Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife, Simone Contarini, Italian, about 1640 (Photo Credit: AlainTruong.com)
Read Genesis 39:6-23
In our last post on Genesis, we looked at Joseph’s seduction in light of Joseph’s fidelity — to God. (See previous post on Joseph’s Seduction) Today we’ll look at the same story, but we’ll focus on the 5 steps Joseph took to avoid temptation.
(The paraphrase of Genesis 39:6-23 is the same as our last post on Genesis. So if you read the last post on Genesis, you might like to skip down to the next section.)
I don’t know what Joseph’s early responsibilities were when he first began at Potiphar’s house, but they may have been intensely physical, because Joseph was ripped (“well built” verse six tells us). He was also a good looking guy. And because of this, Joseph’s master’s wife notices him, and begins to proposition him, without much in the way of subtlety either.
“Come to bed with me!” she says to him.
But Joseph consistently refuses her. He says, Hey look, my master has such trust in me that he doesn’t concern himself with anything in the house; he’s put everything he owns in my care. I’m the top guy here. He’s kept nothing of his from me, except for you, because you’re his wife. So, with all that in mind, how could I possibly do such a terrible thing, and sin against God?
But in spite of his refusals, she persists. Day, after day, after day she continues to proposition him. But Joseph continues to refuse to go to bed with her, or even to be with her.
One day though, he goes into the house to do his work, and the place is empty. None of the other servants are around. Potiphar’s wife is the only one there. She grabs him by his cloak and says (for the one thousandth time), “Come to bed with me!” But he escapes out of his cloak, leaving it in her hand, and runs out of the house.
When she realizes Joseph left his cloak in her hand when he fled, she calls in her servants and says, Look! This Hebrew is making a joke of us! He came in here to have his way with me, but I screamed. When he heard me scream, he left his cloak laying here beside me and ran.
She keeps his cloak next to her until Potiphar comes home, and she tells him her story: That Hebrew slave guy you brought us came into my room to force himself on me. But fortunately, I screamed, and as soon as I did he left his cloak beside me and ran. This is how your slave has treated me!
After Potiphar hears the story he’s outraged. He takes Joseph and has him locked up where the king’s prisoners are kept.
But, while Joseph’s in the king’s prison, the Lord is with him again! God shows him kindness and grants Joseph favor with the warden. Eventually his situation is the same or similar to when he was with Potiphar. The warden puts Joseph in charge of all the prisoners and gives him the job of running the place. And like Potiphar, the warden trusts him completely, he pays no attention to anything Joseph’s responsible for, because the Lord is with Joseph, and gives him success in everything he puts his hand to.
Joseph’s 5 Steps to Avoid Temptation
Joseph, a young man, in the prime of his life and possessing all the desires young men in the prime of their life possess, somehow avoids this temptation from Potiphar’s wife.
How’d he do that?
We see from our story, he took 5 steps.
1) Responsibility — Take It
We see in verse 9, Joseph says the words, “How then could I do such a…”
“How then could I…” Joseph said. He took responsibility for his own behavior. How many might have said, “Well what could I do? I’m just a slave and she’s the boss’s wife. I mean, really, I couldn’t refuse now could I?” Or, “Come on, give me a break, this was a situation where an older woman took advantage of a young man. What would you expect someone my age to do, with hormones raging? How could I help it?”
No, Joseph didn’t go there. He took responsibility for his own actions.
2) Recognize Sin
We see in verse 9, Joseph recognizes what Potiphar’s wife wants as something wicked and terrible. Joseph sees it for what it is: sin. The Bible is God’s word for humanity. He loves us enough to define sin in His scriptures and to warn us away from it. He does so not because he’s against pleasure, but because He knows in the long run, sin is disastrous for you. He’s trying to spare you from heartache and pain you’ll experience in the end, though you may experience pleasure in the short term. Today there’s a huge push in our culture to discount what the Bible says about sin as old fashioned and irrelevant. Right now there’s actually a website author offering 1 million dollars for Tim Tebow’s virginity. This person’s stated goal is to bring our culture to the point where adultery is viewed as inconsequential. (see Washington Post article by Esther Fleece) I know that might seem unlikely right now, but many sins that were previously recognized as bad behavior have already been brought a long way toward a perception they’re trivial, or even a perception those who commit a given sin are victims.
Joseph didn’t discount what Potiphar’s wife asked him to do. He saw it for what it was. So should you and I.
