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Joseph and Potiphar's Wife - Guido Reni (1630)

After Joseph was sold by his brothers, the Ishmaelites took Joseph to Egypt where he was sold to Potiphar, one of the Pharaoh’s officials (i.e. captain of the guard). God was with Joseph, so he prospered while in captivity.

Joseph lived in the home of his Egyptian master. When his master saw God was with Joseph in everything he did, he made him his attendant. Potiphar put Joseph in charge of the household and entrusted everything he owned to his care. Potiphar did not concern himself with anything but the food he ate. As a result, Potiphar was blessed by God both in his house and in the field.

Joseph and Potiphar's Wife - Cigoli (1610)Joseph was well built and handsome. After some time, his master’s wife took notice of Joseph and said, “Come to bed with me!” Joseph refused her advances and told her,

“My master has entrusted me with everything he owns. My master has withheld nothing from me except you, because you are his wife. How could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?”

Even though his master’s wife spoke to Joseph every day about it, Joseph refused to go to bed with her or even be with her.

One-day Joseph went into the house to do his work. None of the household servants were inside. Potiphar’s wife grabbed him by his cloak and said, “Come to bed with me!” Joseph pulled away, leaving his cloak in her hand, and ran from the house. Potiphar’s wife then called out to the servants,

“Look, this Hebrew has been brought to us to make sport of us! He came in here to sleep with me, but I screamed. When he heard me scream for help, he ran from the house leaving his cloak behind.”

When Joseph’s master heard the story and his wife told him, “This is how your slave treated me,” he burned with anger. Potiphar put Joseph in prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were confined. While Joseph was in prison, God was with him. He granted Joseph favor in the eyes of the prison warden. Soon the warden put Joseph in charge of all those held in the prison and he was made responsible for everything that was done there. The warden paid no attention to anything under Joseph’s care and trusted him entirely because the Lord was with Joseph and gave him success in whatever he did.

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What the story means to us today

Joseph, a refreshing biblical character, follows God’s will – and is richly rewarded for his righteousness

In the preceding verses, we’ve seen Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob repeatedly fail to meet God’s expectations. Joseph however, is a refreshing change. When tempted to sin, Joseph responds, “How can I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?” It’s no wonder that Joseph is the only person in Genesis described as a person “filled with the Spirit of God”.

No matter how difficult his situation, Joseph remains faithful to God. Even when ruthlessly persecuted, Joseph continues to trust God. Joseph knows God expects him to be righteous, so God’s grand plan can be fulfilled. We know this from Genesis 18:19 which tells us,

“I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing what is right and just, so that the LORD will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.”

No matter how difficult, God wants all Christians to be righteous and just. Thus, we must abide by God’s will and trust that we will prosper as a result.

All people will be blessed through you

Joseph and Potiphar's Wife - Jean-Baptiste Nattier (1711)Potiphar, captain of the Egyptian guard and Joseph’s legal owner, prospers because of Joseph’s relationship with God. This is the overall theme of the narrative and an important point to consider. In Genesis 12:3, God promised Abraham that “all people on earth will be blessed through you.” We see fulfillment of God’s promise in this story.

Not only Joseph, but everyone associated with him (e.g. Potiphar’s household) are blessed too. Ultimately the story is not about Joseph and his great success, but rather the telling of God’s fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise. Christians today are blessed in the same manner. We may face trials and struggle through hardship like everyone else, but we know the reward ahead is great.

Additional thoughts and considerations

The Ishmaelites and Midianites

The verses tell us Joseph was sold by the Ishmaelites. Recall earlier verses mentioned both the Ishmaelites and Midianites owning Joseph, a potentially confusing point for the reader. Although the reason is unclear, Midianites and Ishmaelites are used interchangeably throughout the Bible. It is believed they represent the same group of people.

Potiphar’s wife’s racist undertones

There are clear undertones in the story which demonstrate how the Egyptians viewed Hebrews in the ancient Near East. Potiphar’s wife does not mention Joseph by name but rather, categorizes Joseph as a “Hebrew” when she claims he attempted to “lie with her”. When relaying the fabricated story to her husband, she again points out that Joseph is a Hebrew,

“That Hebrew slave you brought us came to me to make sport of me.”

