joseph’s stories are perhaps the most memorable with respect to the ten commandments. the story of joseph and potiphar’s wife evidences that the “actual” children of israel, as opposed to the “children of israel” who were at mt. sinai, were conscious of some of the commandments prior to their issuance. in other words, the ten commandments, when delivered, were not entirely foreign to the people.
the joseph story in the torah as to when he was the housekeeper for potiphar, goes as follows ‘so he[potiphar] left all that he had in joseph’s hand, and he knew nothing about what was with him except the bread that he ate; and joseph had handsome features and a beautiful complexion. now it came to pass after these events that his master’s wife lifted up her eyes to joseph, and she said, “lie with me.” but he refused, and he said to his master’s wife, “behold, with me my master knows nothing about anything in the house, and all he has he has given into my hand. in this house, there is no one greater than i, and he has not withheld anything from me except you, insofar as you are his wife. now how can i commit this great evil, and sin against god?” now it came about when she spoke to joseph day in and day out, that he did not obey her, to lie beside her [and] to be with her. and it came about on a certain day, that he came to the house to do his work, and none of the people of the house were there in the house. so she grabbed him by his garment, saying, “lie with me!” but he left his garment in her hand and fled and went outside. now it happened, when she saw that he had left his garment in her hand and had fled outside, that she called to the people of her house, and she spoke to them, saying, “look! he brought us a hebrew man to mock us. he came to me to lie with me, but i called loudly. and it happened that when he heard that i raised my voice and called out, he left his garment beside me, and he fled and went outside.” so she left his garment beside her, until his master came home. and she told him the same thing, saying, “the hebrew slave that you brought to us came to me to mock me. and it happened when i raised my voice and called out, that he left his garment beside me and fled outside.” now it came about when his master heard his wife’s report that she spoke to him, saying, “your slave did such things to me,” that his wrath burned. so joseph’s master took him and put him into prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were imprisoned, and he was there in the prison.”
from this story, we know that joseph, pre-ten commandments, was fully aware that adultery was against god’s law. likewise, joseph’s brothers, in sparing joseph’s life, were aware the prohibition against murder. thus, the ten commandments, in part, were known and practiced before they were handed down at mt. sinai. joseph’s action are noteworthy as he was one who did not have to weigh upon the commission of a sin. his moral stature was such that he recognized the sin and made it known that he would take no part of it. his actions show the moral evolution of mankind. adam and eve present humanity as knowing good and evil. knowing good and evil, however, does not translate into the practice of doing good and avoiding of evil. joseph’s action evidence mankind’s recognition of an evil act and its avoidance. he was one who followed a law and avoided sin. this concept may explain why the ten commandments does not include punishment. the goal of the commandments was for humanity to avoid the bad acts rather than commit and face punishment.
the story also offers the cautionary tale concerning lying. potiphar’s wife’s deceit, while mere words, in effect, imprisoned an innocent man. mere words have the power to incarcerate.
‘exodus 20:13 provides “you shall not commit adultery” and deuteronomy 5:17, provides the same “you shall not commit adultery.” thus, there is no difference between the two of note.
in sum, this remarkable story not only illustrates the ten commandments in action, it suggests that the ten commandments, in part, constituted earlier laws which were in effect and practiced. the story perhaps illustrates the master of the universes’ end goal, a humanity able to act appropriately with their knowledge of good and evil.
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