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B'resheet/Genesis 39:9 And how should I do this great evil; should I sin against G-d?
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The wife of Potiphar, whomRashi likens to a bear because she had no shame in her demands, has been pestering Yosef that he should have sexual relations with her. In an ancient slave-owning culture, this was not necessarily an unusual event, slaves were often treated as sexual objects; the text might be hinting at this when it describes the behaviour of Potiphar's wife: "And it came about after these events that his master's wife looked with desire at Joseph, and she said, 'Lie with me.'" (39:7, NASB) - just a command, without any pretence at relationship. Nahum_Sarna points out that Yosef responds with a three-tier argument: firstly, that it would be a breach of the trust between Potiphar - his master - and himself; secondly, that it would be a violation of the husband's proprietory rights over his wife; and, thirdly, that it would be a religious offence against G-d - a great evil in His sight. As we know from the story, Potiphar's wife is not impressed by Yosef's arguments and continues to importune him, finally taking revenge by accusing him of attempting to instigate the sexual activity!
Targum Onkelos, in its relentless campaign to remove anthropomorphisms, translates the verb "sin against" as "be guilty before" lest it should appear that any human action can actually directly impact or offend G-d. Onkelos also changes the name of G-d at the end of the verse from Elohim to the tetra-grammaton; this serves to remove any possibility that a reader might suppose that there was a plural deity; this happens 31 times in B'resheet alone, including the first creation narrative 1:1-2:4. Oddly, in this verse, that change serves to hide an important part of Yosef's speech - Yosef uses the name Elohim for G-d rather than the tetra-grammaton because he is talking to an Egyptian who would not have known whom he was talking about had he used the personal covenant name of Adonai. The general Egyptian attitude to the G-d of the Hebrews can be seen from Pharoah's response to Moshe when the latter first comes before Pharoah to present Adonai's demand that he let the Israelites go: "Pharaoh said, 'Who is the L-RD that I should obey His voice to let Israel go? I do not know the L-RD, and besides, I will not let Israel go.'" (Shemot 5:2, NASB).
TheSforno is interested in the words - this great evil or wickedness; he paraphrases this as "repaying good with evil". Yosef is conscious that Potiphar has been very good to him, trusting him with all the affairs of his household, so that he is able to enjoy position and status within that establishment; as a slave he is entitled to nothing, but with G-d's hand upon him, he has been granted his master's favour and trust. For Yosef to now have sexual relations - even at her instigation - with Potiphar's wife, the one thing in the household that had not been given into his care would be repaying his master's goodness with evil; to quote a modern aphorism: biting the hand that feeds him.
Rashi is bothered that this incident occurs before the Torah has been given to the Israelites and that nowhere in the book of B'resheet so far has an explicit command been given that would make the act of Yosef having sexual relations with Potiphar's wife, at her command, however unwise in human terms, a great sin before G-d. G-d appears to assume that men know that this is so in the story of Avraham and Sarah in Gerar when "G-d came to Abimelech in a dream of the night, and said to him, 'Behold, you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is married.'" (B'resheet 20:3, NASB). To explain this, Rashi references the Talmud (b. Sanhedrin 56a), where the Sages list the seven Noachide commandments; the commandment against sexual immorality and unfaithfulness, either married or unmarried (adultery or fornication) is derived from the instructions for marriage given to Adam and Eve: "For this cause a man shall leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and they shall become one flesh" (B'resheet 2:24, NASB). Certainly the instructions given to Noach to "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth" (B'resheet 9:1, NASB) are going to be difficult in the face of human jealousy and hurt that naturally spring from improper sexual conduct and infidelity. The rabbis consider the Noachide commandments to be binding upon all humanity, as descendants of Noach.
The detailed prohibition against and definition of sexual sins are outlined in Vayikra chapter 23 and repeated later in the Torah; they are binding upon Jews. The New Covenant Scriptures also carry that command forward explicitly for Gentile believers; the account of the Jerusalem Council records in both versions - the original minutes of the meeting and the letter written to the Gentiles afterwards - that sexual immorality was forbidden for Gentiles as one of the essential basics for fellowship between Jews and Gentiles: "For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials: that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication; if you keep yourselves free from such things, you will do well" (Acts 15:28-29, NASB) and see also the original minute in verse 20. Yeshua also linked adultery with other sins when he told the story about the Pharisee and the tax-collector: "The Pharisee stood and was praying thus to himself, 'G-d, I thank Thee that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax-gatherer'" (Luke 18:11, NASB). Indeed, according to Rav Sha'ul, sexual sin prohibits entry to the kingdom of heaven: "Or do you not know that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of G-d? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals ..." (1 Corinthians 6:9, NASB).
Physical adultery is also an important spiritual type for spiritual adultery and the same rules apply to us as believers if we are unfaithful in our relationship with the L-rd. Worshipping other gods, be that a formal religious experience, dabbling with fortune telling or the horoscope in a newspaper, an obsession with sport - playing or watching - or becoming a work-aholic, inevitably leads to relationship breakdown between us and G-d. Just as fornication - sexual activity before marriage - damages the people involved, so that they then enter marriage with memories, fantasies and expectations that do not involve their marriage partner, so people who mess about with the occult, horoscopes and the false religions will have to spend some time straightening out their relationship with G-d once they get to know Him. Yeshua's words, "You have heard that our fathers were told, 'Do not commit adultery.' But I tell you that a man who even looks at a woman with the purpose of lusting after her has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Matthew 5:27-28, CJB), certainly apply to human sexual relationships but also apply to sins such as covetousness, envy and jealousy; they take our eyes off Yeshua and cause us to put something else - our neighbour's car, a football game, a certain salary - before Him and we become a slave to that lust, dishonouring Him. Perhaps this is the link that Rav Shaul sees: "Saying, 'Thou shalt not commit adultery,' do you commit adultery? Detesting idols, do you commit idolatrous acts?" (Romans 2:22, CJB).
Just as Yosef recoiled from the sin of committing adultery with his master's wife, even in a culture and society where this was often the norm, and despite her bidding, so we too need to flee from both physical and spiritual adultery. We must remain faithful to our G-d and be scrupulous to avoid falling into idolatry, allowing something or someone else to come between us and G-d. We must not repay His goodness with evil.
Further Study: Hebrews 13:4; James 2:11
Application: If you have become aware that you are involved in an improper relationship, with a member of the opposite sex, or with an object or desire that has become an obsession in your life, now would be an excellent time to flee from it and return wholeheartedly to G-d. You may find it useful to discuss this with your partner or a trusted spiritual friend or leader who can help you to restore your relationship with G-d and to hold you accountable for maintaining your distance and staying clear of such temptations in future.
© Jonathan Allen, 2008
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