3) Respond to God
We see in the last part of verse 9 how Joseph recognizes, if he gratifies his desires, he will sin against God. Joseph has a depth of relationship with God such that it would grieve Joseph to sin against Him. He can’t bear to sin because he can’t bear to disappoint the God he loves. Yes he’s loyal to his earthly master Potiphar, but in the end, it’s God who Joseph is most concerned about. Living your life loving God, and concerned about God and what He thinks is one of the great keys to living the abundant life God has in mind for you. (John 15:11) “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,’” Jesus said in Matthew 22:37. (See previous post: How to Love Like Jesus — God First)
4) Refuse to be Present
We see in verse 10 he not only refused to go to bed with Potiphar’s wife, but he refused to even be with her. I wonder how many marriages would still be intact if both the husband and the wife decided to simply avoid putting themselves in situations that might lead to temptation. I’m talking about not friending the old high school flame on Facebook. I’m talking about staying out of bars. I’m talking about never allowing yourself to be alone with another person of the opposite sex, ever.
What a small price to pay if it results in you keeping your family intact.
And what a heavy price to pay if you break your family apart.
Today divorce is so acceptable, our culture has endorsed it so strongly, most are so nonchalant about it, you never hear much concerning its consequences. But five years after divorce more than 1/3 of children experience depression. Kids from divorced families are less successful in life than children from intact families, especially in their careers and their relationships. And the great majority of children from divorced families say they want their original family back together.
After a divorce, custody usually goes to the mother. And about half of all single mothers live below the poverty line — on average for six years. For African American single mothers it’s even worse: 2/3 are still single and in poverty 10 years after their divorce. (The Atlantic, McLanahan-Garfinkel)
No one talks about these things. You never see these findings in the news.
Joseph was a slave and didn’t have control of his own life to the degree you do. Yet he did his best to avoid putting himself in situations where he might be tempted. You can do the same.
We see in verse 12, when he was unavoidably confronted with temptation, he fled. He left. He split immediately.
When she grabbed his robe, he didn’t stop and use the moment to teach Potiphar’s wife about his faith. He didn’t hesitate and share with her that he’s flattered but must decline, or how it’s nothing personal, or how it might be different, under different circumstances. He didn’t spend one moment on one word of conversation. And he didn’t go back for his coat. He bailed, he beat it, he bounced out of there — right away.
Again, how many marriages might still be intact if this were how people responded to sexual temptation.
Next time you’re confronted with temptation: leave, immediately.
The 6th Step (Two failures, and two outcomes: Why David recovered and Samson did not)
As an important aside, there’s one way in which Joseph was a major anomaly, he was able to avoid temptation without support from believing friends. This is profoundly rare. We can see the more usual pattern for humanity in scripture, when we look at two other men of God who experienced temptation. Both Samson and David fell into temptation but only one of them recovered from its consequences. And here’s the reason why.
More was written about Samson than most other men in the Bible yet not one friend is named in all the pages devoted to Samson’s life. He was a loner. In contrast, David’s list of friends is a long one. And we see that he had certain friends like Jonathan who were especially close. (1 Samuel 18:1-5) And we see David was open to being held accountable, for instance when he subjected himself to correction by his friend Nathan. (2 Samuel 12:1-14)
So here’s the deal: To rid yourself of a temptation, like porn or alcohol or some other selfish pursuit, do whatever you have to do to find friends–men who have overcome the same temptation you’re battling against. Sit down with each of these men one at a time and tell them your story without pretense. If you become open and vulnerable, you’ll be surprised at how many friends you attract.
Going it alone as Samson did will almost certainly produce the same result that Samson experienced. You’ll become a prisoner. You’ll find yourself living life blindly walking in circles.
Instead invest in friends the way David did. Develop close friendships the way David did. And become a man who is wide open to being held accountable–the way David did. Invest in friends the same way David did and you’ll find the same results that David did. He confessed his sin. He repented. And he never fell into sexual temptation again.
Joseph was an anomaly, an outlier. The first five steps are only the beginning steps to avoid temptation. The sixth step, that’s actually the biggest and most important step for us all.
Of course Potiphar’s wife had no integrity when it came to her marriage, and we see she had no integrity when she gave her account of what happened either. She lied and told her husband the Hebrew tried to rape her, using Joseph’s coat as a false proof of her deception. Interestingly, Joseph’s coat was also central to his brother’s deception before Jacob concerning his death.
We live in a fallen world. You can do everything according to God’s word and still wind up in a dungeon.
But Potiphar’s response is interesting because the punishment for attempted rape was death. And even though Joseph, a slave, was (wrongly) found to have attempted rape against the wife of a powerful official, Joseph is not put to death but put in prison. Verse 19 says Potiphar was angry but doesn’t say who he was angry with. Perhaps he recognized Joseph’s innocence but was forced to do something because of his wife’s insistence. Perhaps he even gave instruction for the warden to show Joseph favor.
Whether it came through Potiphar or not, God was the reason Joseph found favor in prison.
Even in the dungeon God was with Joseph.
Nothing can separate us from His love.
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Nate Larkin, Samson and the Pirate Monks, Thomas Nelson, 2007
Blue Letter Bible