Genesis 39:1-23: The Moral Integrity of Joseph
Topic: Default Passage: Genesis 39:1–23
Genesis 39:1-23: The Moral Integrity of Joseph
We’ve been working our way passage by passage through the book of Genesis, and today the next passage we come to is Genesis 39:1-23. It says,
1 Now Joseph had been brought down to Egypt, and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard, an Egyptian, had bought him from the Ishmaelites who had brought him down there. 2 The Lord was with Joseph, and he became a successful man, and he was in the house of his Egyptian master. 3 His master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord caused all that he did to succeed in his hands. 4 So Joseph found favor in his sight and attended him, and 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, the Lord blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake; the blessing of the Lord was on all that he had, in house and field. 6 So he left all that he had in Joseph’s charge, and because of him he had no concern about anything but the food he ate. Now Joseph was handsome in form and appearance. 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, “Behold, because of me my master has no concern about anything in the house, and he has put everything that he has in my charge. 9 He is not greater in this house than I am, nor has he kept back anything from me except you, because you are his wife. How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” 10 And as she spoke to Joseph day after day, he would not listen to her, to lie beside her or to be with her. 11 But one day, when he went into the house to do his work and none of the men of the house was there in the house, 12 she caught him by his garment, saying, “Lie with me.” But he left his garment in her hand and fled and got out of the house. 13 And as soon as she saw that he had left his garment in her hand and had fled out of the house, 14 she called to the men of her household and said to them, “See, he has brought among us a Hebrew to laugh at us. He came in to me to lie with me, and I cried out with a loud voice. 15 And as soon as he heard that I lifted up my voice and cried out, he left his garment beside me and fled and got out of the house.” 16 Then she laid up 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 laugh at me. 18 But as soon as I lifted up my voice and cried, he left his garment beside me and fled out of the house.” 19 As soon as his master heard the words that his wife spoke to him, “This is the way your servant treated me,” his anger was kindled. 20 And Joseph’s master took him and put him into the prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were confined, and he was there in prison. 21 But the Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love and gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison. 22 And the keeper of the prison put Joseph in charge of all the prisoners who were in the prison. Whatever was done there, he was the one who did it. 23 The keeper of the prison paid no attention to anything that was in Joseph’s charge, because the Lord was with him. And whatever he did, the Lord made it succeed.
May God bless the reading of his Word.
Let’s pray: Father, your word is a lamp to our feet and a light for our paths. Shine your light brightly this morning. Help us to see everything we need to see about who you are, what you’ve done, what you promise, what you teach, and what you desire for our lives. Minister to us by your Holy Spirit, for it’s in Jesus’ name we pray, amen.
Several weeks ago, a Congresswoman who I won’t name made some remarks at a prayer breakfast that were widely reported in the media and that raised quite a few eyebrows. This Congresswoman said, “When I woke up this morning at 7:00, Patrick, my fiancé, tried to pull me by my waist over this morning in bed and I was like, ‘No, baby, we don't got time for that this morning. I've got to get to the prayer breakfast.’” She then smiled at the audience and continued, “He can wait. I'll see him later tonight.” Those are the words that came from the lips of a politician who’s supposedly conservative and who, again, was speaking at a prayer breakfast in South Carolina.
Now, as you might imagine, there were a variety of reactions to those comments. A few people found them to be inappropriate. Others found them to be rather awkward. Yet I’d say the majority of those reporting on the Congresswoman’s words found them to be pretty humorous and were sort of smirking as they relayed what she had said. And that says a lot about how drastically the moral values of our society have shifted over the past several decades. In the past, any politician who publicly admitted to being sexually immoral would have been practically forced to resign in disgrace. Yet, here, we have a congresswoman who’s from the state of South Carolina and who many would consider to be conversative making these comments at a prayer breakfast of all places and pretty much getting away with it. The very fact that that’s possible and that most people find it amusing shows us just how much the moral landscape of our society has shifted in recent years. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that anyone who expresses genuine disapproval at that kind of a lifestyle is viewed as sort of weird and certainly out of step with the times.
So, from a biblical perspective, what should we think of the Congresswoman’s comments? Is it really that big of a deal to sleep together before you’re married? And if so, why? Why would God care so much about who we sleep with? Those are some of the questions we’ll answer this morning as we work our way through Genesis 39.
