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B'resheet/Genesis 39:7-8 And his master's wife lifted her eyes to Yosef and she said, "Lie with me." And he refused.
After being sold as a slave into Potiphar's household, Yosef has been promoted to the most senior position on staff. His quiet efficiency and - more importantly - the favour ofHaShem on him have so impressed Potiphar everything in the running of the house has been placed in his hands. He is still a slave, but perhaps life is starting to look a little better than might have been feared from the rather unpromising future to which his brothers consigned him. Then comes the affair of Potiphar's wife - but how and why did it happen? What could have led up to this?
In the previous verse, the Torah tells us, "Now Yosef was well built and handsome" (v. 6. JPS). The commentators make much more of this than a simple record of Yosef's physique. The Torah is usually very spare with its details of physical appearance, and the commentators want to know why this exception is being made. TheRamban starts by explaining that "the verse mentions this here in order to indicate that it was on account of his good looks that his master's wife cast her eyes upon him." But that's probably fairly obvious: Potiphar's wife wouldn't look at someone who was scrawny or weedy looking; it would take something good to turn her head. The Sforno adds: "because of his great beauty." Rashi goes a step further, claiming that "once [Yosef] saw himself ruling, he began to eat and drink and curl his hair. The Holy One, blessed is He, said, 'Your father is mourning and you curl your hair? I will provoke the bear against you!' Immediately, his master's wife cast her eyes, etc." Taking advantage of his position and status, Yosef could eat well, drink wine - in moderation, of course - and spend time on his personal appearance. With a little more weight on him than a typical slave might have, Yosef - who, we need to remember was in his late teens at this point - began to fill out and look like a man!
Nechama Leibowitz sums up the way the commentators look at the situation: "According to our Sages, Yosef was enamoured of the new life of luxury that he was living in Egypt, the country of wealth and culture, and his eyes were blinded to the unreal nature of the power that been places in his hands. He forgot his slavery and that he was a stranger amongst them, he forgot the spiritual chasm separating him as a son of Abraham and follower of his way of life from Egypt and its abominations, and began to become more attached to the values of his employer which the Torah describes at a later occasions in the following terms: 'You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt ... nor shall you follow their laws' (Vayikra 18:3, JPS)."
Getting back to the text, it is noticeable that we know almost nothing about Potiphar's wife. The text simply says, - the wife (literally 'woman') of his master. Nahum Sarna comments that "she remains nameless throughout the story. Her designation serves a dual purpose. It draws attention to Yosef's dilemma in antagonising someone so powerful, and it emphasises the inherent irony of the situation: She, the mistress of the house, is a slave to her lust for her husband's slave!" She lifts her eyes, - the Qal 3fs prefix form of the root , to list, raise or carry, with a vav-conversive prefix to indicate past-tense narrative sequence. Her words and command are sharp: "Lie with me!" Sarna again: "There are no verbal preliminaries, no expressions of love. Her peremptory mode of speech flows from her consciousness of Yosef's status as a slave. In no other biblical narrative does a woman brazenly proposition a man in this manner." This reminds us the adulterous woman described in Proverbs: "She is loud and wayward; her feet do not stay at home; now in the street, now in the market, and at every corner she lies in wait. She seizes him and kisses him, and with bold face she says to him ... 'Come, let us take our fill of love till morning; let us delight ourselves with love. For my husband is not at home'" (Proverbs 7:11-13,18-19, ESV).
Like many ancient cultures, sexual gratification was often part of the 'services' that Egyptian slaves were expected to provide, so in that sense, this was not either an unusual or unexpected demand. The temptation for Yosef is very sharp, very strong, very commanding. Tomb art from ancient Egypt suggests that aristocratic women would have dressed with their breasts exposed; Yosef could see the charms of the woman who was demanding his personal attention in this way. How did he resist? Gunther Plaut points out that the musical note shalshelet over the tone syllable in the first word in the next verse - , he refused - "was introduced in the text to indicate delay: The woman insisted again and again and Yosef refused again and again." This might reflect what is coming in a few verses: "And much as she coaxed Yosef day after day, he did not yield to her request to lie beside her, to be with her" (B'resheet 39:10, JPS). Perhaps it suggests that Yosef hesitated, that his youthful and manly drive nearly got the better of him. Some of the Sages claim that Yosef was about to satisfy both himself and his master's wife when he had a vision of his father urging him not to do it (B'resheet Rabbah 87:7).
Either way he refused and, ultimately, that refusal cost him his place in Potiphar's household. Yosef had been advanced to the highest of positions, but a miracle saves him - he is tempted, flinches back by (spiritual) instinct and is subsequently removed from the situation, thus being saved from further temptation and possible surrender to sin. His coming time in prison, where again he rises to be the senior staff member, shows that he has learned his lesson and is ready for the most senior staff position in Egypt - to Pharaoh himself.
Rav Sha'ul warns the Corinthians about temptation: "Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall" (1 Corinthians 10:12, ESV). Temptation is all around us - in society, in friends and family; any place, way or person that the enemy can use - and it can be very sharp, very strong, very commanding. How can we resist? Sha'ul goes on to explain that, "No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. G-d is faithful, and He will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation He will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it" (v. 13, ESV. Let us be very clear here; G-d will not allow us to be tempted beyond our ability to resist it. The excuse, "The Devil made me do it," doesn't work. He didn't and can't, no matter how much he bluffs and says that he can. He can and certainly will entice, plead, cajole and demand that you sin, but he can't make you. If you give in, that is because you chose to do it. You took your eye off the L-rd, you ignored the nudgings of the Ruach, you failed to take the escape route provided and get out of the situation. Sha'ul makes it very plain: "He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Yeshua the Messiah. G-d is faithful; by Him you were called into the fellowship of His Son, Yeshua the Messiah our Lord" (1 Corinthians 1:8-9, NRSV). G-d's plan is that we should be blameless and He has already provided everything we need to be that way. He is faithful; it is we who drop the ball.
So how does this work? Just like Yosef, James answers: "Submit yourselves therefore to G-d. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you" (James 4:7, ESV). Just say, 'No'. Tell the enemy to clear out. In submission to G-d, quoting His word as appropriate, claiming the authority of Yeshua's name, give the enemy his marching orders and he has to go. Full stop; no questions asked - although he'll try - he must go. Peter seems equally firm: "Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world" (1 Peter 5:8-9, ESV). We have to be on the lookout, and be in our right minds, so that we can detect what the enemy is doing. He will be hoping to pick us off in a moment of inattention or wool-gathering while we are distracted and push us into making a bad decision, acting rashly, saying something on the spur of the moment or just plain willfully sinning. Everyone gets challenged and tested; but everyone can say 'no'. Even Yeshua was not immune: "who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin" (Hebrews 4:15, ESV). He rejected the enemy in outright terms - "Be gone, Satan! For it is written ... Then the devil left him" (Matthew 4:10-11, ESV) - and so can we.
Further Study: Psalm 123:1-4; Ephesians 6:11; 2 Corinthians 2:10-11
Application: Do you find it difficult to resist temptation? Is it always a long drawn out struggle that you sometimes don't win? Now is the time to take a firm grip and resolve before G-d not to go there again. Avoid situations where you know you'll be tempted; call on Him and He will sustain you.
17:08 29Nov15 Tom Hiney: I was brought up to avoid what we called "occasions of sin". It's always a problem, but God does help. A combination of the "Imitation of Christ" by Thomas à Kempis and St. Therese of Lisieux's autobiograhy also help.'
© Jonathan Allen, 2015
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