A Brief Study of El Shaddai

For Old Testament, we students reflect weekly on “some topic, aspect or concept” from the volumes and volumes of assigned reading. I am limited to one single-spaced page each week, and in every case I’ve been forced to cut myself off from writing. So read knowing that my thoughts are manifold!

If you are interested in more selections from my School of Theology Coursework, follow the link to the category of SOT Coursework. I have also set up a new category for these Old Testament reflection papers called OT Weeklies. If all goes well, each new reflection paper will be posted automatically at 2:00 p.m. each Monday, when my Old Testament class convenes.

What follows is my reflection paper from the week of February 7. Enjoy!


This reflection paper will explore the prophet Joel’s use of a particular Hebrew proper name in his prophecy regarding the Day of Yahweh. Near the end of the first chapter, the book reads, “Alas for the day! For the day of (Yahweh) is near, and as destruction from the Almighty it comes” (Jl 1:15 NRSV). This verse, which takes from its close parallel in Isaiah 13:6, features a footnote in my Bible that the word “Almighty” is the current adaptation of the Hebrew word “Shaddai”; in fact, most English translations choose to interpret the confusing Hebrew term as a descriptive feature for Yahweh rather than its variety of other possible constructions. Though this is understandable for our modern monotheistic setting, Shaddai is rendered in the NRSV translation of both Joel and Isaiah as a simile, which sparked a question: am I reading a metaphor for some well-known person or deity who would have been plainly obvious to the biblical writers, or is the author simply conveying the destructive characteristic of Yahweh?

After further research, I found that the terms “Shaddai” or “El Shaddai” appear 48 times in the Hebrew Bible. Six of these occurrences are in Genesis, three are in the remainder of the Pentateuch, and a remarkable 31 mentions come from Job alone.[1] In seeking to understand the origin of the term, however, scholarly attention has focused on the mentions from Genesis, where Shaddai is strongly connected to promises of fertility, and especially, distinguishing characteristics of the female anatomy. While etymologically a handful of meanings have been suggested, David Biale agrees that “the original meaning of shadu was probably ‘breast’ which, by a psychological association evident to the author of the Enûma Elish in ancient times and to Freud in our own, came to mean mountain.”[2] Nowhere is this double entendre more evident than in Genesis 49, when an aging Jacob invokes the blessing of Shaddai on Joseph that will manifest as “blessings of the breasts and of the womb” (Gn 49:25 NRSV). Jacob continues to remark that his blessing upon Joseph is “stronger than the blessings of the eternal mountains” (Gn 49:26 NRSV). Furthermore, of the remaining mentions of Shaddai in Genesis, “four are fertility blessings of the ‘be fruitful and multiply’ variety,”[3] as evidenced by the promise to Abraham (Gn 17:1-7) and Isaac’s instruction for Jacob to take a wife from the house of Bethuel (Gn 28:1-5).

With the connection of Shaddai and fertility firmly established, the quest to understand the prophetic meaning of the term can begin. Surely Isaiah and Joel were not implying that the Day of Yahweh would be like one filled with breasts and fertility. This has led Biale to conclude that Shaddai language fell out of popularity among writers of the Old Testament books, perhaps around the seventh century b.c.e. when King Josiah’s reforms drove out Caananite fertility practices, including Asherah worship. In ridding the land of cultic behavior, however, Israelites had to deal with their own patriarchal fixation on Shaddai. Biale writes, “The psychological associations between El Shaddai and Asherah must have become embarrassing and even dangerous. Yet the old name could not be utterly suppressed.”[4] The solution was to retain the name Shaddai, but ascribe warrior-like qualities to the pseudo-deity, as in the Psalms: “When the Almighty scattered kings there, snow fell on Zalmon” (Ps 68:14 NRSV). Effectively, Shaddai’s fertility powers and breasts had been covered up, but Shaddai became powerful in conquest.

So while Joel piggybacks on the ideas of Isaiah, a calculated move that serves to further legitimize both within the canon, neither seems aware of Shaddai’s previous fertility qualities. Instead, both prophets are in agreement: the Day of Yahweh will bring destruction similar to that of an almighty warrior-deity, an alter ego of Yahweh. The motherly characteristics of Yahweh, by which he was known to the patriarchs (Ex 6:3), are sadly lost to history.

[1] David Biale, “The God with Breasts: El Shaddai in the Bible,” History of Religions 21, no. 3 (Feb. 1982), 243.

[2] Ibid., 240-241.

[3] Ibid., 247.

[4] Ibid., 254-255.

