Temptations are real. Do you know how to handle them?
Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Genesis 39
Lesson Summary. Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers and then repeated seduced (unsuccessfully) by his master’s wife. He must have been tempted to do many wrong things during that time, but he did not. He honored God in his actions and his morals, and God sustained him. Are we prepared to resist temptations in our lives?
Although she spoke to Joseph day after day, he refused to go to bed with her. (39:10)
This blog started as a printed newsletter for teachers. I'm slowly putting earlier resources online for reference.
Getting Started: Things to Think About
We love our junk food (food with lots of sugar or fat and not a lot of healthy nutrition). Of course, all of the junk they’re cooked in and with is what makes them taste so good. You might start your time with samples of your favorite junk foods and then ask your group to share theirs. TheDailyMeal.com lists candy bars, corn chips, donuts, fruit pies, gummy candy, packaged cookies, pork rinds, potato chips, snack cakes, and toaster pastries as the least healthy foods people commonly eat. Those foods are linked to an increased risk of obesity and cardiovascular disease. At this time of year, a lot of people make a “resolution” to eat less junk food. Have your group share stories of success and failure with respect to their junk food diet. What you would be looking for are patterns in what works and doesn’t work for your class members to resist the temptation for eating junk food. Write them down—see if they help with resisting the sexual temptations we read about in our passage.
If your group is too healthy, you could switch this with “junk tv” (one author compared junk food—designed to taste good but never fill you up—with meaningless “filler” tv shows like “Hoarders” and “Say Yes to the Dress”). If you wanted to, you could let your group define what these shows are (but be gentle!—someone in your class may just loooove that show). I’m thinking of celebrity shows like “Keeping up with the Kardashians” and “Entertainment Tonight”; reality shows like “Big Brother” and “Jersey Shore”; cooking shows like “Cake Boss” and “Cupcake Wars”; sports shows like “First Take” and “Undisputed”; niche shows like “Ice Road Truckers” and “Gold Rush”; event shows like “The Bachelor” and “Undercover Boss”. Does it matter if you know how they turn out? Does it make any difference in your life if you watch them or not? Yes, you can pick up on some sort of societal commentary, but you have to waste lots of hours getting there. I watch sports talk shows. I justify them by saying it gives me something to talk about with people I don’t know. But let’s be honest—is that the best way to fill my time? Like junk food, it’s enjoyable, but like real food, there are healthier things. So, just like with junk food, you would ask your class for how they know when they’ve been watching too much junk tv and how they stop. The patterns you find may help you with other kinds of temptations that will come up in your discussions.
Really, Really, Really Not Fair.
In our passage, we learn that Joseph was sold as a slave by his jealous brothers, and he is thrown into prison based on a false accusation. Think about yourself or people you know who have been treated really unfairly. How did it affect them? How did they handle it? How can those experiences help us better understand what Joseph was going through?
This Week's Big Idea: The Nature of Infidelity
We’ve talked about this multiple times, but clearly we can’t talk about it enough. In the Garden of Eden, Satan tempted Eve with a fruit that was good for food, pleasing to the eye, and met a deep egotistical desire (ultimate wisdom) (Gen 3). She and Adam fell for the temptation. In the wilderness, Satan tempted Jesus in the same way—something that would be good for food, something that would be a visual spectacle, and something that would meet His basest desire (to rule the world) (Matt 4). The two differences? Where Adam and Eve already had everything they could ever need, Jesus was in a place of extreme want and vulnerability. And where Adam and Eve fell, Jesus did not. Temptations appeal to our physical needs, our emotional needs, and our ego.
If you’re looking to add a twist to your discussion of Joseph’s temptation in our passage, try this. In our Sunday Night study, we talked about how churches can be tempted. Churches can be tempted to cut corners in order to pay the bills. Churches can be tempted to compromise their convictions in order to keep the money flowing or raise their status in their community. Churches can be tempted to care more about their personal comfort than their God-given mission. Churches can be tempted to rush into a decision rather than wait on God’s timing (or vice versa fail to follow God’s leading because they don’t trust that God will provide). So, when you talk about temptations that individuals and families face, you can throw in how churches can be in the same position.
In our passage this week, the temptation is sexual. Potiphar’s wife could have whatever she wanted, and she wanted the strong, attractive, pleasant, and successful Joseph. Joseph had worked himself up from the bottom and was finally in a place where he too could have whatever he wanted. Right?
I would that question in two steps: first, here are some numbers to indicate that this sort of temptation is common today (which means that people in our churches almost certainly struggle with it in some way or another). I found an interesting 2018 survey (small—only about 200 people) about marital infidelity. 36% of male respondents and 21% of female respondents said they committed infidelity while married (strangely, 58% of men and 60% of women said their spouse committed infidelity). Interestingly, 63% of men said that flirting was not infidelity, and only 51% of men considered an “emotional affair” as infidelity, and only 68% of men considered an online relationship as infidelity (those numbers were a little bit higher for women). The only clear number was 95% of all respondents considered a one-night stand infidelity. The top reason for men (23%) was sexual dissatisfaction. The top reason for women (28%) was emotional dissatisfaction.
