November News and Notes

Consider it the seminarian’s lament, but as I alluded to about a month ago during my last “update” post, after classes and commuting and work and marriage and errands and leading a high school small discipleship group and whatever else, my hours and minutes are few. Not even seminarians get a regular Sabbath!

But in the last four weeks I’ve been fortunate enough to rid myself of that ridiculous stack of books and turn in my two major expositions for the semester. As I trudge toward Thanksgiving(s), I still have plenty of work to do, but luckily, I’ve gotten slightly ahead of the game – at least enough to return to the blog without feeling guilty!

On the positive side, my recent weeks dedicated to coursework has produced somewhat of a backlog of blog-ready theological material, including three consecutive weekly Old Testament reflection papers, my exegesis on the bulk of Genesis 39 (Joseph and Potiphar’s wife), and a church history term paper on an interesting Jewish-Christian heretical group known as the Ebionites. I’m not quite sure how much of the longer papers I will end up posting – I don’t want anyone to get plagiaristic ideas, you know – but for now, I plan on dedicating a few posts to each paper. Here’s something you can count on, though: this Monday through Friday, I will post something each day at noon. Set an alarm for yourself, if you’d like!

(Earlier today I posted Part 1 and Part 2 of my exegesis on
Genesis 39, which got an unexpectedly fortuitous grade!)

Now for the brief rundown of my classes and how they’ve progressed:

  • Greek: For the first half of the semester we get a taste of different parts of speech, including nouns, pronouns, adjectives, adverbs and other special particles, albeit all in the present verb tense. Over the last 3 or so weeks we’ve branched out from the present tense to the present active form, the imperfect and aorist (past) tenses, and the future tense. Basically, when I pick up my Greek New Testament I am continually able to read more and more of the words, but there are still large gaps in my understanding. Everything must be proceeding as desired, however, as my quiz grades continue to look stellar.
  • Old Testament: Seems like not too long ago that we were stuck in Deuteronomy, but we’ve now rolled along quite swimmingly through Solomon’s reign in 1 Kings. The fun part about this is we’ve gotten into (and through) books that I’d previously never read completely. Doing so gives you a much better perspective about the history of the Israelites and, ultimately, the circumstance in which Jesus was born. Despite the heavy reading necessary for Old Testament, my grade is looking much better than I could’ve hoped for, especially after I received my exegesis back!
  • Church History: We’ve breezed past the Protestant Reformation pretty quickly and are almost getting into more modern periods of Christian history, such as the 1800s and 1900s. In fact, this is the last week that the class will be in a church history textbook: after this is a focus on African-American churches and reformers followed by the religious right. As I may have alluded to before, my particular historical interest is much further back: the historical Jesus himself, and the battles that raged for orthodoxy of faith in the centuries following his death. It is out of this spirit that my term paper on the Ebionites came about!
  • Theological Ethics: While my major papers for the semester are now in the books, I still have two smaller papers, about 3-4 pages in length, due for Theological Ethics. These involve ethical case studies and wrestling with the theological and social dilemmas they propose. They have no specific due date, but I plan to get on one of these before Thanksgiving, and one afterwards. This timing works out quite nicely with the heavy periods of my other classes. In Ethics class itself, I believe I have overcome my deference to all of the third-year M.Div students to participate frequently in class discussion. Ultimately my grade will be the arbiter of that, but I’m satisfied with my level of discourse in the class about the various topics, such as the medical-industrial complex (as a power and principality) versus the Christian ethical call.

Aside from schoolwork, I’ve been fortunate enough to dedicate some time each week to the Miriam Project, where I have applied my prior online marketing and public relations background. The Miriam Project is a Christian adoption agency in Anderson, a non-profit with a strong heart for children and adoptive families. If you weren’t aware, November is National Adoption Month – as dedicated by the President – and all month long, in addition to other things, I’m writing a blog series for the Miriam Project about ways to improve knowledge and perspectives about adoption. If you’d like, please check out our first two posts: Get the Facts and Consider the Scripture. I may eventually repost the latter of those on my own blog, but for now, learn about adoption through the Miriam Project, please!