To remind you of what’s been going on in Genesis, we’ve been reading about a man named Joseph. We’ve learned that Joseph’s father Jacob favored him so highly that Joseph’s brothers couldn’t stand it and grew to despise Joseph. And eventually, they developed such a deep-seated hatred for him that they sold Joseph into slavery in Egypt. And that’s where the story picks up in Genesis 39.
Look at verses 1-6: 1 Now Joseph had been brought down to Egypt, and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard, an Egyptian, had bought him from the Ishmaelites who had brought him down there. 2 The Lord was with Joseph, and he became a successful man, and he was in the house of his Egyptian master. 3 His master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord caused all that he did to succeed in his hands. 4 So Joseph found favor in his sight and attended him, and 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, the Lord blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake; the blessing of the Lord was on all that he had, in house and field. 6 So he left all that he had in Joseph’s charge, and because of him he had no concern about anything but the food he ate. Now Joseph was handsome in form and appearance.
So, Joseph is pictured here as an extremely capable slave in Potiphar’s household who was successful because God was with him. That’s what verse 2 tells. It says that “The Lord was with Joseph, and he became a successful man.” Verse 3 then tells us that “His master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord caused all that he did to succeed in his hands.” And actually, if you skip down to the end of the chapter in verse 23, we read again how “the Lord was with [Joseph]” and how “whatever he did, the Lord made it succeed.” So, a very significant theme of this chapter is that it’s God’s presence with Joseph that enables him to be as successful as he is.
We also read at the end of verse 6 that “Joseph was handsome in form and appearance.” Maybe he did a few photoshoots for GQ or some other modeling work on the side—we don’t really know all those details. But one thing we do know is that Joseph was a good-lookin’ guy. And this mention of his attractive appearance foreshadows what’s about to happen in the next verse.
Look at verse 7: “And after a time his master’s wife cast her eyes on Joseph and said, ‘Lie with me.’” Now, obviously, she doesn’t just want to lie down with Joseph and take a nap in the middle of the day. She’s asking Joseph to do a little more than that with her. And let’s remember that Joseph is still very young. Chapter 37 told us that he was 17 years old at the time when his father gave him the robe of many colors, so he’s probably not a whole lot older than that in this chapter. And if you know anything about guys in their late teens and early twenties, they can have some pretty strong sexual desires, which Joseph wasn’t immune to. On top of that, it would have been very easy for Joseph to rationalize sleeping with Potiphar’s wife. Scholars tell us that sexual promiscuity was extremely common in Egypt. So, Joseph could have just reasoned to himself that this kind of behavior was simply a normal part of life in Egypt. Plus, it’s not like anyone would ever know, right? His family would never find out—that’s for sure. They were all far away in the distant land of Canaan. So, the temptation for Joseph to do what Potiphar’s wife was asking him to do must have been significant.
However, Joseph actually refuses her proposition. We read in verses 8-10, 8 But he refused and said to his master’s wife, “Behold, because of me my master has no concern about anything in the house, and he has put everything that he has in my charge. 9 He is not greater in this house than I am, nor has he kept back anything from me except you, because you are his wife. How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” 10 And as she spoke to Joseph day after day, he would not listen to her, to lie beside her or to be with her.
So, even when Potiphar’s wife continues to proposition Joseph day after day, apparently intending to wear down his resistance, Joseph maintains his moral integrity. By the way, this is a lot different than the way Joseph’s brothers behaved in the previous chapters. Genesis 35:22 records Reuben sleeping with his father’s concubine, and Genesis 38:18 records Judah sleeping with a prostitute—or at least someone he thought was a prostitute. Yet in striking contrast to his brothers, Joseph refuses the sexual advances of Potiphar’s wife.
And he states his reason for doing so at the end of verse 9. He asks, “How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” Isn’t that a fascinating question? Notice how he doesn’t say, “How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against Potiphar?”—even though it would have been a sin against Potiphar. Nor does he say, “How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against you?”—even though it would have also been a sin against Potiphar’s wife. Instead, Joseph says, “How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” Joseph’s words here remind me of what David said after he had committed adultery with Bathsheba. He said to God in Psalm 51:4, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight…” Every sin we commit is ultimately a sin against God. And back in our main passage, Joseph’s very much aware of that. He understands that God will see anything he does with Potiphar’s wife and that any immorality will be a sin first and foremost against God.
