Sunday, September 21, 2014
Joseph and Potiphar, Genesis 39
A. Joseph in Potiphar's House, Genesis 39.
The entire Joseph story has often been described as having the style of ANE wisdom literature. This literature consisted mostly of collections of proverbs and wise sayings, much like the biblical books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. Joseph, it is claimed, is a typical figure of the wise man. Indeed, he is described that way by the pharaoh in Gen 41:8, 33, 39. The typical ANE secular wise man is intelligent, moral, loyal to family, respectful to superiors, socially apt and successful. Such figures in the ancient wisdom literature are usually not described as worshiping one particular god exclusively—they are not monotheists, but as being respectful and pious toward all gods and "God" in general. The typically ideal male in this literature is not necessarily handsome, as Joseph is described here. That feature of Joseph, as we will see, is mentioned to explain the temptress' interest in him.
Ancient Egyptian maxims for those who would be wise and successful are well illustrated by a text entitled "the Instructions of Anii" dating from the period of Moses, which reads almost like an ancient equivalent of a modern job-counseling course, or a script for Oprah's TV Show. It contains eleven areas of advice:
• 1. Acquire a perfect character and behavior. This may be done by keeping calm and serene in situations of trouble and discussions.
• 2. Strive for perfect speech in public affairs.
• 3. Be skilled in reading and writing.
• 4. Refrain from opposing your superior and always keep to your own rank within the social and bureaucratic hierarchy.
• 5. Avoid having strife with others.
• 6. Shun married women and also ladies whom nobody knows. These maxims refer to adultery and perhaps sexual adventures with prostitutes.
• 7. Respect your parents and make offerings to your deceased ancestors so that they do not interfere in your household or business affairs.
• 8. Marry as soon as you have acquired your own property and have a son.
• 9. Do not reproach your wife as long as she acts according to what you expect her to do.
• 10. Refrain from drunkenness.
• 11. Prepare for your own burial and afterlife, as death may snatch you at any time.
Although I do not agree that Joseph is entirely characterized this way in the biblical text, there is certainly much truth to the comparison. In Gen 39 we see some of these features. Joseph rises in rank and esteem because he is quick to learn, resourceful, respectful and obedient to his master. He shows his loyalty to his master and to God by refusing the temptation of his master's wife. What is remarkable in contrast to the teaching of wisdom literature is that Joseph's wise and correct behavior does not result in permanent success. Ancient wisdom literature—including the biblical book of Proverbs—predicted personal disaster only for those who did not practice the virtues celebrated. Joseph, however, ends up in prison for his virtue. This shows that the biblical writer was not trying to praise the secular wisdom of his age, because the Creator God whom Israel worshiped was no mere automaton, who was obliged to reward a person's obedience with nothing but success, popularity, fame, and wealth. Yahweh's people needed to believe that obeying him was its own reward, regardless of the circumstances, and to understand that often God's rewards would be delayed, requiring faith and patience. Hebrews 10:36 summarizes this teaching aptly: "You need patience, to continue to do God’s will. Then you will receive all that he has promised."
39:1–6a Joseph Pleases his Master with Good Service
#1 39:1 Now Joseph was brought down to Egypt, and Potiphar, an officer of the Pharaoh, the captain of the guard, an Egyptian, bought him from the Ishmaelites who had brought him down there. 2 Yahweh was with Joseph, and he became a successful man; he was in the house of his Egyptian master. 3 His master saw that Yahweh was with him, and that Yahweh caused all that he did to prosper in his hands. 4 So Joseph found favor in his sight and attended him; he made him overseer of his house and put him in charge of all that he had. 5 From the time that he made him overseer in his house and over all that he had, Yahweh blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake; the blessing of Yahweh was on all that he had, in house and field. 6 So he left all that he had in Joseph’s charge; and, with him there, he had no concern for anything but the food that he ate.
