By Sam E. Stone
Someone said, “Character is what a person does in the dark.” Another observed, “Character is what you do when you know no one will find out.” Both descriptions apply to Joseph.
In last month’s lessons we studied Abraham. We saw the fulfillment of God’s promise to send the Savior through his descendants. Abraham’s son Isaac had two sons, Jacob and Esau. In the years that followed, Jacob himself had 12 sons. Joseph was his favorite. Joseph’s brothers were jealous of him, however. This led them to sell him as a slave, and he was taken by traders to Egypt. There he was purchased by a man named Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s top officials.
Scripture tells us, “The Lord was with Joseph and he prospered” (Genesis 39:2). His master could see this, and he put him in charge of his entire household and of all that he owned (vv. 4-6). Today’s lesson takes up here.
While Potiphar admired Joseph’s good work, his wife admired Joseph’s good looks! She approached this “well-built and handsome” man with an adulterous invitation. “Come to bed with me!” Joseph quickly and firmly refused. He reminded her of the trust her husband had placed in him. “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?”
Joseph’s refusal didn’t stop her. She continued to approach him day after day. As for Joseph, he refused to go to bed with her or even be with her. Years ago I read about a Broadway play that dramatized this scene in Joseph’s life. In it, Potiphar’s wife removed her dress and placed it over the statue of an Egyptian god in her bedroom. “Now God won’t see,” she told Joseph. He replied, “My God still sees!” Solomon offered wise counsel. Speaking of the adulterous woman, he said, “Keep to a path far from her, do not go near the door of her house” (Proverbs 5:8).
Joseph could have tried to rationalize and make excuses. “I’ve been mistreated by my brothers. I didn’t ask to come here. Can I help it if she likes me? Who’s going to know? If I don’t do what she says, I could have more problems.” He said none of this, however.
One day when Joseph was at work, all of the other servants happened to be out of the house. This time she grabbed his cloak and said, “Come to bed with me!” Instead, Joseph ran from the house. He followed a principle later commanded by the apostle Paul, “Flee the evil desires of youth” (2 Timothy 2:22). He also wrote, “Flee from sexual immorality” (1 Corinthians 6:18).
In his haste to get away from the seductress, Joseph didn’t even grab his coat. She quickly realized that she could use this as “evidence” to accuse Joseph of trying to have sex with her. She told the household servants that he had attacked her but that, when she screamed, he fled. John H. Walton describes Joseph’s “unquestionable innocence” in this way: “He does not lead Potiphar’s wife on or allow himself to enjoy her company at any level. He is compromised only by a desperate and spiteful act, supported by bold-faced lies that none can contest but the accused.”
When her husband came home, she told him the same lies she had told the staff. “This is how your slave treated me.” With this comment, she may have been trying to make her husband feel responsible for putting her in a vulnerable position, and thus place him on the defensive. Some Bible scholars suggest that, given the previous trustworthiness of Joseph and the fact that Potiphar would now have to give up his most competent slave, it may be that the anger he felt (v. 19) was burning against his wife—not Joseph!
Likely the household servants had seen how Mrs. Potiphar acted around Joseph before this event, and had their doubts about her story. No doubt Potiphar did too. Otherwise, why did he not punish Joseph more severely or have him killed immediately? E. F. Kevan concludes, “If he had fully believed her tale he would have put Joseph to death.” Instead Potiphar had Joseph placed in a prison that housed “political prisoners.” Even here, the Lord was with him.
Sam E. Stone is the former editor of Christian Standard. He continues his writing and speaking ministry from his home in Cincinnati, Ohio.