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3. Overcoming Temptation: When Doing What’s Right Can Go So Wrong (Gen. 39:1-20)

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Sexual temptation is one of the most prevalent temptations in our society today. Sadly, so many Christian men and women are falling into it, such is the influence of the world’s sexual mores. While we must not create a hierarchy of sins (for all sins are equally heinous to God), nevertheless sexual sin has a particularly pungent odor since it destroys marriages, families, careers, churches etc., and it can destroy the work of the gospel.

This is an area of temptation to which we are all vulnerable. Rare is the person who can truly say: “This is not an area of life that has any hold on me. I never have illicit sexual thoughts or feelings.”

In this study, we will see how Joseph responded to an overt, powerful sexual temptation. Our subject is: “Standing for righteousness” – specifically in overcoming sexual temptation. The theological lesson that we learn here is that “being faithful in resisting temptation does not necessarily bring immediate reward.”

We’ll see that Joseph’s safeguard in this situation was his relationship with God, his understanding of sin, and his respect for his master. We’ll also see that Joseph paid a severe penalty for his choice - it cost him his job as the overseer in Potiphar’s household, it cost him his reputation, and it cost him his freedom - he went from a position of influence to the depths of prison.

The key phrase here is, “The Lord was with Joseph ... and the Lord made all he did to prosper in his hand (39:2-3). Throughout all of Joseph’s experiences to date, God was with him. His brothers had forsaken him (and, to a certain extent his father had forsaken him) but God was with him. The inference here is that God was preparing Joseph through this experience for even greater things in the future.

Up to now, the focus has been on Joseph’s father, Jacob, and the brothers. We won’t hear about them again until a considerable period of time has elapsed. Now the focus shifts to Joseph directly. In other words, chapter 37 was background to the story that is now about to be told. But for the interim, Joseph continues to be a pawn in God’s providence. He does not know what is happening or why. Only later will he discover that God had a special role and position for him to play in a very stressful and unsettling time in the history of God’s people.

But, as with all positions of authority and responsibility such a role and position cannot be occupied by Joseph until he is fully prepared for it – spiritually, psychologically, practically, emotionally. God’s preparation of Joseph began when he was a teenager but the specific training for his ultimate position of Prime Minister takes place in Egypt.

Notice these three principles. First…

I. God Providentially Intervenes In Our Lives To Accomplish His Purposes (39:1-6a)

Despite the fact that Joseph had been taken to Egypt and that Potiphar had purchased him from the Ishmaelite slave traders like a chattel, a piece of goods, an asset, we see the Lord’s favor toward Joseph when the narrator of the story nonchalantly says, “The Lord was with Joseph” (39:2). The fact that Joseph became the property of a high ranking officer in Pharaoh’s elite guard is an indicator of God’s providential intervention in Joseph’s life and of the direction that Joseph’s life will take, albeit, with some twists and turns yet to come.

Potiphar was a man of high position and responsibility. He was probably in charge of Pharaoh’s personal bodyguards. He was also in charge of the executioners and, as such, he was responsible for carrying out the death penalty in Egypt. That Joseph is brought into this man’s household is evidence that “the Lord was with Joseph and he was a successful man; and he was in the house of his master the Egyptian” (39:2). He was “successful” precisely because “the Lord was with him.” We don’t know what earned Joseph the description of a “successful man.” My sense is that working in Potiphar’s household alone was a plum job. Even though Joseph had done nothing to acquire it, God made sure he got it.

Evidently Joseph’s character, skills, integrity, and work ethic were such that not only does the Spirit of God record that “the Lord was with him” (39:2) but his pagan, Egyptian master, Potiphar, also made the same observation: “His master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord made all he did to prosper in his hand” (39:3). With such a testimony, no wonder “Joseph found favor in his (Potiphar’s) sight,” eventually being promoted to “overseer of (Potiphar’s) house and all that he had he put under his authority” (39:4). Joseph became Potiphar’s estate manager, responsible for all Potiphar’s servants, his assets, and his business activities.