The references and context of her speech are clearly a demeaning description of Joseph. In the ancient Near East, racism ran rampant as various regions sewed jealously, fear, and mistrust of their neighboring regions. These same feelings permeate the area today and are the primary drivers of near-nonstop Middle East conflict.

The science and history behind the story

Incarceration in Egypt

Joseph is imprisoned by Potiphar, nor executed or physically punished. Imprisonment is unique in this early Bible tale, but historic Egyptian documents confirm the use of prisons – an unusual form of punishment in the ancient Near East. In fact, the earliest records of prison-like incarceration systems come from the areas of Mesopotamia and Egypt. Joseph’s punishment, as described in the bible, was uniquely Egyptian.

15th centruy basement of a "market house" used as a prisonNotes on Biblical translation

The “prison”

In the original biblical text, the words used to describe “prison” are “house of roundness” or “round house”. Some theorize this implies the prison may have been inside a fortress or possibly a rounded structure attached to another dwelling such as a royal palace.

We know from later verses that at least part of Josephs prison was located underground (a dungeon). Some Egyptian prisons resembled deep pits or wells, another potential explanation for the “round house” description of an Egyptian prison.

Bible Text

NIV

Now Joseph had been taken down to Egypt. Potiphar, an Egyptian who was one of Pharaoh’s officials, the captain of the guard, bought him from the Ishmaelites who had taken him there.

2 The LORD was with Joseph so that he prospered, and he lived in the house of his Egyptian master. 3 When his master saw that the LORD was with him and that the LORD gave him success in everything he did, 4 Joseph found favor in his eyes and became his attendant. Potiphar put him in charge of his household, and he entrusted to his care everything he owned. 5 From the time he put him in charge of his household and of all that he owned, the LORD blessed the household of the Egyptian because of Joseph. The blessing of the LORD was on everything Potiphar had, both in the house and in the field. 6 So Potiphar left everything he had in Joseph’s care; with Joseph in charge, he did not concern himself with anything except the food he ate.

Now Joseph was well-built and handsome, 7 and after a while his master’s wife took notice of Joseph and said, “Come to bed with me!”

8 But he refused. “With me in charge,” he told her, “my master does not concern himself with anything in the house; everything he owns he has entrusted to my care. 9 No one is greater in this house than I am. 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?” 10 And though she spoke to Joseph day after day, he refused to go to bed with her or even be with her.

11 One day he went into the house to attend to his duties, and none of the household servants was inside. 12 She caught him by his cloak and said, “Come to bed with me!” But he left his cloak in her hand and ran out of the house.

13 When she saw that he had left his cloak in her hand and had run out of the house, 14 she called her household servants. “Look,” she said to them, “this Hebrew has been brought to us to make sport of us! He came in here to sleep with me, but I screamed. 15 When he heard me scream for help, he left his cloak beside me and ran out of the house.”

16 She kept his cloak beside her until his master came home. 17 Then she told him this story: “That Hebrew slave you brought us came to me to make sport of me. 18 But as soon as I screamed for help, he left his cloak beside me and ran out of the house.”

19 When his master heard the story his wife told him, saying, “This is how your slave treated me,” he burned with anger. 20 Joseph’s master took him and put him in prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were confined.

But while Joseph was there in the prison, 21 the LORD was with him; he showed him kindness and granted him favor in the eyes of the prison warden. 22 So the warden put Joseph in charge of all those held in the prison, and he was made responsible for all that was done there. 23 The warden paid no attention to anything under Joseph’s care, because the LORD was with Joseph and gave him success in whatever he did.

The New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. Print.

The Message

Joseph and Potiphar's Wife - Guido Reni (1631)39 After Joseph had been taken to Egypt by the Ishmaelites, Potiphar an Egyptian, one of Pharaoh’s officials and the manager of his household, bought him from them.

2–6 As it turned out, GOD was with Joseph and things went very well with him. He ended up living in the home of his Egyptian master. His master recognized that GOD was with him, saw that GOD was working for good in everything he did. He became very fond of Joseph and made him his personal aide. He put him in charge of all his personal affairs, turning everything over to him. From that moment on, GOD blessed the home of the Egyptian—all because of Joseph. The blessing of GOD spread over everything he owned, at home and in the fields, and all Potiphar had to concern himself with was eating three meals a day.

