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


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.

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


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.

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.