Potiphar’s decision to give Joseph the most senior management position in his household was confirmed in that “from the time that he made him overseer of his house and all that he had, the Lord blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake; and the blessing of the Lord was on all that he had in the house and in the field” (39:5). The blessing of God was upon that household because of Joseph.

Do you see how God was providentially at work in Joseph’s life? Not only has He preserved Joseph’s life from the murderous intent of his brothers, but He has orchestrated every step of the way forward, such that Joseph ended up in the house of a senior government official who recognized the extraordinary nature of Joseph’s character and abilities, and the blessing of Joseph’s God upon his household. In fact, Joseph’s sphere of responsibility encompassed absolutely everything in Potiphar’s household such that “(Potiphar) left all that he had in Joseph’s hand and he did not know what he had except for the bread which he ate” (39:6a). This was the extent to which God was active in Joseph’s life. This was nothing short of miraculous. After all, it wasn’t as though Joseph had any specialized training for such a position. And yet, Potiphar’s entire estate and business activities prospered more than he could have ever imagined. Although he undoubtedly didn’t care about Joseph’s God, what he had earlier observed was absolutely true – “the Lord was with him” (39:3).

It’s funny how prosperity can override religious convictions. Potiphar was an idol worshipper, whereas Joseph worshipped the one true God of Israel. But so long as his bank account was growing and his business ventures were succeeding and his net worth was increasing Potiphar didn’t care about religion. For Potiphar, Joseph’s on-the-job performance was all that mattered. And Joseph’s on-the-job performance was entirely due to the Lord being with him – not to Joseph’s experience, training, qualifications, or connections. Thus, through God’s providential intervention in his life, Joseph enjoyed God’s favor and Potiphar’s favor, and Potiphar also benefitted from God’s blessing on him because of Joseph.

It’s amazing that Potiphar didn’t attribute Joseph’s success to his upbringing or previous training, but instead concluded that “the Lord made all he did to prosper in his hand” (39:3b). Why would this pagan Egyptian come to that conclusion? Two possibilities come to mind. First, my guess is that Joseph’s testimony was as transparent as Daniel’s, so that everybody knew his faith in God. Second, Potiphar knew that Joseph was an Israelite and, somehow, he must have also known the reputation of the God of Israel as a powerful, living God, who acts on behalf of his people.

What a wonderful testimony to Joseph’s character and behavior, that even under these unsettling circumstances, even in a strange country working for a strange man, not knowing why his brothers had treated him as they had, and not knowing what the future held, nonetheless, Joseph’s conduct was of such a nature that even his unbelieving master attributed is to the Lord - “the Lord was with him.”

Evidently, Joseph’s attitude did not reflect his earlier experiences at the hands of his brothers or his pampered treatment by his father. Instead, he made the most of his situation. He didn’t think that the world owed him a living, as so many people do today. He clearly didn’t rebel or mope but worked hard. Joseph is an example of one whose faithfulness “in a few things” leads to being put in charge of “many things” (Matt. 25:21).

This is a principle for Christian living. This is an example of the Christian work ethic and attitude. Work hard for the glory of God, not to please men and, generally, your employer will reward you because they like the Christian work ethic and attitude.

This is what we all must strive for - a testimony in our workplace through words and deeds that the Lord is with us and prospering us. He is the one we serve and honor in our lives. His approbation is what we work for, “being obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart, as to Christ, not with eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ doing the will of God from the heat, with goodwill doing service as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that whatever good anyone does, he will receive the same from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free (Eph. 6:5-8).

How can employers become aware of this? By Christians who pray before eating their food. By Christians who treat others with dignity and respect. By Christians who stand for honesty no matter what. By Christians who speak with wholesome words. By Christians who go the extra mile without looking for recognition. What an impact that would have for the glory of God and the spread of the gospel!