In keeping with the style of the Joseph story, where God is not obvious, but works behind the scenes unmentioned by name, when we read that "Joseph was brought down to Egypt," a passive verb that hides the identity of the one who does the bringing, the unexpressed subject of the verb "bring down" is probably not the Ishmaelites, but God. The Ishmaelites are mentioned at the end of the sentence as those through whom he worked. We have seen in Gen 37 how "coincidence" after "coincidence" worked to take Joseph down to Egypt (see p. ? ). Our verse here sums up what was so carefully implied in chapter 37, that it was God who brought Joseph down to Egypt, using the Ishmaelites.
The ethnicity of Joseph's new master is repeated thee times (in vv. 1, 2, 5) for emphasis, probably because the sale of Joseph into Egyptian slavery foreshadows the future national enslavement of Jacob's descendants in Egypt and their redemption (Sarna).
The name of Joseph's first Egyptian master was Potiphar. The same name—with a slightly different Hebrew form—is borne by Joseph's future Egyptian father-in-law, Potiphera. The name belongs to a common Egyptian type attested from remote antiquity down through Roman times and means “He-whom-(the sun god)-Re-gives.” This is the Egyptian equivalent of the Hebrew name Jonathan (יוּנָתָן "Yahweh gives").
The man who purchased Joseph was a high official. In Hebrew he is called a sārîs of the pharaoh. In some contexts, both biblical Hebrew and extra-biblical, this word sārîs—a West Semitic word borrowed from Akkadian ša rēši "he of the (king's) person/body"—can denote a eunuch, a man castrated in order to serve the king as the overseer of his harem, and this is how the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, made 300 years before Christ, interpreted the word here. But Potipher had a wife, which excludes his being a eunuch. The ancient Aramaic translation which also antedates Christ translates it "chief man," and this is how most modern translations take it. Potiphar was commander of the palace guard. He was a powerful man, undoubtedly wealthy, who owned a palatial home on a large estate.
Wealthy Egyptians such as this man Potiphar purchased slaves for domestic or agricultural duties. Although there were some native-born Egyptians serving as slaves, their slave status incurred because of debt forfeiture, it was normally considered better to use foreign slaves, either captives in battle or—as in this case—purchased from slave traders.
Joseph was not sent to work in the fields. It was not uncommon for slaves who showed aptitude to be employed in professional tasks such as household management and the administration of property. This situation is illustrated by an Egyptian papyrus in the Brooklyn Museum (35.1446) deriving from c. 1800 BC, which lists the names of nearly eighty slaves in an Egyptian household, together with their occupations. Strangely, the slaves from Canaan, Syria and Mesopotamia clearly enjoyed superior status and performed the skilled jobs while the Egyptian slaves were given the more onerous and strenuous labors in the fields. By working in the house, Joseph had the opportunity to display his administrative talents and come to the attention of his master.
Joseph impressed his master by the way he performed his duties: wisely, honestly, promptly, courteously, conscientiously, and skillfully. Joseph impressed others the way we should. Potiphar recognized that Joseph was being favored by his god Yahweh, and he was impressed, even if he personally didn't worship Yahweh. It was good to have a servant so capable, regardless of what god made him that way. As a result, he promoted Joseph to a position of much greater responsibility. As Overseer of Potiphar's House, a position that corresponds to that of the title frequently encountered in Egyptian texts as mer-per, "comptroller." Joseph ran everything and held all the purse strings. He could easily have stolen Potiphar blind, and no one would have been the wiser. But he didn't. The divine name Yahweh, used only in this chapter of the Joseph story, is in the mouth of the narrator and never used in a character's speech.
The distinctive name of Israel's God, Yahweh (always rendered "the LORD" in capital letters in English Bibles), is used only in this one chapter of the Joseph story. Elsewhere he is referred to only as "God." It is as "God" that he controls all the events (see p. ? ), but it is as Yahweh, who committed himself to Abraham's family that he protects Joseph and gives him success in his slavery and in prison (39:21-23, p. ? ).
