Reading through the Bible together
This chapter centers on a second temptress story not unlike the one in chapter 38. In chapter 38, Onan's sexual consumption of Tamar while avoiding assumption of full responsibilities sets a tone of sex viewed as primarily for personal pleasure and consumption. Judah's patronizing a prostitute further reinforces that ethos in the chapter. Ms. Potiphar appears to view sexual expression the same way. She "cast her eyes" on Joseph because he was "handsome and good looking" (vs 6-7) and this casting of eyes directly correlates to her open requests for recreational sex with Joseph. She is the older woman with burning desire for the younger man. She wishes to satiate herself on Joseph as Judah and Onan did with Tamar. But while Ms. Potiphar, Judah, and Onan exemplify the recreational approach to sex, Tamar was different. She was in it for a baby and heir, not for pleasure as such. But sex merely for procreation as a single woman, without establishing and maintaining the proper relational bonds sex was meant to occur–marriage--is still morally deficient.
Joseph's response to Ms. Potiphar is, in my opinion, the apex of a theology of sexuality in the Pentateuch, and perhaps all of scripture. We read in vs 8 that Ms. Potiphar propositioned him "day after day" (vs 10), perhaps one of the first recorded cases of sexual harassment in history. Joseph's moral reasoning in rebuttal is astounding. In vs 8-9 he argues that Potiphar totally trusted him. Nothing was withheld from Joseph and functionally, Potiphar was not greater in the household than Joseph. He builds his case by appealing to the moral duty not to violate Potiphar's trust. Thus when he gets to the clinching appeal, we expect him to say, "how can I do this great sin against Potiphar?" And that would have been excellent moral reasoning. Joseph, however, suddenly ups the ante by suddenly switching from Potiphar to God. How is this a sin against God?
In verse 9, Joseph reasons that Potiphar and he are equal in the household, except for ONE thing: Potiphar sleeps with Ms. Potiphar and Joseph does not. That one thing set Potiphar apart from Joseph. Joseph recognized this element as God's true ideal for sexual expression. Pleasure and babies are not the primary purpose for sexual expression. They are delightful bonuses. The purpose of sexual expression is to foster and maintain a sense of uniqueness between husband and wife. To yield to Ms. Potiphar's advances would not only violate her husband's trust in Joseph (and in her !) but would subvert the God-ordained uniqueness between husband and wife. I believe it is this theology of fostering marital uniqueness that leads Paul to assert that the husband and wife need to be regular in sexual expression with each other to avoid falling into temptation to commit sexual immorality (1 Cor 7:2-5). Joseph thus proves morally superior to Judah when faced with the same temptation. This is especially so in that Judah had nothing to lose by being moral, while as a slave, Joseph had no way to win by acting morally. And he indeed seems to lose, falsely accused of the very thing he argued so eloquently against.
Professor of Theology and Ethics
Southern Adventist University
Collegedale, Tennessee, USA