6–7 Joseph was a strikingly handsome man. As time went on, his master’s wife became infatuated with Joseph and one day said, “Sleep with me.”

8–9 He wouldn’t do it. He said to his master’s wife, “Look, with me here, my master doesn’t give a second thought to anything that goes on here—he’s put me in charge of everything he owns. He treats me as an equal. The only thing he hasn’t turned over to me is you. You’re his wife, after all! How could I violate his trust and sin against God?”

10 She pestered him day after day after day, but he stood his ground. He refused to go to bed with her.

11–15 On one of these days he came to the house to do his work and none of the household servants happened to be there. She grabbed him by his cloak, saying, “Sleep with me!” He left his coat in her hand and ran out of the house. When she realized that he had left his coat in her hand and run outside, she called to her house servants: “Look—this Hebrew shows up and before you know it he’s trying to seduce us. He tried to make love to me but I yelled as loud as I could. With all my yelling and screaming, he left his coat beside me here and ran outside.”

16–18 She kept his coat right there until his master came home. She told him the same story. She said, “The Hebrew slave, the one you brought to us, came after me and tried to use me for his plaything. When I yelled and screamed, he left his coat with me and ran outside.”

19–23 When his master heard his wife’s story, telling him, “These are the things your slave did to me,” he was furious. Joseph’s master took him and threw him into the jail where the king’s prisoners were locked up. But there in jail GOD was still with Joseph: He reached out in kindness to him; he put him on good terms with the head jailer. The head jailer put Joseph in charge of all the prisoners—he ended up managing the whole operation. The head jailer gave Joseph free rein, never even checked on him, because GOD was with him; whatever he did GOD made sure it worked out for the best.

Peterson, Eugene H. The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2005. Print.

The NET Bible

39:1 Now Joseph had been brought down to Egypt. An Egyptian named Potiphar, an official of Pharaoh and the captain of the guard, purchased him from the Ishmaelites who had brought him there. 39:2 The LORD was with Joseph. He was successful and lived in the household of his Egyptian master. 39:3 His master observed that the LORD was with him and that the LORD made everything he was doing successful. 39:4 So Joseph found favor in his sight and became his personal attendant. Potiphar appointed Joseph overseer of his household and put him in charge of everything he owned. 39:5 From the time Potiphar appointed him over his household and over all that he owned, the LORD blessed the Egyptian’s household for Joseph’s sake. The blessing of the LORD was on everything that he had, both in his house and in his fields. 39:6 So Potiphar left everything he had in Joseph’s care; he gave no thought to anything except the food he ate.

Now Joseph was well built and good-looking. 39:7 Soon after these things, his master’s wife took notice of Joseph and said, “Have sex with me.” 39:8 But he refused, saying to his master’s wife, “Look, my master does not give any thought to his household with me here, and everything that he owns he has put into my care. 39:9 There is no one greater in this household than I am. He has withheld nothing from me except you because you are his wife. So how could I do such a great evil and sin against God?” 39:10 Even though she continued to speak to Joseph day after day, he did not respond to her invitation to have sex with her.

39:11 One day he went into the house to do his work when none of the household servants were there in the house. 39:12 She grabbed him by his outer garment, saying, “Have sex with me!” But he left his outer garment in her hand and ran outside. 39:13 When she saw that he had left his outer garment in her hand and had run outside, 39:14 she called for her household servants and said to them, “See, my husband brought in a Hebrew man to us to humiliate us. He tried to have sex with me, but I screamed loudly. 39:15 When he heard me raise my voice and scream, he left his outer garment beside me and ran outside.”

39:16 So she laid his outer garment beside her until his master came home. 39:17 This is what she said to him: “That Hebrew slave you brought to us tried to humiliate me, 39:18 but when I raised my voice and screamed, he left his outer garment and ran outside.”

39:19 When his master heard his wife say, “This is the way your slave treated me,” he became furious. 39:20 Joseph’s master took him and threw him into the prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were confined. So he was there in the prison.

