Women of the Bible - Saturday, March 1, 2014

Potiphar's Wife

Her character: The wife of a prosperous and influential Egyptian, she was unfaithful and vindictive, ready to lie in order to protect herself and ruin an innocent man.
Her sorrow: To be rebuffed by a slave.
Key Scriptures: Genesis 39

Her Story

We don't even know her name. She is merely presented as the spoiled wife of a prosperous Egyptian official, a miniature Cleopatra, determined to employ her charms to seduce the handsome young Hebrew slave, Joseph.

At the age of seventeen, Joseph was sold into slavery by his half brothers, the sons of Leah. The favorite child of Rachel and Jacob, Joseph seems to have unwittingly done everything possible to ensure his brothers' enmity, even recounting a dream predicting that he, the younger son, would one day rule over them. Envious, the brothers faked Joseph's death and contemptuously sold him to Midianite traders en route to Egypt.

There Potiphar, captain of Pharaoh's executioners, bought the young slave and gradually entrusted him with responsibility for his entire household. Even in his exile, everything Joseph touched prospered, as Potiphar couldn't help but notice.

But the captain of the guard wasn't the only Egyptian impressed by Joseph. His wife had taken special note as well. She made her desire plain enough by inviting Joseph to share her bed. The young slave must have surprised his wealthy mistress with his quick rebuff: "My master has withheld nothing from me except you, because you are his wife. How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?"

From then on, Joseph did his best to avoid her. But with little else to occupy her time and attention, Potiphar's wife simply waited for her next opportunity, which came when Joseph entered the house one day to attend to his duties. Alone with him, she caught hold of his cloak, whispering once again, "Come to bed with me!" But Joseph could not be persuaded and instead fled from her, leaving his would-be seducer alone with her lust, furiously clutching his cloak in her hands.

She wasted no time accusing him of attempted rape. When her husband heard the news, he was outraged, quickly consigning his favorite servant to prison.

The story of Joseph and how God blessed him even in his prison cell, eventually enabling him to become master of the nation he had entered as a slave, is well known to us. But we haven't a clue about Potiphar's wife. Whatever became of her? Did her husband suspect her duplicity? Is that why he merely confined Joseph to prison rather than executing him, as he had every right to do? Compared with Joseph, the story's protagonist, Potiphar's wife was a hollow woman whose soul was steadily decaying through the corrosive power of lust and hate. Surrounded by luxury, she was spiritually impoverished. Empty of God, she was full of herself.

Her Promise

The promise of God is revealed in this story not so much through Potiphar's wife as through Joseph and his response to her. On the surface, if we look at Joseph's situation in this one story, it may appear that he is merely a pawn in the intrigue of the household of Potiphar. As before, he is rejected and tossed aside. He looks like the fool, the loser. However, God's continued blessing is on Joseph. Within the context of this one story, it may look as if Joseph has lost. But in the context of his life, he is nothing but a winner. Indirectly—through Potiphar's wife and her sexual advances toward Joseph—God reveals his promise to bless those who follow him with uprightness (an old-fashioned word, but a good one!) and integrity.

This devotional is drawn from Women of the Bible: A One-Year Devotional Study of Women in Scripture by Ann Spangler and Jean Syswerda. Used with permission.

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