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Deeper Commentary

Gen 39:1 Joseph was brought down to Egypt. Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh’s, the captain of the guard, an Egyptian, bought him from the hand of the Ishmaelites that had brought him down there- "Officer" is 'eunuch', which would explain his wife's sexual frustration. "Captain of the guard" is Heb. 'captain of the slaughterers'; he was in charge of execution. This raises the question as to why Potiphar didn't immediately have Joseph executed for trying to rape his wife; the fact he didn't makes us think that actually, he suspected she was lying and didn't want to kill Joseph, although he had to be seen as punishing him. The LXX gives "chief cook", which would mean that the presence of the butler and baker in prison was likewise at the hands of Potiphar. They would've all known each other, and surely the butler and baker knew Joseph to be innocent. There is also the possibility that the keeper of the prison was in fact Potiphar, if "captain of the guard" is correct.

The words Potiphar and Pharaoh are very similar; they both mean "the sun". As Joseph was subject to these men, he would have remembered his dream- that ultimately the sun would bow down to him. But his faith in that prophetic word was to be sorely tested.

Throughout the records of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and his children there is continual repetition in the manner in which the record is written. This repetition is of both experiences (e.g. lying concerning their wives: Gen. 12:13; 20:3,13; 26:7) and of the language used to describe those experiences. Gen. 39:1- 8 provides an example of this: "Joseph was brought down to Egypt... the Ishmealites, which had brought him down thither... down to Egypt" (Gen. 37:25). "The Lord was with Joseph...and his master saw that the Lord was with him". "His master the Egyptian... his master". "Joseph... was a prosperous man... the Lord made all that he did to prosper". Potiphar "made him overseer over his house... from the time that he had made him overseer in his house". "All that he had he put into his hand...over all that he had... the blessing of the Lord was upon all that he had... he left all that he had in Joseph's hand". "His hand... into his hand... Joseph's hand... to my hand". This kind of linguistic device suggests that the Spirit in Genesis is inviting us to observe the development of theme and to note emphasis, realizing that God likewise works according to patterns in our lives.

 

Gen 39:2 Yahweh was with Joseph, and he was a prosperous man. He was in the house of his master the Egyptian- "The Egyptian" (:1) is stressed because if the Hyksos dynasty were then ruling Egypt, they were not Egyptian but closer to the Semitic peoples of Canaan; and it was an unusual for an Egyptian to be in such a position of power. But the idea is that the promises to Abraham began to be fulfilled in a primary sense, in that a Gentile family was blessed for the sake of the seed of Abraham. "Prosperous" is s.w. used about Daniel and his friends prospering in captivity in Babylon (Dan. 3:30 6:28); and there are clearly intended parallels between Joseph and Daniel, both being called to interpret dreams and then suddenly promoted. Again we see a continuity in God's dealings with men, which we should also discern between our lives and those of Biblical characters or other contemporary believers we know.


Gen 39:3 His master saw that Yahweh was with him, and that Yahweh made all that he did prosper in his hand- All this is language appropriate to the Lord Jesus, whom Joseph pointed forward to. For Yahweh was "with" Him supremely and prospered His "hand" (Jn. 16:32; Acts 10:38 cp. Acts 7:9). It is really stressed that Yahweh "was with" Joseph (:2,3,21,23; Acts 7:9). Yahweh was likewise "with" Abraham through making a covenant "with" him (Gen. 15:18 s.w.); Yahweh being personally "with" Abraham's seed is a major part of the promise (Gen. 28:20).


Gen 39:4 Joseph found favour in his sight- Just as the Lord grew in grace or favour with God and man (Lk. 2:52).

He ministered to him, and he made him overseer over his house, and all that he had he put into his hand- "Overseer" is s.w. Gen. 40:4, where in prison Joseph is given the oversight of the other prisoners. I suggested on Gen. 37:2 that when he was a teenager, Jacob had put his entire flock under Joseph and made him the religious head of the family with status of the firstborn after Reuben's demotion. He was to have the situation repeat when in prison, and then under Pharaoh. Situations repeat within our lives too, each one preparing us for another. With Jacob, Potiphar and in prison, each exaltation led to a dramatic demotion or a sudden end; and this prepared Joseph not to be proud when exalted under Pharaoh. He would've thought "And how long is this exaltation going to last?". Because he was humble, that final exaltation lasted for the rest of his life. But each exaltation was so that he might serve others (or the sheep, in the first case).


