The Scriptures record the lives of more than a hundred women whose names are never mentioned. Each one of them is a part of God’s Word because they have something important to teach us. Potiphar’s wife, in Genesis 39, teaches us how not to behave. Her life also demonstrates how God can use the most unusual situations to work out His plans and purposes for His people.

Her story starts with Joseph, the eleventh of Jacob’s twelve sons. Joseph is described as his father’s favorite (Gen. 37:3). This alone would have made an awkward home life for Joseph, but he also was given prophetic dreams from God which made his brothers resent him even more (Gen.37:5). As a result, Joseph’s siblings sold him into slavery while he was still a young man.

Joseph was taken to Egypt where he became a servant in the house of a man named Potiphar, a captain of the Egyptian guard (Gen. 39:1). The word “guard” means “executioner” or “butcher.” Potiphar was a powerful man whom his servants were careful to obey. After Joseph came to work for Potiphar, the household thrived because “the Lord made all that he (Joseph) did to prosper in his hand” (Gen. 39:3). Joseph proved himself to be a loyal, trustworthy servant and was eventually made the overseer of all that Potiphar owned. His master trusted Joseph so much he didn’t have to think about anything he owned except the food that was set in front of him (Gen. 39:6).

“And it came to pass after these things, that his master’s wife cast her eyes upon Joseph; and she said, ‘Lie with me’.” (Gen. 39:7). This is the first time Potiphar’s wife is mentioned and she certainly makes an impression as a very deliberate and bold woman. She is anything but subtle as she “cast her eyes” upon Joseph. That phrase can be translated “looked with desire.” Notice the timing of her attention to him. It was “after these things.” She really didn’t desire Joseph until after he had risen in rank and brought prosperity to her household. Only then did she notice that Joseph was a “goodly” or handsome person (Gen. 39:6).

Joseph refused her advances because his master trusted him completely, but most of all, because to “lie with her” would have been a “great wickedness, and sin against God” (Gen. 39:8-9).

Unfortunately, Potiphar’s wife was persistent. She would not take no for an answer. “And it came to pass, as she spoke to Joseph day by day, that he hearkened not unto her, to lie by her, or to be with her” (Gen. 39:10). In today’s workplace, this would be called sexual harassment. Of course, a slave in ancient Egypt had no rights or safeguards to protect him from such things. Joseph handled her advances in a tactful way. He “hearkened not.” He simply refused to listen to her enticing words.

Then, one day, as he went into the house to do his work, he found he was alone with his master’s wife. The Bible doesn’t specifically say, but it is easy to presume that Potiphar’s wife arranged for all the servants to be away from the house at that time. “And she caught him by his garment, saying, ‘Lie with me:’ and he left his garment in her hand, and fled, and got out” (Gen. 39:12).

Joseph handled the situation the way he should have: he fled. This is one of the ways Scripture tells us to respond to temptation. The Apostle Paul wrote in 2 Timothy 2:22, “Flee also youthful lusts, but follow after righteousness, faith, love, peace, with them that call on the Lord out of a pure heart.” That’s good instruction for all ages. We don’t have to be young to have youthful lusts. When faced with such temptation, we are to get away as quickly as possible (1 Cor. 6:18).

After being refused repeatedly, we might think that Poti-phar’s wife would give up. Now, because of her, Potiphar’s most trusted servant had left the household. She had to come up with a plausible explanation for his abrupt departure. She called to all the men of her house, saying, “… See, he hath brought in an Hebrew unto us to mock us; he came in unto me to lie with me, and I cried with a loud voice” (Gen. 39:14). In one breath, she lied about what had happened, blamed her husband, and made a racial slur against Joseph. She pointed her finger everywhere except where it should have been pointed.
She did something else that tells us a little about her character, too. “And she laid up his garment by her, until his lord came home” (Gen. 39:16). The word “laid” in this verse means asleep. She actually slept with Joseph’s garment next to her until her husband came home. Was this because she was genuinely obsessed with the young servant? Or could it be she was obsessed with getting revenge on him? She knew how much Potiphar valued and trusted Joseph. She was going to have to produce proof of her accusation, and Joseph’s garment was the only piece of evidence she had to back up her story. Either way, this does not paint her in a very good light.

When Potiphar returned home, she made her case against Joseph, and her husband had him thrown into the king’s prison. Remember, Potiphar was a butcher. It would have been very easy for him to have had Joseph executed. He may have spared Joseph because he knew the young slave’s character. It could be that the captain of the executioners had doubts about his wife’s story. Behavior such as hers is rarely an isolated thing. She was obviously a strong willed woman that liked to get her own way. More than likely she was a woman that frequently “cast her eyes” at good-looking young men. Otherwise, Potiphar may not have been so lenient to Joseph.

What does Potiphar’s wife teach us? Her life is an example of the person who is carnally minded, thoroughly given over to fleshly lusts. The Apostle Paul reminds us that, “…to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed, can be. So, then, they that are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8:6-8).

The result of her interaction with Joseph also reminds us how God works out His plans even through seemingly unfair and impossible circumstances. When we read the rest of Genesis we see that everything that happened to Joseph was part of God’s will. God placed Joseph in the right place at the right time. Years later, when Joseph is reunited with the brothers that sold him into slavery, he tells them, “God did send me before you to preserve life” (Gen.45:5). We are made to see all of this through the sinful actions of a woman that the Scripture never names.