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Bible Commentaries
Genesis 39

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries


This third series of events in the [~toledowth] of Jacob begins the detail of providential dealings with the Chosen Nation that eventually transferred them all into the land of Egypt. That Joseph is the key figure in a number of these events cannot obscure the truth that it is God’s dealing with the nation of Israel, the posterity of Jacob, which is the master theme, as should be expected in the [~toledowth] of Jacob. We may entitle it:


The speculations of many imaginative critics that the simple, straightforward story here unfolded is a combination of different traditions skillfully woven together by a “redactor” are nothing but imaginative guesses, founded upon no scientific evidence whatever, and absolutely unsupported in any manner by the Hebrew text. Such men, whether willingly or knowingly or not, are merely the instruments of Satan, who has always engaged in efforts to pervert and deny the Word of God.

The above paragraph is especially applicable to the allegation that was made quite generally at the beginning of this century to the effect that, “The story has a striking parallel to the Egyptian Tale of Two Brothers.”(F1) Skinner even made the Egyptian story, “the original”(F2) of this account in the Bible. Such allegations are merely fantastic nonsense. That Egyptian yarn is dissimilar in every important particular from the Biblical account in this chapter:

(1) Here a man’s slave was tempted by his wife; in the yarn, two brothers were the principals.

(2) Here Joseph was judged guilty and imprisoned, but in the Egyptian story the wronged brother murdered his wife whom he found to be guilty.

(3) Here, the woman offered Joseph’s coat as evidence against him, but in the tale, the woman stabbed herself over and over, and offered that as evidence. What kind of mind is it that finds such a tragedy as that a “parallel” and “original” of the record here? There is only one point of similarity, namely, in the seductive intentions of the two women; but, in all human history, there is absolutely nothing unusual about that!

(4) Another difference: in the Two Brothers tale, the tempted is an agricultural worker in the field; in the Biblical narrative, Joseph is the chief steward whose duties required his presence in the house. We are happy to observe that with the passing of years, the critical scholars have just about given up their false position regarding this. “Few recent writers are willing to make one of these dependent upon the other. Seduction, attempted seduction, and false accusations, are age-old human misdeeds. It would have been surprising if there were no parallels.”(F3) This comment by Payne was written in 1979. Although the chronology of the period is notoriously uncertain, many reputable scholars affirm that the Genesis record existed centuries before the Tale of Two Brothers. We have devoted more space to this than it is worth, but it seems to have been required by fulsome attention given to it by some of the commentators.

Verse 1

“And Joseph was brought down to Egypt; and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh’s, the captain of the guard, an Egyptian, bought him of the hand of the Ismaelites, that had brought him down thither.”

This important verse does a number of things:

(1) It shows that the Ismaelites and Midianites of Genesis 37 were the same group of traders.

(2) It gives more fully the status of Potiphar, captain of the guard, an office that also included the directorship of the prisons, the deputy of Potiphar also being called, the captain of the guard, the title relating to his actual work. It is clear that he held his authority under Potiphar (Genesis 40:3). In fact, Potiphar may actually be the one referred to in that verse.

(3) The race of Potiphar is also given as Egyptian, an essential note, for, if this was during the Hyksos kings of Egypt, the employment of Egyptians who were of a different race was unusual, and may also explain why Potiphar was a eunuch. We have already noted that the word could have meant merely a king’s officer, but the possibility remains that he was actually a eunuch. If so, it would explain his wife’s inordinate desire to seduce Joseph. Morris elaborated this thesis rather fully as follows: “It was a custom in ancient pagan countries, beginning with Sumeria, to require prominent officers associated closely with the king’s court to be castrated, in order to minimize the possibility of their taking over the kingdom and founding their own dynasty. Here it seems that either Potiphar (already married) had consented to be castrated in order to hold the office, or that his wife, after the event, married him for financial or political reasons. Some eunuchs were known to have wives.”(F4)

Naturally, the information contained in this verse refutes many of the claims of critical Biblical enemies; so what do they do with it? They throw it out of the Bible! A portion of this verse was explained by Speiser as a “redactorial gloss!”(F5) Of course, it is no such thing. “It is just another of the guesses of criticism.”(F6)

Verse 2

“And Jehovah was with Joseph, and he was a prosperous man; and he was in the house of his master the Egyptian.”

“And Jehovah was with Joseph” This is the key to the whole chapter. In Genesis 39:2-3; Genesis 39:5; Genesis 39:21, and Genesis 39:23, the same fundamental truth is repeated. The reader is expected to see the hand of the Lord in these marvelous events.