39:21 But the LORD was with Joseph and showed him kindness. He granted him favor in the sight of the prison warden. 39:22 The warden put all the prisoners under Joseph’s care. He was in charge of whatever they were doing. 39:23 The warden did not concern himself with anything that was in Joseph’s care because the LORD was with him and whatever he was doing the LORD was making successful.

Joseph and Potiphar's Wife - Orazio Gentileschi (1626-1630)Biblical Studies Press. The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible. Biblical Studies Press, 2006. Print.

King James Version

And Joseph was brought down to Egypt; and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, captain of the guard, an Egyptian, bought him of the hands of the Ishmeelites, which had brought him down thither. 2 And the LORD was with Joseph, and he was a prosperous man; and he was in the house of his master the Egyptian. 3 And his master saw that the LORD was with him, and that the LORD made all that he did to prosper in his hand. 4 And Joseph found grace in his sight, and he served him: and he made him overseer over his house, and all that he had he put into his hand. 5 And it came to pass from the time that he had made him overseer in his house, and over all that he had, that the LORD blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake; and the blessing of the LORD was upon all that he had in the house, and in the field. 6 And he left all that he had in Joseph’s hand; and he knew not ought he had, save the bread which he did eat. And Joseph was a goodly person, and well favoured. 7 And it came to pass after these things, that his master’s wife cast her eyes upon Joseph; and she said, Lie with me. 8 But he refused, and said unto his master’s wife, Behold, my master wotteth not what is with me in the house, and he hath committed all that he hath to my hand; 9 There is none greater in this house than I; neither hath he kept back any thing from me but thee, because thou art his wife: how then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God? 10 And it came to pass, as she spake to Joseph day by day, that he hearkened not unto her, to lie by her, or to be with her. 11 And it came to pass about this time, that Joseph went into the house to do his business; and there was none of the men of the house there within. 12 And she caught him by his garment, saying, Lie with me: and he left his garment in her hand, and fled, and got him out. 13 And it came to pass, when she saw that he had left his garment in her hand, and was fled forth, 14 That she called unto the men of her house, and spake unto them, saying, See, he hath brought in an Hebrew unto us to mock us; he came in unto me to lie with me, and I cried with a loud voice: 15 And it came to pass, when he heard that I lifted up my voice and cried, that he left his garment with me, and fled, and got him out. 16 And she laid up his garment by her, until his lord came home. 17 And she spake unto him according to these words, saying, The Hebrew servant, which thou hast brought unto us, came in unto me to mock me: 18 And it came to pass, as I lifted up my voice and cried, that he left his garment with me, and fled out. 19 And it came to pass, when his master heard the words of his wife, which she spake unto him, saying, After this manner did thy servant to me; that his wrath was kindled. 20 And Joseph’s master took him, and put him into the prison, a place where the king’s prisoners were bound: and he was there in the prison. 21 But the LORD was with Joseph, and shewed him mercy, and gave him favour in the sight of the keeper of the prison. 22 And the keeper of the prison committed to Joseph’s hand all the prisoners that were in the prison; and whatsoever they did there, he was the doer of it. 23 The keeper of the prison looked not to any thing that was under his hand; because the LORD was with him, and that which he did, the LORD made it to prosper.

The Holy Bible: King James Version. Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009. Print.

Sources: NIV, The Message, The NET Bible, King James Version, NET Bible Notes, Faithlife Study Bible, The Apologetics Study Bible, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Jamieson, Fausset, Brown Commentary, The Bible Reader’s Companion, Matthew Henry’s Commentary, Holman Concise Bible Commentary, The Bible Exposition Commentary, The Teacher’s Bible Commentary, The Teacher’s Commentary, The Bible Guide, Word Studies in the New Testament, Holman Bible Handbook, Calvin Commentaries, Wiersbe’s Expository Outlines, The New Manner and Customs of the Bible, Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, The Lexham Bible Dictionary, Easton’s Bible Dictionary, Harper’s Bible Dictionary, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, The Archaeological Encyclopedia, Biblical Archeology Review, The New Bible Dictionary, The Lexham Analytical Lexicon, Glossary of Morpho-Syntactic Database
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