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Genesis 39:3-12 Notes

Gen. 39:3-12, 19-21 Notes

Genesis 39 Commentary

Chapter thirty-nine picks up where chapter thirty-seven left off. We read in Ch. 37:36 "Meanwhile, the Midianites sold Joseph in Egypt to Potiphar, one of Pharaoh's officials, the captain of the guard." And here "Now Joseph had been taken down to Egypt. Potiphar, an Egyptian who was one of Pharaoh's officials, the captain of the guard, bought him from the Ishmaelites who had taken him there."

"The captain of the guard" supposedly means that Potiphar was Pharaoh's chief executioners. The Hebrew word for "official" is the same that is used for eunuch. Thomas Mann, in his book "Joseph in Egypt," makes an important issue of this fact, mainly in relation to the temptation that Potiphar's wife puts in Joseph's way. It makes a very fascinating story, whether it is historically correct, I do not know. The Pulpit Commentary says that literally the text reads "a man of Mitzraim" and that this would indicate that Potiphar was actually a foreigner. The Jamieson, Faucet and Brown Commentary adds to this: "This name, Potiphar, signifies one 'devoted to the sun,' the local deity of On or Heliopolis, a circumstance which fixes the place of his residence in the Delta, the district of Egypt bordering on Canaan."

The most striking feature in this chapter and the following is Joseph's attitude. He would have all kinds of reason to be upset about his circumstances. We would understand it if he would turn his back on God. Nobody had more reason to feel miserable than Joseph. In just a few days he became from his father's favorite a slave, a non-entity. His freedom and his human rights had been taken away from him. But Joseph does not show any sign of being dejected. The beauty of his character shines through the most miserable circumstances. His reaction to his suffering makes him one of the most beautiful characters of the whole Bible. We read in vs. 6 "Now Joseph was well-built and handsome." His inner condition matched his outward appearance. It is a combination rarely found. Joseph presents thus a good picture of the perfect human being: Jesus Christ.

God is very sympathetic with our difficult circumstances, but He is even more interested in our reaction toward our difficulties. God is closest to us when we suffer. He reaches out to us and He wants us to reach out to him. C. S. Lewis has said: "God whispers to us in our pleasures, He speaks to us in our circumstances, but He shouts to us in our pain." Joseph must have maintained a close fellowship with the Lord. As the pain increased he was drawn even closer to Him. He must have realized that the Lord's hand was in these painful experiences. He had not forgotten the two dreams and he felt that, somehow, this was the way to the fulfillment of the dreams. In all this Joseph foreshadowed Jesus, of Whom we read in Heb. 2:10 "In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering."

Joseph had taken Paul's advice in Col. 3:23 to heart - "Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men." This must have been the motto of Joseph's life. He considered himself a slave of the Lord, not of Potiphar and later a prisoner of God not of man.

When Joseph arrives in Egypt he is at the bottom of the ladder, a slave, sold in captivity. But soon he starts to rise. We see several stages in Joseph's climb. The first one is that he is moved into Potiphar's house. He may have worked outside at first, but we do not know. The credit for Joseph's success is given to the Lord. Whether Potiphar recognized this or not is not said, but verse 3 implies that Joseph must have told him his secret. "When his master saw that the LORD was with him and that the LORD gave him success in everything he did. Joseph's presence in Potiphar's house was a blessing and caused blessings. We do not know exactly what took place, but things started to run smoother as soon as Joseph put his hand on them. Not only was Joseph an intelligent administrator, but even matters that were beyond his control started flourishing. Joseph's positive attitude inspired the other servants, so that everybody worked harder and better. Joseph did it for the Lord, the others for Joseph. Potiphar's affairs were taken care off so efficiently and smoothly that Potiphar even stopped meddling in them. If Joseph had the gift of administration, Potiphar had the gift of delegation. Both gifts are equally valuable. Some people give the impression that they are the only ones who can do things right. To express confidence in fellow workers and be able to let go is a gift. It is the principle upon which the functioning of the body of Christ is based. It is a Christian virtue. Joseph not only had the spirit of Christ, he also inspired Christian virtues in others.

