Several purposes are served by this chapter, which manifestly directs the current of the narrative into the channel of the experience of Joseph.
First of all, we cannot help but notice that in a twofold way the things narrated serve to prepare Joseph for the portion he is to fill later in life. In Potiphar's household he becomes familiar with Egyptian life in general and with the elements of successful business administration. In the humiliation of the prison, however, Joseph is seasoned so that he is later able to endure being placed in an exalted position without danger of falling into conceit.
Besides, Joseph's character is purged from dross by the trying experiences of these years. He personally stood in need of a measure of purging, for he, too, had an admixture of pride in his disposition. After being himself purged Joseph is an instrument qualified to work in the direction of purging the character of his brothers. Joseph unrefined would hardly have been suited for his task.
At the same time the chapter stands in strong contrast with the preceding one. Judah has been contaminated by the laxity of morals characteristic of the Canaanites. Joseph, who has grown up under the same circumstances, has preserved the ideal of the godly patriarchs. The one falls, the other stands. At the same time the victory of true virtue is so represented as to be a lesson and an encouragement for all that are of a godly mind.
Besides, the impressions of the thirty-seventh chapter are confirmed relative to the innocent sufferings of righteous men. They that walk uprightly are not to expect the reward of their righteousness as a necessary and an immediate result. Their lot may at least for a time be entirely out of harmony with their deserts. This valuable lesson, amply confirmed by the experiences of many, is taught very plainly by the early experiences of Joseph.
1-4. And as for Joseph he was brought down to Egypt, and Potiphar, a eunuch of Pharaoh's, captain of the bodyguard, an Egyptian man, bought him from the Ishmaelites who had brought him down there. And Yahweh was with Joseph, so that he became a successful man, and he stayed in the house of his master, the Egyptian. And his master noticed that Yahweh was with him and that Yahweh made everything that he did prosper under his hands. So Joseph found favour in his sight and became his personal attendant. Besides he appointed him over his house and gave all his possessions into his hands.
The current of the narrative turns back to Joseph. This fact is indicated by the prominent position of the noun yoseph before the verb, a construction somewhat like our, "as for Joseph, he," etc. The repetition of the words, "Potiphar, a eunuch of Pharaoh's, captain of the bodyguard" from Ge 37:36 ties the thread of the narrative back to the previous mention of Joseph and leads us to reflect more on this important personage who figures prominently in the following narrative. It seems very strange that a eunuch should be married as we learn of Potiphar in this chapter. Two possibilities confront us, and the choice between them is difficult. It actually happened in days of old that eunuchs had wives. On the other hand, the term "eunuch" (saris) very likely lost its original meaning and came to signify: prominent court officials. The name "Pharaoh" has been traced down by Egyptiologists to mean "great house" and is used by metonomy for him who has his seat in the great house or royal palace (K. W.).
It is just another of the guesses of criticism when these repeated words are said to be a redactional insertion into the J document. In like manner, criticism claims that the apposition, "an Egyptian man," originally standing in J, makes J refer to this character as a nameless person. The case is much simpler than that. Men who were not Egyptians must also have been employed in state offices in those days. In this instance the fact that Potiphar was of Egyptian blood is brought to our attention. If all this happened in the era of the Hyksos domination, the phrase in question is all the more readily understandable. The closing words, that it was Potiphar who "bought him from the Ishmaelites who had brought him down there," complete the tie-up with the last mention of Joseph. Having heard this, we are ready to resume the narrative.
2. It pleased Yahweh to lend His kind help to Joseph from the very outset. Joseph's sufferings were not unknown to Him, and His first token of favour consisted in letting Joseph experience His help. This act is rightly ascribed to "Yahweh," because it was the covenant God who for the sake of the promises made to the fathers and for the sake of the future destiny of this chosen race helped Joseph. Yahweh's favour appeared in this that Joseph "became a successful man." Whatever he took in hand thrived. Besides, to understand what developed later we are told that "he stayed" (literally: "was") in the house of his master, the Egyptian, not in the servants' quarters. Potiphar desired to have this helpful man near at hand and showed his appreciation for services rendered by housing him well.