The phrase "Yahweh was with Joseph" occurs twice in this passage and again twice in vv. 21-23 (p. ? ) to emphasize how it was that this boy lacking formal schooling could be wise and mature beyond his age. The phrase enables us as readers to understand how the spoiled lad of seventeen, utterly alone in a foreign land and in dire adversity, suddenly matures and acquires great strength of character. He can rise again and again in situations that would surely have crushed others.
Instead of "Yahweh blessed the house of Potiphar" the text reads that he "blessed the house of the Egyptian," emphasizing his non-Israelite status. Again we see (v. 5) how a non-Israelite prospered because of his association with one of Abraham's descendants (see also Jacob: 30:27). The use of the specific words "blessed" (וַיְבָ֧רֶךְ) and "blessing" (בִּרְכַּ֤ת יְהוָה֙) shows that the narrator (Moses) wants us to regard this event as a fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham, that nations would be blessed by Abraham and his descendants (12:2-3; 18:18; 22:18; 26:4; 27:29; 28:14). "All that he had, in house and field" indicates the domestic and economic/agricultural aspects of Potiphar's holdings.
Potiphar had such confidence in Joseph's ability that he placed in his control every aspect of his life but his choice of food and his wife (39:6a).
39:6b-20 Joseph Resists Potiphar's Wife's Attempt to Force Him to Commit Adultery
Now Joseph was handsome and good-looking. 7 And after a time his master’s wife cast her eyes on Joseph and said, “Lie with me.” 8 But he refused and said to his master’s wife, “Look, with me here, my master has no concern about anything in the house, and he has put everything that he has in my hand. 9 He is not greater in this house than I am, nor has he kept back anything from me except yourself, because you are his wife. How then could I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” 10 And although she spoke to Joseph day after day, he would not consent to lie beside her or to be with her. 11 One day, however, when he went into the house to do his work, and while no one else was in the house, 12 she caught hold of his garment, saying, “Lie with me!” But he left his garment in her hand, and fled and ran outside. 13 When she saw that he had left his garment in her hand and had fled outside, 14 she called out to the members of her household and said to them, “See, my husband has brought among us a Hebrew to insult/mock us! He came in to me to lie with me, and I cried out with a loud voice; 15 and when he heard me raise my voice and cry out, he left his garment beside me, and fled outside.” 16 Then she kept his garment by her until his master came home, 17 and she told him the same story, saying, “The Hebrew servant, whom you have brought among us, came in to me to insult me; 18 but as soon as I raised my voice and cried out, he left his garment beside me, and fled outside.” 19 When his master heard the words that his wife spoke to him, saying, “This is the way your servant treated me,” he became enraged. 20 And Joseph’s master took him and put him into the prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were confined; he remained there in prison.
We have learned that Joseph was efficient and skillful in management and organization. He had what it takes to be enormously successful in business. But nothing has been said about his ethical and moral stance, a different kind of wisdom than that which was required for business success. Mention of Joseph's physical attractiveness (יְפֵה־תֹ֖אַר וִיפֵ֥ה מַרְאֶֽה) begins this section of the story. It was not mentioned as a factor in Jacob's favoritism or as an additional cause of his brothers' envy. Its mention here serves to introduce the next episode: to explain why Potiphar's wife singled him out to share her bed. In its instructions to those who wish to be wise in God's ways the book of Proverbs devotes the entire seventh chapter to warning against the false attractions of adultery. Proverbs condemns sexual promiscuity not just because it is morally wrong, but because it is foolish, and praises chastity as wisdom. In his parables, Jesus often characterized right behavior as wisdom and wrong behavior as foolishness. It is important to the narrator to show that Joseph was wise in this area as well as others.
