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Joseph and Potiphar's Wife -- God's sexual ethic predates the law (a study of Genesis 39)

Updated: May 2

Sometimes doing the right thing gets us thrown in prison.

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Genesis 39

In this famous story about Joseph's unjust imprisonment, we learn multiple surprising lessons: Joseph was truly that model of virtue we paint him as; Joseph understood God's sexual ethics even without having "the law"; and Potiphar was actually quite merciful to Joseph, giving him a "soft landing". God was with Joseph.

 But the Lord was with Joseph and extended kindness to him. (39:21)

When We Studied This Passage in 2019

Well, it's safe to say that things haven't gotten better in our culture in the 5 years since we studied it last.

Boy, do I love the graphic I found for that post. There, I focus on:

  • The dangers of junk food and junk tv (i.e., temptations)

  • What is marital infidelity?

  • What the Bible says about workplace integrity.

  • The culture of victim-blaming.

There's some very helpful stuff in that post. And as always, I'm going to try to go different directions with this week's post (for the sake of variety).

Getting Started: Things to Think About

Wrong Place, Wrong Time

This week's passage is very depressing and altogether too real for many people. I would be very cautious about breaking the ice related to this topic. My approach is this -- Joseph was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and he was blamed and punished for something he didn't do. Many of us can say we have been in the wrong place at the wrong time, but the circumstances and consequences may not have been nearly as serious as Joseph's. What's your "wrong place, wrong time" story?

As we know, too many of these stories end tragically, but not all of them. Sometimes, we emerge having learned a powerful lesson that we will never forget.

When Authority Is Abused

I was very discouraged this week to read the headlines that Harvey Weinstein's conviction was overturned on a technicality. Apparently, too many victims testified against him, and some of them described crimes that he wasn't being tried for, and that's a no-no (?).

Weinstein's arrest in 2018 was a huge boost to the women who were trying to end the quid pro quo of unwanted sexual encounters in the film industry. It ballooned into what would soon be called #metoo. While there will be lots of debate of how the movement was coopted, let me remind us that it began as a plea that it is wrong for a person in authority to coerce someone under them into a sexual encounter. No Christian should disagree with that.

Here's actually what I would use this example to establish: abuse can be perpetrated by a man or a woman. In much of the world, the man is the person in authority, and so women (or younger men) are the victims. In this week's passage, Potiphar's wife is the person in authority, and Joseph is the victim.

In the Old Testament, the person-to-watch-out-for is often a "female seductress", and this has given rise in some religious circles that women, not men, are the problem. One, that's stupid. Two, remember the world of the Bible. Women were rarely in a position of authority in the first place. And more pressingly, the Old Testament was written to young men who were going to be religious leaders in their communities. The assumption was that they would be men of utmost integrity, so the person they needed to most watch out for was a woman who wanted to seduce them. The idea of a priest (or preacher) being a sexual predator would have been anathema (Solomon should have seen some red flags in his father).

My point -- authority can be abused by anyone, man or woman.

An Encouragement to Stay Faithful in Marriage

Potiphar's wife was clearly not concerned about being sexually monogamous with her husband. And that's not surprising, considering monogamy wasn't really known outside of Judaism and Christianity (and neither of those existed in Potiphar's day)! But Joseph had a deep respect for the marriage bed. We'll talk more about that in our study of the passage, but for now, let's take a modern Christian view of marriage.

What is the common Protestant wedding vow? You'll probably think of something like this: "I, ___, take you, ___, to be my wedded wife/husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part, according to God's holy ordinance; to you I pledge my love." (Note that it doesn't feel the need to spell out having an affair as a violation of that vow.)

Having a "Vow Renewal Ceremony" has become more and more common. Why is that?

Really, my main point in this topic is simply to celebrate and promote remaining faithful in marriage. As we will see in the "Big Idea", not only is it becoming less common, but more and more people don't even see it as a big deal. So, that makes it more important for us to talk about in our Bible study groups, whether they include married couples or not! If you can do this constructively -- this can be an explosively emotional topic -- let your group share personal and anecdotal reasons why they believe their commitment to a pure marriage is so important. Shelly and I are celebrating 25 years in July. I really don't understand how so much time has passed.