3. In fact, that Joseph's success was traceable to more than human ingenuity was apparent even to the Egyptian, who in truly heathen fashion ascribed it to Him whom Joseph openly acknowledged to be his God and the source of his blessings -- Yahweh. Joseph, for one, certainly recognized the universal power of Yahweh and never for a moment thought of Him only as a tribal god. The Egyptian, by his admissions, must himself have recognized something of this. Matslíach here has a meaning different from that found in the preceding verse: there it meant "prosperous," here, "making to prosper." The participle 'oseh, which we rendered "all that he did," should actually be rendered "was doing," and so it creates the impression that the projects of the past as well as those which were even then passing through Joseph's hands, all gave evidence of being successful.
4. As the account progresses, we are made to feel the successive and, no doubt, gradual stages by which Joseph moved forward in the process of time: God with him; God prospering him; Joseph living in the Egyptian's house; the Egyptian taking note of Yahweh's blessing; his taking note of the fact that every project of Joseph's thrived; the resultant increase of favour that Joseph enjoys, and so forth. This "favour" (chen) would seem to imply a personal attachment which the Egyptian formed for him as a result of which he "became his personal attendant." For yeshareth (G. K.64 g) means "to wait on." Hitherto the service had been more impersonal; now Joseph must personally attend to his master's wants. We can understand all this. The indolence of Orientals readily allows them to turn responsibility and duties over to competent hands. So finally "he appointed him (hiphqidh) over his house and gave all his possessions (literally: all that was to him') into his hands." In the expression "all that was to him" the relative "that" is implied in a certain conciseness of the original (K. S.337 v; G. K.530 d). Joseph could hardly have risen higher. We gather besides from the emphasis laid upon his advancement as being a very significant one, that the estate of Potiphar must have been considerable. This would follow already from Potiphar's official station as "chief of the bodyguard."
5, 6. And so it happened that from the time he appointed him over his house and over all that he possessed that Yahweh blessed the house of the Egyptian for Joseph's sake, and Yahweh's blessing was upon all he possessed in the household and in the fields. So he left all he had in Joseph's hand, and, having him, he had no concern for anything, except the bread which he on his part used to eat. Besides, Joseph was of beautiful form and of beautiful appearance.
Still another step in the progression recorded concerning Joseph's advancement is to be noted: from the time of Joseph's advancement to the point of being in complete charge Yahweh's blessing began to rest on the Egyptian, apparently in noticeable measure. But it was all for Joseph's sake and could be discerned indoors and out-of-doors. God was encouraging Joseph and displaying His sovereign power and goodwill in the eyes of the Egyptians. Yet, strictly speaking, all this was done for the chosen race out of pure mercy, and so it is rightly and consistently ascribed to "Yahweh."
6. So all things were thriving better than they ever had when Potiphar himself supervised more closely. Why should he not leave everything in Joseph's hand? The exception mentioned really is no exception. For we cannot follow those who think that Potiphar supervised only his food that it might conform to the Egyptian rules of cleanliness. For if Joseph was so trustworthy in all things, else, why should he have been untrustworthy in the dietetic regulations that Egyptian ceremonies demanded? The having "no concern for anything (lo' yadha' here means have no concern') except the bread which he on his part used to eat" does not mean that he personally supervised the food he ate and its preparation. It does mean he only interested himself in his meals and that only because his appetite drove him to do so.
These preparatory statements need to be supplemented by the fact, recorded very briefly at this point, that Joseph was beautiful as to form and appearance -- well-built and good-looking, as we should say. Of only two other men is it said in the Scriptures that they were beautiful -- David and Absalom. The Hebrew idiom says "beautiful in form" and "beautiful of appearance," using the construct relationship (K. S.336 h). We believe that 'itto, "with him" used here is taken in the sense of "having him" (Meek).
