After Joseph arrived in Egypt, he was bought by Potiphar and became a servant in his house. The Lord blessed Joseph and he found favor with his master who put him in charge of all he had. Joseph was young, handsome, and good-looking (Genesis 39:6). Because of that, Joseph found himself in a situation where he was tempted to commit an act that would destroy his reputation, his relationship with his master, and put his life in jeopardy.
People are tempted every day. Temptations may come in the form of food, money, sex, power and in many other forms. Joseph faced a temptation that was irresistible. The determining factor for Joseph was whether to give in to desire or to remain firm in his conviction, that is, whether to give way to sexual desires and betray the confidence his master had placed in him or stay strong in his faith and remain faithful to God. Joseph’s temptation serves as a paradigm on how to face temptation and attain victory with God’s help.
Joseph in Potiphar’s House
The narrative in Genesis 39:1-5 describes Joseph’s life in Potiphar’s house. After Joseph was taken to Egypt, the Ishmaelites sold him as a slave to Potiphar. Potiphar was an important official in Pharaoh’s government who also served as the captain of the guard. Although Joseph was taken away from his family, Joseph was not alone in Potiphar’s house, for “the LORD was with Joseph” (Genesis 39:2, 3).
Because the Lord was with Joseph, the Lord prospered him and he became very successful in everything he did for his master. Joseph’s success was visible, even to his master. Potiphar saw that Joseph’s God was with him and that his God made successful everything he did. The biblical writer does not say how Potiphar knew that Joseph’s success was because Joseph’s God was with him. It is probable that Joseph maintained a life of devotion to God that was known to Potiphar because “Potiphar saw” that the Lord was with him.
Potiphar realized that the prosperity of his house was because the God of Joseph was with him. Potiphar promoted Joseph from a slave in his house to a trusted servant. Potiphar put Joseph in charge of his household and everything he owned. “From that time on the LORD blessed the Egyptian’s household because of Joseph. Therefore, the LORD’s blessing was on everything Potiphar owned in his house and in his fields” (Genesis 39:1-5 GWN).
Joseph was unmarried, well-built, and handsome (Genesis 39:6). Joseph’s physical appearance was inherited from his mother. His mother Rachel “was lovely in form, and beautiful” (Genesis 29:17). Joseph’s handsome appearance attracted the attention of Potiphar’s wife. Potiphar’s wife probably was also a beautiful woman, a woman who had money and power. Attracted to the beautiful Hebrew servant, she tried to seduce Joseph by asking him to have sex with her.
The story of Judah and Tamar, a Canaanite woman, interrupts the flow of Joseph’s story in the house of Potiphar. The reason behind this interruption is to show how two brothers, Judah and Joseph, dealt with the issue of temptation and sex.
Judah’s situation arose when he refused to give his younger son to Tamar. Judah’s son Er had married Tamar but he died without giving Tamar a son. Tamar was now a widow and childless living in her father-in-law’s household. It was Judah’s responsibility to give Tamar his younger son to fulfill his Levirate responsibility and provide a son for his deceased brother.
After Judah’s son died, Tamar could give a son to her dead husband through a law called the Levirate law. This law required her brother-in-law to provide a male heir for her in order to ensure that her deceased husband’s name would live into the future. Her son would inherit the family properties that belonged to her deceased husband.
Instead of giving his younger son to Tamar, Judah sent Tamar back to her father’s house (Genesis 38:11) until his younger son could be old enough to give Tamar a son. But Judah never intended to give his younger son to Tamar.
Judah’s intent was to leave Tamar in her father’s house to live as a celibate, childless widow. Tamar perceived that Judah had no intentions of giving his younger son to her. Tamar decided to force the issue with Judah.
After the death of Judah’s wife, Tamar developed a plan to get her father-in-law to impregnate her. One day when Tamar was told that Judah had come to Timnah to shear his sheep, Tamar removed her widow’s clothes, covered her face with a veil, and disguised herself as a prostitute.
When Judah saw a woman sitting by the roadside, he believed the woman was a prostitute. Judah did not know that the woman was his daughter-in-law. Judah had sex with the woman, and she became pregnant. When Judah discovered that his daughter-in-law was pregnant, he became irate only to discover, to his own humiliation, that he was the one who had impregnated her.
Judah had been unfaithful to Tamar and to himself. In the effort to satisfy his sexual desire, Judah sinned by having sex with his own daughter-in-law. Judah said about Tamar, “She is more righteous than I am” (Genesis 38:26). In his humiliation, Judah recognized his failure and his sin, as if God had opened his eyes to the sin that he had committed.
