Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife: A study in dealing with temptation
We don’t know how long Joseph was in charge of Potiphar’s whole household before his wife made a move on the young Hebrew slave. But this story of temptation and response to temptation is a powerful one with lessons for all of us. The first thing we see is that Potiphar’s wife is the initiator of the temptation. Which we never want to be. She was like the woman in Proverbs 7 who is loud and flirtatious and dressed like a woman of the night to appeal to men who were led by their flesh. But Joseph is not like the one in Proverbs 7 who is described as “a young man lacking sense, passing along the street near her corner, taking the road to her house in the twilight, in the evening, at the time of night and darkness.” That young man lacked sense, or another way to say it, he was led by his glands and not his mind. He was in the wrong place on purpose, because he walked down “the road to her house.” And he was there at the wrong time, in the “night and darkness.” The young man in Proverbs 7 was seeking temptation and that is always a recipe for a fall. But Joseph was doing his job, minding his own business when Potiphar’s wife cast her eyes on him and said, “Lie with me.”
Now listen, this was a temptation. Joseph was a single young man with all the desires that God creates in every young man. He was tempted and it was not a unique temptation. None are. None of us can ever say, “Well, nobody has been tempted like I have.” That’s categorically denied by the Word of God. “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” What was the way of escape God provided for Joseph in this first attempt by Potiphar’s wife? Joseph refused and explained why. Notice what he didn’t do. He didn’t engage in flirtatious banter. He didn’t say to himself, Hey what would it hurt if I dabble around the edges a little? He didn’t see how close he could get to the line without crossing over into sin. He simply said no to her and appealed to the trust his master and her husband had placed in him. He has placed me over everything and has not kept back anything from me…except you, Joseph said. And then he looked at her and said, “How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?”
That’s a question to put on a posterboard or a sticky note at least, nearest to the place where the temptation to sin for you is the greatest. “How can I do this thing and sin against God?” Joseph had it imprinted on his mind, and it lived in his heart. And one huge motivation for Joseph was that he knew that God had something important for him to do, and that strengthened his resolve against giving in to temptation. It is the same for you and me. We will probably never be the number two man or woman in charge of a nation, but God has important work for us to do. Every. One. Of. Us.
Well, Potiphar’s wife was not done. She was nothing if not persistent, as tempters often can be. The narrator says she pursued Joseph in this way day after day, but he would not listen to her to lie beside her or to be with her. Temptation offered and refused, over and over, until finally one day, she went from talk to physical aggression. Potiphar’s wife grabbed Joseph’s outer garment and demanded he lie with her. He left the garment in her hand as he ran away. Paul may have been thinking about Joseph when he wrote, “So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.” (2 Tim. 2:22) The reason Joseph was able to run from what was wrong was because he was passionately running after what was right: righteousness, faith, love, and peace.
You know the rest of the story. Potiphar listened to his wife, never sked Joseph his side of the story, and put Joseph in prison. When Joseph was thrown into the pit, it was because his brothers rejected him. When he is thrown into the prison, it was because Potiphar rejected him. There, for at least two years, his testing continued. He had done what was right and he suffered for it, but even in prison, Joseph remained faithful to God. And God was with Joseph. As he is with you and me.