7-10. And it came to pass after these matters that his master's wife began to observe Joseph, and she said: Lie with me. But he refused and said to his master's wife: See, my master, having me, does not concern himself what is in the house, and all that is in the house he has given into my hand. He is not greater in this house than I; nor has he withheld anything from me except thee, inasmuch as thou art his wife. How then can I do this great evil and sin against God? And it came to pass as she spoke to Joseph day by day, he would not listen to her to lie at her side, or even to be with her.
Previously Potiphar's wife had not noticed Joseph. As he was advanced in her husband's favour he came to wear garments in keeping with his station, garments which set off the beauty of his person to advanrage. So she "began to observe Joseph." The Hebrew says: "she lifted up her eyes to Joseph." For the present this only means "observe," not yet, "take a fancy to." But her observation rapidly ripens into desire. Shamelessly she proposes at once "lie with me" -- a euphemism for intercourse. Kerl and others have pointed out that Egyptian women were noted for their lascivious and unfaithful ways. Shikhbah is a stronger form of the imperative from yashabh (G. K.48i).
8. Joseph's answer was unmistakable: "he refused." He makes his refusal the stronger by a statement calculated to give pause to his master's wife. There are three major considerations that he presses upon her notice: 1. the unlimited confidence that his master has bestowed upon him -- he concerns himself about nothing; has put everything into Joseph's hands; he is not greater in his own house than Joseph. The baseness of betraying so complete a trust is what Joseph stresses first. The greater the confidence given, the baser the betrayal of it.2. Joseph emphasizes that the woman is withheld from him, for she is Potiphar's wife. She herself may esteem this position rather lightly. It still involves obligations.3. Such a deed would be a "great evil" and a "sin against God." Joseph realizes what the woman may not perceive, that sins against man are sins against God. For Joseph it would have been a sin against Yahweh, who had prospered him. Over against the woman, whose spiritual insight is very limited, he merely calls it a sin against the Higher Being, Elohim.
10. The shameless hussy was not in the least impressed by any of the higher considerations that Joseph had sought to drive into her conscience. "Day by day" (Hebrew: yom yom) she approached him. She was as persistent in her solicitations as he in his steadfastness: "he would not (Hebrew: did not') listen to her to lie at her side." In fact, he took double precautions: he took care not even "to be with her." The infinitive construction (kedhabberah) goes over into the finite verb construction (shama'), cf. G. K.114 r.
11-15. And it came to pass, as was customary, that he came into the house to attend to his work, and there was no man of the men of the household there in the house. And she laid hold of his coat and said: Lie with me. And he left his coat in her hand and fled, going out-of-doors. And it came to pass when she saw that he had left his garment in her hand and had fled out-of-doors, that she called the men of the household and said to them: Look, he brought us a Hebrew man to make sport of us; he came in to me to lie with me, and I raised a loud outcry; and it came to pass when I lifted up my voice and cried out, that he left his coat by my side and fled, going out-of-doors.
In spite of his careful avoidance of the woman Joseph could not keep out of the house entirely. The difficult expression kehayyom hazzeh, "as this day," seems to be elliptical and perhaps not as "elusive" as Skinner would have us believe. For K. W. has aptly suggested that it may mean "as was customary," filling in the ellipsis: "as this day (shows)." This at least makes very fitting sense. Joseph is intent upon some necessary work. The woman either has arranged that no man be in the house or has carefully waited till such a coincidence occurred. This time her insistence passes beyond mere words: she actually lays hold of his coat (béghedh -- garment,) and repeats her shameless invitation. Joseph must have realized that the situation called for immediate and drastic action and let her have the coat and fled, not merely into the next room but "out-of-doors" (chûtzah -- "to the street").
