Genesis 39:20
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.
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Genesis 39:20 - Genesis 39:23
. - Genesis 40:1 - Genesis 40:15.

Potiphar was ‘captain of the guard,’ or, as the title literally runs, chief of the executioners. In that capacity he had charge of the prison, which was connected with his house {Genesis 40:3}. It is, therefore, quite intelligible that he should have put Joseph in confinement on his own authority, and the distinction drawn between such a prisoner and the ‘king’s prisoners,’ who were there by royal warrant or due process of law, is natural. Such high-handed treatment of a slave was a small matter, and it was merciful as well as arrogant, for death would have been the punishment of the crime of which Joseph was accused. Either Potiphar was singularly lenient, or, as is perhaps more probable, he did not quite believe his wife’s story, and thought it best to hush up a scandal. The transfer of Joseph from the house to the adjoining prison would be quietly managed, and then no more need be said about an ugly business.

So now we see him at the lowest ebb of his fortunes, flung down in a moment by a lie from the height to which he had slowly been climbing, having lost the confidence of his master, and earned the unslumbering hatred of a wicked woman. He had wrecked his career by his goodness. ‘What a fool!’ says the world. ‘How badly managed things are in this life,’ say doubters, ‘that virtue should not be paid by prosperity!’ But the end, even the nearer end in this life, will show whether he was a fool, and whether things are so badly arranged; and the lesson enforced by the picture of Joseph in his dungeon, and which young beginners in life have special need to learn, is that, come what will of it, right is right, and sin is sin, that consequences are never to deter from duty, and that it is better to have a clean conscience and be in prison than do wickedness and sit at a king’s table. A very threadbare lesson, but needing to be often repeated.

‘But the Lord was with Joseph.’ That is one of the eloquent ‘buts’ of Scripture. The prison is light when God is there, and chains do not chafe if He wraps His love round them. Many a prisoner for God since Joseph’s time has had his experience repeated, and received tenderer tokens from Him in a dungeon than ever before. Paul the prisoner, John in Patmos, Bunyan in Bedford jail, George Fox in Lancaster Castle, Rutherford in Aberdeen, and many more, have found the Lord with them, and showing them His kindness. We may all be sure that, if ever faithfulness to conscience involves us in difficulties, the faithfulness and the difficulties will combine to bring to us sweet and strong tokens of God’s approval and presence, the winning of which will make a prison a palace and a gate of heaven.

Joseph’s relations to jailer and fellow-prisoners are beautiful and instructive. The former is called ‘the keeper of the prison,’ and is evidently Potiphar’s deputy, in more immediate charge of the prison. Of course, the great man had an underling to do the work, and probably that underling was not chosen for sweetness of temper or facile leniency to his charges. But he fell under the charm of Joseph’s character-all the more readily, perhaps, because his occupation had not brought many good men to his knowledge. This jewel would flash all the more brightly for the dark background of criminals, and the jailer would wonder at a type of character so unlike what he was accustomed to. Eastern prisons to-day present a curious mixture of cruelty and companionship. The jailers are on intimate terms with prisoners, and yet are ready to torture them. There is no discipline, nor any rules, nor inspection. The jailer does as he likes. So it seems to have been in Egypt, and there would be nothing unnatural in making a prisoner jailer of the rest, and leaving everything in his hands. The ‘keeper of the prison’ was lazy, like most of us, and very glad to shift duties on to any capable shoulders. Such a thing would, of course, be impossible with us, but it is a bit of true local colouring here.

Joseph won hearts because God was with him, as the story is careful to point out. Our religion should recommend us, and therefore itself, to those who have to do with us. It is not enough that we should be severely righteous, as Joseph had been, or ready to meet trouble with stoical resignation, but we are to be gentle and lovable, gracious towards men, because we receive grace from God. We owe it to our Lord and to our fellows, and to ourselves, to be magnets to attract to Jesus, by showing how fair He can make a life. Joseph in prison found work to do, and he did not shirk it. He might have said to himself: ‘This is poor work for me, who had all Potiphar’s house to rule. Shall such a man as I come down to such small tasks as this?’ He might have sulked or desponded in idleness, but he took the kind of work that offered, and did his best by it. Many young people nowadays do nothing, because they think themselves above the small humdrum duties that lie near them. It would do some of us good to remember Joseph in the jail, and his cheerful discharge of what his hands found to do there.

Of course, work done ‘because the Lord was with him,’ in the consciousness of His presence, and in obedience to Him, went well. ‘The Lord made it to prosper,’ as He always will make such work.

‘When thou dost favour any action,

It runs, it flies.’

And even if, sometimes, work done in the fear of the Lord does not outwardly prosper, it does so in deepest truth, if it work in us the peaceable fruit of righteousness. We need to have a more Christian idea of what constitutes prosperity, and then we shall understand that there are no exceptions to the law that, if a man does his work by God and with God and for God, ‘that which he does, the Lord makes it to prosper.’

