The woman’s proposition was anything but subtle. Brazen and bold, she knew how to get a man’s attention. “Lie with me,” Potiphar’s wife said to Joseph.
We read that in English. Moses wrote it in Hebrew. She spoke it in Egyptian. But I’d call that direct in any language.
Pretend for a moment we don’t know Joseph’s response. Think instead of the situation in which he found himself. His brothers had sold him as a slave in Egypt. He lived as a lonely stranger in a strange land. He enjoyed few pleasures, if any. He had zero spiritual encouragement or accountability. And there she stood.
About the same time, back home, Joseph’s brother Judah departed from his family to live with Canaanites. After his wife died, Judah’s vulnerability found him in an impulsive moment of weakness facing the temptation of a prostitute. There she stood.
Both Joseph and Judah had suffered loss without consolation. Neither had any godly influence or accountability. Each man faced temptation by a woman who offered illicit and secret intimacy. And yet both brothers had immediate—and opposite—responses.
Judah purchased solace for his grief through the exhilaration of forbidden fruit. He used sex as a sedative for a disappointing life. Potiphar’s wife tried to do the same when she tempted Joseph. But Joseph, unlike his brother, flatly snubbed her advances.
Just because Joseph remained faithful doesn’t mean his temptation proved any easier than Judah’s. Joseph grew up in the same family and had the same natural desires, but he chose a different path. God’s grace opened Joseph’s eyes to the larger effects of self-gratification. He refused to gratify himself, because he understood: even if no one else sees, God sees. Joseph viewed the pleasure of sex as an act within the broader context of walking with God, a physical expression of the spiritual life. Joseph’s denial of Potiphar’s wife was not a denial of his sexuality, but an affirmation of it.
A Simple Command: Flee!
When Mrs. Potiphar, in growing desperation, finally grabbed Joseph by his clothes, he showed no hesitation: “But he left his cloak in her hand and ran out of the house” (Gen. 39:12). Joseph modeled a principle the rest of Scripture affirms: Never stand toe to toe against sexual temptation. That’s too close. Never try to analyze how safe it is. God’s Word has already done that for us and gives us a simple command: flee! (See 1 Cor. 6:18.)
Our fleeing reveals not frailty, but evidence of a resolute focus. Paul wrote: “Flee the evil desires of youth and pursue righteousness” (2 Tim. 2:22). By doing one we do the other.
As Joseph discovered, purity demands a ruthless, daily, moment-by-moment commitment. Joseph had said no with his mind long before he said no with his words and actions. He predetermined—day after day—he would live a pure life. He established patterns of behavior that helped him to succeed, refusing to listen to the temptress or even to be with her. Joseph made the decision he did because he knew he had a master on earth and a God in heaven, both of whom would hold him accountable.
As God’s servants, we must decide ahead of time that we will refuse sin when it tempts. If we fail to choose how we will respond, we likely will fail to respond well.
Thousands of literary structural markers appear in the Hebrew Old Testament, and we find some significant ones in Joseph’s and Judah’s stories. Most notably, as the account of Joseph’s temptation by Potiphar’s wife unfolds, the Hebrew text accentuates the moment when she kept Joseph’s garment—to “lie beside her.” Why would that phrase prove so significant? Because the previous story’s emphasis is on the statement that Judah lay with Tamar. These two emphases stand as in stark contrast. They arrest our attention for good reasons. The Bible urges us to compare these brothers.
Looking for Shortcuts
Our waiting on God for satisfaction extends far beyond sexual purity to our entire walk with God. Every sin we commit represents a failure to wait on the Lord. Try to think of an exception. Sin begins in the mind, where we choose a shortcut to joy, fulfillment, or relief. In moments of unguarded vulnerability, we will—like Judah—relinquish our integrity, thinking the prize is worth the fallout. We want our lives to have now what God has withheld—whatever that represents—and having waited on God long enough, we feel entitled.
Yet another part of our heart isn’t so earthy. Its motivations find their passion and absolute delight in everything that is God. This part of our lives comes from the Spirit of God who lives within us, blessing us with the natural outworking of his nature. When we surrender to his control, we find our lives portraying his character of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Both the pull toward evil and the pull toward good war within the Christian, remaining diametrically opposed to each other. One is an impulse; the other, a decision. One offers what is immediate but temporary; the other, what is delayed but eternal. One makes our heart long for the here and now; the other makes our heart ache for the next life. This tension ends only when life does.
The selfish part of us refuses to wait on God and trust God’s timing. It wants God to act immediately. But do we really want our desires to dictate what God does? If we knew what God knows, we would choose to wait on the Lord. God the Creator made his creatures to live in dependence on Him. Dependence demands waiting. Refusing to wait and insisting on instant gratification, even for good things, minimizes and overlooks the infinite worth of God’s sovereignty—a perspective that sees beyond the next five minutes. Or the next five decades.
With Us in the Waiting
God often keeps quiet about why he allows what he allows and withholds what he holds back in our lives. Although God can handle all of our questions, we cannot handle all of his answers. To quote a Jack Nicholson character, “You can’t handle the truth!” Only eternity will reveal how often God’s best answer to us was to say nothing.
But the Lord does promise his presence—meeting a need far greater than our understanding of why. Whatever God might keep from us, He will never keep himself away. Never.
When we suffer pain, if we fail to run to God for comfort, we will turn elsewhere for consolation, distraction, or satisfaction—and find none of it.
That’s what Judah did. But that’s what Joseph refused to do. Joseph chose to see his life through God’s eyes, not his own. Joseph chose to wait on God.
What will you choose?