The Jonah Fable

For Old Testament, we students reflect weekly on “some topic, aspect or concept” from the volumes and volumes of assigned reading. I am limited to one single-spaced page each week, and in every case I’ve been forced to cut myself off from writing. So read knowing that my thoughts are manifold!

If you are interested in more selections from my School of Theology Coursework, follow the link to the category of SOT Coursework. I have also set up a new category for these Old Testament reflection papers called OT Weeklies. If all goes well, each new reflection paper will be posted automatically at 2:00 p.m. each Monday, when my Old Testament class convenes.

What follows is my reflection paper from the week of January 31. Enjoy!


For the modern critical scholar, both the book and the person of Jonah are difficult to date, relate, and investigate for a variety of reasons. The contents of the book of Jonah do not exactly lend historical credence to its narrative elements, perhaps leading to a suggestion that the text was intended solely as moral literature. A clue useful in pinning down the prophet is offered outside of the book bearing his name, as Old Testament readers also find Jonah delivering a message of expansion from Yahweh to King Jeroboam, son of Joash. Speaking of King Jeroboam II, the 2 Kings texts reads, “He restored the border of Israel from Lebohamath as far as the sea of the Arabah, according to the word of [Yahweh], the God of Israel, which he spoke by his servant Jonah son of Amittai, the prophet, who was from Gath-hepher” (2 Kgs 14:25 NRSV). So how does an easily forgettable character, known only for prophesying to an unfavorable king of Israel, end up famous for a strange amphibious encounter to possibly being mentioned within Jesus’ ministry for his σημεῖον, or sign (Mt 16:4)? In his examination of the Jonah narrative’s insight into Old Testament Israel’s conception of mission, Daniel C. Timmer wonders aloud if the surviving literature is “as much a rogue as its main character, playing havoc with the theological expectations of the canonical reader.”[1] As this reflection paper explores, very little of the “rogue” Jonah narrative follows a “normal” or “expected” path.

Jonah and the "Great Fish"
Here’s a rendering of what probably didn’t ever happen.

Careful readers are immediately confronted with the amount of liberties taken within the text, from the points at which it simply lacks specificity to instances of abject hyperbole. For example, J. Gordon McConville writes that Jonah’s depiction of Nineveh’s size hardly matches current archaeological observations, and, moreover, that the literature is unlikely to reflect the actual system of government within the city.[2] So while the original author of Jonah would have undoubtedly known about Nineveh, a sense of distance from the city—both in proximity and theology—accompanies the text. Meanwhile, a number of other details range from improbable to outrageous, including Jonah’s manic depressive behavior, the suggestion of knee-jerk city-wide repentance, to even pondering the anatomical features and requirements of a fish great enough to swallow a man. Finally, one has to wonder at the gullibility of the Ninevites. In his supposed travels through the town’s streets, Jonah was hardly specific about the prophecy he received or even the one from whom it had been received, and yet the inhabitants of Nineveh either follow the king’s lead in mourning and fasting or beat him entirely to the punch. The king’s speech suggests that Jonah may have even obscured the name of Yahweh as he prophesied, as the generic ‘elohim is used: “Who knows? God may relent and change his mind” (Jon 3:9 NRSV).

Perhaps the most significant unexpected element of the narrative is the repentance of Nineveh, which was acceptable to Yahweh and qualified Jonah as “the most successful evangelist in history,” per Victor H. Matthews.[3] Given that the historicity of the Jonah story is deeply in question, the temporal salvation of Nineveh would have been a lesson to the author’s first audience, and it may have been as shocking as the Beatitudes or the parable of the Good Samaritan were to those gathered around Jesus. As Matthews and McConville document, Jonah reads as a coming out party for universalism, or the availability of Yahweh to people groups beyond Israel, though it should stand equally as a caution against both evading the call of God and expecting certain outcomes from one’s ministry. Despite the problems that pervade Jonah, the inherent theological lessons are not diminished by the possibility of pure literary origin.

[1] Daniel C. Timmer, “Jonah and Mission: Missiological Dichotomy, Biblical Theology, and the Via Tertia,” Westminster Theological Journal 70, no. 1 (Spring 2008), 160.

[2] J. Gordon McConville, A Guide to the Prophets, vol. 4 of Exploring the Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 186.

[3] Victor H. Matthews, Social World of the Hebrew Prophets (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2001), 165.

D.S. Warner and the Dilemma of Sectarian Soil

My class for Church of God History frequently requires assignments similar to those you may have seen me post for Old Testament class. While I will not be posting every one of these assignments, I will select those that I regard as interesting, worthwhile or enjoyable for posting on the blog. In particular, the prompt for this assignment included an evaluation of D.S. Warner‘s claim, as made in 1878, that the holiness doctrine could not prosper on sectarian soil. Read on and learn!