The help that Joseph gave by interpreting the two high officials’ dreams cannot be considered here in detail, but we note that the names of similar officers, evidently higher in rank than we should suppose, with our notions of bakers and butlers, are found in Egyptian documents, and that these two were ‘king’s prisoners,’ and put in charge of Potiphar, who alleviated their imprisonment by detailing Joseph as their attendant, thus showing that his feeling to the young Hebrew was friendly still. Dreams are the usual method of divine communication in Genesis, and belong to a certain stage in the process of revelation. The friend of God, who is in touch with Him, can interpret these. ‘The secret of the Lord is with them that fear Him,’ and it is still true that they who live close by God have insight into His purposes. Joseph showed sympathy with the two dreamers, and his question, ‘Why look ye so sadly?’ unlocked their hearts. He was not so swallowed up in his own trouble as to be blind to the signs of another’s sorrow, or slow to try to comfort. Grief is apt to make us selfish, but it is meant to make us tender of heart and quick of hand to help our fellows in calamity. We win comfort for our own sorrows by trying to soothe those of others. Jesus stooped to suffer that He might succour them that suffer, and we are to tread in His steps.

Genesis 39:20-21. Where the king’s prisoners were bound — Potiphar, it is likely, chose that prison because it was the worst; for there “the irons entered into the soul,” <19A518>Psalm 105:18, but God designed it to pave the way to his enlargement. Our Lord Jesus, like Joseph, was bound, and numbered with transgressors. But the Lord was with Joseph, and showed him mercy. No gates nor bars can shut out his gracious presence from his people. God gave him favour in sight of the keeper of the prison — God can raise up friends for his people, even where they little expect them. The keeper saw that God was with him, and that every thing prospered under his hand, and therefore intrusted him with the management of the affairs of the prison.

39:19-23 Joseph's master believed the accusation. Potiphar, it is likely, chose that prison, because it was the worst; but God designed to open the way to Joseph's honour. Joseph was owned and righted by his God. He was away from all his friends and relations; he had none to help or comfort him; but the Lord was with Joseph, and showed him mercy. Those that have a good conscience in a prison, have a good God there. God gave him favour in the sight of the keeper of the prison; he trusted him to manage the affairs of the prison. A good man will do good wherever he is, and will be a blessing even in bonds and banishment. Let us not forget, through Joseph, to look unto Jesus, who suffered being tempted, yet without sin; who was slandered, and persecuted, and imprisoned, but without cause; who by the cross ascended to the throne. May we be enabled to follow the same path in submitting and in suffering, to the same place of glory.Her husband believes her story and naturally resents the supposed unfaithfulness of his slave. His treatment of him is mild. He puts him in ward, probably to stand his trial for the offence. The Lord does not forsake the prisoner. He gives him favor with the governor of the jail. The same unlimited trust is placed in him by the governor as by his late master.

- Joseph in Prison

An uncomplaining patience and an unhesitating hopefulness keep the breast of Joseph in calm tranquillity. There is a God above, and that God is with him. His soul swerves not from this feeling. Meanwhile, new and distinguished prisoners are introduced into his place of confinement.

20. Joseph's master took him, and put him into the prison—the roundhouse, from the form of its construction, usually attached to the dwelling of such an officer as Potiphar. It was partly a subterranean dungeon (Ge 41:14), though the brick-built walls rose considerably above the surface of the ground, and were surmounted by a vaulted roof somewhat in the form of an inverted bowl. Into such a dungeon Potiphar, in the first ebullition of rage, threw Joseph and ordered him to be subjected further to as great harshness of treatment (Ps 105:18) as he dared; for the power of masters over their slaves was very properly restrained by law, and the murder of a slave was a capital crime.

a place where the king's prisoners were bound—Though prisons seem to have been an inseparable appendage of the palaces, this was not a common jail—it was the receptacle of state criminals; and, therefore, it may be presumed that more than ordinary strictness and vigilance were exercised over the prisoners. In general, however, the Egyptian, like other Oriental prisons, were used solely for the purposes of detention. Accused persons were cast into them until the charges against them could be investigated; and though the jailer was responsible for the appearance of those placed under his custody, yet, provided they were produced when called, he was never interrogated as to the way in which he had kept them.

Quest. Why did he not kill him, the crime being capital, and he having so undoubted a power in his hand to do it?

Answ. It is probable he was a little moderated by Joseph’s apology, which doubtless he made for himself, though it be not here recorded.

2. This is to be ascribed to the good providence of God, which restrains the waves of the sea, and the passions of men, and sets them their bounds which they shall not pass, which watched over Joseph in a peculiar manner.