The drawback of the position Joseph acquired was that the attention of Potiphar's wife was drawn to this handsome young man. If it is true that Potiphar was a eunuch, we understand some of the frustration of Mrs. Potiphar, who had to live with a unconsummated marriage. If castration was the rule for all who worked at the palace of Pharaoh, Joseph must have been aware of the situation. In the earlier mentioned book by Thomas Mann, Joseph is portrayed as responding, at least in part, almost naively, to the courtship by this woman. The Scriptures give no bases for this supposition.

That Joseph as, a healthy youth, would be severely tempted on this point is beyond doubt. It would have been so easy for him to give in. Nobody would have to know, but God. That was the point of Joseph defense. "How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?" The devil knows the weak points in everyone's life, whether man or woman, young or old. The only effective way to resist temptation is to appeal to God. Self-restraint on the basis of will power is no guarantee to sexual purity. But God is able to keep us from stumbling. I am sure that if Joseph would have given in, he would never have married a princess a few years later. There was a rich reward for this shepherd boy.

Although Joseph was victorious, the devil did not admit defeat. Whether Satan had any inkling of God's plan with Joseph's life, we do not know. It is quite possible that Joseph would never have made it to Pharaoh's court if he had fallen into this sin. That would have meant disaster. Humanly speaking the line of God's revelation in this world would have been cut. So Joseph's determination to remain pure meets with severe opposition in the heavenly places. Evidently the temptation was a daily occurrence. But once the circumstances were such that Mrs. Potiphar could incriminate her husband's slave. They were alone in the house. Joseph flees, but he has to leave his cloak behind. This becomes evidence in the hands of this evil woman to take revenge upon the boy, who refused to stoop.

Augustine, who had lead an immoral life before his conversion, recounts that once he met one of his former girls. The temptation to go back into sin was almost irresistible to him, so he ran away from it. Sometimes the only defense we have is to run. Joseph did no doubt the right thing. He had argued with the mistress of the house before, but there comes a point where words become useless. However, the cloak gets him in even deeper trouble.

From the action Mrs. Potiphar takes at this point we understand that her sexual desire had nothing to do with love for Joseph. If ever there had been love it had turned to hatred. She trumps up charges against him and, of course, Joseph was defenseless on the basis of his position as a slave. First the servants of the house are told what happened and then Potiphar himself. Vs. 16 paints a vivid picture of this woman. We do not need much imagination to see the glee on her face as she sits there with Joseph's shirt in her hands, waiting for her husband to return. We read: "She kept his cloak beside her until his master came home." When he hears her version, we read: "He burned with anger." If it is true that Potiphar was in fact a eunuch his wife's accusation of Joseph must have added insult to injury to Potiphar. This rubbed it in to him how impotent he was.

Probably his wife understood this and this must have added to her satisfaction.

We could be amazed to read in vs. 20 "Joseph's master took him and put him in prison, the place where the king's prisoners were confined." Potiphar, being the kings executioner, could easily have put Joseph to death. It is likely though, that he would have needed Pharaoh's approval for this, which would have meant that he would have to serve a formal complaint, explaining the details and exposing his own condition. We understand why Potiphar shrunk from this embarrassment. It was easier to just imprison Joseph. The main reason why Joseph was not executed was, of course, because the Lord protected him. The prison was God's way for Joseph the Pharaoh's court.

The Pulpit Commentary says about vs. 20 - "This, which some regard as having been a mild punishment, ... since, according to Diodorus Siculus, the laws of the Egyptians were specially severe in their penalties for offences against women, is presented by a Hebrew psalmist (Ps. cv. 18) [which reads: "They bruised his feet with shackles, his neck was put in irons" {quote added}] as having been accompanied with bodily tortures, at least for a time; for his speedy elevation to a place of trust within prison almost gives countenance to the idea ... that Potiphar did not believe his wife's story, and only incarcerated Joseph for the sake of appearances. That Joseph was not immediately punished with death is not improbably ..., but exceedingly natural, since Joseph was Potiphar's favorite."