The bigger study I remember from a few years ago indicated that 21% of men and 15% of women have had an affair. 60% of adults in that study considered an emotional affair the same as a physical affair. 60% of affairs start at work; 10% start online. (The Barna group has done research to indicate that the numbers are similar for Christian couples; they indicate that pornography has proven to be an instigator for Christian affairs—a “gateway” activity that lowers the spiritual barriers to committing other sexual sins.)
Second, I would say that Christians must consider every form of intimate/personal relationship with someone other than your spouse a serious form of infidelity. God takes marriage very seriously. Adam recognized Eve as “flesh of my flesh”, something Jesus celebrated (which is why a pastor ends a wedding with “What God has joined together let no one tear apart”). There should not be a third person between a husband and wife for any reason; an “emotional affair” is just as serious as a physical one. If a spouse is not meeting a need, the solution is not to find someone else who will but for both spouses to put themselves aside and work hard together to begin meeting those needs.
All of that to say that Joseph did right by running away from Potiphar’s wife. On the back page, I’ll give some other solutions to the temptation to have an affair.
Where We Are in Genesis
The lesson we didn’t teach last week introduced us to Joseph, Jacob’s favorite son. God gave Joseph dreams of the future—that his family would one day bow down to him (which is all true). Unfortunately, Joseph had no tact or filter in “bragging” about these things to his brothers, and eventually they had enough and got rid of him.
Older brother Judah convinced the rest not to kill Joseph but rather to sell him into slavery. (Remember how I said that Jacob’s bad behavior as a younger man would eventually cost him? Clearly, his sons had picked up on his unscrupulous methods to get what he wanted; how else can you explain their willingness to kill their own brother? Jacob had had a heart change, but his sons would have to make their own choices.) That seems to be why the narrative takes a turn to focus on Judah for chapter 38 and his poor life choices.
Then at the end of that sordid tale, the narrative turns back to Joseph, whom we find has been sold to an important official in Egypt. A story that will be repeated in Joseph’s life, Joseph was so exemplary in his place that he rose through the ranks to eventually be in charge of Potiphar’s affairs. I think it would be important to note that we don’t know how much time has passed. Joseph seems to have eaten his humble pie because he doesn’t give off any vibes other than being a responsible, accountable, trustworthy, mature individual—the kind of person we would all like to be. I think of this like the parable of the prodigal son: enough time has passed for Joseph to come to his senses. That takes longer for some people than others.
Part 1: Successful (Genesis 39:3-6)
When his master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord made everything he did successful, Joseph found favor with his master and became his personal attendant. Potiphar also put him in charge of his household and placed all that he owned under his authority. From the time that he put him in charge of his household and of all that he owned, the Lord blessed the Egyptian’s house because of Joseph. The Lord’s blessing was on all that he owned, in his house and in his fields. He left all that he owned under Joseph’s authority; he did not concern himself with anything except the food he ate.
There are important parallels between Joseph and the earlier story about Jacob. Both were so exemplary in their tasks that everyone realized it (and that was due to the blessing of God—there are two key things to point out about God’s blessing on both Jacob and Joseph: (1) it was in direct fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham; (2) it didn’t necessarily mean good things were always going to happen to Jacob or Joseph; in other words, you can be blessed by God and not look like it from the world’s perspective). The word for “successful” most often means “profitable”. Joseph provided great financial benefit to Potiphar, and Potiphar appreciated it. (Note: this does not mean that God will make everyone He blesses successful in their jobs! But that was God’s purpose for Joseph—bringing him to the attention of Potiphar’s wife got him thrown into Pharaoh’s prison which gave him access to Pharaoh which eventually saved his family.)
The importance of these verses is setting up the coming calamity. This isn’t a feel-good story of Joseph overcoming the unfair treatment of his family. This is a man who had had everything go wrong in life, try to work through it, only to have everything blow up in his face. If there is a teachable part of these verses, it is the importance of being a trustworthy servant/worker. It doesn’t always work out, but the Bible is clear that we’re supposed to be the kind of worker “whom the master finds doing his job when he comes” (Matt 24:46).
Aside: What the Bible Says about Workplace Integrity
Psalm 1:3 says that a person who fears the Lord and walks in His ways is like a tree that never withers—”Whatever he does prospers.” In the case of Joseph, that was the literal truth. And we can see from our own experiences that people who deal in integrity, treat people respectfully, and work hard and consistently, they do tend to be more successful than those who do not work with those characteristics.