This Week's Big Idea: What the World Thinks about Infidelity

Let me be absolutely clear about this: the Bible is our source of truth on what God designed marriages to be. We have studied that multiple times, and I recommend in particular:

In addition to the topics listed, there's a lot of biblical data covered in those posts. A lot. And God expects Christians to know and live by it.

So for my "Big Idea" this week, I want to bring in a couple of "reports" based on the world's opinions related to marriage and infidelity. Understanding the flaws in the worlds thinking helps Christians in three main ways:

  1. It helps us know where our non-Christian friends probably need guidance.

  2. It helps us clarify and solidify what the Bible actually teaches.

  3. It helps us be aware of the ways the world will probably try to tempt us.

#1: Time Magazine

And so when I saw a Time Magazine "Special Edition" called "The Science of Marriage" a few weeks ago, I couldn't help it. I got it, and I read it. And I was shocked to find not just the first point but the repeated point was this:

Evidence keeps piling up that few things are as good for life, limb and liquidity as staying married. (6)

How are they going to explain that without admitting the Bible is right? And believe me -- they aren't going to admit that the Bible is right. Example 1: they frame the edition with the "scientific observation" that almost no animals are monogamous, so why should humans be? Example 2: to an article that's very clearly about husbands and wives, they attach a picture of a same-sex couple. It's some tough sledding.

I'll just list a few of the main points they make. If you find any of these interesting or surprising (and some of this is shockingly helpful), you might do some further reading:

  • What people find attractive... (more on this below)

  • Husbands helping with chores improves a couple's intimacy. (20)

  • "Really talking" is critical for a long-lasting relationship. (35)

  • Strong marriages are good for health; bad marriages are harmful. (41)

  • Infidelity can happen even in good marriages... (more on this below)

  • The key to a healthy marriage is compassion. (48)

  • Couples are using psychedelics for therapy. (71) (Really, they said this.)

  • In-laws can be a serious source of marital strife. (76)

  • 40% of men and 24% of women are habitual snorers. (84)

There are two topics in that list germane to this week's Bible passage:

  • attraction,

  • infidelity.

Potiphar's wife found Joseph attractive. Indeed, she was quite infatuated with him. So much so that it turned into an uncontrolled sexual desire. Joseph, on the other hand, respected her marital status so much that he rejected her advances dramatically. (And it would take a few thousand years for not-Shakespeare to word it as "Hell hath no fury as a woman scorned".) Let's take these two topics separately.


What would Potiphar's wife have found attractive in Joseph? How does that compare with women today? Time Magazine would suggest that Potiphar's wife would have plenty of company in today's world:

It takes your brain about 100 milliseconds, according to a Princeton University study, to form judgments about a host of traits: attractiveness, likeability, trustworthiness, competence and aggressiveness. (14)

They said that people tend to look for these traits:

  • healthy

  • clear skin

  • bright eyes

  • cleanliness

  • smiling

Add to that that Joseph was successful, trustworthy, and respectful. And that leads me to the second topic.


The Times article claims that there are 5 myths commonly believed about infidelity:

  1. Infidelity is a sign of an unhappy marriage.

  2. Cheating is all about sex.

  3. Powerful men stray the most.

  4. If it happened once, it'll happen again.

  5. People know when they are playing with fire.

  6. An affair always destroys a couple's marriage.

The point they're trying to make is that many (they don't give a percentage!) people who cheat are not "classic philanderers" -- they're just normal people who didn't realize the path they were on. That lines up extremely closely with what Solomon warned his sons about -- you might not realize you're on the road to another man's wife until it's too late; you must be so careful about your surroundings and direction.

My biggest takeaway from that as it relates to this week's passage is that most of us won't find ourselves in Joseph's position, where another person quite boldly stalks us in order to commit adultery. A non-Christian counselor said this about the people who come to her after cheating: "They are your average people who have been faithful for years. They come to me with this conflict between their values and their behavior, and they don't know how they got there." (46) That's a warning to every one of us.