So Joseph arrived from the "smoke into the smother," from slavery into imprisonment. We do not read anything about Joseph's despondency at this point. Being human, however, we may suppose that victory will not have come easily to him. He must have asked "Why God?" several times. His dreams probably came back to him, first to bother him and then to comfort. The question must have arisen how imprisonment could be the way to fulfillment of the prophecies God had given him. Slowly but surely the assurance got a hold of him that the promise of the dream still held, that the dreams had been given for the specific reason to see him through this time of his life. And so, as the darkness closed in around him, his light started to shine brighter.

Vs. 20 and 21 tell us: "But while Joseph was there in the prison, The LORD was with him; he showed him kindness and granted him favor in the eyes of the prison warden." God is compassionate. Our suffering affects Him deeply. His tears are bigger than ours are. Of course, Joseph suffered in the dungeon. The idea that circumstances would not have affected him is ridiculous. The point is that emotional stability should not be based on favorable circumstances, but on the promises of God. We should fix our eye upon the light of God's Word, as Joseph did, and not upon the darkness that surrounds us.

Joseph fellowship with God affected his attitude and behavior. If this had not been the case the prison warden would not have paid any special attention to him. Prison wardens are not known for their compassionate attitudes; I am not excluding some exceptions. But there must have been something very unusual about Joseph to draw the attention of the jailer. Christian should stand out in this world because of their attitude in suffering. I know many examples of Christians who led fellow patients to the Lord in the hospital, because of the way to took their sickness. Prisoners have given testimony to jailers and the songs of the martyrs, who were burned at the stake, brought more people to Christ than their sermons. The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. "In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven." (Matt. 5:16)

It runs as a refrain through Joseph's life, that he was given responsibility to the point where those who put him in charge never bothered to check up on him. He inspired complete trust. First Potiphar, then the warden and finally Pharaoh trusted Joseph one hundred percent. Joseph gave the impression that he was good, but not too good to be true. The warden must have known what prisoners were like. Whether he knew why Joseph was put in prison, we do not know, but he knew that there must have been a reason. However, at some point the jailer must have come to the conclusion that whatever accusation had been made, it must have been false. If the warden had been convinced that Joseph had slipped seriously, he would never have trusted the responsibility for the prisoners to him. At that time too, jailers were probably accountable with their lives for the prisoners they held. In entrusting Joseph with the prisoners, the warden entrusted his own life to him. The chapter ends in vs. 23 with the words: "The warden paid no attention to anything under Joseph's care, because the LORD was with Joseph and gave him success in whatever he did." Here too it is obvious to a heathen man that behind this human being is the Lord, who is trustworthy. Whether the jailer knew it or not, in trusting Joseph he actually trusted God.

The Results of Righteousness-Promotion and Prison - (39:1-18) - Deffenbaugh

A brief look at the chronology of Joseph's life will enable us to gain a better grasp of what takes place in this chapter. When Joseph was sold by his brothers he was 17 (37:2). At the time he was elevated to a position of power by Pharaoh, he was 30 (41:46). Thirteen years thus elapsed between his arrival in Egypt and his promotion to the second highest office in the land. Furthermore, we know that two years passed from the time the chief cupbearer was restored to his former position by the Pharaoh (41:1). That leaves us with eleven years that Joseph was either in the house of Potiphar or in the prison. Joseph's rise to power was therefore not achieved quickly or easily.  Now Joseph had been taken down to Egypt; and Potiphar, an Egyptian officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the bodyguard, bought him from the Ishmaelites, who had taken him down there. And the LORD was with Joseph, so he became a successful man. And he was in the house of his master the Egyptian. Now his master saw that the LORD was with him and how the LORD caused all that he did to prosper in his hand. So Joseph found favor in his sight, and became his personal servant; and he made him overseer over his house, and all that he owned he put in his charge. And it come about that from the time he made him overseer in his house, and over all that he owned, the LORD blessed the Egyptian's house on account of Joseph; thus the LORD's blessing was upon all that he owned, in the house and in the field. So he left everything he owned in Joseph's charge; and with him around he did not concern himself with anything except the food which he ate (Genesis 39:1-6a).