13. This was definitely a case of spurned love but different from all previous instances, for Joseph had left his coat behind and had fled out-of-doors. Now either servants might come and see the coat and raise incriminating questions, or they might also have witnessed the hasty exit of Joseph. In either case Potiphar's wife would stand under strong suspicion. To divert suspicion to Joseph she hastily goes on the offensive by raising an outcry, summoning the men of the household and making the protestation of an outraged innocence. When her passion put her in danger, its unholy flame burns against Joseph without any consideration of what might befall him. In this respect she presents an analogy to Amnon (2Sa 13:15-19). By raising an outcry she puts herself in the class of those who are mentioned De 22:24 and have a claim upon innocence by virtue of their outcry. The charge that Joseph at least acted indiscretely in leaving his coat behind overlooks the fact that an emergency had actually arisen, calling for immediate and determined action. The critics here, as usual, construct artificial distinctions: they assign v.8 and 9 (so Procksch and others) to E, where Joseph reasons with the woman. Then our verses (11-15) are said to be J's account, said to be more effective than E's, for J lets Joseph flee in speechless fear. But the critics frequently are more intent upon separating sources or making sources than upon valid exegesis.
14. Potiphar's wife seems to refer to him a bit disparagingly when, without mentioning his name, she lets him be the nameless "he" -- "he brought us a Hebrew man." This latter designation of Joseph as "a Hebrew man" ('ish ibri) is the term used for all the descendants of Eber (11:16). "Hebrews," as a term, therefore, included a much broader scope than the later term "Israelites." Only after Jacob's family became a more prominent group, did the later term come into vogue. The term 'ibhrim ("Hebrews") may, therefore, correspond to the Habiri of the Tellel-Amarna tablets, although the incursions coming from the south at that time may have nothing to do with Israelites. Jacob's sons preferred to refer to themselves as Hebrews in speaking to men of another nationality (Ge 40:15). It is not reported that the men of Potiphar's household made any response when his wife explained to them how she came into possession of Joseph's coat. They may not have been unduly impressed by her protestations of innocence.
16-18. And she laid the coat beside her until her lord came home, and she spoke to him after these very words, saying: The Hebrew slave whom thou didst bring to us came in to me to make sport of me And it happened when I lifted up my voice and made an outcry, he left his coat beside me and fled out-of-doors.
There is a cleverness about this woman's presentation of the case. The garment by her side looks like a substantial bit of evidence, which she in her indignation has laid aside as positive proof. The verb "to make sport of" (tsa (ch) cheq) is also euphemistic here (v.17) as above in v.14 and implies attempted rape. Above (v.14) the woman includes as potential objects of rape all the other female members of the household. The preposition be with which this verb is construed involves the idea of disparagement of the object involved (K. S.212 f). Wattßnach is Hifil of nûach (G. K.72 ee).
19, 20. And it came to pass when his master heard his wife's words which she spoke, saying: So and so thy slave did to me, that his anger flared up; and Joseph's master took him and threw him into prison, the place where the king's prisoners lay bound. So he lay there in the prison.
It is significant that we do not read that the master's anger flared against Joseph. Perhaps it was caused chiefly by the vexation created by the whole bothersome incident. Since he could not disprove his wife's statements -- it would hardly have done to take a foreign slave's word against his wife's -- all that remained was to do the conventional thing and to punish Joseph and incidentally to get rid of a most efficient business manager. This interpretation of the master's anger is confirmed by the further consideration that the customary punishment for adultery was extreme. To be cast into a prison was a relatively light penalty. In view of the things that are yet to develop the writer tells us that the prison was the one used for the king's prisoners. Joseph, the chief servant of the captain of the bodyguard, was as important a man as the king's prisoners. We are not able to say whether the king's prisoners had better treatment than the ordinary run of prisoners or whether such confinement was unusually rigorous. "So he lay there in prison" implies that this new situation in Joseph's life did not soon undergo a change. 'Adhoney as a plural expresses quality rather than number (K. S.304d). The word for prison beth hassóhar, "the house of enclosure," is different from the other Hebrew expressions for the same thing found Ex 12:29; Isa 42:7; Jud 16:21. Meqom is unusual, being construct state, though instead of having a noun attached to it, we have a complete relative clause (K. S.337 z; G. K.130 c). The marginal reading 'asirey appears to be the more correct, being a regular noun, whereas the following 'asurim is a participle. K. S. says: this means, the captivi of the king were capti there (235 d).
