Joseph’s Temptation (Genesis 39)

Joseph’s Temptation (Genesis 39)

Facing Temptation

Open your bibles to Genesis 39. Sailhamer, “We have seen in the preceding narratives that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob repeatedly fell short of God’s expectations, though of course they continued to have faith in God.”

I’m not going to preach a sermon on chapter 38, but I will provide you with a couple of recommendations in the newsletter this week. Chapters 38 and 39 really go together because they serve as contrasting pictures of the patriarchs. As we see Joseph’s faithfulness in this chapter, we see Judah’s failure in the previous chapter.

Before we read this passage let us look to the Lord in prayer for his help in understanding it.

Genesis 39:6b-20

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.

This is the Word of the LORD.

As the reader comes to this chapter he might wonder whether or not Joseph will be a moral failure like every other patriarch. Will he tell lies like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? Will he treat others any different from his older brothers who hated him and wanted to kill him? Specifically, will he be faithful to one wife?

Alec Motyer writes, “In general, the historians do not step aside from their narratives to point morals.”⁠1 He is specifically speaking of the historical narratives in the Old Testament. Many will take stories like this and teach them in a way that is isolated from the redemptive-historical thread that runs from Genesis to Revelation. That will always result in a problematic interpretation.

However, with a passage like the one we just read, we cannot deny the moral implications. Although Motyer notes the rarity of the historical narrator to explicitly reference an action or character as being good or bad, he points to this text as one of the few exceptions. Therefore, when we have a plain declaration that this was “sin” we should take careful note of it.

There is no denying it. This text serves as a call to flee temptation! Yes, it is more than that, but it cannot be less than that. We cannot isolate this text from its place in redemptive history, but neither should we ignore its moral implications.

First, we will look at Facing the Temptation to Sin (7). Second, we’ll consider Facing the Evil in Sin (8-12). And third, we will contemplate Facing the Consequences of Obedience (13-20).

Facing the Temptation to Sin (7)

Joseph is described as being attractive in form and appearance (v.6b) just like his mother Rachel was described. The stage is set for a reversal of roles. In previous instances in Genesis it was always the man forcing himself upon a woman. But here, Potiphar’s wife is the one making an indecent proposal.

After she “cast her eyes on Joseph” she says, “Lie with me” (v.7). This language is never used of marriage. It represents a carnal lust that is entirely void of the kind of covenant commitment involved in a marriage. Her tactic begins with a not-so-subtle suggestion which will become a persistent plea (v.10), and eventually she will physically grab Joseph’s garment (v.12). What begins with a look becomes verbal and ultimately physical. Thus, we see in her actions the escalating nature of sin.

John Calvin comments on how Potiphar’s wife “cast her eyes on Joseph” before making her proposition. He writes, “Thus we see that the eyes were as torches to inflame the heart to lust. By which example we are taught that nothing is more easy, than for all our senses to infect our minds with depraved desires, unless we are very earnestly on our guard.”⁠2

So how do we guard our eyes? Well, very practically, this means you should have whatever safeguards and filters you need to be in place on your computers. You need to protect yourself and anyone else in your household from these dangers. You should also be careful about what you allow to come before the eyes of your children on TV. You might check the parental guides of movies before you watch them (or allow your kids to watch them). The list of suggestions could go on and on.

But, before you do anything, let me point something out. Temptation itself is not sin. Temptation is inevitable. Jesus Christ was tempted in every way that we are, yet he was without sin (Heb. 4:15). This is important to keep in mind for several reasons:

  1. Just because a particular activity might cause you to stumble, doesn’t necessarily mean it will cause someone else to stumble. Your temptation, might not be my temptation. We often want to make everything black or white. “This particular activity leads to me into trouble, therefore it must be bad for everyone else as well.” That is simply not true. Put whatever external boundaries in place that are necessary in your life, but let those safeguards keep you humble, rather than puffing you up and causing you to feel holier than everyone else. [On a side note: If you are the one who is free in a particular area, you should not flaunt that freedom knowing it might wound another’s weak conscience (1 Cor. 8:13).]
  2. If we think of the temptation itself as sinful, we will be less likely to resist it. Once the first step is taken, it becomes more and more difficult to resist taking the next step. But temptation is not a step at all. Joseph never indulged in sin, even though he faced temptation to sin on a daily basis.

Joseph was able to resist the temptation to sin because he was familiar with the evil inherent in sin.

Facing the Evil in Sin (8-12)

Day after day Joseph refuses the advancements of Potiphar’s wife. He understood this would be a crime against his master (vv.8-9a)—as he tried to articulate to the wife—but the greater problem is that this would constitute a “sin against God” (v.9b).

This is the same thing that God tells Abimelech when Abraham told him that his wife Sarah was only his sister. God told Abimelech “it was I who kept you from sinning against me” (Gen. 20:6).

David says the same thing after impregnating Bathsheba and having Uriah killed to cover it up. In Psalm 51:4, David writes, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” How can he say this? What about Uriah? How could Joseph say this in light of the wrong it would do to Potiphar? What makes your sin utterly heinous, is not primarily what it does to others, but what it says about God.

In Joseph’s response we see two principles that we should keep in mind regarding sin and temptation. There is a grace that renews and a grace that restrains. All people know and experience restraining grace. No one is as bad as they could be. Anyone can see that there are negative consequences for certain actions. But Christians are familiar with renewing grace. Like Joseph, they understand that sin is an offense “against God.”

They see sin as a great evil. In fact, it is the greatest of evils. Jeremiah Burroughs in The Evil of Evils writes, “That evil which is most opposite to the Chief Good must be the chief evil.”⁠3 He argues that sin is the most opposite to a perfectly holy God, therefore sin is “the chief evil.” Because sin is an offense “against God” whenever we choose sin we are saying, “I prefer my sin over God.”

