Commentary on Genesis 39:1-23
Joseph is a familiar character to readers of the Bible and others. The dramatic narratives of his father’s love and his brothers’ hate are told and retold. Joseph’s surprising and spectacular rise to second-in-command in the land of Egypt and his eventual reconnection with his brothers and reunion with his father are also widely known.
In the biblical text, the Joseph narrative extends across multiple chapters. After the brief mention of the birth of Joseph in Genesis 30:22-24, the story begins in Genesis 37 with Joseph at age seventeen. Jacob’s favoring of Joseph, the “long robe with sleeves,” the dreams, the brothers’ plot to kill him, the sale of Joseph, and Jacob’s mourning are all compacted into that chapter. Chapters 40–50 cover: Joseph’s time in prison, the interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams, Joseph’s rise to power, his marriage to an Egyptian woman, the famine that leads Joseph’s brothers to seek food in Egypt, the eventual resettlement of Joseph’s father and brothers “in the best part of the land” per pharaoh’s instruction (47:6), the final blessing and death of Jacob, Joseph’s forgiveness of his brothers, and Joseph’s own death. In the grand scope of the Joseph story, Joseph’s time in Potiphar’s house can get overlooked. Its coercive sexual content can also lead preachers to steer away.
Joseph (Yūsef) is the focus of the longest single narrative in the Qur’an. Though significantly shorter (ninety-eight verses), the framework of the Joseph narrative in Surah 12 in the Qur’an generally parallels the narrative in Genesis. There are also some key differences that are interesting to explore. In the Qur’an, as Joseph attempted to escape the grasp of the wife of his master, “she tore his shirt from behind” as “they raced to the door” (12:25).1 They run into her husband as he is entering the house. Joseph has opportunity to deny her accusation of sexual assault, and is judged innocent because the tear in his shirt indicated he was running away.
Genesis 39:1 begins with an echo of the notice in 37:36 of Joseph’s sale to Potiphar “the captain of the guard.” In Genesis 37, at Jacob’s request Joseph had gone to check on the welfare of his brothers (verses 13-14), searching until he found where they had relocated with their flocks. He was then assaulted, sold, and trafficked to a distant country. The favored son is now a foreign slave. His lack of control over his own life and direction are underscored in the notice that he was “taken down to Egypt,” “bought,” and “brought … down” by others. The traumas of such treatment are not limited to the biblical text, ancient history, or distant lands.
Joseph’s powerlessness is paired with notice of his loyalty and trustworthiness “in the house of his Egyptian master.” Potiphar has put “all that he had” into Joseph’s hand (39:4, 6) without concern. Trustworthiness is to be expected of a subordinate, though Joseph himself notes the breadth of his authority over Potiphar’s household: “He [Potiphar] is not greater in this house than I am, nor has he kept anything back” (39:9). Potiphar’s confidence in Joseph’s loyalty is clear. In whom can Joseph trust?
Everything in Potiphar’s house has been entrusted to Joseph’s hand—except Potiphar’s wife. After eyeing the “handsome and good-looking” Joseph, Potiphar’s wife commands him to “lie with me!” Contrary to many characterizations, she is not a seductress. This is not about expression of desire; this is about power. This is sexual harassment. She has power; she is “his master’s wife” (39: 7, 8). She refuses to honor Joseph’s “no.” She creates a work environment in which “day after day” she presents her demands to Joseph. Joseph regards her proposal as “a great wickedness, and sin against God.” He will not obey/consent. In the ancient—and the modern world—no more explanation should be necessary.
Then one day, Potiphar’s wife physically seizes Joseph’s garment and commands him to “lie with me!” As he flees, she holds “his garment in her hand” (39:12, 13). There is a clear connection in the wording to all that Potiphar had placed in Joseph’s hand (39:4, 6, 8). As Joseph’s brothers had once presented Joseph’s robe dipped in blood to their father as false testimony to his demise (37:31-32), so now Potiphar’s wife will use Joseph’s garment in falsely claiming he sexually assaulted her.
There is—in our congregations and more broadly—a profound fear and reluctance on the part of persons who are victims of sexual harassment and abuse to speak up. They are often blamed and shamed, silenced, dismissed, and not believed, and those who have acted with harm are not held accountable. The falseness of the claim Potiphar’s wife raises is readily apparent in the text. At the same time, there is no space given for the victim of the abuse and accusation to grieve, speak, or seek justice.
As many commentators point out, Potiphar’s wife presents two versions of her charge. The first is directed to the “members of her household” in which she emphasizes Joseph’s foreignness, in other words, he is “a Hebrew.” There likely were persons of other nationalities besides Egyptians in Potiphar’s household, but his wife singles out Joseph’s Hebrew identity and connects it with danger—not just to her but to “us” (39:14). The foreigner designation is intended to erase Joseph’s demonstrated loyalty and persistent resistance to her sexual advances.
The second version is directed to her husband. Here she emphasizes that Joseph is not only a “Hebrew,” but a “servant”/“slave,” whom her husband (“you”) has “brought among us.” She presents Joseph as transgressing the servant-master social order. Potiphar’s wife is calling for judgment against Joseph on the basis of his social identities, as she also places the garment “in her hand” (39:12) “beside” herself (39:18). She is deceptive and she benefits from a social system in which truth and all persons are not weighted equally.
Near the beginning of the chapter and again at the end, there are multiple notices that “the LORD was with” Joseph (39:2, 3, 21, 23), the LORD “caused all that [Joseph] did to prosper” (39:3, 23), the LORD “blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake, and “the blessing of the LORD was on all that [Potiphar] had” (39:5). Potiphar is the clear recipient of blessing “for Joseph’s sake” and because the LORD prospered Joseph’s work. The LORD’s blessing clearly benefits Joseph—to a point. Joseph’s prospering and Potiphar’s blessing end when Joseph is accused of sexual assault and sent to prison.
As Joseph enters confinement in prison there is a reprise of the statement that introduced his sale into servitude in Egypt: “The LORD was with Joseph.” Moreover, the LORD “showed him steadfast love” (39:21). The Hebrew word ḥesed (“steadfast love”) conveys divine constancy, loyalty, care and providing. At this point in the narrative Joseph has just gone from being a highly trusted slave in the household of an elite Egyptian governmental official to confinement in the royal prison. How are we to understand divine presence and blessing?
Reflecting on the chapter we see testimony that:
- The LORD’s blessing extends beyond the LORD’s people.
- The marginalized and the vulnerable are among the channels of divine blessing.
- The LORD’s presence is not limited or confirmed by social, political, ethnic, or economic status.
- The LORD is present in the places of separation, rejection, abandonment, betrayal, and despair.
- Translations from The Study Quran: A New Translation and Commentary, Seyyed Hossein Nasr et al., eds. (New York: HarperOne, 2015).
PRAYER OF THE DAY
God of presence, you remained fully with Joseph when he sat long years in a prison for a crime he did not commit. Help us to see that you are always with us, so that we might live faithfully in your world. We pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
God himself is present openhymnal.org
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Goodness is stronger than evil ELW 721
A Blessing, Howard Don Small