21-23. And Yahweh was with Joseph and made him the object of goodwill and gave him favour in the sight of the overseer of the prison. And the overseer of the prison put all those that were lodged in the prison into Joseph's care, and everything that men were doing there, he was responsible for it. The overseer of the prison himself gave no attention to anything that he had turned over to him, inasmuch as Yahweh was with him, and whatsoever he would undertake, Yahweh would make it succeed.
Grievous as Joseph's disappointment was at this second serious setback, Yahweh did not let him go on long without tokens of divine favour. These were the more necessary, humanly speaking, because in this instance Joseph's calamity was certainly not caused by his own sin, as it was in part at least in the first instance. Here a man was very definitely suffering for righteousness' sake. But the gracious God who had covenanted to be with his chosen ones -- Yahweh -- "was with Joseph." This involves that the comforts of being conscious of God's presence and favour were experienced by Joseph from the outset. This hardly allows us to think of Joseph as being tried severely in his faith and as utterly downcast in Spirit. The first tokens of such divine presence were that Yahweh "made him the object of goodwill," So the Hebrew phrase is meant: "he turned to him goodwill" (chésedh), of course, the goodwill of others. In particular "He gave him favour in the sight of the overseer, (sar -- 'captain') of the prison." God, who turns the hearts of men as the water brooks, was actively interposing in Joseph's behalf. Chinno has a suffix used as an objective genitive: "his favour" -- favour toward him (K. S.37).
22. It was not long, apparently, before the overseer of the prison reposed as complete confidence in Joseph as Potiphar formerly had. He must look after the prisoners and their welfare. His administrative ability is recognized, and Joseph puts it to use with the same faithfulness as when he was outside of the prison. He is made responsible for all things done in prison; literally the statement runs: "everything that they were doing (indefinite subject for the participle, K. S.324 n) there, he was the one doing it." Nor was Joseph proving unworthy of such trust. All things that he undertook were proving successful. But all this was not due to Joseph's ingenuity, though that may have been great enough, but to Yahweh's blessing: "Yahweh would make it succeed" -- Yahweh matslíach, "was causing it to thrive."
Criticism stands divided on the question of sources. Some say that aside from "a sprinkling of E in variants -- the whole passage is from J." Wellhausen assigned v.6-19 to E. Procksch gives E v.6-10. And they are both reputable critics.
Most reprehensible of all is the treatment of this historical narrative as though it were a document of fiction with different trends woven in according to the author's fancy. A similar Egyptian tale has been discovered on the papyrus of Orbiney -- the tale of the two brothers, of whom the one is solicited by his brother's wife but refuses to do such wrong to his brother. Men without due respect for God's Word in some cases assume that because of this similarity the writer of the Genesis account must have woven the Egyptian tale with modifications into his Joseph tale. Such assumptions are groundless. To approach Biblical accounts as though they were borrowed and unreliable, indicates strong prejudices against them.
For a thorough refutation of all attacks upon the historical reliability of these chapters we refer the careful student to Koenig's Commentary, where in the section immediately preceding our chapter he thoroughly disposes of these ill-founded attacks.
Since the element of providence stands out so distinctly in Joseph's life, it would be well to follow through from this point of view and so to treat this chapter as a unit from the point of view of the Mysterious Providence of God. Equally proper would be that type of approach which emphasizes that here the Scriptures offer an excellent example of Suffering for Righteousness' sake. This particular approach, however, may be put under the caption: "Whom the Lord loveth, He chasteneth."