Though he was a slave in a foreign land, Joseph applied himself to the tasks he was given. His master, Potiphar, recognized that everything Joseph set out to do worked out successfully. He understood that Joseph’s God was working things out for him. Wanting Joseph to excel even more, Potiphar promoted him as overseer of his house (Genesis 39:3-5). He grew to love Joseph as a son.
Joseph was “a goodly person, and well favoured” (verse 6). He was a handsome, manly young man. His strong spiritual character made him even more attractive and likely drew people to him.
But Joseph had one problem: Potiphar’s wife.
Though he concealed his true feelings well, Joseph disliked being in the same room with this woman. Though she was very beautiful, she came too close to him. She took every opportunity to touch him. Then the day came when she became explicit and commanded Joseph to sleep with her (verse 7).
This was a great temptation: A beautiful woman was enticing him to give in to lust. Even more, she was the woman of the house, the wife of Joseph’s master; defying her could have serious consequences. How many men would give in? How many would do what seemed desirable or expedient in the circumstances?
Joseph, however, was not a man of compromise. He flatly rejected even the possibility. Trying to extricate himself without causing unnecessary offense, he respectfully explained, “Lo, having me my master has no concern about anything in the house, and he has put everything that he has in my hand; 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 can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” (verses 8-9; rsv). Joseph knew he was accountable to God! He knew adultery would be a grievous sin and cause great trouble. He would never agree to such a shameful act.
God was allowing Joseph to be tested. With promotion often comes the swelling of vanity. God needed to know if Joseph could handle promotion without it going to his head. Many men who achieve high status are snared by vices that bring them down. King David and Solomon are two examples of such male tragedy. Joseph’s future was critical to God’s master plan; He had to know where Joseph stood. So the heat of trial was turned up.
Potiphar’s wife was persistent in her attempts to draw the young slave into her bedchamber. She bullied Joseph, trying to seduce him daily. And daily, he refused her (verse 10).
Joseph always tried to surround himself with plenty of other male slaves. But one day Joseph was alone in the house working at his master’s business when Potiphar’s wife came to him. She grabbed him and insisted sensuously, “Lie with me”! (verse 12). Joseph’s mind raced to a decision. It was time she faced reality: He would never sin against God—no matter the consequences!
Joseph wrestled to break free of her grip—and then ran!
“Flee fornication,” the Apostle Paul wrote (1 Corinthians 6:18). There is no more vivid example in the Bible than what Joseph did here. Human nature tends to want to entertain it, to walk close to the line, to linger on the edge of the cliff and admire the view. God, knowing the weakness of the flesh and the human proclivity for compromise, rationalization and justification, commands that we instead follow Joseph’s example—and run.
The lust Potiphar’s wife had for Joseph instantly turned to vile hate. She accused Joseph of trying to rape her and had him imprisoned (Genesis 39:14-20). As Joseph sat in prison, surely he questioned why God had allowed him to be punished for doing the right thing. Yet God used even this incarceration to catapult him into greater prominence (Genesis 41).
Joseph is a model of the moral rectitude every man should work to develop. And his uncompromising courage to escape temptation gives a practical prescription for how to preserve purity and honor in an aggressively immoral world.