From these first six verses we can determine a sequence of events which culminated in Joseph's promotion to the second highest position of power in Potiphar's household. Joseph was a shepherd, so it would have been natural for him to begin his "career" in the fields of Potiphar. His success would first have been observed by his master there. Good reports reached the ears of Potiphar, who then brought him into his house (verse 2). Now, under the watchful eye of his master, the administrative skills of this Hebrew shepherd boy were even more apparent.

Potiphar not only observed that Joseph was a valuable employee, but also he discerned that his effectiveness was due to his relationship with his God (verse 3). Joseph had to have revealed his Hebrew origins from the beginning (cf. also verse 14), as well as his own faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. While he could have taken all of the credit for his unusual abilities, Joseph gave the glory to God. I do not think that Potiphar discerned this from his religious sensitivity44 but from Joseph's clear and consistent testimony. While no one would have ever guessed that Judah was blessed of God (cf. chapter 38), Joseph's life was one that brought glory to God. Obedience and purity give glory to God in a way that disobedience and immorality cannot.

Potiphar was wise enough to recognize the extraordinary ability of Joseph. Under his supervision more and more authority was given to this Hebrew. Not only did God bless the areas over which Joseph was given authority, but Potiphar was blessed in proportion to the authority he gave Joseph. Eventually, Potiphar made Joseph his administrative assistant and gave him full charge over every facet of his enterprise. Potiphar was wise enough to stay out of Joseph's way and let him handle virtually everything, save the food which he ate and the woman he had taken as his wife.

This gradual rise to power over a number of years was not unrelated to the test he was to face in the person of Potiphar's wife. Had Joseph not proven himself to be such a capable leader, she would hardly have acknowledged his existence. And had he not come to such a position of power in Potiphar's house, his temptation would have been inconceivable.

Now Joseph was handsome in form and appearance. And it come about after these events that his master's wife looked with desire at Joseph, and she said, "Lie with me." But he refused and said to his master's wife, "Behold, with me around, my master does not concern himself with anything in the house, and he has put all that he owns in my charge. There is no one greater in this house than I, and he has withheld nothing from me except you, because you are his wife. How then could I do this great evil, and sin against God?" And it come about as she spoke to Joseph day after day, that he did not listen to her to lie beside her, or be with her. Now it happened one day that he went into the house to do his work, and none of the men of the household was there inside. And she caught him by his garment, saying, "Lie with me!" And he left his garment in her hand and fled, and went outside (Genesis 39:6b-12).

Jacob was a physically attractive young man. Interestingly, the same description of Joseph is used with reference to his mother also (cf. 29:17). But his good looks were not the only reason why he caught the eye of Potiphar's wife. (Incidentally, do you notice that this woman, like the wife of Judah, is never named?) It was "after these events" (verse 7), namely Joseph's rise to power and position, that the physical attractiveness of Joseph registered with this woman. There is little chance that she would have had any interest in a slave, a mere hired hand. But a man who had great leadership abilities and good looks-well, that was something else. The text indicates that it was over a period of some time that this woman came to the conclusion she must have him.

Joseph probably had his "office" inside the house of Potiphar. He now had the authority to come and go wherever and whenever he pleased. He had constant and ready access to the house of Potiphar. We should not go too far afield if we were to assume that Potiphar was often away from home (cf. 39:16). After all, he held an important position under Pharaoh, and with a capable administrator like Joseph, why should he concern himself with matters at home?

It was inevitable that contact with Potiphar's wife would be more frequent and under more private conditions. More and more, this woman began to capitalize on this. Finally, she brazenly propositioned him (verse 7). From then on she hounded him, probably engineering opportunities to entice him and persistently trying to break down his resistance.

