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Bible Commentaries
Genesis 39

Pett's Commentary on the BiblePett's Commentary



The Life of Joseph (Genesis 37:2 to Genesis 50:26 )

In this section we have the life of Joseph from beginning to end. It quite clearly bears within it the stamp of a deep knowledge of Egypt, its customs and its background, and could not have been written by anyone who did not have that deep knowledge, and who was not familiar with things at court. The correct technical terms are used for court officials. And the whole of Joseph’s stay in Egypt is clearly written against an Egyptian background without the artificiality which would appear if it was written by an outsider.

Verses 1-23

Joseph Is Sold Into Slavery, Resists Temptation and Strangely Prospers in Prison (Genesis 39:1-23 ).

That what now happens to Joseph is in the hands of Yahweh is abundantly made clear (Genesis 38:2-3; Genesis 38:21). He is with him there in that strange land able to bring about His will. He is Lord of all the earth.

Genesis 39:1 .

“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 Ishmaelites who had brought him down there.’

This verse basically repeats Genesis 37:36 to update us on the situation after the detour of Genesis 38:0. It may well have been written by the compiler with Genesis 39:2 continuing on from Genesis 37:36. He describes him as sold by the Ishmaelites because that is how Judah had described it in Genesis 37:27, to remind us of Judah’s part in the ‘tragedy’.

Genesis 39:2

‘And Yahweh was with Joseph and he was a man who prospered, and he was in the house of his master the Egyptian.’

In these next few verses Yahweh’s part is emphasised. Joseph may be in Egypt (and notice the stress on the fact that his master was an Egyptian (Genesis 39:1-2; Genesis 39:4)) but he is not forsaken by Yahweh. The name Yahweh is used to stress that what is happening is within the terms of the tribal covenant. Yahweh is at work.

“He was a man who prospered.” Things went well with him because Yahweh was with him.

“In the house.” He was a domestic servant.

“His master the Egyptian.” The constant repetition of this fact may indicate an intention to bring out a feeling of familiarity in others who have also been slaves in Egypt. If Moses is the compiler this is fully understandable and explicable. On the other hand it may have the purpose of emphasising that even an Egyptian can be prospered by Yahweh.

Genesis 39:3-6 a

‘And his master saw that Yahweh was with him and that Yahweh made all he did to prosper in his hand, and Joseph found favour in his sight and he made him overseer over his house, and all that he had he put into his hand. And it happened that from the time that he made him overseer in his house and over all that he had Yahweh blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake, and the blessing of Yahweh was on all that he had, in the house and in the field. And he left all that he had in Joseph’s hand, and with him he knew nothing except the food that he ate.’

What a different Joseph we have here from the tale-bearing, consciously superior Joseph we have known. His captivity has already done him good. And while his prospering is stressed to be due to Yahweh’s watch over him it also includes the fact that he works hard and wisely.

“Made him overseer over his house.” In all periods in the second millennium BC we know that Semites were often placed in places of favour and authority in Egyptian households, from Pharaoh’s house downwards. Thus his being made overseer of the house (imy-r pr, a common Egyptian title) is not unusual. The result is that his master puts him in control of everything he has which results in increased prosperity as a result of the blessing of Yahweh.

The Egyptologist K. Kitchen states: “Joseph was but one of many young Semites who became servants in Egyptian households between 1900 and 1600 B.C. Papyrus Brooklyn 35:1446, part of a prison-register, bears on its reverse a list of 79 servants in an Egyptian household around 1740 B.C. of whom at least 45 were not Egyptians but "Asiatics", i.e. Semites like Joseph. Many of these have good North-eastern Semitic names linguistically related to those of Jacob, Issachar, Asher, Job (Ayyabum) and Menahem. Some were "domestics" (hry-pr) just like Joseph in Genesis 39:2 ("in the house").”

Thus Yahweh is seen not only to prosper Joseph but also to prosper an important high official in the Egyptian court. Where now are the gods of Egypt?

“With him he knew nothing except the food that he ate.” This may mean that Joseph was so efficient that he simply left him to it and his only exertion was to eat his food, or it may suggest that that was the one sphere which was not left to Joseph, possibly for reasons of ritual separation (consider Genesis 43:32).

Genesis 39:6 b

‘And Joseph was good looking and well favoured. And it happened after these things that his master’s wife cast her eyes on Joseph, and she said, “Lie with me.” But he refused and said to his master’s wife, “Look, with me my master does not know what is in his house, and he has put all that he has into my hand. There is none greater in this house than I, neither has he kept anything back from me except you because you are his wife. How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” ’

The sad story that follows is not unusual. Well favoured slaves were regularly pursued by over-sexed mistresses. And to yield was often the path to even more favours, while to resist was to court revenge. But Joseph shows his worthiness by refusing to countenance her suggestion. His master has been ultra-good to him and trusted him with everything he has apart from her. How then can he fail him? And he has also God to answer to. To sin so would be to sin against God.