Gen 39:5 It happened from the time that he made him overseer in his house, and over all that he had, that Yahweh blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake; and the blessing of Yahweh was on all that he had, in the house and in the field- This blessing was a primary fulfilment of the promise of blessing through the seed of Abraham, who would "be a blessing" (Gen. 12:2,3). Joseph may have reflected that the same had happened to Laban's house due to the presence there of his father Jacob. The same Hebrew words are used: "Yahweh has blessed me for your sake" (Gen. 30:27). We should be on the look out for the primary fulfilment of the new covenant blessings in our lives too.

Gen 39:6 He left all that he had in Joseph’s hand. He didn’t concern himself with anything, except for the food which he ate- This confirms what we later learn in the history, that Egyptians would not eat with Hebrews (Gen. 43:32). The Biblical record meshes together perfectly.

Joseph was well-built and handsome- "Joseph was a goodly person, and well favoured" clearly means he was good-looking (like his mother, Gen. 29:17 s.w., grandmother and great-grandmother). The record seems to stress that the family was good looking. Perhaps this gives another angle on an old chestnut: Was the Lord Jesus Christ good looking and handsome as the Son of God, or weak and ugly as the suffering servant? On the cross, "his visage was so marred more than any man... there is no beauty that we should desire him... despised... we hid as it were our faces from him" (Is. 52:14; 53:2-4). Yet Joseph was strong and good looking, pleasing in the eyes of men (and women). So may we suggest that the Lord too was naturally strong and attractive, but he lost this due to the mental trauma of his life, resulting in his repulsive physical appearance as he hung on the cross.

There is an undoubted link between sexuality and spirituality (witness the typical meaning of the Song of Solomon). The Hebrew text of Gen. 39:6,7 suggests that it was Joseph's spiritually attractive personality that mesmerized Potiphar's wife; and what good living, socially aloof Christian office worker has not experienced the attention this attracts from colleagues of the opposite sex?

 

Gen 39:7 It happened after these things- Joseph came to Potiphar when 17, and was 30 when he was exalted before Pharaoh (Gen. 41:46 cp. Gen. 41:1), so he may have been in his early or mid 20s. He contrasts favourably with Judah, who at that age married a Canaanite and lived immorally (see on Gen. 38:6).

That his master’s wife cast her eyes on Joseph; and she said, Lie with me- The Egyptian tale of Anat tempting Aqhat is similar in outline terms to Potiphar's wife tempting Joseph; as the god Khnum hides a precious object in grain, so does Joseph; the Egyptian fertility deities were gods of dreams and associated with the stars; they are at times slain by wild animals and their blood stained clothes presented as evidence (Documented in Donald Redford, The Biblical Story of Joseph (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1970) p. 100; W.F. Albright, From the Stone Age to Christianity (Oxford: O.U.P., 1957) p. 241; A. Jeremias, The Old Testament in the Light of the Ancient East (London: Williams & Norgate, 1911) Vol. 2 p. 64). Having lived several generations in Egypt, the Israelites for whom Moses was composing Genesis would've been aware of these myths. And Moses is clearly referring to them- and applying them to a real, historical person, an Israelite, who had lived 400 years previously.

Gen 39:8 But he refused, and said to his master’s wife, Behold, my master doesn’t know what is with me in the house, and he has put all that he has into my hand- There may be a play on the word "know" being a euphemism for the sexual act. And Joseph may have had in mind that although his earthly master didn't know what was going on, God as his heavenly master did.


Gen 39:9 He isn’t greater in this house than I, neither 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?- David confessed that he had sinned against God (Ps. 51:4), using the very language of faithful Joseph who refused ongoing temptation with these words (Gen. 39:9). Could this not imply that Bathsheba wife of Uriah was similar to Potiphar’s wife?  Joseph is unashamed to tell this secular woman that he believes in God, and that it is axiomatic to being a believer in God that he would not do "great wickedness"; and sin against  another person is sin against God. Such a view of the gods was unheard of amongst the idolaters, who had little concept of sin in a moral sense. This same phrase is used about the "great wickedness" of marriage to unbelievers in Neh. 13:27; and yet we will soon read that Joseph does this.


Gen 39:10 As she spoke to Joseph day by day, he didn’t listen to her, to lie by her, or to be with her- This is the more commendable as Joseph was in his mid 20s (see on :7) and so far as we know had not had the chance of sexual experience although being so handsome. The preceding Gen. 38 has recorded the various sexual sins of Judah and his family; Joseph is presented here as the parade example of avoiding and resisting sexual temptation whatever the consequences. "day by day". The contrast is intentional; and Joseph's attitude is the more outstanding because he came from a family where these values were not modelled to him by his older siblings.