In short, all is shaping up well for the end of the semester and the holidays. I’ve already registered for the spring term (maybe I’ll share this in my next post). And it’s hard to believe that Christmas is just 40-some days away! I guess we had better get to ordering our wedding photos for everyone! 🙂

If you are reading my blog, I’d love it if you left a comment or two – not necessarily on this post, but on anything you find interesting or challenging or whatnot. Either way, thanks for reading, friends.

~Rob

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Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife: An Exegesis, Part 2

For Old Testament this semester, I had to complete a 12-page exegesis on some passage of 15 verses or so from Genesis through 2 Kings. Given that I have always enjoyed the story of Joseph, I chose the pericope of the young, svelte servant man and his master’s wife. You are reading Part 2 of that study. Enjoy!

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

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3.  Context

Inasmuch as Genesis and Exodus were intended to be read seamlessly, the redactors of these texts required a method by which “Israel in light of the promise [to Abraham] had its start in Egypt rather than Canaan.”[1] The expansive Joseph narrative provides this essential step, and more pointedly, Joseph’s purchase by a dignitary of the Egyptian court is the means by which Joseph will come to an audience with Pharaoh, thereby preventing Israel’s house from falling victim to famine. Unfortunately, historians attempting to date the passage must admit that “a historical inexactness pervades the Joseph narrative.”[2] Indeed, no name for Pharaoh is supplied, and no reference is made to other aspects of recorded Egyptian history, so any dating hypothesis must work backwards from an estimate of the exodus, which itself is fraught with disagreement among scholars. Historians are left with a range of more than six centuries, perhaps from “the Middle Kingdom (ca. 2100-1786) and the Second Intermediate era (ca. 1786-1550).”[3]

Similarly, the dating of the writing of Joseph’s story follows a natural progression from scholars’ individual assessments of the Documentary Hypothesis. Whereas elements of the Joseph narrative are thought to be from both the Yahwist and the Elohist, Genesis 39 is regarded as a united chapter originating from the Yahwist.[4] Given this attribution and the Joseph narrative’s sequential flow from the patriarchal stories, general consensus dates the narrative’s origin to the ninth or tenth centuries BCE, during the rule of David or Solomon.[5] In contrast to the “crude and disjointed tales” of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, however, Joseph’s story stands out as a “polished, sophisticated novelette.”[6]

Immediately preceding the passage in Scripture is an interlude about Joseph’s older brother Judah, which does not fit particularly well anywhere within the larger Genesis narrative. The story of Joseph in the house of Potiphar is best understood, then, as following Genesis 37, the conclusion of which relates that Joseph has been sold into slavery in Egypt (Gn 37:36). At the end of the passage at hand, we learn that Joseph is prospering in prison (Gn 39:23), and the next chapter resumes the sequential narrative by relating some of his in-prison interactions with the baker and the butler (Gn 40:1-19). Accordingly, Genesis 39 is the first act of Joseph’s rise in Egypt, which comes to fruition only after a major setback.

The passage reflects from the motif of a subordinate male pressured to surrender to the advances of a married woman, as in Egyptian, Greek, Indian and Persian literature, among others.[7] And though Joseph’s encounter with Potiphar’s wife is not an exact mirror image of any one story, “the innocent victim generally escapes death” in each case, as Joseph does, and its similarities with the Egyptian “Tale of the Two Brothers” suggest that this was likely known by the author of the Joseph story.[8] Into this borrowed motif the narrator has inserted a formative, powerful theme of God’s prosperous presence.

We got the Egyptian part right, but this time gave Joseph a terrible haircut!

