Potiphar’s Choice

A Sermon by the Rev. James P. Cooper

So it was, when his master heard the words which his wife spoke to him, saying, “Your servant did to me after this manner,” that his anger was aroused. (GEN 39:19)

The story of Joseph’s brothers coldly deciding to kill him, and his subsequently being sold as a slave into Egypt by Midianites is one that is basically familiar to nearly everyone. And, unlike many of the stories of Genesis, except for the common confusion about whether Joseph was sold by Ishmaelites or Midianites, most people have an accurate picture of what the Word actually says.

(The Hebrew has some ambiguous pronouns that make it hard for scholars and translators to know for sure whether it was Joseph’s brothers, the Midianites, or the Ishmaelites that pulled Joseph out of the pit and sold him into slavery. The Arcana, however, is quite emphatic that it was the Midianites who sold him into slavery because of what they represent in the story – but that’s a subject more suited to a doctrinal class.)

Today, our focus is on the situation in Potiphar’s house after Joseph got there. The elements of the literal story are simple. Potiphar trusts Joseph and give him total control of his house. It would be safe to assume that it was not what we mean by a “house” today – it was more along the lines of a European manor house, or a Southern plantation – a farm with large fields producing a variety of crops, many different kinds of animals, a variety of employees, and lots of labourers to do the work. This is a position requiring a great deal of managerial skill, and authority.

Potiphar, freed from his daily labours by Joseph’s competence, goes about his business as he pleases, leaving all the work and the worry to Joseph. His wife, unfortunately for everyone, is attracted to Joseph and repeatedly attempts to seduce him, eventually leading to the incident where she grabs his clothing and he flees leaving it behind. Potiphar’s wife then loudly and falsely accuses him of improper behaviour towards her, and heightens the tension of the situation by adding the element of the racial hatred that the Egyptians held towards the Hebrews. However interesting and real all this may be, the Heavenly Doctrine tells us that there is no reason for recording these events except for the sake of the internal sense, the level of the Word that communicates with angels in heaven.

AC 4989:2 That these things are signified cannot be seen so long as the mind or thought is kept in the historicals; for then nothing is thought of but Joseph, Potiphar’s wife, and the flight of Joseph when he had left his garment. But if the mind or thought were kept in those things which are signified by Joseph, by Potiphar’s wife, and by a garment, it would then be perceived that some unlawful spiritual conjunction is here described; and the mind or thought can be kept in the things which are signified, provided it is believed that the historic Word is Divine, not from the mere history, but from the fact that within the history there is what is spiritual and Divine....

Stepping back from the sense of the letter so as to be able to see the spiritual life within, we are reminded of this core teaching from the 2nd lesson:

Joseph came to Egypt, where first of all he served in the house of Potiphar, the chief of the attendants, then was held in custody, and after that was made the governor over Egypt, so that the way might be represented in which the Lord by progressive stages made the Human within Himself Divine.... (AC 5307:3)

We also know from the Heavenly Doctrine that each of the major characters in the Old Testament – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Joshua, and Elijah to name a few – all represent the Lord in one way or another, but each of them represents a different quality of the Divine, or a different stage in the process of His glorification (See AC 5307:2)

Returning our focus to this particular part of the story, we find that Potiphar, his wife, and Joseph all represent different aspects of the Lord’s mind as He went through the process of Glorification. Because Potiphar and His wife are Egyptians, they have the general representation of things that are on the natural level of the mind. Because they are a married couple, they represent the way that good and truths are conjoined on the natural level: Potiphar representing natural truth, and his wife representing natural good (See AC 4989).

On the other hand, Joseph represents that quality of the Lord which is called “the celestial of the spiritual deriving from the rational” (AC 5307:2). The Writings explain this state of mind by saying “the celestial is good received from the Divine, the spiritual is truth received from that good, making it the truth of good received from His Divine Human” (AC 5307:2).

Although there are higher planes in the mind, the rational is the highest degree that is opened while we live in the body. The spiritual degree exists in potential, and passes influx from heaven through itself into the rational, but the spiritual degree cannot be opened and consciously used while the soul lives in the material body. The same thing was true for the Lord when He was in the world and living in a material body – the rational was the highest plane of the mind opened. However, unlike the rest of us, the influx coming into His rational degree was Divine Good itself, taking the form of spiritual truth. Or, “the celestial of the spiritual deriving from the rational”.