The first principle we learn from this narrative is that God providentially intervenes in our lives to accomplish his purposes. Second…

II. In The Midst Of Success Satan Takes The Opportunity To Attack Us (39:6b-12)

Not only did Potiphar favor Joseph but his wife did as well, but for entirely different and wrong reasons. Potiphar favored Joseph because of his character and ability, but his wife favored Joseph because of his sexual attraction: “Now Joseph was handsome in from and appearance” (39:6b). Potiphar’s wife was motivated solely by sexual desire. Her demand of Joseph was neither discrete nor bashful: “And it came to pass after these things that his master’s wife cast longing eyes on Joseph and she said, ‘Lie with me’” (39:7).

Notice what Mrs. Potiphar was motivated by: Joseph’s body – “he was handsome in form” (39:6b), well built, a hunk of a man - and Joseph’s good looks - “he was handsome in…appearance” (39:6b). She made no bones about what she wanted. She didn’t beat around the bush. This was a woman who knew what she wanted and obviously, given her husband’s position, she was used to getting her wishes, no questions asked. History tells us that women in Egypt at this time were considerably more liberated than in other countries and cultures.

Aren’t these the same fleshly motivations for people today - physical, bodily form, facial features, appearance? Isn’t the entire emphasis of our society today on physical form rather than moral character, on superficial appearance rather than significant intellect, on the shape of the body rather than the function of the mind, on external impression rather than internal convictions? It’s the external looks with which advertisers sell cars and clothes. So, nothing really has changed, has it?

Potiphar was motivated by the financial gain of Joseph’s abilities and Potiphar’s wife was motivated by the sexual attraction of Joseph appearance. So, what now?

There were many reasons why Joseph might have succumbed to this temptation:

1. His brothers’ perverted sexual standards.

2. His father’s complex history with, and treatment of, women.

3. This woman’s superior position and power in comparison to his own. Joseph was in a no-win situation. If he refused her, he ran the risk of her wrath. If he complied, he ran the risk of being found out by Potiphar.

4. The pressure of his own natural sexual desires.

5. The promiscuous influence of the Egyptian society.

6. The persistent demands of this woman who wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. Even after his refusal, “she spoke to Joseph day by day ... to lie with her or to be with her” (39:10).

But, despite the possible consequences, Joseph still refused her. “He did not heed her” (39:10). Joseph’s reasons for resisting her seductive overtures tell us a lot about Joseph’s character and spirituality. The story gives us three reasons behind Joseph’s refusal of her:

1. The Trust Factor (39:8)

“But Joseph refused and said to his master’s wife, ‘Look, my master does not know what is with me in the house, and he has committed all that he has to my hand (39:8). Potiphar trusted Joseph implicitly. Potiphar had given over everything into Joseph’s care and control to the extent, Joseph explains, that “My master doesn’t even know what he owns and doesn’t own. He has no idea what goes on around the estate on a day-to-day basis. It would be really easy for me to do what you want, such is the independence that I enjoy here, but to do so would breach a fundamental relationship of trust.”

Potiphar left Joseph in the house all day every day alone with the other servants and his wife. That was the degree of his trust in, and relationship with, Joseph, and Joseph reciprocated that trust and that relationship.

So, there was the trust factor, and there was…

2. The Moral Factor (39:9a)

The trust relationship and duty to Potiphar extended even to his sexual fidelity with Potiphar’s wife. She was the only thing that Potiphar had “kept back” from him (39:9), such was the value and exclusivity of the marriage relationship. She was Potiphar’s woman exclusively. Joseph had no right or title to any compromising or illicit relationship with her. Joseph understood fully and clearly the exclusive nature of the marriage relationship. That in itself is amazing, given Joseph’s family background concerning sexual morality and marriage commitments.

The third motivation for Joseph’s refusal of her was…

3. The Spiritual Factor (39:9b)

For Joseph, the trust commitment to his boss was the product of his spiritual values before God. “How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” (39:9b).

First, notice that it is agreat wickedness.” That was Joseph’s estimation of what she was demanding of him – “a great wickedness”. It wasn’t an error in judgement. It wasn’t an addiction. It wasn’t a mistake or momentary slip. It was a “great wickedness” that stems from the depraved depths of the human heart. Remember back in Gen. 6: Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5).

