Did Potiphar Believe His Wife’s Story? (Genesis 39:20)

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Run a quick scan through Genesis 39, and the story seems straightforward. 

Joseph is sold to Potiphar and finds success. 

Potiphar trusts Joseph. 

Potiphar’s wife seduces Joseph.

Joseph refuses the seduction and is framed.

Joseph is thrown in prison.

But pump the brakes for a second. If you read between the lines, it seems there’s more happening here than we sometimes think.

For instance, the staccato nature of the Text implies that Potiphar buys his wife’s story hook, line, and sinker. He is, after all, “enraged.” And who wouldn’t be? If my wife came to me claiming that someone tried to rape her, I would throw the metaphorical book at him.

A second glance though through Genesis 39 reveals another possibility. Remember, Joseph and Potiphar have a great relationship — one that is built on immense trust between master and slave.

Also, notice that the the prison Potiphar throws Joseph in is the state prison, meant for political criminals and those who are classified as the “king’s prisoners” (Genesis 39:20). That type of facility is a far cry from the debtor’s prison, labor camp, or even a regular jail. Think of it more as the Bastille than the Gulag.

There’s also a bit of historical evidence to consider. According to the ancient laws of Egypt, rape against a married woman was punished by “emasculation.” Consensual adultery, which is what Potiphar’s wife wanted, was still punishable by 1000 blows to the male, and cutting of the nose of the woman.

Since neither of those happened to Joseph (that we know about), it’s very possible that Potiphar didn’t outright charge Joseph of what Mrs. Potiphar wanted. The only question is why.

Perhaps he wanted to avoid the scandal. This is, after all, why Joseph designed to “put Mary away secretly” (Matthew 1:19). That’s an honorable move for all and also preserves the man’s integrity.

Another option that seems possible at least is that Potiphar might not have fully believed Joseph was guilty. If he let Joseph manage all the affairs of his household, then assaulting his wife would be wildly out of character. It’s also possible that Potiphar suspected his wife was guilty of other dalliances as well.

Either way, Joseph ends up in prison because Potiphar can’t do nothing about the situation. He has to act, and his choice seems to be to give Joseph as light a sentence as humanly possible. Just one more piece of evidence to Joseph’s integrity.