But remember that the Bible also says, “Better the poor whose walk is blameless than the rich whose ways are perverse (Prov 28:6).” And “To do what is right and just is more acceptable to the LORD than sacrifice (Prov 21:3).” Those do not tie together being righteous and being successful. (Yes, I’m taking shots at the so-called prosperity gospel, in which it is said that God wants all Christians to be successful.)
But the Bible is clear about behavior expectations for Christians. “The LORD detests lying lips, but he delights in people who are trustworthy (Prov 12:22).” “Give careful thought to the paths for your feet and be steadfast in all your ways. Do not turn to the right or the left; keep your foot from evil (Prov 4:26-27).” “Do to others as you would have them do to you (Luke 6:31).” And the example of the early church leaders: “For we are taking pains to do what is right, not only in the eyes of the Lord but also in the eyes of man (2 Cor 8:21).” In other words, we should work like Joseph regardless of financial success.
Part 2: Tempted (Genesis 39:6-12)
Now Joseph was well-built and handsome. After some time his master’s wife looked longingly at Joseph and said, “Sleep with me.” 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. 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?” Although she spoke to Joseph day after day, he refused to go to bed with her. Now one day he went into the house to do his work, and none of the household servants were there. She grabbed him by his garment and said, “Sleep with me!” But leaving his garment in her hand, he escaped and ran outside.
That opening sentence is supposed to be ominous here. It’s the same words used to describe Joseph’s mother Rachel (in their feminine forms). Potiphar’s wife took notice of this amazing slave. (I think I’ve said before that any person who is remotely attractive, treats people well, is at all successful, and is in a position of authority really needs to watch out for a lonely person who wants to be around someone like that. It’s just the world we still live in today.) From the outside, we can see this as a clear no-no. But put yourself in the event (and maybe not something so obvious as sleeping with the boss’s wife). Would you be tempted to say “after all I’ve been through” or “after what I’ve accomplished” or “I deserve this” or “one time isn’t a big deal”?
I would suggest having your group analyze Joseph’s response (I think it’s a good one). He speaks gently and respectfully. He shows respect to his boss (her husband) in such a way as is reasonable, thoughtful, and impossible to argue with. He explains why such temptation is wrong both from that family’s perspective and also God’s. Once your class has identified the characteristics for resisting temptation, put them in a role-play:
A co-worker wants you to fudge some numbers
A friend wants you to do drugs/get drunk/whatever
A family member wants you to lie in court
You see an ad for a naughty show about to come on
You can make your tax situation improve (wink wink)
Or anything else you think might be applicable to your class members. How does Joseph’s response help you respond in those situations?
Unfortunately, they didn’t dissuade the wife (note that her name is never given; that’s not an accident). I can only imagine how stressful Joseph’s life got “day after day”. Very few temptations are a resist-once-and-it’s-over. Some old manuscripts include the phrase “or be around her” indicating he was trying to avoid situations that were compromising.
He missed one. He went into the house (to do his job—Joseph wasn’t doing anything reckless; your leader guide points out that Joseph’s success in his job probably gave Potiphar’s wife more leisure time to lust after him while she did her own thing in the house) when no other servants were around. This could be a coincidence, or it could be a scheme. Doesn’t matter. Potiphar’s wife took advantage of the opportunity. Joseph did the right thing—when it became clear he couldn’t “resist” her temptation respectfully, he ran away (see the back page for how seriously we should take temptation).
What could Joseph have done differently so as to avoid this awful outcome? This question should matter to you. We never want to be caught in a “he said/she said” argument. As Joseph learned, sometimes the truth doesn’t really matter in those debates. If his job took him into the house, then perhaps he could have appointed someone else to take care of that work. Certainly, he could have made sure to bring someone with him every time he went into the house (I think I would have done that). Neither option would be foolproof.
I think it’s very important that Joseph had already decided in his head that he was going to resist the temptation—that way, when it struck, he wasn’t actually tempted. We would do well to determine in our minds ahead of time to resist temptations; don’t let them sneak up on you.
Part 3: Favored (Genesis 39:19-21)
When his master heard the story his wife told him—“These are the things your slave did to me”—he was furious and had him thrown into prison, where the king’s prisoners were confined. So Joseph was there in prison. But the Lord was with Joseph and extended kindness to him. He granted him favor with the prison warden.
“Hell hath no fury as a woman scorned”, they say. Honestly, I doubt anyone believed Potiphar’s wife. It’s tough to keep lust secret, period. But from everyone? for who knows how long? Not a chance. But what are you going to do? It’s the master’s wife. Being singled out by a person in power must be a helpless feeling—I’m sure your class can come up with many examples.
I’m not convinced that Potiphar truly believed his wife. Yes, “he burned with anger” when his wife said those things, but he didn’t kill Joseph on the spot (which was probably the normal course of action). In fact, he sent Joseph to the safest prison anywhere—the king’s prison for political prisoners. I can’t call that a coincidence. As we know, God will use that to put Joseph where God wanted him.