The one person in Potiphar's household whose services were not Joseph's to use was Potiphar's wife (v. 9). This woman is not given a name, perhaps because she was not worthy of a name. Even in the later retellings of this story—in Jewish literature from the time of Christ and later in the Quran, retellings which are fond of giving names to anonymous biblical characters—this woman is given no name. Hollywood would certainly have given her one, but the Bible is not interested in Hollywood-izing her. The text calls her "his master's wife," the combination expressing both the necessity of obeying her ("his master's wife") and the impossibility of obeying her ("his master's wife"). Joseph was described as handsome. But this woman is not described as beautiful or in any way appealing. She is just a very early example of someone indulging in sexual harassment, using her position of power to force sexual favors from handsome servants. Indeed, this may not have been the first time she had forced one of her husband's servants into her bed. What made her irresistible was not her beauty, but her influence and power. Notice that she doesn't attempt to woo Joseph but merely orders him to sleep with her (v. 7): he is her slave and must simply obey or face the consequences. In the biblical account she serves only as a moral test for Joseph, to show his fearless faithfulness to his God. He knew what she could do to him, but he feared (and loved) God more than her.
Potiphar's wife hounded him repeatedly with invitations to sleep with her and to keep it secret from her husband. Joseph didn't report these advances to her husband, because he knew it would just be his word against hers, and he would not be believed. And because the woman knew this, she felt secure in continuing to torment him. But Joseph was unafraid of her implied threats and not only refused each time, but appealed to the woman's own conscience, making her see the gravity of her own sin against her husband. Since she was a pagan, he appealed not to God's law but to her own reason: he had been generous to her, as he had to Joseph; he had been loyal and faithful to her, she owed the same loyalty and faithfulness to her husband ("he has not kept back anything from me except you, because you are his wife," v. 9). The same words stress Joseph's own sense of obligation: "He trusts me completely. How can I betray him?" But Joseph reminds the woman that at least for himself there is an even higher dimension of betrayal, the dimension of God. He asks her: "How then could I do this great wickedness (הָרָעָ֤ה הַגְּדֹלָה֙), and sin against God?”
But Potiphar's wife would not be deterred. Day by day she repeated her commands to him, and Joseph continued to refuse. Then one day she caught him alone and grasped his outer garment, ordering him to have sex with her (v. 12). When he wriggled free from her grasp, his garment was left in her hands. Angrily, the woman cried out to the other servants that Joseph had tried to rape her. With the words "this Hebrew" (v. 14) she used his ethnic origin to reinforce her charge that he had behaved scurrilously, insulting not only her but the entire household ("us"). When her husband came home, she used Joseph's garment as evidence in her false charge against him, and implied that the guilt was also her husband's for buying and employing him (vv. 17-18). Once again, a garment figures in the stories as a means for deception (37:32-35, p. ? ), and the loss or acquisition of a garment by Joseph marks a change in his status and a stage in his spiritual development (see p. ? ). Joseph was not corrupted by the additional privileges he enjoyed in Potiphar's house, by his increased wealth and power, and by the possibilities for cheating his master. He resists sexual temptation, although sexual misbehavior is a theme that has recurred in previous chapters (Shechem with Dinah [Gen 34, p. ? ], Judah's son Onan with Tamar [Gen 38, p. ? ]). He overcomes fear (in the form of her blackmail), whereas Isaac (26:6-11, p. ? ), Jacob (31:26-28 [p. ? ], 32:9-12 [p. ? ]; 34:30-31 [p. ? ]), and Judah (Gen 38 [p. ? ]) before him struggled with fears. Jacob became wealthy at Laban's expense (30:25ff., p. ? ), while Joseph becomes immensely wealthy and powerful not at anyone's expense, but by saving many from ruin and death. Joseph begins to redeem the family by overcoming—one by one—their earlier failings. As the Overcomer (but not sinless) Savior, Joseph foreshadows Jesus, the sinless Overcomer, who saves those who believe in him.
Ancient Egypt had several types of prison: some for the lowest classes and at least one for prisoners from the uppermost one, who had fallen out of favor with the pharaoh. The choice of prison may have been Potiphar's. And since he was in charge of the royal guard, Joseph was put in the prison for royal prisoners, many of whom were high dignitaries, suspected of treason. Such men would have been awaiting execution for their crimes. Joseph was living in Death Row. He was there, because—although in Egypt rape was not a capital crime, adultery or attempted adultery often was.