The king’s prisoners; traitors, or great offenders against the king, whose prison doubtless was none of the easiest and therefore it is called a dungeon, Genesis 40:15 41:14; and he endured great hardship in it. See Psalm 105:18.

And Joseph's master took him, and put him into the prison,.... Which was in or adjoining to his house, Genesis 40:3; of himself he had power to do this, as the captain of the guard; and as he was the chief of the executioners, as some take his office to be, it is much he did not in his passion deliver him up into their hands to put him to death at once; but it may be through the great respect he had had for Joseph, which was not wholly extinguished by this impeachment of him; and especially if he heard Joseph's apology for himself before he committed him, his passion might subside a little, though for the credit of his wife he might take this step; or however things were so overruled by the providence of God, who has the hearts of all men in his hands, that he should do what he did. The word for "prison" has the signification of roundness, and may be rendered the "round house" (t), or "round tower"; and some Jewish writers, as Mercer observes, take it to be in this form, that it was made under ground, and at the top of it was an hole which let in light, and at which they went into it. Aben Ezra is at a loss to say whether it is an Hebrew or Egyptian word, and inclines to the latter, because he thinks it is explained in the next clause:

a place where the king's prisoners were bound; such as were guilty of high treason, or however of high crimes and misdemeanours against him; and so was a prison in which men were strictly kept and used hardly, as was Joseph at first, as appears from Psalm 105:18,

and he was there in the prison; he continued there, some of the Jewish writers say (u) ten years, others twelve (w); and so long he must be, if he was but one year in Potiphar's house; for there were thirteen years between his being sold into Egypt, and his appearance before Pharaoh; he was seventeen when he was sold, and he was thirty when he stood before Pharaoh, being took out of prison, see Genesis 37:2; but it is more likely that he was a longer time in Potiphar's house, and a lesser time in prison.

(t) "rotundam turrim", Junius & Tremellius; "domum rotundi carceris", Piscator: "round house", Ainsworth; "vox Hebraea significat carcerem rotundum in modum lunae", Vatablus; so Ben Melech. (u) Pirke Eliezer, c. 39. (w) Seder Olam Rabba, c. 2. p. 5. Shalshalet Hakabala, fol. 3. 2.

And Joseph's master took him, and put him into the {i} prison, a place where the king's prisoners were bound: and he was there in the prison.

(i) His bad treatment in the prison may be gathered from Ps 105:18.

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.

Verse 20. - And Joseph's master took him, and put him into the prison, - literally house of enclosure; sohar, from sahar, to encircle, meaning probably a turreted, arched, or rounded building for the confinement of prisoners - a place where the king's prisoners (i.e. State offenders) were bound: and he was there in the prison. This, which some regard as having been a mild punishment (Delitzsch, Keil), since, according to Diodorus Siculus, the laws of the Egyptians were specially severe in their penalties for offences against women, is represented by a Hebrew psalmist (Psalm 105:18) as having been accompanied with bodily tortures, at least for a time; for his speedy elevation to a place of trust within the prison almost gives countenance to the idea (Kurtz, Lange, &c.) 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 improbable (Bohlen), but exceedingly natural, since Joseph was Potiphar's favorite (Havernick). Genesis 39:20Joseph in Prison. - Potiphar was enraged at what he heard, and put Joseph into the prison where (אשׁר for שׁם אשׁר, Genesis 40:3 like Genesis 35:13) the king's prisoners (state-prisoners) were confined. הסּהר בּית: lit., the house of enclosure, from סהר, to surround or enclose (ὀχύρωμα, lxx); the state-prison surrounded by a wall. This was a very moderate punishment. For according to Diod. Sic. (i. 78) the laws of the Egyptians were πικροὶ περὶ τῶν γυναιῶν νόμοι. An attempt at adultery was to be punished with 1000 blows, and rape upon a free woman still more severely. It is possible that Potiphar was not fully convinced of his wife's chastity, and therefore did not place unlimited credence in what she said.

(Note: Credibile est aliquod fuisse indicium, quo Josephum innocentem esse Potiphari constiteret; neque enim servi vita tanti erat ut ei parceretur in tam gravi delicto. Sed licet innocuum, in carcere tamen detinebat, ut uxoris honori et suo consuleret (Clericus). The chastity of Egyptian women has been in bad repute from time immemorial (Diod. Sic. i. 59; Herod. ii. 111). Even in the middle ages the Fatimite Hakim thought it necessary to adopt severe measures against their immorality (Bar-Hebraei, chron. p. 217), and at the present day, according to Burckhardt (arab. Sprichwrter, pp. 222, 227), chastity is "a great rarity" among women of every rank in Cairo.)

But even in that case it was the mercy of the faithful covenant God, which now as before (Genesis 37:20.) rescued Joseph's life.

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