Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife: An Exegesis, Part 4

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 4 of that study. Enjoy!

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4


5.  Commentary Body (v. 20-23)

Verse 20 Skipping ahead ten verses, readers know that Joseph is not thrown into jail for refusing to fornicate with Potiphar’s wife, but rather on her accusation of rape.[1] Though it is learned at the conclusion of verse 19 that Potiphar became enraged, the fact that Joseph escapes a harsher sentence is especially significant, perhaps signaling that “in his heart [Potiphar] was really convinced of Joseph’s innocence, and only for the sake of his honor” was Joseph removed from the house.[2] Furthermore, the prison to which Joseph is sent is actually a royal prison among the house of Pharaoh, and is not appropriate for a Hebrew slave accused of rape.[3] Perhaps Joseph himself is never a prisoner at all, but rather is reassigned to a less sexy post as a manager of the prison, where he can remain useful.

Verse 21 Joseph’s reassignment from Potiphar’s house does not come at the cost of Yahweh’s presence, which returns to him immediately at the beginning of this verse. Moreover, Yahweh shows the clearly wronged Joseph the covenantal language of hesed (translated in the NRSV as “steadfast love”), but readers must ask: how can the narrator make these claims when “what actually happens in the story hardly suggests in any direct way that Yahweh was with Joseph or that he ‘extended him hesed’?”[4] This hesed does eventually lead to favor in the eyes of the prison keeper. Perhaps, however, the narrator’s intent is not a to provide a sound reasoning for God’s actions, but rather to mirror verse 2.[5] In both cases, Joseph is anchored in a place, given Yahweh’s presence, and granted some measure of success.

“Hey Joseph, the whole town is going to start wondering about you if you just wear your pink outfit everwhere.”

Verses 22-23[6] These final two verses feature the entire rainbow of themes and key words already addressed in the passage, including the kol of duties twice placed in Joseph’s hands, the sight of the prison’s keeper, and Yahweh’s presence with and blessing upon Joseph. Linguistically, these verses repeat and reflect one another while also providing the perfect lens through which to understand both the events in Potiphar’s house and the royal prison scene to follow. Readers are left knowing that Yahweh is still on Joseph’s side and that the events of the passage were “possible because Yahweh . . . gave success to all that he did; [the narrator] repeats the refrain not just for the sake of the framework of ch. 39, but as his theological introit to the Joseph narrative. What is said here holds for Joseph’s rise as a whole.”[7]

6.  Commentary Conclusion

Several chapters later, Joseph excuses his brothers for their wrongful actions, as he insists that God was behind his rise to a position of status in Egypt (Gn 45:5-8). If given the opportunity, perhaps it would be within the character of Joseph to show Potiphar’s wife the same introspective forgiveness, as by taking “the outcome into account, Potiphar’s wife has functioned as an agent of the transformation, for the result is not only betterment of Joseph, but long-term betterment of Israel.”[8] The narrator of this passage indicates that, in reality, Yahweh was involved in the very details of Joseph’s servitude to both Potiphar’s household and the royal prison. The entire introductory and concluding sections of this passage, which reflect one another in both themes of Yahweh’s presence and totality—as well as key words like hands, eyes, blessing and favor—are learned by way of the narrator’s report. The characters never directly interact or converse. And though it features dialogue between Joseph and Potiphar’s wife, the body section also includes these same themes, supposedly spoken by Joseph. It is unavoidable and unmistakable that the passage appears to be a novella created by a creative narrator, not unlike the traditions of Samson (Jgs 13-16) and Esther and Mordecai (Est 1-10).[9]

Without regard to its historicity, the passage has much to say theologically about the character of Yahweh, the personal god of Joseph’s fathers. The narrator names Yahweh eight times over the course of thirteen verses, indicating each time either that Joseph had the benefit of Yahweh’s presence or was given success and favor from Yahweh. But Yahweh does not, or is unable to, protect Joseph from a false allegation of rape, which “indicates that the ways Yahweh is with Joseph are not immediately obvious.  Yahweh certainly does not keep him out of trouble.”[10] When wrongly accused by Potiphar’s wife, Joseph is apparently allowed no freedom to respond and is left with no one to help him but Yahweh, which is “to say that God can be with a person even in the course of a fall.”[11] Using modern-day terminology, the reader can conclude that Joseph had an exceptionally close personal relationship with Yahweh.

7.  Application

In order to fulfill the covenant with Abraham, Joseph has been hit over the head with the presence of Yahweh. But if he had not yet learned as much when his brothers sold him into slavery, “Joseph must experience that God’s presence does not smooth the road before him; a serious fall follows the first step upwards.”[12] Perhaps it is this perspective that allows him to forgive his brothers so easily, and in a sense, so preemptively. And while clearly the passage is speaking foremost to its main character, it can also be applied more obliquely to Potiphar, who in verse 3 is able to perceive the presence of Yahweh as the reason belying Joseph’s successes in life.

Historically speaking, the passage has been applied to stress virtue in the face of temptation; indeed, throughout rabbinic exegesis Joseph received titles like “Temperate” and “Righteous.”[13] But when viewing the passage as a whole, boiling it down to this one quality is far too simple. It is hard to say with a straight face “that if you just keep your ‘virtue,’ everything will turn out all right for you; after all, Joseph keeps his and goes to jail.”[14] Yet clearly, retaining one’s chastity and making correct sexual choices are inherent to the passage, and are likely the most accessible lessons for the layperson.[15]

Looking back to my upbringing, I tended to pay more attention to the introduction and conclusion portions of this passage than the sexually charged body section. My interpretation of the message is that without regard to one’s current position or lot in life, increased responsibility and success are the fruits of steadfast reliability and trustworthiness; rather, that keeping honor is a path to reward from God. This, I submit, is more true to the narrator’s original message, wherein Joseph does not abuse Yahweh’s favor and thus continues receiving his favor abundantly. But these alternate interpretations of the passage serve as a microcosm highlighting the undeniable beauty of the Bible: pericopes are infinitely useful to reach and teach almost any audience, and as a teenager grows to become a man, so too will his appreciation of this passage grow. What once instructed him to remain abstinent in a sexualized and lustful world eventually came to teach respectability and honor in the workplace and utter faithfulness to the God’s presence. It is as Humphreys’ epigraph says, “not what happened once in the past, but what happens.”[16]

[1] This skipped portion, Gn 39:10-19, contains significant exegetical meat begging for further study.

[2] Hirsh, 564.

[3] Eskenazi, 223.

[4] Humphreys, The Character of God, 211.

[5] Alter, 225.

[6] These verses reflect one another to conclude the passage and set up a new chapter of Joseph’s life.

[7] Westermann, 69.

[8] McKinlay, 75.

[9] Humphreys, Joseph and His Family, 18.

[10] Humphreys, The Character of God, 211.

[11] Westermann, 68.

[12] Westermann, 69.

[13] Kugel, 25.

[14] Bruce W. Jorgensen, “Scriptural Chastity Lessons: Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife; Corianton and the Harlot Isabel,” Dialogue 32, no. 1 (March 1999), 29.

[15] Ibid., 18.

[16] Humphreys, Joseph and His Family, 28.


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