4.  Form and Structure

The Joseph story reads as a cohesive narrative unit distinct in many ways from the rest of Genesis. Seeking specificity, scholars refer to the Joseph story formulaically as a novella, and the largest one found in the Bible at that.[9] As a novella, it is chiefly written to entertain, and is “not an account of events and person that bears the stamp of historical reporting,”[10] though it is certainly possible that historical events can be woven into the novella’s creative fabric. Viewing the passage at hand as the opening part of the Genesis 39-41 trio, readers find that “with great skill the narrator is careful to shape each of these three scenes in such a way that they have the effect of a whole, each with its own arc of tension with introduction, climax and conclusion.”[11] Borrowing further from the lexicon of a theatrical drama, our passage can be interpreted as a single act within Joseph’s rise to a position of status in Egypt, an act upon which the rest of the play depends. But a novella is not borne out of genealogical lists, recitations of laws or poetry. Instead, “the novella moves easily into the private and personal, reporting intimate conversations and often even the thoughts of characters in a detail that would be available to no one but their creator.”[12] It is significant to note that Genesis 39 jumps from interactions between Joseph and Potiphar’s wife (Gn 39:7-12), to Potiphar and his wife (Gn 39:17-19) and finally to an imprisoned Joseph (Gn 39:20-23). With no common individual in these signature events of the novella, readers can easily conclude that at least portions of the dialogue and details are less than historically accurate.

Therefore, the function of this act of the novella is derived from its narrator’s creative purpose. The author took a well-known “wandering tale,” adapted it to fit the characters and social situation—with Joseph as a highly exalted slave and the woman as his master’s wife—and created an “enthusiastic embellishment of a piece he must have found in oral form.”[13] To the built-in moral imperative of resisting sexual temptation, the author added the imagery of control transferring from hand to hand and the theological element of God’s presence with, and blessing upon, the tempted. It was then committed to writing and, in time, “was taken up into the larger Pentateuchal narrative, possibly in a revision of the Yahwist’s epic, to provide an extended transition between major themes in the Torah story.”[14]

With the way that themes and key words are repeated in the passage, it is no wonder that some scholars consider it “the most elegantly symmetrical episode in Genesis.”[15] Structurally, this act of the novella contains its own distinct introduction, body and introduction-reflecting conclusion, which serves to set up the chapter that follows in the royal prison. The structure appears as follows:

I.             INTRODUCTION: Joseph’s Role in Potiphar’s House (v. 1-6a)

A.             Connective Tissue from Gn 37:36; Potiphar Purchases Joseph (v. 1)
B.             Joseph Finds Favor from Yahweh (v. 2)
C.             Joseph Finds Favor, Special Status from Potiphar (v. 3-4)
D.             Joseph’s Favor Transferred to Potiphar’s House (v. 5-6a)

II.             BODY: Joseph’s Fall from Favor (v. 6b-19a)[16]

A.             Lust Overcomes Potiphar’s Wife (v. 6b-7)
B.             Joseph’s Restraint Explained (v. 8-9)

III.             CONCLUSION: Joseph Relocated to Prison (v. 19b-20)

A.             Potiphar Reacts, Sends Joseph to Prison (v. 19b-20)
B.             Yahweh’s Favor Remains with Joseph (v. 21)
C.             Yahweh Imparts Favor, Status to Joseph from the Prison’s Keeper (v. 22)
D.             Joseph’s Actions Prosper, and are Transferred to Prison by Implication (v. 23)

While the conclusion is not a perfect linguistic reflection of the introduction, they share many of the same elements. Twice the introduction notes that Yahweh was with Joseph, and this is twice relayed in the conclusion. Three times the introduction identifies Yahweh as the source of success and blessing over Joseph, and the conclusion adds this again once more. Additionally, in both instances Joseph is taken to a new setting, shown the Lord’s favor, shown his master’s favor, and given success from Yahweh.


[1] Matthews, 51.

[2] W. Lee Humphreys, Joseph and His Family: A Literary Study (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1988), 20.

[3] Matthews, 53.

[4] Gerhard von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary, trans. John H. Marks, rev. ed. (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1972), 364.

[5] Claus Westermann, Genesis 37-50: A Commentary, trans. John J. Scullion (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1986), 25.

[6] Donald B. Redford, A Study of the Biblical Story of Joseph: (Genesis 37-50), vol. XX of Supplements to Vetus Testamentum (Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1970), 1.

[7] Hermann Gunkel, The Folktale in the Old Testament, trans. Michael D. Rutter (Sheffield, England: The Almond Press, 1987), 139.

[8] Nahum M. Sarna, Genesis = Be-reshit: The Traditional Hebrew Text with New JPS Translation, The JPS Torah Commentary (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989), 276; Westermann, 65.

