Role-reversal stories help us break down our stereotypes and cultural bias. As a boy, I was warned against seductive females like Potiphar’s wife, but I don’t remember being warned against mistreating women as the men of Genesis did: Pharaoh (Genesis 12:15), Abimelek (20:2; 26:8), and Hamor (34:2).
Maybe the real issue is power rather than gender. Those three guys were all kings or princes. And Potiphar’s wife held all the power while Joseph was merely a slave.
Women are devalued in patriarchal society. Judah’s mistreatment of Tamar isn’t resolved until he realizes that, even though she used her sexuality against him, She is more righteous than I (38:26).
So, rather than treating gender as the problem in the conflict between male and female, could we make some progress by identifying abuse of power as the real issue? The role-reversal story of Genesis 39 suggests that might be a productive approach.
What happens when the woman has all the power, and the male is her slave?
The world is a brutal place. Joseph’s brothers planned to kill him, but sold him instead. He ends up as a slave of Potiphar, an official who served Pharaoh as a commander of his bodyguard (39:1).
A bodyguard (ṭǎb·bāḥ) was also an executioner. The same word could mean a butcher (HALOT, 368). Potiphar would have no qualms butchering any threat to Pharaoh. Our narrator sets up the tension with shades of horror.
We haven’t moved far from the brothers’ lie that an evil beast devoured Joseph (37:20, 33). To his family, he is lost: he is no more (42:13, 32, 36). But he’s not lost to God. A bigger hand oversees history, a sovereign more powerful than Pharoah, but a sovereign who does not use his power like Pharoah.
Here’s the hope: the Lord was with Joseph (39:2). Here’s the irony: the true sovereign is not in the palace with the king, but in the servant quarters with the slave. That is the hope of the oppressed world.
And Potiphar can see it: his master saw that the Lord was with Joseph (39:3). Potiphar would have worshipped many gods, trying to appease their anger and acquire their blessing. But Joseph’s God has brought a change of fortune to the household: the Lord blessed the household of the Egyptian because of Joseph. The blessing of the Lord was on everything Potiphar had (39:5).
How remarkable! Joseph looks anything but blessed: exiled from his people, enslaved to a foreign power. Joseph’s presence — more accurately, the divine presence with Joseph — brings blessing to Potiphar’s household. The seeds of God’s promise have begun to sprout in a foreign land (Genesis 12:2-3).
The God who brings blessing in oppression is made known in his people, in their suffering. The whole Scriptural narrative plays out this theme.
Potiphar’s sitting sweet, enjoying the blessing. The “butcher” has nothing to worry about beyond what to have for dinner. And Mrs Potiphar wouldn’t mind a taste of Joseph (39:6).
In patriarchal society, men eye off women. In this role-reversal story, the woman in power sizes up his well-formed, handsome physique, casting her eyes on Joseph (39:6-7). Is lust about having power over someone? Sexual harassment certainly is.
The slave has no power; he must do as the household orders. Rejecting her advances is more than a personal snub; it’s intolerable insolence. Joseph is caught on the horns of a dilemma: damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t.
Joseph tries to explain his refusal in terms that would be meaningful to her. a) He cannot betray the trust Potiphar has placed in him. b) He cannot violate the command of his God, implying that such a great evil would surely bring recompense instead of blessing (39:9).
The sexual harassment continues day after day (39:10). Eventually Mrs Potiphar gets her chance to put Joseph in his place. She grabs his cloak. He flees without it. She now has material evidence to present as if he undressed himself to rape her (39:13-15).
Guess who is believed? Justice is harder for the widow, the orphan, the foreigner without connections. People in power have more influence (39:16-18).
Power to destroy a life
It’s clear now that lust has very little to do with love, genuine love for another person. Mrs Potiphar sets out to destroy Joseph’s life. His brothers couldn’t kill him, but a trained killer burning with anger might butcher his slave (39:19). It’s touch and go.
Joseph is locked away in the most secure prison of the most powerful kingdom: the place where the king’s prisoners were confined (39:20). Political prisoners have no hope of release or escape. Joseph hasn’t died, but he has no life.
It’s an all too familiar story. The sexual predator goes on with life. The victim who is not believed is locked away for what’s left of their life.
God in prison
Imagine Joseph sitting in prison, retracing the downward spiral of his demise. A beloved son with dreams of reigning, betrayed and sold by his brothers, falsely accused as a slave, an incarcerated wretch in a political prison. There is no justice. Where is God when it hurts this much?
The narrator answers our unspoken question. While Joseph was there in the prison, the Lord was with him (39:20-21).
God did not prevent the injustice. Although the Lord is earth’s true sovereign, he did not prevent Pharaoh’s rule, Mrs Potiphar’s influence, or the evil intended by Israel’s sons.
God has a longer-term plan to rescue his world. It involves God being in prison with Joseph.
The whole arc of Scripture reveals God with us (Matthew 1:23), in the dark places (4:16), carrying our pain (8:17), our rejection (10:25), forcefully arrested (26:4, 55), falsely accused (26:59), unjustly condemned (27:26), mocked for his gentle authority (27:29), crucified by those in power (27:35). This is not how we expect God to use his power. God’s authority is restored to a world held by the powers of evil and death not by a war against evil but raising up his Son out of death, and all peoples in him (28:18).
If the Lord is with Joseph in prison, then in prison is where Joseph serves the Lord. It’s a strange temple, but the warden sees Joseph serving a higher power and receiving divine favour even in prison (39:21-22).
Despite everyone’s evil plans — his brothers’ treachery and Mrs Potiphar’s false testimony — we hear the key phrase of the chapter one more time in the final verse. It’s the hope of the world for every person in pain: the Lord was with Joseph (39:23).
Where is God in an unjust world? Not with the powerful who throw their weight around to take advantage of others. You see God with his suffering servant.
What others are saying
Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, Interpretation (Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1982), 316–317:
The affirmation that the Lord is with Joseph is made twice at the beginning and twice at the end. Three times the result of the formula of accompaniment is prosperity, success (vv. 2, 3, 23). In those flat, undeveloped assertions, everything is said that needs to be said. This affirmation is the decisive claim of the entire narrative. So far as this narrative is concerned, everything is explained. It is not claimed that because of Yahweh everything will work out. Nor is it promised that the key actor will be easily saved from trouble. But the narrator offers an understanding of reality that is an alternative to every imperial presupposition of control.
If you’re going through the mill, you need to know that the four-fold affirmation that the Lord was with Joseph is no isolated case. It’s the refrain all the way through Genesis, for all God’s people, in all their struggles, wherever they go:
- Genesis 21:20 God was with the boy as he grew up.
- Genesis 21:22 God is with you in everything you do.
- Genesis 24:40 The Lord, before whom I have walked faithfully, will send his angel with you and make your journey a success.
- Genesis 26:3 I will be with you and will bless you.
- Genesis 26:24 I am the God of your father Abraham. Do not be afraid, for I am with you.
- Genesis 26:28 We saw clearly that the Lord was with you.
- Genesis 28:15 I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.
- Genesis 31:3 Go back to the land of your fathers and to your relatives, and I will be with you.
- Genesis 31:5 … the God of my father has been with me.
- Genesis 35:3 I will build an altar to God, who answered me in the day of my distress and who has been with me wherever I have gone.