Closing Aside

I didn't want to leave this edition without mentioning my second favorite quote in it. This is about the stories of how people met:

And about that origin story. How you tell it may be a powerful clue to the health of your relationship. In a landmark 1992 study, University of Washington researchers found they could predict with 94% accuracy which couples would divorce or stay together by hearing them relate the story of how they met. It didn't matter whether the story of mundane or movie-worthy. What mattered was this: that the twosome shared the tale with a sense of fondness and solidarity. (16)

Even the secular world can uncover a gem of truth when they actually study people :).

#2: The NIH

The National Institutes of Health published an absurdly comprehensive study on this subject last year. Let me just give you the highlights:

Selterman et al., found eight different variables which related to infidelity motivation. These included things such as feeling angry at a partner’s behavior; wanting more sex than is available in the primary relationship; wanting more intimacy and love than is available to them; having low commitment to the relationship; wanting greater autonomy; clouded judgement due to situational factors, such as stress; feeling mistreated or neglected; and wanting a greater number of sexual partners.

Some of the comments:

  • Men are more likely than women to have an affair, though the gap is closing; the authors believe that is because many affairs start in the workplace.

  • People with a permissive attitude about sex are more likely to have an affair.

  • People with higher levels of education are more likely to have an affair; the authors again believe this is tied to the workplace and the nature of the job.

  • Strongly religious people are less likely to have an affair.

  • People with a sense of commitment are less likely to have an affair.

Note this very important caveat listed up front:

Research that explored which type of infidelity, sexual or emotional, would be more upsetting found that men were more distressed by sexual infidelity, while women were more upset by emotional infidelity.

This directly connects to what the Times article meant by "Cheating isn't always about the sex". Just as Jesus said that "everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Matt 5:28), so also everyone who builds a close emotional relationship with a non-spouse is committing a kind of emotional adultery.

The article seemed to come back to the same keys: opportunity, values, marital satisfaction. As before, let's take these topics separately.


What would you consider to be key elements of opportunity for adultery? This article focuses a lot on the workplace. Sometimes, as was the case with Harvey Weinstein and Potiphar's wife, it's about a person in a position of authority believing that authority extends into personal and sexual areas. But more often, it's simply the outcome of two people working closely together for a long time and developing a natural relationship.

But there's another big source of opportunity that I don't think is talked about enough. I call it the "Honey, I'm Good" scenario (you remember that song by Andy Grammer in 2015?). It was championed as a celebration of monogamy. But here's my question: what's he doing at a bar late at night without his wife talking to other women in the first place? If he's just put on a show, then this is just a variation of the workplace opportunity. But otherwise, spouses need to be very aware of where they go without their spouse.


In the "surprises absolutely no one" category, this study revealed that people who do not have strong feelings about marriage or sexual morality are more likely to have an affair. As a Christian, what are your feelings about sexual immorality? How aware are you of what Paul the apostle had to say about this? If you're married, how important to you are the vows you took at your wedding?

The NIH article didn't have snazzy easy-to-read charts, so I went to the rest of the internet. My assumption is that our culture has gotten more "permissive" about this in the past few years. (I kid you not, one of the surveys I read had the question: "have you engaged in sex outside of marriage without your partner's permission?") Surprisingly, I really didn't find much of anything that I would consider "reputable". Here's one chart from 2022:

The point of the article was actually to talk about the different standard for men and women, but my takeaway is that almost half of all men surveyed said it was okay for a married woman to have an affair. Yikes! Values, indeed.

Marital Satisfaction

The Bible does not want us to speculate about Potiphar as a husband, so let's not. But every study will tell you that a person in an unhappy marriage is more likely to engaged in an affair than one in a happy marriage. They could have just read Proverbs 5 to realize that.

This topic really shouldn't need much further explanation.


There you go! Let me just re-summarize the things I think apply to this week's passage:

  • What people find attractive;

  • How infidelity starts;

  • The opportunities that breed infidelity;

  • The values that encourage infidelity;

  • The role of marital satisfaction.

Of all of those, only the last doesn't apply to our Bible discussion, and that's only because we aren't given any reason why Potiphar's wife would be unhappy with her marriage. But from an application standpoint, this topic is extremely important for us to consider in our own lives today!


Where We Are in Genesis

After Joseph is sold into slavery, chapter 38 gives us a "Meanwhile in Canaan" story about Judah (the ancestor of Jesus). Without getting into the tawdry details, here's the main point Moses was getting at by including this story here: Judah's sexual immorality is utterly contrasted by Joseph's sexual morality.

