Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife: An Exegesis, Part 3

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 3 of that study. Enjoy!

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

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5.  Commentary Body (v. 1-9)

Verse 1 In reconnecting readers with the end of Genesis 37, Joseph is transferred from the hands of the Ishmaelites to Potiphar, for whom the verse ascribes an unusual amount of descriptors.[1] While it would seem obvious that an officer of Pharaoh would be an Egyptian, this could be specified “because there were non-Egyptians in service to the Egyptian court, as indeed Joseph will shortly be.”[2] A more likely possibility is that Potiphar and, by association, his house, are identified as Egyptian “to be played off against [Potiphar’s wife’s] derogatory identification of Joseph as ‘a Hebrew man’” in her accusation that follows (Gn 39:14).[3] As such, this reversal of status from Abraham and Hagar sets the social stage not only for the chapter to come, but also for the events leading up to the exodus from Egypt.

Verse 2 Yahweh, the personal name for Joseph’s god, is used here for the first of eight times in thirteen verses. Each time, Yahweh is named to indicate divine presence with or blessing upon Joseph, though the name is never spoken in conversation and should be appropriately understood as originating from the perspective of the narrator.[4] Certainly, if Yahweh spoke directly to Joseph to indicate his presence, the narrator would be sure to indicate as much. As it stands, however, “the repetitious use of the phrase imparts coherence and meaning to what superficially appear to be merely random events.”[5] Therefore, because God was with Joseph, he became a successful slave inside Potiphar’s house, where it was more likely that his good works could be observed by the master and his inner circle.

Perhaps the attribution of Yahweh’s presence with Joseph, which could have only come from a backward-looking overview of the pericope, was necessary given that this is the “first revelation of God in any Egyptian circle.”[6] With Joseph alone in a foreign land, and for God to fulfill his covenant with Abraham, his “special care and protection” was the only impetus that could secure success for Joseph, the favor of Potiphar and protection over Jacob’s house from eventual hardship.[7]

Verse 3 This verse is highlighted by the somewhat preposterous notion that Potiphar himself observed Yahweh’s divine presence unto Joseph. Rather specifically, the narrator does not say just that Potiphar “sees that Joseph has a golden touch”[8]; instead, the narrator ascribes Potiphar a unique awareness among non-Israelites of Yahweh’s presence.[9] The verse also makes dual use of the “lexicalized metaphor” of body parts and bodily function[10]—Potiphar perceives with his eyesight that Yahweh is with Joseph, and matters in Joseph’s hand are made successful by Yahweh.

Verse 4 The narrator essentially repeats verse 3, adding only that Potiphar becomes fond enough of Joseph’s success to promote him as an overseer of the entire estate. The verse again contains mentions of both eyes and hands, specifically that all things owned by Potiphar are given into Joseph’s hands, and that Joseph’s favor comes as a result of the perception of Potiphar’s eyes. In doing so, the author is cleverly hinting at what will befall Joseph when “the master’s wife becomes obsessed with him.”[11] For Joseph, the eyes of Mr. and Mrs. Potiphar are both a blessing and a curse.

Verse 5 Perceptive readers will have taken notice of the narrator’s meticulous and repetitious method by verse 5. This intentional recapitulation is a “device which has the effect of retarding the action” and increasing its suspense.[12] As the verses mount, the narrator repeats the same themes—Yahweh’s blessing, the master-servant relationship, and the concepts furthered by the hands and the eyes—while adding only minute new details. In this case, the reader finds that after Joseph’s promotion over the house of Potiphar, Yahweh’s blessing is extended beyond Joseph to everything within the scope of the household, twice directly through the use of the Hebrew kol.[13] This is buttressed by the literary device of “in house and field,” a phrase that “combines two contrasting elements to express totality.”[14] In widening Joseph’s blessing, the narrator is essentially speaking for the character of God where God himself has not spoken. “The narrator simply presupposes that the blessing can flow over from the one whom Yahweh assists to a foreign people and adherents of a foreign religion precisely because of the one whom Yahweh assists.”[15] This, too, must have been rendered with the benefit of hindsight.

Verse 6 This verse is split between the passage’s introduction and its main body. First, the narrator explains that because of the blessing now applied to Potiphar’s house, everything remains in Joseph’s hands, though for the first time Joseph’s authority is limited: he is not to be in charge of Potiphar’s food. The question becomes, “Is one to understand that Joseph supervises the entire household, but Potiphar still has to see to his own lunch?”[16] This can be taken to fit Egyptian ritual practices or to merely “indicate his private affairs,”[17] but the more accepted understanding is a euphemism standing for his wife, especially given the verses that follow. The takeaway is that Potiphar has either intentionally, or by means of accepted social norms, restricted Joseph’s hands from touching his wife.

