Genesis 39
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
Ch. 39 (J.) Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife

The story of Joseph is in this chapter resumed, in the J version, from Genesis 37:35. In this version Joseph in Egypt is a slave who has been sold by his brethren to the Ishmaelites, and then by the Ishmaelites to an Egyptian of rank, whose name is not given. This Egyptian makes him the chief servant in his household. The Egyptian’s wife brings an accusation against Joseph for which the Egyptian commits him to prison.

In the present chapter the two versions of the Joseph narrative are harmonized by the Compiler giving to the Egyptian, who bought Joseph from “the Ishmaelites,” the name of Potiphar, to whom, according to E, “the Midianites” sold him in Genesis 37:36.

1–6.  Joseph’s prosperity.

7–20.  The false accusation.

21–23.  Joseph in prison.

And Joseph was brought down to Egypt; and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, captain of the guard, an Egyptian, bought him of the hands of the Ishmeelites, which had brought him down thither.
1. was brought down] This follows upon Genesis 37:28.

Potiphar, &c.] See note on Genesis 37:36. These words the Compiler seems to have added from E to harmonize the two accounts. J merely read “And an Egyptian bought him”; cf. Genesis 39:2, “in the house of his master the Egyptian.” The words “an Egyptian,” “the Egyptian” would have been needless in Genesis 39:1-2, after the full description of Potiphar as “an officer of Pharaoh’s, the captain of the guard.”

And the LORD was with Joseph, and he was a prosperous man; and he was in the house of his master the Egyptian.
2. the Lord was with Joseph] This is the motif of the whole section. Jehovah stands by Joseph whether in trouble or in prosperity, in good report or in evil; cf. Genesis 39:3; Genesis 39:5; Genesis 39:21; Genesis 39:23. Joseph was one of those rare characters in which great personal attractiveness in manner and appearance was combined with high principle and good intellectual powers.

in the house] i.e. not sent out to labour in the field.

And his master saw that the LORD was with him, and that the LORD made all that he did to prosper in his hand.
And Joseph found grace in his sight, and he served him: and he made him overseer over his house, and all that he had he put into his hand.
4. ministered unto him] Joseph’s character and capacities were first tested by personal service, and afterwards by the responsibility of general supervision.

overseer] Joseph was made steward of the whole household, a position of which we find mention in early Egyptian records. Cf. Genesis 43:16, Genesis 44:1.

And it came to pass from the time that he had made him overseer in his house, and over all that he had, that the LORD blessed the Egyptian's house for Joseph's sake; and the blessing of the LORD was upon all that he had in the house, and in the field.
5. for Joseph’s sake] Cf. Genesis 30:27 (J).

And he left all that he had in Joseph's hand; and he knew not ought he had, save the bread which he did eat. And Joseph was a goodly person, and well favoured.
6. he knew not … him] The R.V. marg., with him he knew not, gives the correct meaning. Joseph’s master trusted everything to him. Everything went on smoothly; and with Joseph as manager he had no need to think of a thing, except as regards food. It is also just possible that “save the bread, &c.,” implies that food, owing to the strictness of Egyptian scruples (cf. Genesis 43:32), could not be committed to the care of a foreigner. Joseph was controller, or steward, of the household.

And it came to pass after these things, that his master's wife cast her eyes upon Joseph; and she said, Lie with me.
But he refused, and said unto his master's wife, Behold, my master wotteth not what is with me in the house, and he hath committed all that he hath to my hand;
7–20. The False Accusation

8. knoweth not, &c.] Here, as in Genesis 39:6, the marg., knoweth not with me what is, gives the meaning of the passage.