There are three critical tidbits we are given at the beginning of chapter 39:

  • Joseph was sold to an "Egyptian named Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh and the captain of the guards" (v. 1).

  • "The Lord was with Joseph, and he became a successful man" (v. 2).

  • "Now Joseph was well-built and handsome" (v. 6).

Keep those in mind as we read this week's passage.


Part 1: A Losing Situation (Genesis 39:7-10)

7 After some time his master’s wife looked longingly at Joseph and said, “Sleep with me.” 8 But he refused. “Look,” he said to his master’s wife, “with me here my master does not concern himself with anything in his house, and he has put all that he owns under my authority. 9 No one in this house is greater than I am. He has withheld nothing from me except you, because you are his wife. So how could I do this immense evil, and how could I sin against God?” 10 Although she spoke to Joseph day after day, he refused to go to bed with her.

The Lifeway material titles this section "Tempted", which I find extremely unfair. I don't think Joseph was ever going to give into this temptation at all. I don't think he had any problem resisting her advances.

Why was Potiphar's wife so infatuated with Joseph? You shouldn't need a lot of help with this one. But let's take into account what I mentioned from that Times article -- say you're not a finalist for the "Most Handsome Man Alive" 😎 --

That doesn't mean what happened to Joseph won't happen to you! What are the things "us regular people" need to be on the lookout for with respect to someone becoming infatuated with us?

But here's a huge point I don't want anyone to miss: Joseph considered sleeping with Potiphar's wife to be a sin against Potiphar and against God. The Potiphar part makes plenty of sense. Potiphar specifically told Joseph to stay away from his wife. Sleeping with a man's wife was a symbolic way of claiming authority over him. But I wonder if there's something further at work -- does Potiphar know that his wife is a philanderer? Is he tired of finding out his wife is sleeping with anyone she wants, and he is embarrassed by it? Just a question...

But why would Joseph consider this act a sin against God? After all, God hasn't given the law yet, right?

Among the few people who have noticed this, I've seen two common explanations:

  1. Joseph rightly understood that sinning against a human was considered a sin against God, who was sovereign over everything. -or-

  2. Joseph rightly understood that God instilled a sense of sexual morality into every person, and an affair violated that morality.

The first one is certainly true. The "big picture" question is if that second one is true. If so, then it flies in the face of all of that "secular wisdom" I mentioned at the top which claims that "humans are not by nature monogamous". Joseph, without the law, recognized that God did indeed want humans to be monogamous. (Of course, he has a lot of personal history with the consequences of being non-monogamous, so there's that.)

[Okay -- editor's note after thinking about this. Perhaps it would be better for me to say it like this: humans in our divine nature are monogamous, but humans in our sinful nature are not. Our sinful nature just wants self-gratification. So that sense, we are talking about two different things -- how God designed us, and how sin has reshaped us.]

We cannot commend Joseph enough for his strong and determined stance. As I said in the 2019 post, temptation is rarely a once-and-you're-free thing. Temptation is repeated and relentless.

Now -- let's turn the tables on everybody. Let's say that you don't have anybody in your workplace asking you to sleep with them. But does that mean people aren't enticing you into doing something you know you shouldn't? What are things people in your workplace ask you to do that go against your convictions?


Part 2: An Inevitable Scenario (Genesis 39:11-16)

11 Now one day he went into the house to do his work, and none of the household servants were there. 12 She grabbed him by his garment and said, “Sleep with me!” But leaving his garment in her hand, he escaped and ran outside. 13 When she saw that he had left his garment with her and had run outside, 14 she called her household servants. “Look,” she said to them, “my husband brought a Hebrew man to make fools of us. He came to me so he could sleep with me, and I screamed as loud as I could. 15 When he heard me screaming for help, he left his garment beside me and ran outside.” 16 She put Joseph’s garment beside her until his master came home.

I think we can safely assume that Potiphar's wife orchestrated this situation. As the matriarch of the household, she could command slaves where to go when, and she wanted Joseph alone. As seems to be the case with all sexual predators in positions of authority, she seemed genuinely shocked by not getting her way with Joseph. He was her slave.

