was a genius. Joseph began to make all kinds of money for his master, so much so that Potiphar gave over the running of his estate to him.
Earlier events in his life showed Joseph to be arrogant, (Genesis 37:1-11) but now he is increasingly using his success to glorify God. (Genesis 39:2) He finally began to see that everything he possessed – his talents, his intelligence, his good looks – were a gift from God; they had nothing to do with his own abilities. Humility, something he clearly lacked earlier in life, was beginning to characterize his life. Despite the fact that he was living in a foreign country, separated from his family, things seemed to be going well for him – until the wife of his boss decided to complicate things by offering her body to him.
Now Joseph was handsome in form and appearance. And after a time his master’s wife cast her eyes on Joseph and said, “Lie with me.” 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. He is not greater in this house than I am, nor has he kept back anything from me except yourself, because you are his wife. How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” 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 39:6-10)
It is important to notice that Joseph told Potiphar’s wife that to give in to her sexual advances would be to sin against his God. (Genesis 39:9) As an Egyptian, Potiphar’s wife would not have been a believer in Yahweh (the God of the Bible, the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph). Joseph could easily have left his faith in Yahweh behind in Egypt and worshipped the gods of the Egyptians. But Joseph remained firm in his faith in Yahweh when he was sold into slavery and as he rose in prominence in Potiphar’s household. He understood that all sin is against God and God alone. And he refused her sexual advances.
Joseph did not even toy with the idea. He did not have a flirtatious conversation with her and then say no. He did not hang around the house wondering if he should or should not. Rather he refused to listen to her or get close to her. (Genesis 39:10) He would have nothing to do with her. He cut off the temptation really early on, refusing to fantasize about it, and instead resisted her. This is so important! When faced with temptation, we must call a halt to the process immediately and refuse to toy with it. That is what Joseph did, and that is why he was able to resist.
People who want to lead you into sin will often turn against you if you turn them down. It is not easy to live for God in a culture that lives against God. Sin wants company, because unaccompanied it usually leads to regret. That is one reason that Jesus said that the way to life is narrow, not wide. (Matthew 7:13-14) When facing the extreme pressure that temptation brings, it is not enough to fight it with “I’ll just try harder.” We cannot succeed in following Christ by willpower. We need the weapons that God provides through grace. By contrast to Judah in Genesis 38, Joseph had much better weapons with which to fight temptation. Joseph had begun to see the grace of God manifested in his life. He had begun to see that he was who he was because of God’s hand. And he had a context for refusing the offer of the Egyptian’s wife. He knew that his good character was at stake. She was not offering him a pleasurable experience of sex and nothing else. There was much more at stake than that. His testimony to God, his own character and others’ trust in him were also at stake. His master trusted him. He had been good to him. His good name mattered very much to him. With all of that at stake, Joseph chose to deny himself the offer of a moment’s pleasure. He had the insight to know that this was no simple offer of sex; that much more was at stake.
Instead of receiving a commendation for his successful resistance, Joseph ended up in jail – falsely accused by Potiphar’s wife. But God didn’t abandon Joseph. Genesis 39:21 says, “But the Lord was with Joseph and extended kindness to him…” Although Joseph was wrongly accused, and suffered as a result, God did not forsake him. He was finally vindicated, and was given the second highest position in the land of Egypt. Sexual sin, therefore, does result in people – in many cases innocent people – being hurt. But when they repent, God will forgive those who have sinned, and he will support those who have been victimized by the sin.
These incidents involving two of Jacob’s sons are placed side by side in the book of Genesis for several reasons. Judah’s failure reveals the danger of remaining in Canaan. Joseph’s suffering and subsequent rise to power set the stage for his family’s settling in Egypt to escape the famine; and in that crucible the family of Jacob became a nation. But the stories of Judah and Joseph are placed back to back for another reason too, and that is, to demonstrate their different responses to temptation to sexual sin. Because of his faltering spiritual walk, Judah was weak and unprepared (spiritually) for the temptation he faced. But Joseph’s intimate walk with his Lord enabled him to resist temptation and flee it when it came.
Sexual choices are always very significant in the Christian life. No matter how anonymous and hidden the sexual liaison is, it is extremely significant because wherever you go, the Spirit of God goes also. There is no such thing as an insignificant sexual liaison. But when temptation comes, that is always how it will be presented: It will be portrayed as no big deal, as merely human, as harmless, as a natural need in life. That kind of thinking maintains that sexual sin is harmless; that no one will suffer as a result. But every choice to sin sexually matters very much because your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. He does not take days off. He goes with you everywhere you go.
As Jesus said, There is nothing covered up that will not be revealed; there is nothing hidden that will not be known. Accordingly, whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light; and whatever you have whispered in the inner rooms shall be proclaimed on the housetops. (Luke 12:2-3)
I wonder what sinful behaviors and thoughts we would be able to stop immediately if we actually knew that what is done or thought in secret would be actually “proclaimed from the housetops.” And yet, if we truly want to walk with the Lord, there is no way that certain areas in our lives will remain hidden from view. We will not succeed in keeping things hidden and buried, running our lives as we please. “Whatever is said in the dark shall be heard in the light.” God operates that way for our good.
Writing to the church in Corinth in 1 Corinthians 6:15-20, Paul wrote this: “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take away the members of Christ and make them members of a harlot? May it never be! Or do you not know that the one who joins himself to a harlot is one body with her? For He says,’The two shall become one flesh.’ But the one who joins himself with the Lord is one spirit with him. Flee immorality. Every other sin that a man commits is outside the body, but the immoral man sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.”
“Flee immorality,” Paul says. That is exactly what Joseph did. He did not play around with thinking whether he should or should not. He ran when tempted. That is what we have to do in the face of sexual temptation. We must make the choice very early in the process, long before we even begin to toy with the idea. We sometimes hear that temptation to sexual sin is too powerful to say no to, but that is not true. If we cannot say no, it is because we have said yes too many times earlier in the process. We must therefore choose to say no at the beginning, before it is too late to say no.