Gen 39:11 About this time- Heb. 'On that day', or 'On this day'. The impression is given that this was not a fateful day, as many would see it; but rather the day chosen by God in His wider, longer plan. Only by reading the Joseph story to the end do we appreciate this.

He went into the house to do his work, and there were none of the men of the house inside- Doubtless set up by the woman.


Gen 39:12 She caught him by his garment, saying, Lie with me! He left his garment in her hand, and ran outside- Joseph running for the door is the visual image picked up in the New Testament and held before us as an example: "Flee fornication" (1 Cor. 6:18); "flee youthful lusts" (2 Tim. 2:22). Potiphar's wife is therefore set up as the embodiment of our own lusts. To have done this she must have been totally obsessed and infatuated. As with the likes of Delilah, we wonder what a miserable life she lived after this incident until she came to her Godless, bitter and unfulfilled last breath.


Gen 39:13 When she saw that he had left his garment in her hand, and had run outside- Joseph lost his garment before he went into the pit and before he went to prison; Pharaoh dressed him in one, just as Jacob had done, and probably this garment was a sign of his being the house manager and had been given him by Potiphar. Situations repeated, as they do in our lives. 


Gen 39:14 She called to the men of her house, and spoke to them, saying, Behold, he has brought in a Hebrew to us to mock us. He came in to me to lie with me, and I cried with a loud voice- The record has the ring of truth to it- for infatuation turns to hatred in a moment (as in 2 Sam. 13:14,15). The way she speaks of her husband as "he", and suggests Potiphar had intentionally sought to mock her by putting a handsome young man under her nose... all suggests she did not have a good relationship with him. And again, there is a psychological credibility to the entire record, of a kind which is not found in uninspired histories of the time, all of which feature gross exaggerations which are not credible if they are a strictly accurate retelling of history. The Hebrew for "mock" is used in a distinctly sexual sense in Gen. 26:8 and Ex. 32:6. "To mock us" may imply she claimed Joseph had sexual designs on others too.


Gen 39:15 It happened, when he heard that I lifted up my voice and cried, that he left his garment by me, and ran outside- She repeats her statement word for word in :18. This repeating a story word for word is a clear indication that it has been fabricated. Her story lacked credibility anyway. If there were no other men in the house at the time, he need not have run outside. He was still on the premises when Potiphar came home and there is no record of him seeking to flee. To leave his garment with her would seem foolish of him, if he were guilty. And what evidence is an outer garment anyway, in this context? On examination, her story was fake. But it is perfectly credible that this is the kind of thing an infatuated woman would do when firmly turned down. The whole account has the ring of truth and credibility to it; these words were indeed spoken by this woman, and the whole thing is no myth nor garbled folklore, but the specifically inspired and recorded word of God.


Gen 39:16 She laid up his garment by her, until his master came home- We are left to imagine Joseph's feelings as he awaited the return of his master. The record draws us in to the events so that we enter into the feelings.


Gen 39:17 She spoke to him according to these words, saying, The Hebrew servant, whom you have brought to us, came in to me to mock me- She cannot resist putting the blame upon her husband; see on :14. This fits exactly with the situation of the frustrated wife in a dead marriage which the record describes. And so we can confidently believe that we are reading words which were actually spoken in a house in Egypt millennia ago. The Hebrew for "mock" is used in a distinctly sexual sense in Gen. 26:8 and Ex. 32:6.


Gen 39:18 And it happened, as I lifted up my voice and cried, that he left his garment by me, and ran outside- She repeats word for word her prepared statement which she first made to the other male servants; see on :15. This exact word for word repetition of the statement is exactly what we would expect from someone who has fabricated a story.

Gen 39:19 It happened, when his master heard the words of his wife, which she spoke to him, saying, This is what your servant did to me, that his wrath was kindled- It may be significant that it is not stated that his wrath was with Joseph. He could have been angry at her statement that your servant did this to me, putting so much guilt upon Potiphar. Perhaps it was with his wife, as he could see through the whole story. This would explain why Joseph was not killed but "only" imprisoned, when death would have been the usual punishment. Indeed a case can be made that this Potiphar was also the captain of the guard who managed the prison, and it was his daughter whom Joseph later married (see on Gen. 41:45. There was therefore this man Potiphar who was hanging around in Joseph's life, clearly used by providence. And why do we have to as it were read between the lines of the record to make this connection? Because that is how providence works, subtle rather than direct and 'in your face'. Joseph would have realized that clearly God's hand was at work with him. As he stood as a nervous 17 year old in a slave market in Egypt... it was all of God's grace and plan that he was bought by Potiphar or one of his servants. But it took him many years to perceive this. And the same can be said of events in our lives.

