Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife (39:1–23)
1–2 We return now to Joseph, a slave in the house of Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officials. And we read: The LORD was with Joseph (verse 2). In spite of Joseph’s very difficult situation, the Lord was with him. (This statement is repeated in verse 21, where we find Joseph in yet a worse situation.) And because the Lord was with Joseph, he prospered—even in the most difficult circumstances. Nothing is too hard for the Lord, and without the Lord everything is too hard. Joseph’s successes were not primarily due to his abilities or to his righteousness; they were due primarily to the presence of the Lord with him. The Lord’s presence changes everything in a person’s life. The Lord’s presence can overcome all circumstances. This is the main lesson of this chapter.
3–6 The promise of the Lord’s presence was one of the most important covenant promises (Genesis 26:3; 28:15; 31:3). Another important promise was that, through Abraham’s offspring, blessing would come to all peoples (Genesis 12:3; 22:18; 26:4; 28:14)—even to ungodly people like Potiphar. Potiphar could tell that the Lord was with Joseph, and so he first made Joseph his personal attendant; then he put him in charge of his household (verse 4). And from that time on Potiphar prospered; through Joseph, the blessing of the Lord came upon Potiphar also.
Joseph’s life demonstrates many principles of Christian service; indeed, Joseph serves as a model for all of us. We have seen him start out in life as a cocky, spoiled young lad, the favorite of his father. If God was going to use Joseph, He first needed to humble him; and being sold into slavery by one’s brothers is quite a dramatic form of humbling! (1 Peter 5:6).
Next we see Joseph being faithful in small things—the duties of a lowly slave. Then we see him elevated to greater and greater responsibilities. Some of us would like to become rulers without first being servants, but that is not God’s way (Matthew 25:21).
7–10 In these next verses we are shown Joseph undergoing a new test: the test of obedience in the face of temptation. This test too was necessary to prepare Joseph for the future role God had in store for him.
Potiphar’s wife repeatedly tried to get Joseph to commit adultery with her. Joseph understood that such an act would be a sin both against Potiphar and against God, and he would not allow himself to betray either one. In this Joseph demonstrated both his faithfulness and his obedience. Even when there were no servants in the house and no one would have known except Joseph and the wife, he refused her advances (verses 11–12).
Ultimately all sin is sin against God. Even when no person is “hurt” by our sin, even when no one “sees” our sin, God sees and God is hurt. He sees even our sinful thoughts and desires. The test of true faithfulness and obedience comes when we resist the secret sins that no one else but God will ever know about.
Joseph passed that test. We have emphasized that Joseph’s success came about primarily because God was present with him. But that is not the whole story. God would not have prospered Joseph if he had not been obedient. Humans have a part to play in the fulfilling of God’s plans and promises. Back in Genesis 18:19, God said that He had chosen Abraham so that he would direct his children to do what is right and just, in order that the Lord might bring about for Abraham what he [had] promised him. Our doing what is right and just is necessary for the promise to be fully realized in our lives. It’s as if God was holding back the promise until He saw that we were responding as He wished.
Can we claim “credit” for obeying God? No. Can we “earn” God’s acceptance? No. Is it we who “make” the promises come true? No. We have a part to play, true; but compared with God’s part, our part is small. And even our small part—trusting and obeying—is made possible by God’s grace (1 Corinthians 15:10). Later on in biblical history when God promised to make a “new covenant” with mankind, He said He would write the law on people’s hearts—that is, He would give them “new hearts” so that they could obey His law (Jeremiah 31:33; Hebrews 8:10). Ultimately, everything is of God, from the beginning of our Christian lives until the end; and to ensure His continued blessing along the way all we need to do is trust and obey.
11–18 A final test came for Joseph when he was falsely accused of trying to seduce Potiphar’s wife. One day she caught hold of Joseph, and he literally fled from her room (2 Timothy 2:22). But she managed to hold on to his cloak (verse 12). Joseph lost his cloak but kept his character. Angered by being rejected yet again, Potiphar’s wife took her revenge. She accused Joseph of the very thing she herself had been attempting all along.
And this time she had the “proof”: his cloak. This “proof” convinced the other servants and it convinced Potiphar as well, and Joseph was sent to prison.
Joseph is the first major biblical figure to become a victim of slander and false witness. Slander itself is often based on truth: “I have Joseph’s cloak.” But its purpose is to defame someone behind his back. This episode provides a warning for us: when we think we’ve seen the “proof” concerning someone’s behavior, we need to remember Joseph and his cloak.
19–20 So Joseph was thrown into prison. Most people, when they suffer, suffer because of their own sin or stupidity. Joseph suffered because of righteousness (Matthew 5:10). Joseph is often thought of as a “type” of Christ,121 a faithful servant who was falsely condemned and suffered deeply as a result. Both Joseph and Jesus have given us an example: if we desire to be followers of Jesus, we too must be ready to suffer for His sake (see 1 Peter 2:21–23).
21–23 Joseph remained in prison for more than two years—his final testing. Surely God used that time to further prepare and equip His faithful servant (James 1:2–4). Joseph soon found favor with the prison warden, just as he had found favor earlier with Potiphar (verse 4). And because the Lord was with him, Joseph was put in charge of all the prisoners; and the Lord gave him success in whatever he did (verse 23).
Every person at some point in life will be falsely judged, as Joseph was. The issue may be minor; it likely won’t result in prison. But God will be concerned with how we respond to such trials. Will they make us better, or will they make us bitter? Will they strengthen our faith or weaken it? Will we be able to forgive, even as Christ forgave?
We can do at least three things that will help us bear our trials. First, like Joseph, maintain a clear conscience; avoid all sin, including sins of attitude such as bitterness, anger, or an unforgiving spirit. Second, cast all cares upon the Lord (1 Peter 5:7); keep trusting in Him; He will work all things for good (Romans 8:28). Third, “practice the presence of God.” Repeatedly in this chapter we have been reminded that God was with Joseph. That divine presence is something we can actually experience—“practice”—hour by hour, moment by moment. God has promised never to leave us (Genesis 28:15; Matthew 28:20); we must take hold of that promise and believe it. Then we will not only be able to bear our trials and benefit from them; we will even be able to rejoice in them (Matthew 5:11–12).