Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
JOSEPH’S FORTUNES IN THE HOUSE OF POTIPHAR.
(1) Potiphar . . . bought him.—Having given the genealogy of Judah’s house, which, owing to the sins of Reuben, Simeon, and Levi, was now to be the Messianic line, and invested with the inheritance of the Abrahamic promises, the history reverts to Joseph, because it was through him that Israel was to be transplanted into Egypt. His life there is divided into two main portions, during the first of which, for thirteen years, he was a slave; while during the second, for seventy years, he was governor over all the land of Egypt. In his former capacity he is falsely accused by his mistress, and cast into prison. But this unjust treatment was the necessary pathway to his elevation, because it was in the prison that he interpreted the dreams of Pharaoh’s two officers, and so, in the king’s emergency, was summoned, upon the testimony of the chief butler, to appear before him.
(2) The Lord.—Heb., Jehovah. In the history of Joseph there is the greatest possible precision in the use of the divine names. Wherever, as here, the writer speaks in his own person, he uses the name Jehovah, which is a strong argument for the Mosaic authorship of this narrative, as while the whole colour of this Tôldôth is strongly Egyptian, the word Jehovah was not specifically the name, in the family of Abraham, for God in covenant with man until the time of the Exodus (Exodus 6:3). Once Jacob uses it in the blessing of Dan (Genesis 49:18), in an ejaculation marked by deep religious feeling, but the passage referred to in Exodus does not mean that the patriarchs did not use the name of Jehovah at all, but that it was a name with no particular fulness of meaning. Excepting this one place, the name of the Deity everywhere is either El or Elohim, with the article prefixed only on special occasions (see Notes on Genesis 45:8; Genesis 46:3). Very probably Joseph had left memorials of his life behind him, in which naturally he used only the general term God. In framing these into a history, the writer carefully shows that it was the covenant Jehovah who guarded and kept His innocent worshipper.
Prosperous.—Heb., causing to prosper. Joseph brought a blessing with him to his master’s house. (See Genesis 39:3, where the same word is translated made to prosper.)
In the house.—Slaves generally were bought for the hard work of the field, but Potiphar assigned to Joseph the lighter home service, because perhaps of his youth and comeliness.
(4) He served him.—Rather, he ministered to him (Numbers 3:6), as the word is used not so much of work as of office. So in Genesis 40:4, it is used of the attendance of Joseph upon the chief butler and baker in prison. His office is explained more exactly in the next verse, where we read that “he made him overseer,” or his deputy. In the Egyptian monuments we often find an overseer with writing materials keeping an account of all expenditure and of the labour done.
(6) Save the bread . . . —Aben Ezra connects this with the first clause in the verse, and says that Potiphar did not leave his food in Joseph’s hand, because as an Egyptian he could not eat victuals prepared by a Hebrew. (See Genesis 43:32.) But in any case the meaning would be, that Potiphar did not care to know about anything except the food prepared for his own use.
A goodly person and well favoured.—These are the words used of Rachel in Genesis 29:17, where see Note.
(7) His master’s wife.—Egyptian women did not live in seclusion, nor did they go veiled. (See Genesis 12:13; Rawlinson, Hist. Ancient Egypt, i. 552.) The story of an innocent youth calumniated by an unchaste woman whom he has repulsed, became a favourite subject with classical authors, as in the myths of Bellerophon and Anteia, Hippolytus and Phaedra, and others. The Egyptians had a favourite popular romance of this kind, called “The Two Brothers,” in which the wife of the elder brother Anpu behaves towards Bata, the younger, in exactly the same way as Potiphar’s wife towards Joseph. See Records of the Past, ii. 139-152.
(11) To do his business.—That is, to attend to his ordinary duties as steward. The absence of all men from the house is explained by the supposition that it was a festival; but as she called to them (Genesis 39:14) it seems as if they were engaged in their several departments close by.
(14) He hath brought in.—The wife ascribes it as a fault to Potiphar, that, by buying a foreign slave, he had exposed her to insult. And so in Genesis 39:17.
(20) Prison.—Heb., sohar. This word occurs in the Bible only in this and the next chapter, but in the Talmud it is used for a walled prison. It is supposed to mean a round or arched tower. As the king’s prisoners were confined there, it was a portion of Potiphar’s official residence, as he was captain of the royal bodyguard (see Genesis 40:3); but we learn that it had its own keeper, though Potiphar was the chief in command (Genesis 40:4). The Jewish commentators consider that Potiphar did not really believe the accusation, or he would certainly have put Joseph to death. We learn, however, from Psalm 105:18, that his treatment in the prison at first was very severe; but as Potiphar, in Genesis 40:4, is said to have entrusted Joseph with the charge of the chief butler and baker, he must soon have been convinced of his innocence.