The temptation of Joseph is strikingly parallel to the test of Adam and Eve in the garden. They had free use of everything in the garden, save the fruit of one tree. So Joseph had access to anything of Potiphar's except his wife. But while the forbidden fruit just hung there tempting Adam and Eve, Potiphar's wife actively pursued Joseph.

Joseph dealt with this persistent pursuit in three stages. First, he endeavored to reason with the woman. He explained to her that he had come to a position not only of power, but also of privilege and trust. To possess his master's wife and satisfy his own personal desires was to violate the sacred trust which was committed to him. Furthermore, she was a married woman, and as such their relationship would be adulterous. For both of these reasons the act which Potiphar's wife proposed was one that would be a great sin against God.

But Potiphar's wife was in no reasonable mood. She cared little for Joseph's logic, and so Joseph had to continually resist her advances. Even her requests which sought to bring the two in closer contact were refused. It appears that at times she appealed to him only to be near her, but Joseph knew all too well that she wanted more, and even this would be inappropriate. He was not responsible to meet either her emotional or physical needs, which were the concern only of her husband.45

Finally, Joseph had to run from her. Day after day she sought to break down his defenses. In fact, she may have been spurred on by his resistance, for this made him even more of a challenge. Always before there had been someone about, it seems, but at last they were alone, hardly an accident I would think. At least there were no men about (verse 11).

I doubt that anyone who worked as a domestic in Potiphar's house was ignorant of their mistress' intentions toward Joseph. It does not appear that she cared whether they knew or not, for she daily hounded him. But when they were alone, she must have thought that Joseph would now be persuaded. Was he not resisting because he was afraid of the consequences of being caught? Who would know now? And so she boldly grasped him by his garment and pled with him.

This was no time to reason with the woman. It was not a time to "pray about it" or to meditate. The only godly course of action was to flee from her. This Joseph did by slipping out of his garment and leaving it in her grasp. Hurriedly, Joseph went outside where one would suppose there were others about and no further advances could be made.

As is often the case, the passion of love can quickly turn to hate (cf. II Samuel 13:15). The garment left behind by Joseph was still in the hands of Potiphar's wife, who hastily devised a plan to make him regret his resistance.

When she saw that he had left his garment in her hand, and had fled outside, she called to the men of her household, and said to them, "See, he has brought in a Hebrew to us to make sport of us; he came in to me to lie with me, and I screamed. And it come about when he heard that I raised my voice and screamed, that he left his garment beside me and fled, and went outside." So she left his garment beside her until his master came home. Then she spoke to him with these words, "The Hebrew slave, whom you brought to us, came in to me to make sport of me; and it happened as I raised my voice and screamed, that he left his garment beside me and fled outside" (Genesis 39:13-18).

Calling the men of the household, whose absence had precipitated her final pass at Joseph, she accused him of attempting to rape her. Not only did she appeal to the emotional reaction that such a crime would bring, but she also highlighted the fact that this "attack" was by a detested foreigner, a Hebrew (verse 14, cf. 43:32; 46:34). Because no one had been about, she could claim to have screamed, which no one could have heard from such a distance. This explains why the "attack" occurred with no apparent cries for help. The scream she falsely reported did explain the garment of Joseph in her hands, however, for she alleged that when she cried out it frightened Joseph so that he left his garment and fled.

It was truly a story worthy of this woman. There is no record of any response on the part of those to whom she told this tale, those who all were under the authority of Joseph. Personally, I doubt that any of them believed her account. Day after day they had observed her giving him the eye (verse 10), but never had he acted inappropriately toward her. Indeed, the only talk of the hired hands may have been about how Joseph avoided her and how some of them were compelled to accompany him into the house.

The response of the other slaves did not really matter, though, for they were no more inclined to report to Potiphar about his wife's misconduct than was Joseph. Neither were they willing to take Joseph's side and deny the account of this woman when her husband returned. What husband would not burn with anger and indignation if told this story?