It has often been suggested that this story is based on ‘The Tale of the Two Brothers’, but a comparison between the two reveals little similarity. They differ on nearly every point. The only parallels are the sexual pursuit by the woman and the revenge sought by the woman and of these the one quite naturally follows the other and both are common features of life through the ages. In background and every detail the stories are different. We attach a copy of the story so that you may judge for yourselves.

Genesis 39:10-20

‘And it happened as she spoke to Joseph day by day that he would not listen to her to lie by her or to be with her. And it happened about this time that he went into the house to do his work, and there were 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 himself out. And it happened, when she saw that he had left his garment in her hand and had fled out, she called to the men of her house and spoke to them, saying, “See, he has brought in a Hebrew to us to insult us. He came in to me to lie with me, and I cried with a loud voice, and it came about that when he heard that I lifted up my voice and cried, he left his garment by me and fled and got himself out. And she kept his garment by her until his master came home. And she spoke to him in with similar words, saying, “The Hebrew servant whom you brought to us came in to me to seduce me, and the result was that as I lifted up my voice and shouted, he left his garment by me and fled out.” And it came about that when the master heard the words of his wife which she spoke to him saying, “Your servant treated me in this way,” that his anger was kindled, and Joseph’s master took him and put him into the prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were bound, and he was there in prison.’

The wife of Potiphar tries again and again to seduce Joseph but he continually resists her. But one day when he found himself alone in the house with her she grabs his clothing, and when he flees into the outer courtyard, probably quite naked, leaving the clothing in her hand she uses it as false evidence to condemn him, first to the servants and then to her husband, with the result that he is thrown into prison.

“See he has brought in a Hebrew to insult us.” The word almost certainly means Habiru. These were known to the Egyptians as ‘prw. The general idea in men’s minds about them was of wild, independent people of no specific race who were not quite respectable and who went their own way. Thus by calling him a ‘Hebrew’ she was cleverly suggesting this of him to servants who probably looked down on such people so that they were likely to believe her story.

Then to her husband she spoke accusingly as though her husband was to blame for bringing such a wild man among them, and spoke of him as ‘your servant’, almost certainly in a derisory and emphatic tone, making it quite clear whom she expected him to believe. And naturally he accepted her side of the story. Unless he was going to condemn her he had no option. So his anger was kindled against Joseph and he put him in the king’s prison ‘where the king’s prisoners were bound’.

Adultery was not seen as quite the grave personal offence among other nations as it would later be by Israel (Exodus 20:14; Leviticus 18:20; Deuteronomy 22:22 on). The offence was more of taking a man’s chattel, what belonged to him, and thus the death penalty would not necessarily be applied. But Joseph had no means of recompense and therefore must be punished. It may be that he was seen as still awaiting trial and left there. The captain of the bodyguard may have had some doubts about his guilt, and would not necessarily want the affair publicised.

Egyptian prisons were highly organised. Each prisoner’s record was filed under seven separate headings from initial arrest to the completion of the sentence. And the prison into which Joseph was put was no ordinary prison, but a special prison for those who were guilty of serious political offences as well as for criminals (‘where the king’s prisoners were bound’), which demonstrates how seriously Joseph’s supposed offence was taken. It may have been that in the well-known fortress Saru, which was on the borders of the Palestinian frontier. This prison is mentioned a number of times in the writings of Thutmosis III, some considerable period after the time of Joseph. It is also mentioned in the edicts of Pharaoh Haremheb, about the middle of the 14th century B.C. But 40:3,7 may suggest a more private prison.

“Insult us ---- seduce me.” The Hebrew is the same. The word means to play, to sport and thus to mock and insult and to play with sexually, therefore seduce.

Genesis 39:21-23

‘But Yahweh was with Joseph and showed kindness to him and gave him favour in the sight of the keeper of the prison. And the keeper of the prison committed to Joseph’s hand all the prisoners who were in the prison, and whatever they did he was the doer of it. The keeper of the prison did not look to anything that was under his hand because Yahweh was with him. And what he did Yahweh made it prosper.’

Joseph was one of those people who have the ability to make people have confidence in him. He had failed abysmally with his brothers, but to them he was only ‘younger brother’. But he had succeeded with Potiphar, and now, an even more difficult task, with the keeper of the prison (parallel to the Egyptian title s’wty n hnrt which has the same meaning)

The day to day running of the prison was clearly in the hands of certain of the trusted inmates under the keeper of the prison. Joseph gained his confidence over a period and was eventually put in over-all charge of the general day to day running of the prison.

But it is stressed that all this was due to Yahweh. Yahweh had prospered him in the house of the king’s officer, now he prospers him in his prison. The writer does not let us forget that Joseph is there under the protection of Yahweh for the fulfilment of His purposes. What is happening is all part of the covenant between Yahweh and the patriarchs. And the unseen presence of Yahweh must be recognised in the following narrative.

Bibliographical Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Genesis 39". "Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/pet/genesis-39.html. 2013.
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