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Bible Commentaries
Genesis 39

Expositor's Dictionary of TextsExpositor's Dictionary

Verses 1-23

Genesis 39:9

'How can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?' So said Joseph, alone with Potiphar's wife? The unhappy woman had been enticing Joseph, then about twenty-seven years old, to gross and grievous sin. Sin had mastered her; she was the insane slave of its power. Now, she in turn craved, by a sort of dreadful 'law of sin,' to drag down another soul with her in the pit.

Joseph was not a glorified spirit. He was a young mortal man, subject to 'like passions' with ours. The fiery arrows of the words, acts, looks of the temptress were aimed upon no automaton, or statue, but upon a being full of the perils of our nature in its prime. Not only so; this young man, this young Oriental man, was placed in circumstances exquisitely hard for virtue and easy for moral relaxation. Outwardly, there was no call upon him such as the words noblesse oblige imply; he was but a purchased slave. And he was in a country, Egypt, peculiarly infected by moral pollution; he had breathed for years the air of its opinion and practice around him. His home in Canaan was no perfect home, yet it had the breath of the Lord and the Promise in it. But now he was a young man away from home, awfully away, helplessly separated from the helps of home, including the moral influence of a father who had 'seen God face to face,' poor as his use of that blessing had been. He had been carried off from home by an act of atrocious injustice and cruelty, enough to embitter Joseph's spirit for all time. Awful is the tempter's power when he comes with some seduction, and finds the spirit in rebellion under some real wrong, angry with man, and fretting against Him who has permitted the wrong to be done.

I can hardly imagine a position more terribly difficult than that of Joseph, as regarded the open avenues for the temptation. And now, in all its force, it came.

I. In this case, unlike Abraham's, the temptation is put before us as an enticement from the powers of darkness. But in Abraham's case we saw how the enemy must have used the test as a lure. So here we may be confident that Joseph's eternal Master and Friend used the lure as a test in faithfulness and love. He took the occasion to give Joseph just that victory which is won by tested faith alone. The young man put the sin away at once, in the name and in the power of God. He was instantly conscious of two things; that sin was sin, and that God was near. His moral standard was true. Egypt might condone what it pleased; for him, this act was a 'great wickedness'. And the essence of it was that it was 'against God'. He said nothing of Potiphar's wrath. The all-possessing thought was God. Jacob was far away; but God was there. And how could he 'sin against God'?

II. Joseph's temptation and his victory over it are both richly typical. His temptation was of a kind about which it is best to say and to write very little, unless under the sternest compulsion of manifest duty. But the kind is a kind awfully present to innumerable lives; the besetments of impurity in one form or another, where may they not be? 'The corruption that is in the world through lust' is a deep cancer, and a deadly one. Too many a human life has felt it first in quite young years. And how persistent it can be, long after the prime is over! So Joseph's awful trial stands for trials past all counting. And thus there comes through it, at once, at least this message, that the Word of God 'knows all about' these fierce assaults. And in that one simple reflection lies a help and hope very precious to tempted hearts.

III. Joseph's secret of victory we have noticed already. Briefly, and in its essence, it was 'the practice of the presence of God'. We read nothing, all through Joseph's life, of his inner spiritual experience. But this one sentence, spoken in the hour of temptation, is eloquent to tell us what it must have been. He must have 'walked with God' in close and watchful intercourse. Perhaps that awful hour in the dry pit at Dothan was his great crisis of discovery of the supreme reality of God for his soul. But however, 'God was in all his thoughts'; aye, in the Egyptian house, in the daily task, and so in the fierce temptation. The enemy assailed him with desperate force. But it was in vain. The chamber was not 'empty, swept and garnished'. God was at home within.

Bishop H. C. G. Moule.

The Victory of Conscience and Faith Over Impulse and Opportunity

Genesis 39:9

All of us may be benefited by seeing how other men have acted under given circumstances. Perhaps the most instructive and helpful biography ever penned, next to that of the only perfect one, is the life of the patriarch Jacob's favourite son; a type in many ways of Christ.

I. Think of the circumstances which might have made it easy for him to succumb to the temptation so powerfully described in this chapter.

( a ) He was young. This fact alone In the estimate of worldly minds is often enough to condone the gravest offences. Youth has its disadvantages, want of experience, etc., but it has also an unspeakable advantage over sinful advanced life in that it is free from the domination and tyranny of inveterate evil habit.

( b ) He was away from home. How often do young men think that absence from home gives them license to do as they think fit. It was not so with Joseph. He forgot not the lessons he had received under his father's tent nor the God before whom his father had taught him to bow.

( c ) Joseph might have pleaded that the consequences of his sin would be favour and advancement, while the consequences of his resistance would be, in all likelihood, irretrievable disgrace.