Joseph Faces Temptation
Joseph came to Potiphar’s house when he was seventeen years old (Genesis 37:2). Joseph was thirty years old when he entered the service of Pharaoh (Genesis 41:46). Since he served more than two years in prison (Genesis 41:1), Joseph probably was in Potiphar’s house almost ten years.
Potiphar’s wife became sexually attracted to Joseph because he was a handsome man. She tried to seduce him. She approached Joseph and in a very direct manner expressed her desire for him, “Come to bed with me” (Genesis 39:7). Joseph refused her proposal, but the woman was insistent. Later on, she approached Joseph and again said to him “Come to bed with me” (Genesis 39:12). When Joseph, once again, refused her adulterous proposal, Potiphar’s wife grabbed Joseph by his garment in order to force him to have sex with her. But Joseph ran outside the house and left his clothes in her hand. Rejected and scorned by Joseph’s refusal, Potiphar’s wife accused Joseph of rape. She told the household servants that Joseph “came in here to sleep with me, but I screamed” (Genesis 39:14).
Joseph Resists Temptation
The power that Potiphar’s wife possessed over her house and over her servants was not enough to persuade Joseph to have sex with her. Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce Joseph twice; it was an immense temptation, but Joseph resisted the temptation and refused to become a victim of sexual aggression.
Joseph’s refusal to have sex with the wife of his master is a lesson on how to find the resolve to resist temptation. Joseph was single, away from his family, and deprived of his freedom, but his refusal to be seduced was based on wisdom, integrity, and faith. In his refusal, he gave Potiphar’s wife four reasons why he could not have sex with her.
The first reason Joseph could not have sex with her was because he saw what he would lose. Joseph told Potiphar’s wife, “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?” (Genesis 39:9).
Joseph was enjoying a good situation in the house of Potiphar. Potiphar made Joseph his trusted servant and put him in charge of his household and everything he had. By having sex with his wife, Joseph would lose everything he had achieved over the past ten years of service.
The second reason Joseph could not have sex with her was because he saw the hurt he would cause his master. His master had not withheld anything from Joseph except her, because she was his wife. Joseph saw that the affair would hurt his master deeply. Potiphar had been good to him and the affair would be a betrayal of the trust Potiphar had placed in him.
The third reason Joseph could not have sex with her was because he saw that the affair was a sin in the eyes of God. Joseph said that having sex with her was “a wicked thing.”
In Egypt of Joseph’s time, sex among unmarried people was acceptable. Once a woman got married, she had to be faithful to her husband. Egyptian society condemned adultery. A woman caught in adultery was severely punished. It is possible that some people in Egyptian society would tolerate adultery, but in Joseph’s culture, adultery was wrong and forbidden.
The fourth reason Joseph could not have sex with her was because he saw that the affair would be a “sin against God.” Joseph was a man of faith. Joseph knew that God was with him, watching, protecting, and blessing him every day and in every situation. Joseph knew that a sexual relationship with Potiphar’s wife was not God’s will. Joseph was able to resist temptation because he was close to God.
When Potiphar’s wife refused to accept Joseph’s “no,” Joseph ran away from her, leaving his clothes in her hand. The irony in this situation is that Joseph got in trouble with his brothers because of his garment, the special robe his father had made for him. Now, Joseph will get in trouble again because of the garment he left with Potiphar’s wife. When Potiphar’s wife accused Joseph of rape, she told her husband that when Joseph came to rape her, “I screamed, he ran outside and left his clothes with me” (Genesis 39:18).
As a result of the false accusation against him, what Joseph feared, happened. Potiphar was very hurt. He was so angry that he arrested Joseph and sent him to the same prison where the king’s prisoners were kept.
On September 5, 2021, my pastor Jeff Griffin, Senior Pastor of The Compass Church preached a sermon on Genesis 39:6-20 titled “Joseph – Overcoming Temptation.” The post above is based on Jeff’s sermon.
In his sermon Jeff emphasized the need to overcome temptation. He mentioned that the way to overcome temptation is to realize how much one loses when yielding to temptation. When facing temptation, people do not see clearly the consequences of continuing in the path of temptation. People fail to realize the loss one incurs and the resulting tragedies that follow when yielding to temptation.
When people are facing temptation, they fail to think clearly because they are overcome by desire. Yielding to temptation causes hurt. It causes hurt to people involved in the situation, it devastates families, and it affects others who may be directly or indirectly involved in the situation.
The story of Joseph and his refusal to be involved with Potiphar’s wife provides a powerful lesson on how to overcome temptation.
Joseph – Overcoming Temptation – A Sermon by Jeff Griffin
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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