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


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.

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