And friends, if we only went through our lives with that same awareness that God sees everything we do and felt his gaze upon us moment by moment throughout the day, we wouldn’t dare to sin. That consistent awareness of God would keep us from doing many of the things we might otherwise do and would be an extremely effective barrier against any kind of moral compromise. Joseph knew that even if no one else ever found out what he did with Potiphar’s wife, that God would still know what he did. And that was enough to keep Joseph from succumbing to temptation.
So, the main idea of this passage is that Joseph exhibits remarkable moral integrity in the face of temptation. Joseph exhibits remarkable moral integrity in the face of temptation.
After that, he continues to exhibit moral integrity in the subsequent verses. Look at verses 11-12: 11 But one day, when he went into the house to do his work and none of the men of the house was there in the house, 12 she caught him by his garment, saying, “Lie with me.” But he left his garment in her hand and fled and got out of the house. So, Joseph has to go into the house in order to do his work. He’s a slave and doesn’t have any other choice. And while he’s in the house, Potiphar’s wife grabs his garment and tries force him to go to bed with her.
Yet even then Joseph doesn’t succumb to temptation but instead gets out of the house as fast as he can. Notice how he doesn’t try to reason with Potiphar’s wife or have a conversation with her about the issue. Instead, he just runs away. In fact, we read that he’s in such a hurry to get out of the house that he doesn’t even bother to free his garment from the hands of Potiphar’s wife but just slips out of it and leaves it behind so that he can get out of the house as quickly as possible.
And there’s a very important principle for us to observe from the way Joseph handles this situation. When it comes to sexual sin, the best way to fight against it is to run away. Because, if you stick around and try to fight it directly, chances are that you’ll probably lose. So, instead of trying to overcome sexual temptation by fighting against it directly, just get as far away from it as you possibly can.
Ideally, that means not even putting yourself in a situation in which you’re likely to be tempted. Now, Joseph was at a significant disadvantage here because, as we said, he was a slave and was required to do certain things in the house. Verse 11 makes that clear. So, he didn’t really have a choice. But we do. And if we’re wise, we’ll avoid putting ourselves in situations in which we’re likely to be tempted in the first place.
I appreciate the way the Apostle Paul phrases it in Romans 13:14. He says, “But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” In this context, the word “flesh” doesn’t refer to the physical flesh of our bodies but rather to the sinful nature within us and its sinful desires. Paul says to “make no provision for the flesh.” In other words, starve the flesh into submission. Don’t give it any food or do anything whatsoever to fuel its sinful desires. That begins with carefully monitoring your thought life. Guard your mind against thoughts that will stir up sinful desires or feed sinful appetites. Don’t fantasize about things that God hates or allow yourself to be intrigued by thoughts of committing a certain sin.
In addition, making “no provision for the flesh” means doing everything you possibly can to avoid situations in which you’re likely to be tempted. And that’s especially important when it comes to sexual sin. For example, if pornography has ever been a struggle for you, then you need to be proactive in fighting against that by seeking to avoid not just the sin of pornography itself but also situations in which you might be tempted to look at pornography. Maybe that means not even using your phone during certain hours of the day such as early in the morning or late at night when your mind isn’t functioning at full capacity and your guard is usually down. Maybe it also means not going to certain websites. There are a lot of websites that aren’t morally objectionable in themselves but that often have provocative advertisements and things like that. So, maybe you just need to avoid those websites entirely.
Something else you can do that I’d highly recommend is getting some accountability software for all of your electronic devices. I personally use software called “Covenant Eyes.” It actually takes a screenshot of my phone and laptop every 60 seconds and compiles those screenshots and sends them to my wife in the form of a daily email. So, every day my wife gets an email of everything I’ve looked at on my phone and laptop in the last 24 hours. I know that might sound a little extreme to some people, but you really can’t be too proactive in fighting against sexual sin. The goal, particularly when it comes to pornography, is to put as many barriers as possible between you and sin. Even if it’s been years since you’ve looked at anything objectionable, why take the risk? “Make no provision for the flesh,” Paul says.
The same principle also applies to dating. The best way to stay pure in a dating relationship is to not even put yourself in a situation in which it’s possible for something inappropriate to happen. Perhaps the most obvious step would be to not be in a house alone together. In fact, when Becky and I were dating, we generally tried to avoid even being alone in the same car together. I think we made a few exceptions to that but not many. If we wanted to hang out somewhere, we drove separately. And we always spent time with each other either with a group of friends or in a public setting. That means we went on a lot of dates to restaurants and parks and things like that. I remember one time we wanted to watch a movie on Netflix together, so we just brought a laptop to the library and watched it there.