The reader is then struck by a surprise mention of Joseph’s looks, which stands out in Scripture given that “no other male is so described.”[18] In this instance, the NRSV doesn’t do appropriate justice to what is, “literally, ‘good looking and good to look at.’”[19] Jacob’s favorite son is beautiful, and receives the same gender-adjusted description as his mother Rachel (Gn 29:17)[20]; essentially, Joseph is a modern-day Brad Pitt or Orlando Bloom stuck in service to Potiphar’s house. But Joseph’s allure would not be featured so emphatically if it had no purpose in the following verses: “Attentive readers know something is about to happen when they hear a reticent narrator uncharacteristically give a physical description.”[21]

Verse 7 Some time has passed since Joseph was given the keys to Potiphar’s house, and finally the master’s wife can no longer withstand what her eyes have seen in Joseph. She propositions him with a two-word imperative in the Hebrew, which is “not so much an invitation as a command.”[22] Her order is extraordinarily blunt, with “no verbal preliminaries, no expressions of love.”[23] Readers would expect an actual seduction to first include significant nonverbal appeals to Joseph’s eyes and second, more flowery language, but the narrator is literarily making a point: Potiphar’s wife is crass, a slave to lust, while Joseph masterfully controls his temptations. Indeed, “It is a remarkable deployment of the technique of contrastive dialogue . . . to define the differences between characters in verbal confrontation.”[24]

A modern-day interpretation of Joesph and Potiphar’s Wife, as shown from a recent adaptation of Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat via MLive.com.

 

Verses 8-9[25] Joseph counters the wife’s command with a flowing, reasoned thirty-five-word response.[26] In the heat of the moment, Joseph makes no reference to his own possible sexual feelings, but unloads three distinct reasons why he will not take the order: first, because Potiphar trusts everything in the estate to his hands; second, because she is Potiphar’s wife; and third, finally, because the command carries some unspecified sin against God.[27] In the absence of specificity about the nature of this sin, it is unavoidable that this third reason is directly related to, and possibly dependent upon, the first two. Rather, that primarily “the sin against God would be the breach of trust,”[28] thereby endangering God’s presence with Joseph and the house of Potiphar. Secondarily, if at all, the command requires the sin of adultery, which although not yet given in the Decalogue was understood by both Israelites and foreigners.[29] Joseph has remained faithful, though his faithfulness could predominantly be toward either God or Potiphar.[30]

Unless the qualification of Joseph’s authority in verse 6 is understood as euphemism, Joseph’s response contradicts the earlier portion of this passage. In view of Joseph’s other reasons for challenging the mistress’ command, however, it seems to both support the euphemism and cast light on the narrator’s questionable use of repetition. “For example, when presenting his reasons for declining Potiphar’s wife’s invitation, Joseph repeats almost verbatim the narrator’s prose comments in the earlier verses (as though perhaps he had read them!).”[31] Among the phrases apparently spoken by Joseph are the master’s lack of concern for his house and the master’s trust of the household in Joseph’s hands, both from verse 6. Either Joseph himself is the Yahwist, or the narrator-as-novella-creator argument holds significant water.


[1] Potiphar himself is not mentioned by name after the first verse, leading scholars to suggest that the inclusion of his name is an “editorial patch.”  Redford continues: “Very early . . . the figure of Joseph became connected with the Egyptian name P3-di-p3-r, ‘Potiphar’; but the connection was never explicit.  One tradition ascribed the name to Joseph’s father-in-law, another to Joseph’s master.  An editor, plagued by a bent toward completeness, inserted them both.” Redford, 136-137.

[2] David W. Cotter, Genesis, Berit Olam (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2003), 290.

[3] Alter, 221.

[4] Sarna, 271.

[5] Ibid.  This “phrase” identified by Sarna includes “was with him,” indicating The Lord’s presence.

[6] Samson Raphael Hirsh, The Pentateuch: Vol. I Genesis, trans. Isaac Levy, 2nd ed. (London: L. Honig & Sons Ltd., 1963): 560.

[7] Ibid., 559.

[8] Westermann, 63.

[9] Humphreys, The Character of God, 209.

[10] Alter, xix.

[11] Cotter, 290.

[12] Redford, 77.

[13] Bruce K. Waltke and Cathi J. Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 518.

[14] Sarna, 272.

[15] Westermann, 63.

[16] Kugel, 74.

[17] Westermann, 64; Sarna, 272; Eskenazi, 221.

[18] Sarna, 272.

[19] Eskenazi, 221.

[20] Ibid.; Alter, 222.

[21] Tremper Longman III, How to Read Genesis (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 153.

[22] Alter, 222; McKinlay, 72.

[23] Sarna, 272.

[24] Alter, 222.

[25] As both verses encompass Joseph’s response to Potiphar’s wife, I consider them an exegetical whole.

[26] Alter, 222.

[27] Sarna, 272. “God” in verse 9 is this passage’s only use of the generic ’elohim.

[28] Westermann, 66.

[29] von Rad, 365.

[30] McKinlay, 72.

[31] Redford, 77.

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