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Bible Commentaries
Genesis 39

Lange's Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal and HomileticalLange's Commentary

Verses 1-23


Joseph in Potiphar’s house and in prison. His sufferings on account of his virtue, and his apparent destruction.

Genesis 39:1-23

1And Joseph was brought down to Egypt; and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, captain of the guard [life-guardsmen, executioners], an Egyptian, bought him of the hands of the Ishmaelites, which had brought him down thither. 2And the Lord was with Joseph, and he was a prosperous man; and he was in the house of his master the Egyptian. 3And his master saw that the Lord was with him, and that the Lord made all that he did to prosper in his hand. 4And Joseph found grace in his sight, and he served him; and he made him overseer over his house, and all that he had he put into his hand. 5And it came to pass from the time that he had made him overseer in his house, and over all that he had, that the Lord blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake; and the blessing of the Lord was upon all that he had in the house and in the field. 6And he left all that he had in Joseph’s hand; and he knew not aught he had save the bread which he did eat. And Joseph was a goodly person, and well-favored 7[see Genesis 29:17]. And it came to pass, after these things, that his master’s wife cast her eyes upon Joseph; and she said, Lie with me. 8But he refused, and said unto his master’s wife, Behold, my master wotteth not what is with me in the house, and Hebrews 9:0 hath committed all that he hath to my hand; There is none 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? 10And 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. 11And it came to pass about this time, that Joseph went into the house to do his business; and there was none of the men of the house there within. 12And she caught him by his garment, saying, Lie with me: and he left his garment in her hand, and fled, and got him out [of the house]. 13And it came to pass, when she saw that he had left his garment in her hand, and was fled forth, 14That she called unto the men of her house, and spake unto them, saying, See, he hath brought in an Hebrew unto us to mock us; he came in unto me to he with me, and I cried with a loud voice: 15And it came to pass, when he heard that I lifted up my voice and cried, that he left his garment with me and fled, and got him out. 16And she laid up his garment by her, until his lord came home. 17And she spake unto him according to these words, saying, The Hebrew servant, which thou hast brought unto us, came in unto me to mock me: 18And it came to pass, as I lifted up my voice, and cried, that he left his garment with me, and fled out. 19And 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. 20And Joseph’s master took him, and put him into the prison [stronghold]1 a place where the king’s prisoners [state-prisoners] were bound: and he was there in the prison. 21But the Lord was with Joseph, and shewed him mercy, and gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison. 22And 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. 23The keeper of the prison looked not to anything that was under his hand, because the Lord was with him, and that which he did, the Lord made it to prosper.


1. The three chapters, 39–42, form a distinct section by themselves. Joseph in Egypt—in his misery and in his exaltation; first, himself apparently lost, afterwards a saviour of the world. Ch. 40 presents the transition from his humiliation to his exaltation.
2. In the section from Genesis 39-42, Knobel recognizes the elements of the original text, mingled with the additions of the Jehovist. It is a matter of fact, that the elohistic relations predominate, but in decisive points Jehovah appears as the ruler of Joseph’s destiny.
3. If the preceding chapter might be regarded as a counterpart to ch.37, then the present chapter forms again a counterpart to the one before it. Both chapters agree in referring especially to sexual relations. In the former, Onan’s sin, whoredom, and incest, are spoken of; in the one before us, it is the temptation to adultery. In the former, however, Judah, on account of sexual sins, seems greatly involved in guilt, though it is to be considered that he intended to restrain the unchastity of his sons, that he upholds the levirate law, that he judges severely of the supposed adultery of one betrothed, and that he purposely and decidedly shuns incest. Nevertheless, he himself does not resist the allurement to unchastity, whilst Joseph persistently resists the temptation to adultery, and shines brilliantly as an ancient example of chastity. His first trial, when he was sold, was his suffering innocently in respect to crime, and yet not without some fault arising from his inconsiderateness. His second and more grievous trial was his suffering on account of his virtue and fear of God, and, therefore, especially typical was it in the history of the kingdom of God.