39:21-23 Yahweh With Joseph in Prison
21 But Yahweh was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love; he gave him favor in the sight of the chief jailer. 22 The chief jailer committed to Joseph’s care all the prisoners who were in the prison, and whatever was done there, he was the one who did it. 23 The chief jailer paid no heed to anything that was in Joseph’s care, because Yahweh was with him; and whatever he did, Yahweh made it prosper.
God was bringing Joseph down, in order to teach him greater humility as well as understanding for others who suffer. God moved him again from a position of honor to a dungeon. This was the second stage of Joseph's descent into ignominy. From being Jacob's favorite son, he became a slave. From being a highly privileged slave in Potiphar's house, he became a prisoner on Death Row. So far Joseph's career had been like a roller coaster ride: sometimes rapidly rising, then plummeting down. Because God favored him, he rose in Potiphar's household, yet because Joseph himself honored God's laws against adultery, he was unjustly sent to prison! Ideally, careers are supposed to document a steady rise by stages: this seemed to be a career in reverse. The more Joseph sought to be faithful to his God, the more he was misunderstood and punished.
But there was a secret purpose behind it all. This new situation would also be the vehicle by which God would bring him to the pharaoh's attention and to the greatest position of honor he had ever known, and allow him to use that position both to save thousands of Egyptians from massive death by hunger, and to heal his own family spiritually. As he had shown himself a capable son in Jacob's service, and a capable and honest servant in Potiphar's house, now he would be a capable and helpful servant in the prison. One cannot but be reminded of the career of Charles Colson, who went from being a presidential advisor to an inmate in Federal Prison, where he found Christ and became the founder of Prison Fellowship, a fruitful ministry to incarcerated persons. In Colson's case, of course, he was truly guilty of the charge that sent him to prison, but the result was equally as good as the result of Joseph's incarceration.
God now does two things for Joseph. He "extended unfailing commitment [חֶסֶד] to him," and he gave him favor with the man in charge of the prison, which opened doors of service to him within the confines of the prison. The "unfailing commitment" (ḥesed) that God extended to Joseph was what had previously been given to Abraham (24:12, 27), Lot (19:19), and to Jacob (32:10). Joseph's faithfulness under temptation in Potiphar's house had shown him to be a worthy son of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, although in keeping with the narrative's secularity, their names are not mentioned. Now in his darkest hour he enjoyed the light of God's presence. Joseph didn't miss the luxury of Potiphar's house. He didn't miss the power and prestige he had gained there. Now he had the unfailing commitment of his God, and that was better than anything else. Even if our story ended here, without Joseph's being elevated to Grand Vizier, this would be his happy ending: he would be happy and contented. He enjoyed Yahweh's unfailing love and commitment, and he was serving others in the prison, other people with needs that he could help to meet.
In our modern world everyone is dissatisfied and unhappy because they don't have the right job, the right school, the right neighborhood, the right spouse. They worry and complain because others don't appreciate them. Discontentment is the defining characteristic of our day. But as servants of our Lord Jesus you and I should stand out by being content just to enjoy God's unfailing commitment and the fact that there are needy people around us whom we can befriend and serve. It makes no difference that our physical and social environment isn't perfect, because our true environment is God's love and commitment. This is what Paul meant when he wrote "But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ." (Phil 3:20). And if we live in that sphere, he will also give us favor with our needy neighbors.
The close similarity in wording of v. 23 and v. 6a (p. ? ), showing how both Potiphar and the Chief Jailer trusted him with everything, alerts us to the fact that God is about to move Joseph again to a different place of service and faithfulness, this time God's human instrument to move him will not be an unfaithful wife, but a forgetful and finally remembering Chief Cupbearer of the pharaoh.
The lesson of this chapter is: "Bloom where you're planted." Don't long for different circumstances—for God to make your life easy. Instead, use the circumstances you're in to please God and serve others.
Phil 4:10-14 " I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. 11 I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13 I can do all this through God, who gives me strength. 14 Yet it was good of you to share in my troubles."