Second, notice that it is a “sin against God.” He doesn’t say, “How then I can I do this great wickedness and sin against your husband.” Any sin against Potiphar, in Joseph’s spiritual thinking, was a sin against God, as indeed it would be. We aren’t told how Joseph knew this. He certainly had not been taught this at home growing up. Perhaps it is part of the intrinsic structure of the human conscience that we all know intuitively that immoral sexual relations are a sin against God.

To engage in such immoral activity would have marred Joseph’s testimony and reflection of God. After all, Potiphar had already observed that “the Lord as with him.” If he succumbed to her sexual advances the reputation of God and Joseph’s reflection of that would go right down the drain. This perhaps is the most serious consequence of immorality – the reflection on God, the dishonor done to his name and testimony.

Joseph’s relationship with and understanding of God is greater than we perhaps give him credit. How he got this knowledge and why it was clearly displayed in him is a mystery, except that God was sovereignly working in his life.

Evidently, Joseph was already attributing to God, first, his master’s recognition of God and the favor that he extended to Joseph as a result, and, second, his new found position and power. To commit such “great wickedness” as this would have been disastrous to Joseph’s testimony and position, to Potiphar’s marriage, and to the moral character of the God of Israel in Potiphar’s eyes.

Thus we see that God providentially intervenes in our lives to accomplish his purposes, but in the midst of success Satan takes the opportunity to attack us. And, third…

III. The Results Of Acting Righteously Are Not Always What We Expect (39:10-20)

We expect to be rewarded for uprightness, integrity, loyalty, but such is not always the case. Joseph’s resistance was resolute, intransigent, unmoving. “She spoke to Joseph day after day ... and he did not heed her to lie with her or to be with her” (39:10). There was no chink in his armor. He didn’t compromise or say, “OK, just this once.” She didn’t wear him down with her persistent seduction. But there came a day when her verbal aggression changed to physical: “It happened about this time, when Joseph went into the house to do his work and none of the men of the house was inside, that she caught him by his garment, saying, ‘Lie with me.’ But he left his garment in her hand and fled and ran outside” (39:11-12).

Perhaps this was the first time that all the circumstances were just right for her to play her last card. The house was empty; they were alone. There was no human reason why Joseph should not comply now. Instead of verbal persuasion, she switches to physical. She grabbed his cloak, presumably to remove it and to draw him towards her.

This, of course, is one of the deadliest of circumstances. To be caught alone in a building with a woman who has sexual designs is a trap straight from hell. In her insidious deceitfulness, she knew that this was her moment. She had probably planned this over several days, saying to herself, “If I can’t wear him down with my persistence, I’ll overcome him physically.”

Satan knows the power of the physical, the heat of the moment, the lust of the flesh, the overwhelming seduction of touch, the overpowering influence of physical contact, the appeal to a man of a woman’s passionate desire, the flood of pride that stems from a woman’s attention, the power over a man of the sight of a woman’s body (as David found out). All this is straight from Satan, going around seeking whom he may devour (1 Pet. 5:8), doing anything and everything to try and destroy our relationship with God and our testimony for God.

This is classic Satanic temptation. He wore Eve down with his subtle arguments and she fell for it. And here he is working on Joseph. The stakes were huge with Eve – it impacted the rest of human history. And the stakes were big with Joseph as well – if Satan could win he would impact an entire nation.

But Joseph didn’t hesitate for moment. He knew what was happening and responded instinctively. “He left his garment in her hand and fled outside”(39:12). Her grip was so strong that his cloak came right off in her hand as he ran away from her. No longer did Joseph use words to resist her temptations. No longer did he try to dissuade her from her proposal. She had become physically aggressive and so did he, by tearing himself from her grasp and running away. So, two intense actions collided with each other - her sexual, physical attack of Joseph in an attempt to physically dominate him and seduce him; and his physical response to get away, even though that meant tearing his cloak and leaving it hanging in her hand.

