H. V. Morton in his sketch of Potiphar’s wife says that “she occupies a prominent place as the first sensualist in the gallery of Scriptural women. The sins against morality committed by women up to this point in the Bible story were committed for dynastic reasons, or were due to the customs of the times.” The immortal story of this ruler’s wife’s lust for Joseph is “a picture of a woman, spoilt, rich and beautiful, the product of a luxurious and licentious civilization,” coveting one of the holiest and most attractive men in Egypt. Joseph enjoyed the favor of God who prospered him in his service in the house of Potiphar, the chief of Pharaoh’s bodyguard. That he had the confidence of his master is seen in that he “found grace in his sight, and the Lord blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake.” If there had been ten like him in Sodom it would have been spared.
But temporal prosperity was not an unmixed blessing for Joseph. He was “a goodly person, and well favoured,” and his form and face were to bring him days of trial. His master had a godless wife whose character is revealed in her brief biography. If a wholly bad woman is Satan’s masterpiece, then Potiphar’s nameless wife takes the prize for diabolical cunning and dastardly wickedness. Joseph was a young man with natural instincts, but divine grace kept him from following youthful lusts, enabling him to resist the advances of the faithless wife of Potiphar to share her bed. She was persistent in her endeavor to have Joseph “to lie by her.” This female wretch tempted him to commit adultery “day by day” (39:10). The more she persisted, the easier Joseph found it to say, No! Each victory helped him the battle to win. On one of the days of the severe conflict we read, “There was none of the men of the house there within.” Secrecy often provides the facility for sinning, but Joseph knew what it was to be much alone with God, therefore his isolation with his temptress did not disturb him.
Amid all the fierce testing, Joseph acted magnificently. He had a deep respect for the husband of the lustful wife and could not sin against Potiphar who trusted Joseph with all he had and raised him to a position of influence and authority. Never for one moment had he the shadow of doubt as to Joseph’s integrity. That was the human side—the resolute determination not to betray his master who relied on him so fully. Then there was Joseph’s estimation of what Potiphar’s wife constantly tempted him to do. He called the suggested adultery, “great wickedness.” In his old Hebrew home he had been taught that it was a grievous sin to disregard the sanctity of the marriage law, and so power was Joseph’s to honor the claims of chastity. But above and beyond all reasons why he should not sin in the way he was urged to, was the recognition of the claims of God, “How can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” Joseph knew God to be the antagonist of all evil, and so sided with Him.
The last day of Joseph’s period of temptation was the most fatal. Coming into the house on business, Joseph saw that he and the she-devil were alone and with one passionate outburst she cried as she laid hold of his clothes, “Lie with me!” Disentangling himself from her grasp, Joseph fled, leaving some of his torn clothing in her hands. But Joseph little knew that in fleeing from a woman’s passion, he was fleeing into prison. The shreds of Joseph’s garment in the woman’s hand gave her a diabolical idea. Her desire for Joseph turned to hate, lust turned to lying and adultery to accusation. Calling in the servants, she showed them the remnants of Joseph’s garment, and with this piece of circumstantial evidence of his effort to force her to share her bed with him. Joseph’s quick flight from Potiphar’s wife underlines the strength of a character without flaw, but the woman’s slander cast a reflection upon his piety. Contemptuously, she called Joseph a “Hebrew” which her husband had brought into the house to mock its inhabitants. She may have been the first woman, but she was certainly not the last “to exhibit the classic retaliation of the woman scorned.”
When Potiphar returned, his wife displayed the pieces of Joseph’s garment which she had torn from him, and with added color repeated her slanderous lie. How deeply the holy heart of Joseph must have felt the foul accusation, as the master he respected charged him with a sin he abhorred and never committed! Potiphar’s wrath, fed by the jealousy and falsehood of his wife, was kindled, and Joseph suffered the unjust punishment of imprisonment. But even in prison Joseph knew that it was better to rot there with an unsullied conscience than to prosper in a palace, if prosperity meant degradation. Yet in the prison the Lord was with Joseph, for He was the gracious Keeper of the pure prisoner. Others had wrongly blamed Joseph, but he had the approval of his own conscience and the confidence that the God he refused to sin against, would vindicate him, as He did. We can imagine how Potiphar’s wife had many a sleepless night as she thought of Joseph in his narrow cell all because of her passion and perjury. But to Joseph’s credit, we have no recorded word he uttered in his own defense, or against the evil woman responsible for his degradation. Thus—
This stirring old-time story of a soul
That dared to do the right,
Is ripe with helpful inspirations still
That move toward the light.