[9] Humphreys, Joseph and His Family, 19.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Westermann, 60.

[12] Humphreys, Joseph and His Family, 19.

[13] Gunkel, 139; Redford, 181-182.

[14] Humphreys, Joseph and His Family, 29.

[15] Alter, 221.

[16] As they are not the primary exegetical focus, verses 10-19a are extracted from this structural exposition.

Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife: An Exegesis, Part 1

For Old Testament this semester, I had to complete a 12-page exegesis on some passage of 15 verses or so from Genesis through 2 Kings. Given that I have always enjoyed the story of Joseph, I chose the pericope of the young, svelte servant man and his master’s wife. You are reading Part 1 of that study. Enjoy!

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

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In all this the novella seeks to reflect life, to present the truth in life: not what happened once in the past, but what happens.  This is how people act, and will act again and again.

—W. Lee Humphreys, Joseph and His Family: A Literary Study

1.  Introduction

With its flowing, differentiated scenes and complex literary elements, the Joseph novella is one of the most gripping and suspenseful stories in the Bible. Borrowing from the motif of a wise man, the narrative involves a youthful sage who triumphs against all odds to save a nation.[1] But for all its points of connection with oral and written traditions of the Ancient Near East—including that of devious married woman versus innocent hero[2]—the Joseph novella is a vital transition to Yahweh’s direct involvement with the sons of Israel, as “up until Genesis 37, God is in the story of Jacob’s sons only as they are a part of their father’s story.”[3] The presence of Yahweh is absolutely essential if Joseph, alone and enslaved in Egypt, is ever to rise from the household of Potiphar and fulfill his destiny. Accordingly, this paper is an exegetical study of Joseph and the presence of Yahweh, as found in Genesis 39:1-9, 20-23.

A very white, European interpretation of Joseph and Potiphar's wife.

2.  Text and Translation

This passage’s most interesting textual oddity identifies Potiphar as an “official” of Pharaoh’s court; while this translation appears in standard English versions unanimously, the Hebrew noun saris “means either ‘a eunuch’ or ‘an official.’ Potiphar’s wife’s attraction to Joseph . . . might seem different if her husband were understood to be a eunuch.”[4] Indeed, rabbinic exegetical tradition elaborated extensively on this possibility, with some early writers excusing Potiphar’s wife altogether for what would have been “ordinary human desires, particularly that of motherhood.”[5] However, this paper will make use of the common understanding of Potiphar merely as a court official, the captain of the guard.

Some scholars see a major problem with English translations of the Old Testament that abstractly interpret the original Hebrew’s “extraordinary concreteness, manifested especially in a fondness for images rooted in the human body.”[6] The Hebrew text of Genesis 39 utilizes this imagery abundantly, with body parts and functions like eyes, hands, and sight expressing concepts ranging from responsibility or control to perspective and perception.[7] Unfortunately, English versions often present the terms’ connotations rather than their denotations, as is the case with “in Joseph’s hand” being rendered as “under Joseph’s authority” (Gn 39:23 NKJV). For this reason I am working from the NRSV, which tends to maintain intent, with an eye toward Robert Alter’s more concrete translation of the original Hebrew.[8]


[1] Kenneth A. Matthews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, vol. 1B of The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2005), 52.

[2] Judith McKinlay, “Potiphar’s Wife in Conversation,” Feminist Theology, no. 10 (September 1995), 75.

[3] W. Lee Humphreys, The Character of God in the Book of Genesis: A Narrative Appraisal (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 205.

[4] Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss, eds., The Torah: A Women’s Commentary (New York: URJ Press, 2008), 221.

[5] James L. Kugel, In Potiphar’s House: The Interpretive Life of Biblical Texts (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1990), 76; Heather A. McKay, “Confronting Redundancy as Middle Manager and Wife: The Feisty Woman of Genesis 39,” Semeia, no. 87 (March 1999), 215.

[6] Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004), xix.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Alter regards Genesis 37 and 39 as a “fine object lesson about how biblical narrative is misinterpreted when translators tamper with the purposeful and insistent physicality of its language.” Ibid., xxiii.