It isn’t hard to figure out what would happen next. As William Congreve expressed it in the play “The Mourning Bride,” “Hell has no fury like a woman scorned.” Potiphar’s wife began to scream and shout as Joseph’s refusal turned her sexual desire for him into personal hatred of him. “And so it was that when she saw that he had left his garment in her hand, and fled outside that she called to the men of her house and spoke to them, saying, ‘See, he has brought in to s a Hebrew to mock us. He came in to me to lie with me and I cried out with a loud voice. And it happened when he heard that I lifted my voice and cried out, that he left his garment with me, and fled and went outside’” (39:13-15).

It’s so devastating to be falsely accused. In retaliation, Joseph is falsely accused by this seductress who twists the truth of what happened. According to her, it was all Joseph’s fault - he was the aggressor, not her; he was the seducer, not her. In front of the servants she accuses Joseph of attempting to rape her! And cleverly, “she kept (Joseph’s) garment with her until his master came home. Then she spoke to him with words like these, saying, ‘The Hebrew servant whom you brought to us came in to me to mock me; so it happened, as I lifted my voice and cried out, that he left his garment with me and fled outside’” (39:16-18). She kept the evidence, false as it was. No wonder Solomon warns that a seductress tries to trap a man “as an ox goes to the slaughter or as a fool to the correction of the stocks... Do not let your heart turn aside to her ways, do not stray into her paths; for she has cast down many wounded, and all who were slain by her were strong men. Her house is the way to hell, descending to the chambers of death” (Prov. 7:25-27).

Of course, Potiphar was duped by his wife. “So it was, when his master heard the words which his wife spoke to him, saying, ‘Your servant did to me after this manner,’ that his anger was aroused. Then Joseph’s master took him and put him into the prison, a place where the king’s prisoners were confined. And he was there in the prison’” (39:19-20). Literally, Potiphar was livid. This begs the question: Livid at whom? His wife or Joseph? He could have had Joseph executed. After all Egyptian law provided that punishment for such a crime and particularly since it involved his wife. And it would have been so easy for Potiphar to order Joseph’s execution as Potiphar was the chief of the executioners. But, curiously, he didn’t. He merely threw him in prison along with the king’s prisoners.

Why would Potiphar have been so lenient? Perhaps Potiphar had suspicions about his wife’s truthfulness. After all, a woman like her doesn’t do this once out of the blue. Perhaps Potiphar trusted Joseph’s word more than his wife’s. Or, perhaps Potiphar had praised Joseph far and wide, telling his friends and colleagues what prosperity he was enjoying because of Joseph’s skills and Joseph’s God, and now, he had the embarrassment of taking action against him for supposedly attempting to rape his wife. Or, perhaps he was livid because he would lose the benefit of Joseph’s financial success. He probably didn’t want to lose Joseph’s management skills but he had to do something. So, perhaps the best compromise was a prison sentence.

But how could “doing what’s right go so wrong”? Why does being faithful in resisting temptation not necessarily bring immediate reward? Because there is a bigger story (a meta-narrative) going on here. The bigger story is that God is working out his purposes in Joseph’s life regardless of circumstances, dire as they may be. Remember the overall principle in Joseph’s life: “They” meant it for evil but “God” meant it for good (Gen. 50:20). God is in control even when it doesn’t appear to us that he is.

That’s why Potiphar did what he did. God’s favor was still on Joseph. God’s sovereign plans for Joseph’s life would be carried out through and in spite of this apparent setback. In fact, was it a setback at all? We would say “Yes.” But was not even this part of God’s sovereign care and control and favor in Joseph’s life?

How can “doing what’s right go so wrong”? This is was what Peter wrote about in his epistle. “It is better, if it is the will of God, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil” (1 Pet. 3:17). “For what credit is it if, when you are beaten for your faults, you take it patiently? But when you do good and suffer, if you take it patiently, this is commendable before God” (1 Pet. 2:20). There is such a thing as suffering for righteousness sake (1 Pet. 3:14) by which our accusers condemn us even when we have acted uprightly.