Joseph was being encouraged to see that the butler and baker were in a similar position to himself. They too had been thrown into prison and suffered the wrath of their lord for no reason (Gen. 40:1,2); both Potiphar and Pharaoh are called 'Lord' (Gen. 39:16; 40:1). They too were given dreams which came true, and one of them was exalted as promised in his dream- to encourage Joseph that his dreams would likewise ultimately come true.

Gen 39:20 Joseph’s master took him, and put him into the prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were bound, and he was there in custody- Heb. "the round house", perhaps the Tower of Heliopolis. Joseph in prison was typical of the Lord's death. Ps. 105:17-23 is the Spirit's commentary upon the sufferings of Joseph: "He (God) sent a man before them, even Joseph, who was sold for a servant; whose feet they hurt with fetters; he was laid in iron: until the time that his word came: the word of the Lord tried him... Israel also came into Egypt". In the context of the Psalm, God is comforting Israel that all their sufferings had been experienced by Joseph. His descent into prison, just like our humiliations, was part of being Divinely "sent", although it would hardly have appeared like that at the time. Our tendency is to focus on the injustice, rather than to accept the Divine hand, even if we cannot immediately attach meaning to event. Israel as a nation are often spoken of as being in prison in a Gentile world (Ps. 79:11; 102:20; Is. 42:7,22; 49:9); just as Joseph was. Prison and death are often associated because a spell in prison was effectively a death sentence, so bad were the conditions. Israel being in prison is therefore a symbol of a living death. On the cross, the Lord was the great, supreme prisoner (Ps. 69:33- this is an intensive plural, referring to a singular great prisoner). Like Joseph, He went through all the emotions of the prisoner; the shame, depression, introspection, struggle with issues of injustice and the removal of freedom. As Israel were comforted in their living death by the fact that there was an individual in the past who had gone through all they were going through as a group; so the new Israel ought to take comfort together in contemplating the experiences of the Lord. He bore our communal sorrows, injustices, griefs and sins; this is why we as a community rather than purely as individuals need to be bound together in remembering Him.

"In custody" could suggest a temporary holding until the case was considered; the fact he remained there some years without trial would again indicate that Potiphar [who perhaps was also the chief of the prison] chose as it were not to prosecute. We see the similarities with Joseph being in the pit in limbo, whilst Reuben and Judah sought to rescue him; and we wonder whether Potiphar was doing the same.

Gen 39:21 But Yahweh was with Joseph, and showed kindness to him, and gave him favour in the sight of the keeper of the prison- Chesed, "kindness", is a term often associated with the fulfilment of the promises to the fathers. It was on account of them that even in prison, Joseph was sustained. This favour in the eyes of the prison manager was what he had experienced with Potiphar, and we again wonder whether the keeper of the prison was in fact Potiphar. The way God made the eyes or view of the prison keeper gracious toward Joseph is a reflection of how God showed Joseph grace or favour; the Hebrew words for "kindness" and "favour" are related. We see here how the gift ['grace'] of God can be revealed through giving people an attitude of mind, a new pair of eyes; and this is the gift of the Spirit in the New Testament.

Gen 39:22 The keeper of the prison committed to Joseph’s hand all the prisoners who were in the prison. Whatever they did there, he was responsible for it- The similarities are clear with how Potiphar had treated him, and how Pharaoh would later treat him. Joseph had to pass through these two experiences and see them come to an abrupt end, so that he was prepared for the responsibility given him by Pharaoh, and to accept it with humility, suspecting all his life that this period would likewise come to an end in a Divinely controlled moment. We think of how Moses led a flock of sheep in the Sinai desert for 40 years to prepare him to lead Yahweh's flock of people in that same desert 40 years. We too can discern phases in our lives, preparing us for ever heavier responsibilities, and always seeking to educate us against pride and to make us totally dependent upon the Father rather than the flesh.


Gen 39:23 The keeper of the prison didn’t look after anything that was under his hand, because Yahweh was with him; and that which he did, Yahweh made it prosper- As noted on :22, this is exactly the language used of his prospering under Potiphar and later under Pharaoh. The Hebrew for "prosper" is used several times in the record of God prospering the plan to take a believing wife for Isaac (Gen. 24:21,40,42,56). If our heart is set on the things of the covenant, the Abrahamic promises, then somehow all will prosper. The ultimate prospering of that purpose is through the work of the Lord Jesus on the cross and in our final salvation (s.w. Is. 53:10; Is. 48:15). But there is continually the evidence that that final prosperity is experienced to some degree now, even whilst we suffer injustice and the loss of freedom in life which Joseph did at this time.