4. Our narrative may be divided into three parts: 1) Joseph’s good conduct and prosperity in Potiphar’s house (Genesis 39:1-6); 2) Joseph’s temptation, constancy, and sufferings (Genesis 39:6-20); 3) Joseph’s well-being in prison (Genesis 39:21-23).


1. Joseph’s good behavior and prosperity in Potiphar’s house (Genesis 39:1-6).—And Potiphar bought him (see Genesis 37:36).—As captain of the “executioners,” he commanded the guard of the palace, or Pharaoh’s body-guard, who were to execute his death-sentences, and was named accordingly. Concerning this office among other ancient nations, see Knobel, p. 303. The name eunuch also denotes a courtier in general; but Knobel, without any ground, would regard Potiphar as really such; though these were frequently married.—And the Lord was with Joseph.—Here the name Jehovah certainly corresponds with the facts. Joseph was not only saved, but it is Jehovah who saves him for the purposes of his kingdom. His master soon recognizes in him the talent with which he undertakes and executes everything entrusted to him. As by Jacob’s entrance into Laban’s house, so by Joseph’s entrance into Potiphar’s, there comes a new prosperity, which strikes Potiphar as something remarkable. He ascribes it to Joseph as a blessing upon his piety, and to his God Jehovah, and raises Joseph to the position of his overseer. In this office he had, doubtless, the management of an extensive land-economy; for in this respect there was, for the military order, a rich provision. It was a good training for the management of the trust he afterwards received in respect to all Egypt. Upon this new influence of Joseph there follows a greater prosperity, and therefore Potiphar commits to him his whole house.—Save the bread which he did eat.—Schröder: “There appears here that characteristic oriental indolence, on account of which a slave who has command of himself may easily attain to an honorable post of influence.” Save the bread, etc. “This,” according to Bohlen, “is an expression of the highest confidence; but the ceremonial Egyptian does not easily commit to a stranger anything that pertains to his food.” Besides, the Egyptians had their own laws concerning food, and did not eat with Hebrews.

2. Joseph’s temptations, consolations, and sufferings (Genesis 39:6-20).—And Joseph was a goodly man.—His beauty occasioned his temptations.—His master’s wife cast her eyes upon him.—His temptations are long continued, beginning with lustful persuasions, and ending in a bold attack. Joseph, on the other hand, tries to awaken her conscience; he places the proposed sin in every possible light; it would be a disgraceful abuse of the confidence reposed in him by his master; it would be an outrage upon his rights as a husband; it would be adultery, a great crime in the sight of God. Again, he shuns every opportunity the woman would give him, and finally takes to flight on a pressing occasion which she employs, notwithstanding he is now to expect her deadly revenge. Knobel: “The ancients describe Egypt as the home of unchastity (Martial, iv. 42, Genesis 4:0 : nequitias tellus scit dare nulla magis), and speak of the great prevalence of marriage infidelity (Herod, ii. 111; Diod. Sic. i. 59), as well as of their great sensuality generally. For example, the history of Cleopatra, Diod. Gen 51. 15.” For similar statements respecting the later and modern Egypt, see Keil, p. 251, note.—To lie by her.—An euphemistic expression.—That she called unto the men.—Lust changes into hatred. She intends to revenge herself for his refusal. Besides, it is for her own safety; for though Joseph himself might not betray her, she might be betrayed by his garment that he had left behind. Her lying story is characteristic in every feature. Scornfully she calls her husband he (“he hath brought in,” etc.), and thereby betrays her hatred. Joseph she designates as “an Hebrew,” i. e., one of the nomadic people, who was unclean according to Egyptian views (Genesis 43:32; Genesis 46:34). Both expressions show her anger. She reproaches her husband with having imperilled her virtue, but makes a show of it, by calling the pretended seductions of Joseph a wanton mockery, as though by her outcry she would put herself forth as the guardian of the virtue of the females of her house.—Unto me to mock me.—Her extreme cunning and impudence are proved by the fact that she makes use of Joseph’s garment as the corpus delicti, and that in pretty plain terms she almost reproaches Potiphar with having purposely endangered her chastity.—That his wrath was kindled.—It is to be noticed that it is not exactly said, against Joseph. He puts him into the tower, the state-prison, surrounded by a wall, and in which the prisoners of the king, or the state criminals, were kept. Genesis 39:10. Delitzsch and Keil regard this punishment as mild; since, according to Diod. Sic. i. 28, the Egyptian laws of marriage were severe. It must be remembered, however, that Potiphar decreed this penalty without any trial of the accused, and that his confinement seems to have been unlimited. At the same time, there is something in the opinion, expressed by many, that he himself did not fully believe his wife’s assertion, and intended again, in time, to reinstate Joseph. It may, therefore, have seemed to him most proper to pursue this course, in order to avoid the disgrace of his house, without sacrificing entirely this hitherto faithful servant. The prosperous position that Joseph soon held in the prison seems to intimate that Potiphar was punishing him gently for appearance sake.

