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.

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