Now it came about when his master heard the words of his wife, which she spoke to him, saying, "This is what your slave did to me"; that his anger burned. So Joseph's master took him and put him into the jail, the place where the king's prisoners were confined; and he was there in the jail. But the LORD was with Joseph and extended kindness to him, and gave him favor in the sight of the chief jailer. And the chief jailer committed to Joseph's charge all the prisoners who were in the jail; so that whatever was done there, he was responsible for it. The chief jailer did not supervise anything under Joseph's charge because the LORD was with him; and whatever he did, the LORD made to prosper (Genesis 39:19-23).

Potiphar's response was predictable. A slave, a Hebrew slave no less, had attempted to violate his wife. Naturally Potiphar was angered beyond words. Joseph is not said to have been questioned, but even if he were, the truth would be harder to bear than the accusation against this slave. If not touched with some sense of compassion, it must at least have troubled Potiphar to have to imprison such a valuable employee, for much of what he possessed was the result of Joseph's service.

Certainly, Potiphar's punishment of Joseph is not nearly as severe as we would have expected. As "captain of the bodyguard" (verse 1), he must have had authority to execute criminals. Such a crime as rape, attempted by a foreigner, must have been considered worthy of death. Instead, Potiphar cast him into "the" prison, the place where political prisoners were confined (verse 20). The word for this jail is unique, suggesting that there is something of particular interest here.46

Taken together we know that Joseph was imprisoned in a house which belonged to the "captain of the bodyguard" (40:3), and we know this captain to be Potiphar (39:1). Finally, Joseph is said to have been in confinement "in his master's house" (40:7). Where else could the prison be but in Potiphar's house?

This would certainly fit the details of the story as Moses recorded it. First, it explains why the place of confinement was called "the" jail (verse 20); it was the jail that was located on the premises of Potiphar's estate. It also explains why the chief jailer so quickly placed matters under Joseph's charge. Joseph was a man well known to the chief jailer if our suggestion is correct. Finally, it is consistent with the doubts that Potiphar may have had concerning the truthfulness of his wife's accusations. Even if he did believe his wife, Potiphar could continue to benefit from Joseph's uncanny abilities if he confined him in the prison that was found in his own house.

Joseph, so far as I can tell, was thus demoted. He was banned from the penthouse and bound in the prison. He went from the top floor to the basement. And if that is the way it was, I can visualize Potiphar going down to Joseph each day to discuss the stock market, the economic conditions of the country, and all of the areas which used to be under Joseph's direct control. Now he was only a consultant.

Conclusion: The conclusion is undeniable: God is present as much with His saints when they are suffering as when they are peacefully prospering. More than this, a man can prosper as much in times of affliction as in times of affluence and ease. God does not grow hot-house Christians. He causes our roots to grow deep in the soil of adversity in order that we may better know and serve Him.48

We might expect Joseph to be cast into Potiphar's prison if he had committed some terrible sin, but the reason for his captivity was his moral purity. It was because he would not go to bed with Potiphar's wife that he was wrongly accused and condemned. Righteous living does not always bring about flower-strewn pathways; often it brings about the opposite. Joseph's experience is only one example of this. 




39:1 "Potiphar" This name, in Egyptian, seems to mean "he who the sun god gives" (BDB 806). He is mentioned in Gen. 37:36. A similar feminine name (i.e., Potiphera, BDB 806) is seen later in Gen. 41:45,50; 46:20.

▣ "an Egyptian officer" Many commentators have assumed that the Pharaoh who put Joseph in charge of Egypt was of the Hyksos or shepherd kings rulers (1720-1550 B.C., see History Channel Video: The Exodus Decoded). These Semitic invaders controlled Egypt for several hundred years. They assert that the reason this officer is identified as an Egyptian (cf. v. 2) was in contradistinction to a Semitic Hyksos ruler.

