We move past Genesis 38 and the story of Judah and Tamar, who are related (pun intended) in the genealogy of Jesus Christ, as told in Mt 1:3 – and into chapter 39. Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh and captain of the guard, had bought Joseph from Ishmaelites. Joseph was successful in this Egyptians master’s home because the Lord was with him; and because of that, Potiphar enjoyed prosperity (v 5). Verse 6 says “Joseph was handsome in form and appearance” (exactly as his mother, Rachel was described in Gen 29:17); and Potiphar’s wife would not leave him alone, trying to persuade him to “lie with” her. Unable to slip her grasp, Joseph just leaves her holding the garment and puts some “gone” between him and the master’s wife.
Considering her behavior, it’s not too surprising that she makes up the story that gets Joseph thrown in prison (v 17-18). She places an interesting play on the term “laugh” in this chapter to drive the stake in deep. She first uses the contempt that the men of the household would have for Joseph both as a slave, and by not being Egyptian of birth, to make the “attack” on her personal to them (v 14 “See, he has brought among us a Hebrew to laugh at us”). Since the “he” in that statement is Potiphar, the whole thing then becomes partly his fault – further pushing any suspicion from herself. In verse 17, she uses “laugh” in the intimate form as when Abimilech discovered “Isaac laughing with Rebekah his wife” in Gen 26:8, and knew she was not his sister.
Joseph again goes from a “most favored” status to fellowship with the king’s prisoners. But the Lord showed him steadfast love (v 21) and he succeeded in whatever he did there as he again won favor, this time with the prison keeper.
Two things are remarkable about Joseph in this chapter. The first is obvious – a young man being seduced by a desirable woman, yet he does the right thing. Contrast his character with his brothers (Reuben with his father’s concubine in ch 35, and Judah with his own daughter-in-law – thinking he was visiting a prostitute as her face was covered in ch 38). The other notable thing about Joseph is his statement to Potiphar’s wife that he could not do “this great wickedness and sin against God.” It is his recognition of what sin really means that has meaning for us today. We sometimes hurt ourselves when we sin, and we often hurt other people because of it. But it always hurts the Lord.
Notice as was the case with Potiphar, Joseph’s success with the Lord’s help was such that the prison keeper did not have to think about any of the things he was in charge of.
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