So, thinking about this story from the point of view of the Glorification series, when Potiphar’s wife grabs hold of Joseph’s garment, it represents what happens when there is a strong desire for something that is on the natural, material level, and it seeks to justify itself by some kind of elevated rational thought. After all, we seldom get our way just by saying “I want that thing because I want it and it will make me happy to have it.” Instead, we have to figure out a way to show that the old one is worn out and about to need expensive repairs, or that acquiring a new one will improve life in some way. So, the desire for some natural pleasure or delight, Potiphar’s wife, reaches out for a justification on a higher level than that of her husband. But the laws of the spiritual world prohibit a conjunction between a natural affection and a spiritual truth, and so she is only able to touch Joseph’s garment – that part of the spiritual truth represented by Joseph that is most external. The difference between Joseph and his garment may be illustrated by thinking about the difference between ideas and the words that express them. We can use holy words, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the ideas they express are holy.

What happens next is when the natural affection is prevented from conjoining itself to rational truth, its true nature is revealed. The desire for delight becomes anger and hatred, and it calls “false” what is true. It reveals that when people think from what is natural rather than from what is rational and spiritual, the true order is inverted.

AC 5013 That a “Hebrew man” here is a servant, is chiefly for the reason that those who are in truth and good natural not spiritual, who are here represented by Potiphar and his wife, regard spiritual truth and good, which is represented by Joseph, no otherwise than as a servant; for in both life and doctrine they are in inverted order, because with them the natural rules and the spiritual serves; when yet it is according to order that the spiritual should rule and the natural serve; for the spiritual is prior, interior, and higher, and nearer the Divine; while the natural is posterior, exterior, and lower, and more remote from the Divine… That natural men regard spiritual things as subservient, was also represented by the Egyptians regarding the Hebrews no otherwise than as servants; for by the Egyptians were represented those who are in natural knowledge and who therefore are natural, but by the Hebrews, those who are of the church and are therefore relatively spiritual....

On the level of the Lord’s Glorification, this incident describes how while the Lord was in the world He was tempted from time to time by natural delights, and was even tempted to justify giving in to those desire by using rational arguments. However, the Divine Good, flowing in through His rational, sustained Him through these temptations, and although it seemed difficult at the time, He was separated from the states represented by Potiphar and His wife, and that the separation came through temptations that made Him feel for a time as if He were in prison. But, as we know, He overcame even that.

Finally, dropping back from the Glorification series to the practical application of the Regenerative series, we can take what we have learned about the Lord’s spiritual life and apply it to our own situations.

Again, we need to remember that all the characters in the story represents elements in our own minds. But, since most of us are in a material body living in the natural world, let’s look at the story from Potiphar’s point of view this time, thinking specifically about the part of the story where Potiphar is confronted with making a decision between his wife’s accusations and his knowledge of Joseph’s character.

Potiphar represents our state of mind when we are trying to make an important decision. On the one hand there are strong affections and desires from the proprium (his wife). On the other hand there are truths from the Word which serve or minds to help us make good choices, to keep our mental houses in order (Joseph).

Potiphar finds himself confronting a situation where he has his love of truth from the Word on one hand in conflict with the loves of his proprium on the other. Which way does he go? He, for some reason we can only guess at, goes with his proprial desires over truth from the Word. We don’t hear about Potiphar again, but we can easily imagine that by choosing his wife, he has lost the peace and order that he had when he allowed Joseph to organize his life.

We all face this choice, to some degree or another, all the time. Simply put, when faced with an important life decision, do we do what we want to do, or what we know we ought to do? There is strong affection for both. The Lord has gifted us with an affection for truth, an ability to be affected by it when we hear it. That’s why Joseph was so quickly accepted into Potiphar’s home, and so quickly rose to power there. It’s easy for us to recognize and love truth from the Word when we hear it.

What about the wife? The proprium wants to lead, not be led. The proprium is jealous of the affection for truth. The proprium wants to destroy it. First, it appears to want to be conjoined with it – to make it seem as if the delights of new truths are from itself – but when the conjunction cannot be established because they are different kinds of love, because it is forbidden by the order of the universe, the proprium acts to destroy what it cannot control. It lies! It screams for help as if it has been attacked when it is in fact the attacker. It reaches down for insults and slurs: “Are you going to let this Hebrew mock us?” And Potiphar is unable to let go of the proprium in order to follow truth from the Word. He does not, according to the record of scripture, even ask Joseph to explain himself. He simply makes a choice to keep the proprium and lock the truth away in prison.

Fortunately, that’s not the end of the story. Joseph does get out of prison. We can only hope for Potiphar’s sake that this means that when the heat of the moment has passed that Potiphar continues to reflect on what has happened and eventually comes to the place where Joseph can leave prison and once again come into his life and lead it, this time as the leader of all Egypt.