▣ "officer" Literally this means a "eunuch" (see note at 37:36). However, because of 40:2 we understand that Potiphar was married. It is true that some physically castrated men were married, but it is not the norm. This term came to be used as simply the title for a court official and that seems to be the way it is used in this passage.

▣ "Pharaoh" This is the title for all the Egyptian kings (BDB 829, lit. "great house"). The Egyptian kings were believed to be the sons of the sun god, Re. The "great house" is a reference to the royal palace or temple complex which represented the earthly abode of the Egyptian gods.

▣ "the bodyguard" Literally this means "slaughterer" or "butcher" (see note at 37:36). Some have asserted that it is very similar to the term executioner. However, its usage, in both the Bible and in extra-Biblical material, seems to involve a military position connected to the royal guard. This would have meant that Potiphar was a very important, influential, and wealthy man.


39:2 "the Lord was with Joseph" It is theologically significant that this is one of the rare occurrences of the term YHWH in this section of Genesis. As a matter of fact it is the only occurrence in the account concerning Joseph. Also note it is speaking of events outside of Canaan. YHWH is not limited to the Promised Land (cf. Stephen's sermon in Acts 7).

The phrase "the Lord was with Joseph" occurs repeatedly (cf. 39:3,21,23) in this chapter and the blessings which accrue to him because of this become the main plot of the story. God, not Joseph, is the central character!

▣ "he became a successful man" Joseph was a "successful" (BDB 852 II, KB 1026, Hiphil participle) man and those around him also were successful and prosperous. This was exactly what Jacob's presence did for Laban. Potiphar took note of the special blessing of Joseph's presence (cf. v. 3).

▣ "he was in the house of his master the Egyptian" This is in contradistinction to the fact that he was not a field

hand or that he lived in the master's house instead of the servant's quarters. Joseph became a trusted member of Potiphar's home.


39:3 "his master saw that the Lord was with him" Potiphar did not put him in charge simply because of his administrative abilities, but because of his unique connection with the blessings of God. Potiphar did this strictly for personal gain and not in any religious sense.


39:4 Joseph's service is described in two ways.

  1. "personal servant," BDB 1058, KB 1661, Piel imperfect, used of higher ranking minister, cf. II Sam. 13:17,18; I Kgs. 10:5; II Kgs. 4:43; 6:17
  2. "overseer," BDB 823, KB 955, Hiphil imperfect, cf. II Kgs. 25:23

Today we might call him "an administrative assistant" or "executive secretary." In Egyptian literature of this period "a household steward."

39:5 "the Lord blessed the Egyptian's house on account of Joseph" This seems to be a truth throughout the OT period. There is a connection between physical blessing and one's relationship to the covenant people (cf. Gen. 12:3; 30:27).


39:6a "So he left everything he owned in Joseph's charge. . .he did not concern himself with anything except the food which he ate" Some historians have mentioned that there was a strict dietary separation between the Egyptians and all other foreigners based on religious guidelines, as there is today between the Jews and all other foreigners. Whether this was the basis of this exception is uncertain, but this cultural distinction is apparent in Egyptian society (cf. Gen. 43:32).


▣ "Now Joseph was handsome in form and appearance" This very same phrase ("handsome," BDB 421, "form," BDB 1061, "appearance," BDB 909) is used to describe his mother Rachel (cf. Gen. 29:17). There are several handsome men mentioned in the OT connected with the line of the Messiah. This phrase is also used in connection with David and his son Absalom. Even Saul is described as a tall, handsome man. Remember beauty/handsomeness is variable from culture to culture and age to age. Joseph's physical appearance will be the source of his problem with Potiphar's wife.


39:7 "It came about after these events that his master's wife looked with desire at Joseph" We know from the social interaction that was possible for Egyptian women in their society that there came to be a cultural proverb connected with the licentiousness of Egyptian females. Potiphar's wife was very clever in her approach to Joseph. Her plan seems to have developed over time and she seems to make a multi-staged advance (cf. v. 10). This must have been a tremendous pressure on this young Hebrew lad as this manipulative lady approached him day after day with her sexual offers. There is an obvious contrast between the actions of Judah in chapter 38 and Joseph in this chapter!