Also, another aspect of making no provision for the flesh in a dating relationship is to avoid doing things that are likely to arouse lustful desires. So, just to speak from personal experience again, Becky and I decided that we weren’t going to kiss each other prior to marriage. That means the first kiss we shared was on our wedding day. Now, does the Bible specifically state it’s a sin to kiss each other prior to marriage? No. But, first of all, the consistent pattern we find in the Bible is certainly one where physical affection of a romantic nature is reserved for marriage. And on top of that, it just seems wise to avoid certain behaviors—such as kissing—that very often lead to inappropriate thoughts and behaviors. Why even take the risk of things progressing? Listen, your body and the chemicals and hormones inside your body aren’t designed to stop at kissing. God designed you to go all the way. So, once you activate the launch sequence, it’s not easy to put a stop to things. So, the best thing to do is to simply avoid getting anything started in the first place.
Now, the question naturally arises, where do you draw the line? What physical boundaries should you have in a dating relationship? And the best answer I’ve heard to that question came from the camp director at a summer camp I attended one time. He read from 1 Timothy 5:1-2, in which the Apostle Paul tells his young protégé Timothy, 1 Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers, 2 older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity. So, how was Timothy supposed to treat younger women? “As sisters, in all purity.” So, here’s a thought to consider. If you’re ever wondering whether it’s okay to engage in a certain form of physical affection with someone you’re dating, just ask yourself, “Would I do that with my sister?” And if not, then, well, there’s your answer.
And again, all of this comes back to the idea of making no provision for the flesh. Of course, there are a few other areas of sexual purity that we could apply this to, but I think you get the idea. So, think about your current behaviors. Where do you need to stop making provision for the flesh? What habits do you need to cut out of your life not because they’re necessarily sinful in themselves but because they often lead to some form of sexual temptation?
And as we return to our main passage of Genesis 39, that’s probably the central way in which Joseph’s behavior is a model for us to follow. As soon as Potiphar’s wife starts to make a sexual advance toward him, he removes himself from temptation by getting out of the house as quickly as possible—so quickly that he doesn’t even bother to free his garment from her hands.
After that, Potiphar’s wife falsely accuses Joseph of trying to rape her, using his garment as supposed proof of her story. As a result, the passage tells us in verse 20 that Potiphar has Joseph thrown into prison. Yet even in prison, God continues to be with Joseph, as we’ll see in the subsequent chapters. Even though the immediate result of Joseph’s commitment to moral integrity seems to be more of a curse than a blessing, God eventually turns the curse into a blessing. Through his imprisonment, Joseph will eventually become what we might call the Prime Minister of Egypt. So, as we said, the main idea of chapter 39 is that Joseph exhibits remarkable moral integrity in the face of temptation. And in the subsequent chapters, we’ll see God eventually bless that commitment to moral integrity.
And as we’ve been discussing Joseph’s exemplary behavior in this chapter, perhaps you’ve been wondering why all of this is such a big deal. Like, why does God care so much about who we sleep with? Why does he place such strict prohibitions and limitations on sexual activity? And I think we have to acknowledge here that a lot of Christians, at least historically, haven’t been very helpful in answering these questions. The impression you get from reading a lot of historic Christian literature is that sex is something that’s sort of dirty and that shouldn’t really be talked about because of how dirty it is.
Yet the Bible pictures sex much differently. It portrays sex as a wonderful gift from God. First of all, consider the fact that sex was a part of God’s good creation in the Garden of Eden. Genesis 1:27-28 records how God created humans male and female and instructed them to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” You don’t have to be a genius to deduce that that involves a lot of sex. And keep in mind that this was before the Fall—before humanity rebelled against God and plunged the world into brokenness and sin and chaos. Even before all of that mess, sex was a part of God’s design—and in Genesis 1:31 God states that it was a “very good” design.
Also, consider the entire book of the Song of Solomon, referred to in some translations of the Bible as the Song of Songs. This book of the Bible is a collection of love poems between a man and a woman celebrating the sexual relationship God intends for marriage. And sometimes, things get pretty explicit and the metaphors are quite provocative. If you’ve never read the Song of Solomon before, you may be surprised at how openly and overtly these poems celebrate sexual intimacy.