3. Joseph’s well-being in the prison (Genesis 39:21-23).—Favor in the sight of the keeper.—This was a subordinate officer of Potiphar; and “thus vanishes the difficulty presented by Tuch and Knobel, that Joseph is said to have had two masters, and that mention is made of two captains of the body-guard.” Delitzsch. The overseer of the prison also recognizes Joseph’s worth, and makes him a sort of sub-officer; though he does not, by that, cease to be a prisoner.


1. Gerlach: The important step in the development of the divine plan is now to be made: the house of Jacob was to remove from the land of the promise into a foreign country, as had been announced to Abraham many years before (Genesis 15:13). Jacob’s numerous family could no longer remain among the Canaanites, without dispersion, loss of unity and independence, and troublesome conflicts with the inhabitants of the country. “Further on it is said: They were to become a people in the most cultivated country then known, and yet most distinctly separated from the inhabitants.”

2. Jehovah was with Joseph. The covenant God victoriously carries forward his decrees through all the need, sufferings, and ignominy of his people. Joseph, so to say, is now the support of the future development of the Old-Testament theocracy; and on the thread of his severely threatened life, as one above whose head hangs the sword of the heathen executioner, there is suspended, as far as the human eye can see, the destiny both of Israel and the world. God’s omnipotence may, and can, make its purposes dependent from such threads as Joseph in prison, Moses in the ark, David in the cave of Adullam. Providence is sure of the accomplishment of its object.
3. Joseph suffering innocently, yet confiding in God: a. a slave, yet still a free man; b. unfortunate, yet still a child of fortune: c. abandoned, yet still standing firm in the severest temptations; d. forlorn, yet still in the presence of God; e. an object of impending wrath, yet still preserved alive; f. a state-prisoner, and yet himself a prison-keeper; g. every way subdued, yet ever again superior to his condition. In this phase of his life, Joseph is akin to Paul (2 Corinthians 6:0), with whom he has this in common, that, through the persecutions of his brethren, he is forced to carry the light of God’s kingdom into the heathen world,—a fact, it is true, that first appears, in the life of Joseph, in a typical form.

4. Joseph, as an example of chastity, stands here in the brightest light when compared with the conduct of Judah in the previous chapter. From this we see that the divine election of the Messianic tribe was not dependent upon the virtues of the Israelitish patriarchs. We should be mistaken, however, in concluding from this a groundless arbitrariness in the divine government. In the strong fulness of Judah’s nature there lies more that is undeveloped for the future, than in the immature spirituality and self-reliance of Joseph. It is a seal of the truth of Holy Scripture that it admits such seeming paradoxes as no mythology could have invented, as well as a seal of its grandeur that it could so boldly present such a patriarchal parallel to a people proud of its ancestry, whose principal tribe was Judah, and in which Judah and Ephraim were filled with jealousy toward each other.
5. Joseph’s victory shows how a man, and especially a young man, is to overcome temptation. The first requirement is: walk as in the all-seeing presence of God; the second: fight with the weapons of the word in the light of duty (taking the offensive, which the spirit of conversion assumes according to the measure of its strength); the third: avoid the occasions of sin; the fourth: firmness before all things, and, if it must be, flight with the loss of the dress, of the good name, and even of life itself.
6. The curse of adultery and its actual sentence in Joseph’s speech and conduct.
7. The accusation of the woman a picture of cabal, reflecting itself in all times, even the most modern. The first example of gross calumniation in the Sacred Scripture, coming from an adulterous woman, presenting a picture, the very opposite of Joseph’s virtue, as exhibiting the most impudent and revengeful traits of vindictive lying. Thus, also, was Christ calumniated, in a way that might be called the consummation of all calumny, the master-piece of the prince of accusers.
8. Potiphar’s wrath and mildness are indications that he had a presentiment of what the truth really was. It is also an example showing how the pride of the great easily inclines them to sacrifice to the honor of their house the right and happiness of their dependants.