II. Consider the way in which Joseph, instead of yielding to the pressure of these circumstances, met and overcame the temptation which assailed him. How did he fortify himself against the enticement to evil?

( a ) By calling things by their right names. He had not so lived as to bedim or disturb his spiritual vision; and so he blurted out the truth at once, and called the act to which he was invited "This great wickedness".

( b ) By remembering that all wrongdoing is sin against God. It may be sin against self also but it most assuredly is sin against God. The faith which utters itself in these words was the source at once of the insight which enabled Joseph to perceive the true nature of the temptation, and of the strength in which he was able to overcome it.

J. R. Bailey, The Contemporary Pulpit, vol. v. p. 160.

References. XXXIX. 9. G. W. Brameld, Practical Sermons, p. 330. C. Kingsley, Gospel of the Pentateuch, p. 103. J. Clifford, Daily Strength for Daily Living, p. 57. XXXIX. 12. Spurgeon, Morning by Morning, p. 207. XXXIX. 20. G. Brooks, Outlines of Sermons, p. 369.

The Gift of Influence

Genesis 39:22

Joseph, as depicted in the beautiful Biblical narrative, was a born leader. His sweet and gracious nature, with its brightness and alertness, gave him easy access to men's hearts. Then he was of a gentle and affectionate disposition, which delighted in giving people pleasure and in serving them. He was a man of principle, too, conscientious, trustworthy, willing to suffer rather than commit a base or dishonourable act; and in the long-run character counts for much and makes men instinctively trust the man of tried probity. His supreme qualification was that he had an inner life of simple faith, which kept him from personal anxiety about his own future and left him free to think of others. There was in him in addition the unusual combination of the imaginative and the practical. The born leader of men must have something of both qualities, the power of the dreamer of appealing to sentiment and creating enthusiasm, bringing a glimpse of the ideal to his more prosaic followers; and at the same time he must prove his capacity and create confidence in his practical wisdom. Joseph showed he possessed both sets of qualities in all the varied situations in which he was placed. The young slave, who rose to be overseer in the house of his master, when he sank to be a prisoner impressed all there with his character and his capacity, so that the keeper of the prison trusted him, and all the inmates readily assented to his personal superiority, till he took his natural place as leader so that 'whatsoever the prisoners did there, he was the doer of it'. The prisoner became the real governor.

I. This is the way all leadership works. It is the power to do this which constitutes leadership. This peculiar magnetic power of a great leader makes his followers associate themselves utterly with his fortunes, so that his triumphs become theirs, and his ambitions write themselves on their minds. In truth the world waits for leaders in every branch of thought and activity, waits for men whom it can follow with a whole heart, whether or not we believe with Carlyle that universal history, the history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the history of the great men who have worked here. Even for practical success in every great enterprise there is a clamant need of leadership. The best designs and the best organisations will come to little without some inspiring head. Every great work needs a controlling brain and heart, a centre for affection and devotion. If this be amissing, even though all else be there, the best results are impossible. The history of the world may not be what it has been called, merely the biography of great men; but at any rate the history of the world would be different if the influence of even a few of its great men had been left out. Sometimes a whole epoch has been dominated by one man, who has made history because he was able to move men by the impulse of his mind and soul. It is a foolish way to treat history as if it were in a vacuum, the whirl of impersonal forces without father or mother or any definite human connexion. To treat the world of man without reference to the power of personal influence is to make it inexplicable. Joseph was the key of whatsoever the prisoners did; for he was the doer of it. The lines the Reformation took cannot be understood unless you understand something of Luther.

II. After all the subtle, magnetic force of a great man is only a common fact of life and experience, seen on a larger scale than usual. It is, or may be, the gift of all in some measure; and is not merely the privilege of the few. There is none who may not share in the burden and the glory of the Kingdom of Heaven. The patience of the sufferer, the faith of, the lowly, the prayers of the saints, the love of loving hearts, the ministry of kindly hands, are as incense swung from the censers of the angels. If you consecrate yourself to God you will get your place and wield your influence. What higher work is there than to help another to a clearer vision of truth, or to a nobler sense of duty, to encourage good and inspire to high ends?

Hugh Black, University Sermons, p. 55.

References. XXXIX. XL. F. W. Robertson, Notes on Genesis, p. 140. XL. 1-15. A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture Genesis, p. 248. XLI. 4. Spurgeon, Morning by Morning, p. 185. XLI. 9. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xii. No. 680.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William Robertson, M.A., L.L.D. "Commentary on Genesis 39". Expositor's Dictionary of Text. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/edt/genesis-39.html. 1910.
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