39:8-9 Joseph seems to make a very logical and appropriate answer to her advances in this verse. The first is connected to the kindness of Potiphar toward him and, in an implied way, that her unique position should not be violated. Also, Joseph sees God in connection with his sexual life as he sees Him in connection with all areas of his life. It is significant that sexual promiscuity, in his opinion, is not only a sin against Potiphar and also against Potiphar's wife, but certainly against Elohim. Notice that he uses the general name for God (i.e., Elohim) because this lady was obviously not a religiously informed person and she would not have recognized the covenant name for God, YHWH (see Special Topic at 12:1).


39:10 "she spoke to Joseph day after day" This is the repeated burden of continual sexual pressure or possibly a sexual command from his owner's wife. Joseph was a slave! He did not have the right to control his own actions!


39:11 From the connotation of the text, she planned for the other servants to be absent when Joseph came in for his regular household duties. The rabbis say that this was on an Egyptian feast day and she claimed to be sick in order to stay home and seduce Joseph.


39:12 "And he left his garment and fled and went outside" Some accuse Joseph of being dumb because he left his garment (BDB 93, exactly what kind is uncertain, UBS A Handbook on Genesis, p. 895, asserts that servants in Egypt in this day wore no top, only a small shirt), but what was he supposed to do?! This was an appropriate, spiritual answer to lustful temptation (cf. II Tim. 2:22; II Pet. 1:4).


39:13-18 These verses contain Potiphar's wife's accusations to her other Egyptian servants and then her husband.

39:14 "she called to the men of her household and said to them" They must have been close by, but not in the house. There are several elements in her statement which are interesting.

  1. she blamed her husband for bringing this Hebrew slave into the house (cf. v. 19)
  2. she made a racial slur because he was a Hebrew

It is obvious from Egyptian records that they felt themselves to be superior to other foreign peoples.

▣ "Hebrew"The term for "Hebrew" (BDB 720) has one of two possible origins: (1) it comes from Eber, the ancestor from which Abraham's family developed (cf. Gen. 11:16, used of Abraham in 14:13 and his descendants (cf. 39:14,17; 40:15; 41:12; 43:32) or (2) it comes from the general name for the nomadic people who came from beyond the river called the Habiri (immigrant) in the Tel El Armarna letters.

▣ "to make sport of us" The Hebrew term "make sport of us" (BDB 850, KB 1019, Piel infinitive construct) in this verse seems to be a cultural idiom for "try to sexually harass us" (cf. 26:8). The implication is that Joseph had done this repeatedly to her and to other members of Potiphar's house.

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: 39:19-23  


39:20 "So Joseph's master took him and put him in jail" The normal punishment for this kind of crime was death (The IVP Bible Background Commentary, p. 71). It seems that Potiphar might have had some doubts concerning the veracity of his wife's statement. I am sure that at this point in Joseph's life, even with great faith in God, he must have wondered what was happening (cf. Gen. 40:15)!

▣ "the place where the king's prisoners were confined; and he was placed there in the jail" This is a very unusual term for jail. It seems to be from the root "to be circular" (from Song of Songs 7:2) or "enclosed" (BDB 690, found only in 39:20-23 and 40:3,5) and some commentators assert that it was a round-shaped prison, while others believe it was a special building on the grounds of the captain of the guard (i.e., Potiphar). If this is true we can see how Joseph was apparently transferred from the master's house to the master's prison which was not too far distant.

God's "unseen hand" is at work to start the next step of His plan. Joseph has been radically changed by his faith in YHWH since chapter 37. Knowing God should affect our character and actions!


39:21-23 The presence of God was still with Joseph in a very unique and, apparently, visible way. This does not mean that there were not some very difficult experiences of body and mind which he went through, but God's care was obviously with him.


39:23 This phrasing is similar to v. 6. Joseph took care of everything. He was a divinely gifted administrator and later we will learn, dream interpreter.