So, all of this shows us that sex isn’t something dirty but rather a wonderful gift from God that’s worth celebrating. You know, it’s not like God put Adam and Even in the Garden of Eden and turned his back for a moment to do something else and then, when he turned back around, was like “Whoa, whoa, whoa…what in the world are you two doing with each other?” No, sex was God’s idea and was given to us as a gift to be enjoyed—within its proper boundaries.
So, when the Bible prohibits all forms of sex outside of marriage, it’s not doing so because sex is dirty. Rather, it’s doing so because sex is sacred. And the reason sex is because marriage is sacred.
You see, God intended marriage to be a picture of the gospel. He wants the love that a husband and wife share to illustrate and point to the love he has for his people. The Apostle Paul tells us in Ephesians 5:25 that Jesus loved the church so much that he “gave himself up for her.” He took our sinfulness and our wretchedness on himself and died on the cross to pay for our sins. Even though we deserved to be punished for our sins forever in hell, Jesus acted as our substitute and endured every bit of that punishment on the cross so that we wouldn’t have to face it. He then resurrected from the dead so that we too can have the hope of eternal life. And as Paul makes clear a few verses later in Ephesians 5, specifically verses 31-32, that’s the reality that God designed marriage to picture. God wants the love and the intimacy a husband and wife share to tell the story of the gospel.
Imagine how you’d feel if you discovered that someone you know had been spreading rumors about you—telling all of your friends and coworkers and even family members horrific things about you that weren’t true at all. You’d be livid, right? How dare that person misrepresent who you are by fabricating those lies? Yet whenever we misuse God’s good gift of sex, we’re misrepresenting him. We’re, in effect, saying that God doesn’t love his people with a love that’s steadfast, sacrificial, committed, and covenantal. Instead, we’re saying that he merely “loves” us when it’s convenient for him to do so or, even worse, that he merely uses us without truly caring for us. Whether we intend to say that or not, that’s the statement we’re making whenever we engage in sexual immorality. Whenever we treat sex as a cheap, throwaway thing, we’re making the statement that God’s love in the gospel is a cheap, throwaway thing as well. So, in a sense, any form of sexual immorality is actually a form of blasphemy. We’re blaspheming God’s name and treating his name with utter contempt through our immorality.
So, the Bible prohibits sex outside of marriage not because sex is dirty but rather because sex is sacred. It’s not the insignificant, run of the mill, no big deal thing that our society makes it out to be. Rather, sex is special, sacred, and filled with transcendent meaning.
Now, maybe you’ve been sitting here this morning, listening to the account of Joseph’s moral integrity from Genesis 39 and the other biblical teachings we’ve been discussing that outline God’s design for sexual behavior, and it’s made you uncomfortably aware of how you’ve deviated from God’s will in this area. Maybe you’ve even felt crushed by the weight of your sin and are now wondering, “Is there any hope for me? I’ve messed things up so badly. Is there any hope for me?” And the answer is a resounding “yes.”
God says in Isaiah 1:18, “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” So, it doesn’t matter how badly we’ve sinned or how short we’ve fallen of God’s will. God offers us forgiveness and cleansing. And as we’ve said, the way we experience these things is through Jesus. The sacrifice of Jesus on the cross is what’s purchased our forgiveness and secured our cleansing. That’s the good news we call the gospel. And whenever we embrace Jesus and put our trust in him do to that for us, he always does. No matter what we’ve done or what messes we’ve made, Jesus stands ready to cleanse us from our sins and rescue us from our condemnation whenever we put our trust in him.
As a result, for those of us who are Christians, we understand that, regardless of what sins we’ve committed in the past, God sees us as pure and holy and blameless. Here’s the way Paul describes it in 1 Corinthians 6. He writes in verses 9-10, 9 Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, 10 nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. Sounds pretty serious, right? But listen to what Paul says after that in verse 11: “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”
Don’t you just love that? “Such were some of you.” In other words, all of those sins listed in verses 9-10 describe what we “were,” not what we are. Through Jesus, Paul says, all of our sins have been “washed” away. Paul then says that we’ve been “sanctified” and “justified,” meaning that we’ve been made holy and declared righteous in God’s sight. If you’re a Christian, that’s what God’s done for you. And if you’re not yet a Christian, that’s what God will do for you even this very day if you’ll put your trust in Jesus.