See Doctrinal and Ethical. Joseph’s destiny according to the divine providence: 1. His misfortune in his fortune. As formerly the preference of his father, his variegated coat, and the splendid dreams, prepared for him misfortunes, so now his important function in Potiphar’s house, and his goodly person. 2. His fortune in his misfortune. He was to go to Egypt, assume the condition of a slave, enter prison, and all this in order to become a prophetic man, an interpreter of dreams, an overseer of estates, lord of Egypt, a deliverer of many from hunger, a cause of repentance to his brethren, and of salvation to the house of Jacob.—Taube: The promise of suffering, and the blessing of godliness: 1. Its use: “godliness is profitable unto all things; ” 2. its sufferings: “all that will live godly shall suffer persecution; ” 3. its blessing in its exercise: “exercise thyself unto godliness.”

Section First. (Genesis 39:1-6). Starke.: There is no better companion on a journey than God. Blessed are they who never forget to take this society with them wherever they go.—Bibl. Tub.: God’s blessing and grace are with the pious everywhere, even in their severest trials.—Cramer: Where God is present with his grace, there he will be soon known through his word, and other tokens of his presence.—Osiander: Pious servants should be made happy in their service; they should be loved as children, and elevated to higher employments.—Lange: A beautiful bodily form, and a disposition fundamentally enriched, both by grace and nature! how fitly do they correspond.—Schröder: In Egypt Jacob’s family had a rich support during the famine; there could it grow up to a great and united people; there it found the best school of human culture; there was the seat of the greatest worldly power, and, therefore, the best occasion in which to introduce those severe sufferings that were to awaken in Israel a longing after redemption, and a spirit of voluntary consecration to God (Hengstenberg).—God’s being with Joseph, however, is not a presence of special revelations, as with the patriarchs, but a presence of blessing and success in all things (Baumgarten).—Joseph happy, though a servant.—Among the implements of agriculture delineated on the Egyptian tombs, there is often to be seen an overseer keeping the accounts of the harvest. In a tomb at Kum el Ahmar there is to be seen the office of a household steward, with all its appurtenances.

Section Second. (Genesis 39:7-20). Starke: Luther: Thus far Satan had tempted Joseph on his left side, i. e., by manifold and severe adversities; now he tempts him on the right, by sensuality. This temptation is most severe and dangerous, especially to a young man. For Joseph lived now among the heathen, where such sins were frequent, and could, therefore, more easily excite a disposition in any way inclined to sensual pleasure. The more healthy one is in body, the more violent is this sickness of the soul (Sir 14:14), The more dangerous temptations are, or the more difficult to be overcome, so much the more plausible and agreeable are they. Nothing is more alluring than the eyes. “And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out.”

Genesis 39:9. Musculus: In all cases he who sins, sins against God,—even then when he is wronging his fellow-men. But he most especially sins against God who injures the forsaken, the miserable, the “little ones,” and those who are deficient in understanding. For God will protect them, since they cannot be wronged without the grossest wickedness.—Augustine: Imitentur adolescentes Joseph sanctum, pulchrum corpore, pulchriorem mente.—Lange: Since by nature shame is implanted in women to a higher degree than in men (in addition to the fact, that in consenting and transgression she is exposed to more danger and shame), so much the more disgraceful is it when she so degenerates as not only to lay snares secretly for the other sex, but also impudently to importune them.—The same: The fear of God is the best means of grace for avoiding sin and shame.—Hall: A pious heart would rather remain humbled in the dust then rise by sinful means.