Concluding Remarks

This is a story about a woman tempting a man. But the opposite is just as true and possible, perhaps even more probable. The principles here apply to either gender. Sexual temptation is pervasive in our society. You don’t have to go looking for it, it comes looking for you. So, stay away from it, don’t go near it, don’t tip toe up to it, don’t be curious about it. Don’t be flattered by another person’s sexual interest in you, even though you may be old and flabby and not up to much anymore. Don’t allow yourself to be vulnerable. Don’t get caught in a compromising situation or what might become compromising. Don’t let yourself be isolated with someone of the opposite sex whom you find attractive or who might find you attractive. Don’t ever give someone else the “come-on” – i.e. don’t ever let someone else think that you are available sexually either in what you say or what you do.

And avoid looking at images that might excite you sexually - TV programs, the internet, magazines etc. That was the beginning of David’s downfall with Bathsheba. Walking on the roof of his house one day, “he saw a woman bathing, and the woman was beautiful to look at” (2 Sam. 11:2).

Our primary sexual stimuli come through sight and touch. Don’t think that you ever become immune to it. Sexual temptation is a potential trap for your lifetime, no matter who you are, or your position, your age, or your gender. Young people are tempted because they are young and virulent and because they are at the peak of hormonal activity and drive. But older people are tempted too, perhaps because their marriages have become dull, or perhaps because they are flattered by someone else’s apparent attraction to them. Don’t ever fall into the trap of thinking that you are immune to it. Don’t be deceived into thinking that you are too spiritual. The moment you think that, you are vulnerable. The moment you think that, you’re not very spiritual at all.

Resisting sexual temptation takes courage and spirituality. We must resolutely resist sexual temptation. But on what basis can we do that?

1. By having firm convictions before God about who God is, about what sin is and does, about our relationship to God, about our testimony for God and reflection of God.

2. By having biblical convictions about sexual morality, about the sanctity of marriage and the sexual relationship, about why God created marriage, about why he ordained that sex be exclusively for married partners.

So, what can we do practically in resisting sexual temptation?

1. Maintain a vibrant and regular prayer life. Did you know that it is impossible to pray if you are either engaged in a sinful habit or you are even entertaining sinful thoughts? You cannot pray to a holy God while at the same time engaging in sin. Make Robert Murray McCheyne’s prayer your prayer: “Lord, make me as holy as a saved sinner can be.” How about: “Lord, keep my mind clean, my heart pure, my conscience clear, and my will submissive”

2. Maintain a vibrant and regular Bible reading practice. You cannot sincerely engage in genuine Bible reading and study while at the same time engaging in sin or sinful thoughts.

3. Maintain a vibrant and regular church life. You will not be comfortable at church with other Christians and listening to Bible teaching if you are engaging in sinful practices or thoughts.

4. Maintain a vibrant and intimate circle of Christian friends. Keep each other on track spiritually. Watch out for each other. Take note when one person in the group seems to be losing interest or not mixing with you as they once did.

5. Maintain a vibrant and intimate relationship with God. This seems almost trite to say and a Christian truism. But, did you know that you can engage in prayer and Bible reading and church life, and yet not have a vibrant and intimate relationship with God? Intimacy with God is paramount in resisting temptation: “How can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?”

6. Maintain a ruthless sensitivity to sin. “Your word I have hidden in my heart, That I might not sin against You” (Ps. 119:11; cf. Ps. 51). Remember: If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1:9).

But be warned: when you resist temptation, you may a price. The results may not be what you expect. It might cost you your job and your freedom. You may suffer in terms of rejection (by the other party) and lies about you, false accusations against you (for unrequited passion), spiritual ridicule (about your Christianity). But we must act for and live before God, not other people. We look for God’s approbation, not other people’s. And eventually, God will vindicate us, as he did Joseph. Satan is the accuser of the brethren, but God is our great defender and protector

Don’t ever forget the principle of this story: “Being faithful in resisting temptation is right but it does not necessarily bring immediate reward.” And remember the overall principle in the life of Joseph: God is sovereign – what others intend for evil, God can use for good to achieve his purposes.”

Related Topics: Character Study, Christian Life

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