My guess is that Joseph had been very careful about his surroundings (the stories about Billy Graham's personal awareness come to mind). I cannot imagine what went through his mind when he saw her and realized that there was nobody else around.

The only thing he could have done differently was to run away before she got ahold of him. (But if not this time, there would always be another time.)

Hell hath no fury as a woman scorned.

Her story is laughable, and there's no doubt that every household slave knew it. But what could they do? They didn't see what had happened. (They also didn't hear anybody scream, but I digress.)

And what was poor Joseph doing during these hours? He knew she would take revenge. Perhaps he didn't anticipate there being such a bald-faced lie.

This goes back to my "wrong place, wrong time" topic. What was the most unfair outcome to you when you were in a "wrong place wrong time"? About the worst thing I can think of was a party I attended in college that the cops busted (underage drinkers). My group immediately left through the back door, and that was that. But I later heard that the people inside, and especially the owners of the house, all got in serious trouble -- even though they didn't actually know the underage kids in question. You probably have much better stories than that one.


Part 3: A Surprising Twist (Genesis 39:17-21)

17 Then she told him the same story: “The Hebrew slave you brought to us came to make a fool of me, 18 but when I screamed for help, he left his garment beside me and ran outside.” 19 When his master heard the story his wife told him—“These are the things your slave did to me”—he was furious 20 and had him thrown into prison, where the king’s prisoners were confined. So Joseph was there in prison. 21 But the Lord was with Joseph and extended kindness to him. He granted him favor with the prison warden.

Most people read this as "furious husband getting revenge on an innocent man".

That's not how I read it.

If a slave raped a powerful official's wife, what do you think that official would do to the slave?

Exactly. Not throw him in minimum-security prison.

Now let's read some context:

  • An Egyptian named Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh and the captain of the guards, bought him. (39:1)

  • ...and had him thrown into prison, where the king’s prisoners were confined. (39:20)

  • Pharaoh was angry with his two officers, the chief cupbearer and the chief baker, and put them in custody in the house of the captain of the guards in the prison where Joseph was confined. (40:2-3)

The king's prisoners were kept in custody in Potiphar's house. (A building on his property.) Potiphar had Joseph put in prison next to his house! Next to his wife! A prison for political prisoners! This is no heavy punishment for a man Potiphar hates. This is the lightest sentence Potiphar can possibly give Joseph.

So, huh?

It means that Potiphar knows his wife is lying. But why would his anger burn? Maybe he's angry at his wife. Maybe he's angry at Joseph for letting himself be caught in such a simple trap. Or, more likely, he's furious that his wife has cost him the man who had been so beneficial to his wealth and standing.

I call this a surprising twist.

We rightly read this story and are indignant that an innocent man was put in prison. But we need to see the bigger picture -- Joseph could have been dead multiple times over by now, but he's not. And indeed he has been repeatedly put in a place where he can demonstrate his morality and industry. And those are the things that will result in Joseph saving his family and western civilization.

Sadly, that also entails being unjustly imprisoned for years. But more about this next week. The prison warden was likely under Potiphar (maybe even appointed by him), so Potiphar would have had influence in the prison. This is how Joseph would have been given opportunity to demonstrate his trustworthiness and industry in the first place.

Let me say one dramatic thing, and then turn this over to you for discussion: if Joseph had died in prison, would that make this story less meaningful? Would that make God less just?

We will talk next week about the many Christian martyrs who have died during a lengthy unjust prison sentence. They would do it all over again, and they would never hold God responsible for what happened to them in prison. The same must be true of Joseph. Had he died in prison, he would still do the same thing. The tragedy in this episode is neither increased nor lessened by the outcome. But God worked it for the good of many.

And in that sense, we can see how this points us to Jesus. What Jesus suffered on our behalf was a tragedy of indescribable proportion. And if He had not been raised from the dead, our salvation would have been accomplished.

But God did raise Him from the dead. And He sits now at God's right hand, waiting to receive all of His saints.

And every martyr will receive a hero's welcome from their Savior. They did not receive human justice in this life, but they will receive eternal glory in the next.

Simple lesson? Do what's right, even when you don't think anyone is watching. Leave the consequences to God.


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