There is none greater in this house than I; neither hath he kept back any thing from me but thee, because thou art his wife: how then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?
9. there is none greater] The margin, he is not, is correct. The rendering of the text is not only less accurate, but far less vigorous. The LXX and Vulg. have similarly missed the meaning.

how then … against God] Observe how, in J, Elohim, not Jehovah, is used of God in a passage where Joseph is speaking to a non-Israelite. Joseph repels the immoral overtures of his master’s wife on the ground, (1) of honour towards the master who trusted him in everything; and (2) of goodness and virtue, the duty of a man living in the presence of God. “This great wickedness”; Joseph takes the simplest line of resisting temptation. The thing is wrong in God’s sight; and that is enough for him. Egyptologists have illustrated this part of Joseph’s story from the ancient Egyptian “Tale of the two brothers” (contained in the d’Orbiney Papyrus, 19th Dynasty), in which the wife of the elder seeks to seduce the honour of the younger. The tale belongs to the Egyptian literature of the 14th cent. b.c.1[56]

[56] See Appendix E.

“Against God”: the consciousness of the personal presence of Jehovah “made all sins to be actions directly done against Him” (Davidson). So the Psalmist, although confessing wrong against his fellow-men, says, “Against thee, thee only, have I sinned” (Psalm 51:4).

And it came to pass, as she spake to Joseph day by day, that he hearkened not unto her, to lie by her, or to be with her.
And it came to pass about this time, that Joseph went into the house to do his business; and there was none of the men of the house there within.
And she caught him by his garment, saying, Lie with me: and he left his garment in her hand, and fled, and got him out.
And it came to pass, when she saw that he had left his garment in her hand, and was fled forth,
13. his garment] This accident provided the only circumstantial piece of evidence for the charge brought against him.

That she called unto the men of her house, and spake unto them, saying, See, he hath brought in an Hebrew unto us to mock us; he came in unto me to lie with me, and I cried with a loud voice:
14. an Hebrew] The designation used by foreigners for “an Israelite” (cf. Genesis 41:12, Genesis 43:32), and probably for any one who belonged to the group of peoples, Israelite, Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, who invaded and settled down in Palestine and the adjacent territories. The word is an appeal to the racial prejudice against Asiatic strangers.

to mock] Cf. Proverbs 1:26. The idea is of wanton insult.

us] As if none of the women in the house would be secure from insult, when the master’s wife had been subjected to such an affront from this young upstart foreigner. She implies that her husband’s confidence in his Hebrew slave meant disregard for the family’s honour.

And it came to pass, when he heard that I lifted up my voice and cried, that he left his garment with me, and fled, and got him out.
And she laid up his garment by her, until his lord came home.
16. laid up] i.e. laid on one side, and kept ready to be produced as evidence.

And she spake unto him according to these words, saying, The Hebrew servant, which thou hast brought unto us, came in unto me to mock me:
And it came to pass, as I lifted up my voice and cried, that he left his garment with me, and fled out.
And it came to pass, when his master heard the words of his wife, which she spake unto him, saying, After this manner did thy servant to me; that his wrath was kindled.
And Joseph's master took him, and put him into the prison, a place where the king's prisoners were bound: and he was there in the prison.
20. into the prison] Lit. “into the house of roundness,” or “the round house.” Possibly the Heb. expression, “the house of sohar,” may be an attempt to transliterate an Egyptian word, with a similar sound, by means of a familiar Heb. word sohar. LXX ὀχύρωμα, Lat. carcer. It only occurs here, and Genesis 39:23, and Genesis 40:3; Genesis 40:5. On the whole, if Joseph’s master believed the tale that had been told him, the punishment inflicted was less violent than we should have expected in such an age.

the place … were bound] These words are considered by many scholars to be introduced by the Compiler, in order to lead up to the description of the prison scene in the E narrative of ch. 40.

But the LORD was with Joseph, and shewed him mercy, and gave him favour in the sight of the keeper of the prison.
21. But the Lord, &c.] See note on Genesis 39:2. The favour of Jehovah towards Joseph is the cause of Joseph’s acceptability with the keeper of the prison. He receives the same degree of confidence in prison, as he had received from the master whom he had served as steward.

And the keeper of the prison committed to Joseph's hand all the prisoners that were in the prison; and whatsoever they did there, he was the doer of it.
The keeper of the prison looked not to any thing that was under his hand; because the LORD was with him, and that which he did, the LORD made it to prosper.
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