Genesis 39:12. He preferred to leave his garment behind him, rather than a good conscience.—Lange: In a temptation to adultery and fornication, flight becomes the most pressing necessity.

Genesis 39:18. Cramer: The devil will be true to his nature; for as he is an unclean spirit, so also is he a liar.—Hall: Wickedness is ever artful in getting up false charges against the virtues and good works of others (Acts 16:20). We must be patient toward the diabolical slanders of the impious; for God finally comes and judges them.—Beware of the act itself; against the lie there may be found a remedy

Genesis 39:19-20. He who believes easily is easily deceived. Magistrates should neither be partial, hasty, nor too passionate.

Schröder: “Joseph was a goodly person.” With literal reference to Genesis 29:17, Joseph was the reflected image of his mother. They in whose hearts the Holy Spirit dwells, are wont to have a countenance frank, upright, and joyful (Luther).—The love of Potiphar’s wife was far more dangerous to Joseph than the hatred of his brothers (Rambach).—Now a far worse servitude threatens him, namely, that of sin (Krummacher).—Joseph had a chaste heart, and, therefore, a modest tongue (Val. Herberger). Unchaste expressions a mark of unchaste thoughts. On the monuments may be seen Egyptian women who are so drunk with wine that they cannot stand. Of a restriction of wives, as customary afterwards in the East, and even in Greece, we find no trace.—Joseph lets his mantle go, but holds on to a good conscience. Joseph is again stripped of his garment, and again does it serve for the deception of others.—Sensual love changes suddenly into hatred (2 Samuel 13:15).—Calwer Handbuch: Such flight is more honorable than the most heroic deeds.

Section Third. (Genesis 39:21-23). Starke: Osiander: To a pious man there cannot happen a severer misfortune than the reputation of guilt, and of deserved punishment therefor, when he is innocent (Romans 8:28).—Cramer: God sympathises with those who suffer innocently (James 1:3). God bringeth his elect down to the grave, but bringeth them up again (1 Samuel 2:6). Whom God would revive, can no one stifle. Whom God favors, no misfortune can harm.

Schröder: Those who believe in God must suffer on account of virtue, truth, and goodness; not on account of sin and shame (Luther). Exaltation in humiliation, a sceptre in a prison, servant and Lord—even as Christ.—God’s eyes behold the prison, the fetters, and the most shameful death, as he beholds the fair and shining sun. In Joseph’s condition nothing is to be seen but death, the loss of his fair fame, and of all his virtues. Now comes Christ with his eyes of grace, and throws light into the grave. Joseph is to become a Lord, though he had seemingly entered into the prison of hell (Luther). Joseph’s way is now for a time in the darkness, but this is the very way through which God often leads his people. Thus Moses, David, Paul, Luther; so lived the Son of God to his thirtieth year in Nazareth. Nothing is more opposed to God than that impatience of the power of nature which would violently usurp his holy government.—Stolberg justly commends “the inimitable simplicity of Joseph’s history, narrated in the most vivid manner, and bearing on its face the most unmistakable seal of truth.”


[1][Genesis 39:20.—בֵּית הַסֹּהַר. Literally, the round house, so called from its shape, which was different from the common Egyptian architecture—thus constructed, perhaps, as giving greater strength. Aben Ezra expresses the opinion that the word is Egyptian; but it occurs in Hebrew, as in Song of Solomon 7:3 (סַהַר), where it evidently has the sense of roundness, and is so rendered in the ancient versions. This is confirmed by its near relationship to the more common סחר, to go round, from which the Syriac has its word ܒܩ ܫܫܖ̇ܬ ܐ for tower or castle. Although Joseph, for policy, used an interpreter when speaking with his brethren, yet there must have been, at this time, a great affinity between the Shemitic and the old Egyptian tongue. Very many of the words must have been the same in both languages. The LXX. have rendered it, ἐν ὀχυρώματι, in the stronghold; Vulg., simply in carcerem.—T. L.]

Bibliographical Information
Lange, Johann Peter. "Commentary on Genesis 39". "Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal, and Homiletical". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lcc/genesis-39.html. 1857-84.
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