Rather famously, Daniel S. Warner wrote in a March 1878 diary entry essentially that holiness was not possible in a denominationally rich environment. But as our duty is to understand history in its proper context, it is foolish to simply repeat this groundbreaking thought without applying the historical perspective. After being strongly influenced by his second wife, Sarah, and her father, Warner came to appreciate entire sanctification as the second work of grace to the extent that he sought the experience himself, ultimately declaring in July 1877 that the process had been completed.[1] Naturally, Warner then began to teach entire sanctification and the doctrine of holiness to his audiences, much to the chagrin of boards of elders. While initially Warner was only reprimanded for his tendencies, he eventually overstepped boundaries by bringing in holiness “bands” and had his license to preach revoked on January 30, 1878. As Warner later would recall, the day after being excused from preaching was one of divine revelation. He wrote,

“On the 31st of last January the Lord showed me that holiness could never prosper on sectarian soil encumbered by human creeds and party names, and gave me a new commission to join holiness and all truth together and build up the apostolic church of the living God. Praise his name! I will obey him.”[2]

D.S. Warner
D.S. Warner

In examining the declarative statement comprising first half of this quote, we realize that two main issues are brought to the forefront. It becomes possible, then, to evaluate the issues on the basis of their inherent limitations and strengths. First, Warner’s devotion to the advancement of holiness is observed. Though he has only grasped or accepted the doctrine for a short period of time, holiness and sanctification are of the utmost concern to him, which is further supported by the way in which he jeopardized his previous position as preacher. Second, it is hard to avoid Warner’s opposition to sectarianism. Throughout the decade of the 1870s, numerous quotes suggest that he was fed up with denominational thinking, which is crystallized in an April 1876 diary entry saying, “O Sectarianism! thou abomination of the earth, thou bane of the cause of God, when will thy corrupt and wicked walls fall to earth and cease to curse men to hell?”[3]

Consideration of these aforementioned two issues and their limitations must address the timeline of Warner’s thought development and the proximity of the ultimate revelation in regard to his dismissal from preaching. In doing so, it is unavoidable that Warner realized the “abomination” of denominational chest-thumping much earlier than he latched onto holiness doctrine. Therefore, was Warner’s January 31, 1878-dated claim a true revelation from the Lord, as he professed, or simply the adaptation of long-held feelings on sectarianism to a newly revealed problem, that is, the revocation of his license to preach freely? Furthermore, it needs to be admitted that bitterness may have played a role in making the claim; as he wrote on January 31, his dismissal was a “dreadful calamity and intolerable to bear.”[4] Another significant limitation of Warner’s claim is evident through the application of the measuring stick of history. As it stands today, the modern Christian climate remains heavily denominationally divided. So as a capital-c Church, are we not holy?

Approaching Warner’s claim critically tends to disregard or dismiss it, when historically the revelation, whether from the Lord or crafted out of Warner’s perception of the situation, undoubtedly served grander purposes. To be sure, the claim had (and still has) its strengths. It enabled Warner to forge relationships with some denominations and organizations—including Mennonites and Holiness groups—while at the same time arguing for the abolishment of thinking along sectarian lines. As an example, Warner’s desire to remain true to the January 1878 revelation eventually resulted in a Gospel Trumpet declaration that “now we wish to announce to all that we wish to co-operate with all Christians, as such, in saving souls—but forever withdraw from the organisms that uphold and endorse sects and denominations in the body of Christ.”[5] This June 1881 proclamation was a watershed moment for the early Church of God movement, and it would not have been possible if Warner and others did not actively seek to fulfill the January 1878 revelation, which served to project the movement’s grand vision. Even today, when paraphrased, we might say that, “We cannot be the church that God intended when we elect to segregate ourselves ideologically and prioritize our differences among the most important foci of our ministry.” In that sense, Warner revealed (or had revealed to him) a timeless truth.

Ultimately, the historical interpretation of Warner’s January 1878 revelation lies in its ability to produce positive effects for the Church. In that light, Warner’s mission was a revolutionary success. This doesn’t rubber stamp his tactics or excuse his overly dismissive, damnation-centered attitude toward honest followers of Christ who happened to claim denominational faiths. However, we have to conclude that God used the faulty comprehension of his fallible followers to address the burgeoning problems of each period of history and produce ultimate good for his Church body.

[1] John W. V. Smith and Merle D. Strege, The Quest for Holiness & Unity, 2nd ed. (Anderson, IN: Warner Press, 2009), 46.

[2] Ibid., 47.

[3] Ibid., 45.

[4] Ibid., 47.

[5] Ibid., 51.

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.

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


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.