And it’s very important note that Joseph went right back to being the person of integrity while in prison. God didn’t have to do much for the warden to look favorably on Joseph (I think of it as God simply making sure that the warden took notice).
[Important Aside on a Probable-Not-Coincidence: Potiphar was the "captain of the guard" (39:1). The prison that Joseph was in was "in the house of the captain of the guard" (40:3). And the captain of the guard was the one who put Joseph in charge of the baker and the cupbearer. Potiphar was probably not the prison warden, but it's very likely that he was in charge of the prison. This is why I believe that Potiphar didn't actually believe his wife's accusation. But, politics being as they are, he couldn't do anything about it. I think he did the best he could by Joseph under the circumstances.]
So here are some questions from my Serendipity Bible that might help tie it all together:
(1) Which of the challenges Joseph faced would be the hardest for you?
 Being estranged from my family.
 Being sold into slavery.
 Being seduced.
 Being sexually harassed.
 Being falsely accused.
 Being thrown into prison.
(Seriously—does not reading that list make your heart go out to Joseph??)
(2) What motivates you to live a clean and holy life for God?
 My love for God.
 God’s love for me.
 My desire not to be punished.
 My desire not to disappoint other people.
 My desire to please God.
 My own self-respect.
Those two questions gauge our response to Joseph’s circumstances. They might help us see what we think is important, and that’s a good start for learning how we’re presently “wired” to resist temptation.
In closing, make sure you point out that the last verse clearly says, “The Lord was with Joseph.” Being in prison—or any circumstance we fight face—doesn’t mean anything other than that God is with us and God will help us get through that circumstance. How might God be reassuring you that He is with you in whatever you face today?
Aside: The Culture of Victim-Blaming and the #MeToo Movement
Our passage describes a very complicated event. A married woman was coming on strong to an unmarried man; when he refused her advances, she falsely accused him of attempted rape. Unfortunately, our culture too often jumps to conclusions in such an ordeal—either immediately calling the woman a liar or calling on the man to burn. For example, in the Baylor testimonies (in which dozens of female students asserted that they were raped), the law authorities and campus officials were quoted as saying things like “What was she doing hanging out there?” or “What did she expect wearing that dress?” Victim-blaming, often a means of protecting the accused, has ruined many lives. That’s why the “#MeToo movement” is so extraordinary—women coming forward to accuse the most powerful men in their fields (Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, etc.) in spite of the potential cost to their career.
The news aggregate site Vox.com lists 263 people who have been accused of some kind of misconduct since April 2017 (https://www.vox.com/a/sexual-harassment-assault-allegations-list). That list includes people who have been indicted before a judge, and it includes people for whom the evidence seems to indicate their innocence. The site includes multiple articles about the Christine Blasey Ford / Brett Kavanaugh trial. Let’s just say that the rhetoric gets really ugly on both sides. Unfortunately, some people don’t really care what the truth actually is.
That’s why it’s so relieving that the Bible clearly says that Joseph was innocent of the accusation against him. But here’s what I want you to be listening for in your discussions—don’t let anyone get away with generalizing on this topic (or treating it lightly). Rape, or even attempted sexual assault, is a life-changing event that must not be scoffed at. In the same way, a false accusation of rape will forever change someone’s life. Keep your group respectful of all.
Closing Thoughts: If Your Right Eye Causes You to Sin
When I was in seminary, I had a number of classmates who argued strongly that the Sermon on the Mount was purely hyperbolic (unreasonable, to-the-extreme), starting with Jesus’ phrase “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away”. While I agree that Jesus didn’t mean that literally, the older I get the more I appreciate that Jesus was being as close to literal as He could be.
I have seen the “wandering eye” destroy marriages and families, lead good people to make foolish decisions with jobs and money that ruined them financially, and put some people in the hospital (when they decided to hit on the “wrong” girl). Having an eye that causes you to sin is something that a follower of Christ should take very seriously. I’m only 43, but I’ve heard enough tales of how Christians have handled temptations to be thankful for their example.
Billy Graham is famous for always “staying out of trouble” (however you want to say that). I once heard him say that if he were alone on an elevator and a woman stepped on, he would exit before the doors closed—”didn’t want to give anyone the chance to think anything inappropriate”.
Twitch start Tyler “Ninja” Blevins made waves when he said he wouldn’t play on the same video game team as a woman out of respect for his wife. (He keeps his religious views secret.)
The rules are simple—don’t put yourself in a situation which might lead to an affair. Don’t spend alone time with someone of the opposite gender who isn’t your spouse. Yes, this can be hard (most affairs start in the workplace), but your Christian integrity is more important than maintaining those relationships. Joseph literally ran from temptation. We should applaud him.