But we cannot stop there. When we choose to sin, not only do we prefer sin over God, we are choosing rather to hate God. We are wishing Him to cease to be God in that moment, in order that we might indulge in our sin.

Burroughs gives a powerful illustration of this when he writes, “You would think it is a horrible wickedness for any man to be so deep in lust with another woman as to wish the death of his wife. This would be a horrible wickedness! And yet this is in your hearts, to wish that God had no being so that you might have your sin.”⁠4

John Owen points out the limitations of the law in this regard. If the only thing you tell yourself when you face temptation is that the consequences for your actions are too great to follow through with it, you have fallen back under the law and are no better off than an unbeliever in your fight against sin. Owen writes,

“Such a person has cast off…the conduct of renewing grace and is kept from ruin only by restraining grace; and so far is he fallen from grace and returned under the power of the law.”⁠5

We must fight sin with a superior kind of grace. The kind of grace that is daily held out to us by the gospel. It was because of Joseph’s love for God that he was able to resist temptation so firmly. As Paul reminds us in 2 Corinthians 5:14 it is “the love of Christ” that “controls us.”

When we reflect upon what he has done for us in his active and passive obedience, we are driven by a new hope. We appreciate the numerous benefits that flow from our justification, namely, our adoption,  sanctification, and glorification. This fills us with a sense of peace. The kind of peace Paul reminds us we have in Philippians 4:7. It is a peace that “will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

We cannot get rid of sin and temptation, but we have already been declared victorious over it through the work of Christ. The gospel reminds us of what Christ has accomplished. He doesn’t provide us with a little boost of grace, His grace is entirely sufficient for life and godliness (2 Pet. 1:3).

What makes sin evil is that it is an offense against God. In light of the gospel, with grateful hearts, we ought to be willing to…

Facing the Consequences of Obedience (13-20)

The consequences of Joseph’s obedience are plain to see. Potiphar’s wife makes false accusations about Joseph and Potiphar throws him into prison. Considering the fact that this would have been a capital offense, some conjecture that Potiphar didn’t really believe his wife. That is possible, or he still cared enough for Joseph so as to spare his life.

This episode is bookended by Joseph’s rise in Potiphar’s house and his subsequent rise in the prison. The phrase that begins and ends the chapter is “The Lord was with Joseph” and He gave him success. The reason Joseph was capable of standing up to the onslaught of temptation from Potiphar’s wife is because the Lord was with him.

This same ascent-descent-ascent pattern is seen in the nation of Israel. They rise to a position of power and even become rulers alongside Joseph in Egypt. Then they experience hardship and slavery under the reign of a new pharaoh. Until finally, God draws them out of Egypt and brings them into the Promised Land.

But, more importantly, Joseph is a type of Christ who was faithful to do the work he was given, overcame temptation, yet was unfairly condemned. Although Joseph lost his privileged status in his father’s house, Jesus Christ willingly gave up the riches of heaven (2 Cor. 8:9) and “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:7-8).

And just as this chapter concludes with God’s exaltation of Joseph to the right hand of Pharaoh, so God “highly exalted” Jesus (Phil. 2:9). As Joseph was a blessing to one family, so Jesus was a blessing to all the families of the earth. As the LORD was with Joseph, so Jesus has promised “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20).

Here’s the point I want to leave you with: It is a quote from John Yates, “Never, until sin is seen and sorrowed for as the greatest evil, will Christ be seen and rejoiced in as the greatest Good.”

Children stories are often taught with the intent of training us to think that obedience will always work out in our favor. Some might try to argue that Joseph’s rise within prison is exemplary of this, but I imagine that’s not the kind of success we envision for our kids when they obey.

What we have seen so far in the life of Joseph is that his obedience to his father got him sold into slavery, and his obedience in Potiphar’s house landed him in prison. However, Joseph understood what Jeremiah Burroughs understood: “There is more evil in the least sin than in the greatest affliction.”

Like Joseph, we should be willing to endure the greatest affliction in order to avoid even the slightest sin.


We didn’t take the time this morning to see the contrasting picture in the previous chapter, but let me encourage you to take the time to study it. I’ll recommend some sermons for you to listen to in this week’s newsletter.

In chapter 38 we see Judah’s failure in the face of temptation. In chapter 39 we see Joseph’s success in the face of temptation. Judah was disgraced in the end, whereas Joseph was vindicated. Judah was corrupt. Joseph was virtuous.

In light of this which line do you think eventually leads us to Jesus? Of course it would be Judah’s. Why is that? There are four women listed in Matthew’s genealogy of Christ (Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and “the wife of Uriah” AKA: Bathsheba). Tamar is at the top of the list along with two other women of questionable character. Isn’t it just like God to take people who everyone else has dragged through the mud in order to use them for his own purposes?

In light of that, if you find yourself relating more to Potiphar’s wife than Joseph, Christ’s genealogy represents hope. As we prepare to take the Lord’s Supper, let Christ’s finished work on your behalf become your joy. But keep Yates quote in mind too, “Never, until sin is seen and sorrowed for as the greatest evil, will Christ be seen and rejoiced in as the greatest Good.”


1 Mother, Alec, Roots: Let the Old Testament Speak, Christian Focus.

2 Calvin, John, and John King. Commentary on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010.

3 Burroughs, Jeremiah, The Evil of Evils, Grand Rapids: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, p.26.

4 Burroughs, Evil, p.42.

5 Owen, John, Overcoming Sin & Temptation, Wheaton: Crossway Books, pp. 93-94.