Joseph in Potiphar’s house is a small part of a larger story, and yet it contains with it so much information about the Lord’s life on earth, and the struggles that we face in our own life as we try to find the right path to heaven. It is given to us by the Lord to give us hope, to show us by example that we have to face temptations in order to move from being natural to being rational and eventually spiritual. It helps us understand something about the Lord’s humanity when we see that we share similar temptations. And it helps us to know that He understands what we face in making life-changing decisions, for it gives us the confidence to know that He is gently leading us in the right way and in the right direction so that we may eventually overcome the things of this world and find ourselves gifted with a new, heavenly proprium that makes making heavenly choices delightful.

This then is the Lord’s promise or covenant revealed by the spiritual sense of this story: when you make a conscious choice to be led by the Lord in His Word instead of being led by the delights of the loves of self and the world, He will be with you. And because the LORD [is with you,] whatever [you do], the LORD [will make] it prosper (GEN 39:23). Amen.



Hear now the Word of the Lord as it is written in …

First Lesson: GEN 39

Now Joseph had been taken down to Egypt. And Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, captain of the guard, an Egyptian, bought him from the Ishmaelites who had taken him down there. {2} The LORD was with Joseph, and he was a successful man; and he was in the house of his master the Egyptian. {3} And his master saw that the LORD was with him and that the LORD made all he did to prosper in his hand. {4} So Joseph found favour in his sight, and served him. Then he made him overseer of his house, and all that he had he put under his authority. {5} So it was, from the time that he had made him overseer of his house and all that he had, that the LORD blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake; and the blessing of the LORD was on all that he had in the house and in the field. {6} Thus he left all that he had in Joseph’s hand, and he did not know what he had except for the bread which he ate. Now Joseph was handsome in form and appearance. {7} And it came to pass after these things that his master’s wife cast longing eyes on Joseph, and she said, “Lie with me.” {8} But he refused and said to his master’s wife, “Look, my master does not know what is with me in the house, and he has committed all that he has to my hand. {9} “There is no one greater in this house than I, nor has he kept back anything from me but you, because you are his wife. How then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” {10} So it was, as she spoke to Joseph day by day, that he did not heed her, to lie with her or to be with her. {11} But it happened about this time, when Joseph went into the house to do his work, and none of the men of the house was inside, {12} that she caught him by his garment, saying, “Lie with me.” But he left his garment in her hand, and fled and ran outside. {13} And so it was, when she saw that he had left his garment in her hand and fled outside, {14} that she called to the men of her house and spoke to them, saying, “See, he has brought in to us a Hebrew to mock us. He came in to me to lie with me, and I cried out with a loud voice. {15} “And it happened, when he heard that I lifted my voice and cried out, that he left his garment with me, and fled and went outside.” {16} So she kept his garment with her until his master came home. {17} Then she spoke to him with words like these, saying, “The Hebrew servant whom you brought to us came in to me to mock me; {18} “so it happened, as I lifted my voice and cried out, that he left his garment with me and fled outside.” {19} So it was, when his master heard the words which his wife spoke to him, saying, “Your servant did to me after this manner,” that his anger was aroused. {20} Then Joseph’s master took him and put him into the prison, a place where the king’s prisoners were confined. And he was there in the prison. {21} But the LORD was with Joseph and showed him mercy, and He gave him favour in the sight of the keeper of the prison. {22} And the keeper of the prison committed to Joseph’s hand all the prisoners who were in the prison; whatever they did there, it was his doing. {23} The keeper of the prison did not look into anything that was under Joseph’s authority, because the LORD was with him; and whatever he did, the LORD made it prosper. Amen.

Second Lesson: AC 5307:3

Nothing more specific can be stated regarding this arcanum than the following: Joseph came to Egypt, where first of all he served in the house of Potiphar, the chief of the attendants, then was held in custody, and after that was made the governor over Egypt, so that the way might be represented in which the Lord by progressive stages made the Human within Himself Divine, and so that all this might be written about in a Word that would contain matters of a Divine nature in its internal sense. This sense was intended to serve angels primarily, whose wisdom - which is beyond understanding or description when compared with human wisdom - is concerned with such Divine matters. It was intended at the same time to serve men who prefer historical to any other descriptions, in which, as men turn such descriptions over in their minds, angels can perceive - through an influx from the Lord - the matters of a Divine nature. Amen.

Here end the lessons. Blessed are they who hear the Word of God and keep it. Amen.