“In the house of his master, the Egyptian” Some of the critics try to make this “Egyptian” out to be someone other than Potiphar; but the reason for again stressing his race will appear in the unfaithful wife’s injection of racial overtones into her accusations against Joseph (Genesis 39:14). The fact of Potiphar’s proper name being omitted in much of the narrative is of no moment. The names of the deputy captain of the guard, the name of the seductive wife, the names of all the servants, and even the name of Pharaoh are all likewise omitted.

Verses 3-6

“And his master saw that Jehovah was with him, and that Jehovah made all that he did to prosper in his hand. And Joseph found favor in his sight, and he ministered unto him: and he made him overseer of his house, and all that he had put into his hand. And it came to pass that from the time that he made him overseer in his house, and over all that he had, that Jehovah blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake; and the blessing of Jehovah was upon all that he had, in the house and in the field. And he left all that he had in Joseph’s hand: and he knew not aught that was with him, save the bread which he did eat. And Joseph was comely and well-favored.”

Two things of interest in this passage are:

(1) the fact that Joseph did not have charge of Potiphar’s meals, and

(2) the unusual physical beauty that belonged to Joseph.

In the first of these, no certainty exists. Dummelow thought this may have been due to “the strict caste laws of Egypt.”(F7) Yates believed that, “As a foreigner, Joseph could not see to the preparation of food.”(F8) This is based on the supposition that a foreigner would not have known all of the religious ritual the Egyptians connected with eating. Keil thought it was neither of these, and that the passage simply means that, “Potiphar did not trouble himself with anything but his own eating!”(F9) Keil’s view seems the most reasonable to this writer.

The remarkable physical appearance of Joseph was probably inherited from his mother Rachel, of whom Genesis speaks in glorying terms of her beauty (Genesis 29:17), using some of the very words here.

Verses 7-10

“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 knoweth not what is with me in the house, and he hath put all that he hath into my hands: he is not greater in this house than I; neither hath he kept back anything from me but thee, because thou art his wife: how then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God? 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.”

What a temptation this presented to Joseph! The youthful passions of life were at full tide in him. He might have reasoned that it would be the means of his escape from slavery. He might have felt that the wrongs he had suffered entitled him to any revenge that was handy. The prospect of secrecy was evident. He was far from home, living in a culture that did not have the moral standards he believed in. It might also have occurred to him that his refusal would make his status worse. And, most importantly of all, it was a continual and persistent temptation that was renewed “day by day.” As Bowie said:

“A decent man can be shocked by the bold suddenness of evil, and his conscience may recoil, but when the shock wears off, the suggestion seems not so strange. Then comes a new danger. Just as a steel bridge which can resist a heavy blow may be endangered by the successive shocks that come from the feet of marching men, a man’s moral resistance may disintegrate beneath the impact of temptation that comes relentlessly on and on.”(F10)

Joseph met and withstood the severe challenge that confronted him. It could be that the challenge had been in progress for some time when Joseph verbally responded to it, as in this passage. A Jewish writer has stated that, “When someone tries to talk a man into sinning, the first thing he must do is to refuse without going into details; only after he refuses may he recite his reasons.”(F11) Whether or not Joseph knew of such a dictum, it would appear that such was the course he followed here.

And what were his reasons? They were:

(1) It would have been an act of disloyalty to his master (Genesis 39:8).

(2) His master had not wronged him.

(3) It would have been a “wickedness against God,” (Genesis 39:9). Of these considerations, the far most important was (3). In a sense, adultery with Potiphar’s wife could hardly have been a sin against her, nor even against Potiphar (who was possibly a eunuch), but it was against God. In fact, all sin is against God. Even the prodigal son in the parable finally recognized that he had “sinned against heaven,” and in his father’s sight (Luke 15:18). Here then is the primary reason for avoiding all sin.

Josephus reports this incident in far greater detail, giving the conversation that took place upon the occasion, indicating that Potiphar’s wife not only promised absolute secrecy, but promised Joseph greater advancements than he had already enjoyed, and even threatening to become a witness accusing him of the very act he disdained to commit, if he refused.(F12) There is another tale about this experience to the effect that when Joseph protested against sinning “against God,” Potiphar’s wife stripped herself, threw her garments over an Egyptian statue of a “god” that adorned the room, and said, “God will not be able to see it!”

The question as to why God permitted Joseph to confront such a test was answered by Friedman: “It was to see whether he was truly fit to become ruler of Egypt. By passing the test, he proved that he would be able to rule over the land of impurity and immorality without succumbing to its corrupting influence himself.”(F13)

“Or to be with her” Joseph did not only refuse the seductive wife’s advances, but he also avoided being in her presence except when necessity demanded it. As to the occasion of the climax of the temptation, Josephus stated that it came about on a festival occasion that demanded her husband’s presence with the other noblemen of the kingdom, and that Potiphar’s wife pretended sickness as an excuse for staying at home.

Verses 11-18

“And it came to pass about this time, that he went into the house to do his work; 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 that when she saw that he had left his garment in her hand, and was fled forth, that she called unto the men of her house, and spake unto them, saying, See he hath brought in a Hebrew unto us to mock us: he came in unto me to lie with me, and I cried with a loud voice: and it came to pass that when he heard that I lifted up my voice and cried, that he left his garment by me, and fled, and got him out. And she laid up his garment by her, until his master came home. And she spake unto him according to these words, saying, The Hebrew servant, whom 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 by me and fled out.”

Very little in this requires comment. Perhaps it is of interest to note that Potiphar’s wife also used words to the servants that cast her husband in a poor light, introducing a racial slur, and alleging that Potiphar himself was to blame for the alleged situation in that he had imported a despised foreigner into their household. This would have been music to the ears of the other servants, for they no doubt were probably jealous of Joseph’s rapid elevation to a position of authority above them. The diabolical cunning of her false charges is an amazing phenomenon. Right here is an emphatic denial of one of Satan’s cleverest cliches, “Wherever there’s smoke, there’s bound to be fire!” Well, here, there was a lot of smoke, and no fire at all!

“And fled, and got him out” Willis’ wise words on this are:

“Sometimes the only way to avoid sin is to flee from temptation. This is not cowardice but realistic acknowledgment of the power of sin, and also of one’s need of God’s help in time of trial and temptation.”(F14)

Through the device of her lying claim that she had lifted up her voice and cried out, Potiphar’s wife brought herself under the protection of a custom, later incorporated into the divine law (Deuteronomy 22:24), that entitled her “to a claim of innocence by virtue of the outcry.”(F15)

Unger observed that, “Once again, Joseph’s garment was again made to lie wickedly about him.”(F16) The first occasion was that of his brothers’ dipping his splendid coat in goat’s blood to prove Joseph’s death to their father, and this, of course, is the second. The ultimate wickedness lay behind both events.

Verses 19-21

“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 prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were bound: and he was there in prison. But Jehovah was with Joseph, and showed kindness unto him, and gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison.”

“His master’s wrath was kindled” The tradition handed down through Josephus is that Potiphar believed his wife’s accusation, and that even after the events of this chapter, spoke highly of her as a woman of virtue. Despite this, however, there would appear to be a great deal of doubt about it. First, the sentence executed upon Joseph was “hardly expected for a slave taken for attempted rape of his master’s wife,”(F17) the death penalty being usual in such cases. There is also the fact that Potiphar evidently placed Joseph in a prison under his own jurisdiction, which also he did without any kind of trial, assigning the penalty under his own authority. From these considerations, many scholars have concluded that perhaps Potiphar accepted the truth of his wife’s charges against Joseph with something less than total belief.

Why then, was Joseph imprisoned at all? It would have been necessary in order for Potiphar to make an example of Joseph to the other slaves and to prevent social repercussions of all kinds. What kind of imprisonment was it? Not long afterward, when Joseph’s favor with the deputy captain of the guard had been established, his lot was evidently quite tolerable; but, at first, the imprisonment was extremely rigorous. Psalms 105:18 has this:

He (God) sent a man before them (Israel);
Joseph was sold for a servant:
His feet they hurt with fetters:
He laid in chains of iron.

Significantly, an alternate reading for the fourth line of this quotation is rendered in one of the Targums as, “The iron entered into his soul.”(F18) What caused the drastic change that followed? As to what did it, we do not know, but as to who did it, we are certain. The answer is given in this passage, “Jehovah was with Joseph and showed kindness unto him.” It could easily have been that God sent Potiphar a dream, as God did for Pharaoh in the very next chapter, or it might have been some other development. One thing seems likely enough, and that is that Potiphar’s deputy would not have so drastically alleviated Joseph’s punishment without Potiphar’s consent.

“The keeper of the prison” here, “was the governor or superintendent of the prison, and under Potiphar.”(F19)

Verses 22-23

“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 prison keeper looked not to anything that was under his hand, because Jehovah was with him; and that which he did, Jehovah made it to prosper.”

“Jehovah was with him” This dominant note in the narrative is struck half a dozen times in twenty-three verses, and herein lies the explanation of all the remarkable happenings recorded. This chapter, as a key part of the story of Jacob and his posterity, relates the providential circumstances that eventually led to the removal of the entire Chosen Nation into Egypt, where the natural aversion of the people to all foreigners, especially if they were sheepherders, made it a practical impossibility for God’s people easily to contract marriages with the pagan population, and where their eventual slavery compelled them to grow from within, to become a separate nation of very great numbers and to be cohesively bound together by the very circumstances in which God placed them. This concerned every single member of the whole of Israel, and not merely Joseph.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Genesis 39". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/genesis-39.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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