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Bible Commentaries
Genesis 39

Utley's You Can Understand the BibleUtley Commentary


Genesis 39:0


Joseph's Success in EgyptJoseph a Slave in EgyptJoseph's Success, Temptation and ImprisonmentJoseph and Potiphar's WifeJoseph's Early Days in Egypt
Genesis 39:1-6aGenesis 39:1-6Genesis 39:1-6aGenesis 39:1-6aGenesis 39:1-6a
The Attempt to Seduce Joseph
Genesis 39:6-18 Genesis 39:6-18Genesis 39:6-10Genesis 39:6-10
Genesis 39:7-18
Genesis 39:11-15Genesis 39:11-15
Joseph Imprisoned Genesis 39:16-18Genesis 39:16-20a
Genesis 39:19-23Genesis 39:19-20Genesis 39:19-23Genesis 39:19-23Joseph in Gaol
Genesis 39:20-23
Genesis 39:21-23

READING CYCLE THREE (see Guide to Good Bible Reading)


This is a study guide commentary, which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

Read the chapter in one sitting. Identify the subjects. Compare your subject divisions with the five translations above. Paragraphing is not inspired, but it is the key to following the original author's intent, which is the heart of interpretation. Every paragraph has one and only one subject.

1. First paragraph

2. Second paragraph

3. Third paragraph

4. Etc.

Verses 1-6

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Genesis 39:1-6a 1Now Joseph had been taken down to Egypt; and Potiphar, an Egyptian officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the bodyguard, bought him from the Ishmaelites, who had taken him down there. 2The Lord was with Joseph, so he became a successful man. And he was in the house of his master, the Egyptian. 3Now his master saw that the LORD was with him and how the LORD caused all that he did to prosper in his hand. 4So Joseph found favor in his sight and became his personal servant; and he made him overseer over his house, and all that he owned he put in his charge. 5It came about that from the time he made him overseer in his house and over all that he owned, the LORD blessed the Egyptian's house on account of Joseph; thus the LORD 's blessing was upon all that he owned, in the house and in the field. 6So he left everything he owned in Joseph's charge; and with him there he did not concern himself with anything except the food which he ate.

Genesis 39:1 "Potiphar" This name, in Egyptian, seems to mean "he who the sun god gives" (BDB 806). He is mentioned in Genesis 37:36. A similar feminine name (i.e., Potiphera, BDB 806) is seen later in Genesis 41:45, Genesis 41:50; Genesis 46:20.

"an Egyptian officer" Many commentators have assumed that the Pharaoh who put Joseph in charge of Egypt was of the Hyksos or shepherd kings rulers (1720-1550 B.C., see History Channel Video: The Exodus Decoded). These Semitic invaders controlled Egypt for several hundred years. They assert that the reason this officer is identified as an Egyptian (cf. Genesis 39:2) was in contradistinction to a Semitic Hyksos ruler.

"officer" Literally this means a "eunuch" (see note at Genesis 37:36). However, because of Genesis 40:2 we understand that Potiphar was married. It is true that some physically castrated men were married, but it is not the norm. This term came to be used as simply the title for a court official and that seems to be the way it is used in this passage.

"Pharaoh" This is the title for all the Egyptian kings (BDB 829, lit. "great house"). The Egyptian kings were believed to be the sons of the sun god, Re. The "great house" is a reference to the royal palace or temple complex which represented the earthly abode of the Egyptian gods.

"the bodyguard" Literally this means "slaughterer" or "butcher" (see note at Genesis 37:36). Some have asserted that it is very similar to the term executioner. However, its usage, in both the Bible and in extra-Biblical material, seems to involve a military position connected to the royal guard. This would have meant that Potiphar was a very important, influential, and wealthy man.

"Ishmaelites" There has been much question about the identification of these nomadic traders. In Genesis 37:36 they are either called Midianites or Medanites (see note at Genesis 37:35). These groups both are identified in Genesis 37:28 and Judges 8:22, Judges 8:24. They have some connection with Ishmael and his descendants.

Genesis 39:2 "the LORD was with Joseph" It is theologically significant that this is one of the rare occurrences of the term YHWH in this section of Genesis. As a matter of fact it is the only occurrence in the account concerning Joseph. Also note it is speaking of events outside of Canaan. YHWH is not limited to the Promised Land (cf. Stephen's sermon in Acts 7:0).

The phrase "the LORD was with Joseph" occurs repeatedly (cf. Genesis 39:3, Genesis 39:21, Genesis 39:23) in this chapter and the blessings which accrue to him because of this become the main plot of the story. God, not Joseph, is the central character!

"he became a successful man" Joseph was a "successful" (BDB 852 II, KB 1026, Hiphil PARTICIPLE) man and those around him also were successful and prosperous. This was exactly what Jacob's presence did for Laban. Potiphar took note of the special blessing of Joseph's presence (cf. Genesis 39:3).

The VERB in the Hiphil and Qal stems denotes a successful accomplishment of a task (not physical blessings exclusively).

Genesis 39:1. Genesis 24:21, Genesis 24:40 (Hiphil)

Genesis 39:2. Judges 18:5 (Qal)

3. 2 Chronicles 26:5 (Hiphil)

Genesis 39:4. Nehemiah 1:11; Nehemiah 2:20 (Hiphil)

Genesis 39:5. Isaiah 53:10; Isaiah 55:11 (Qal)

6. Daniel 8:12, Daniel 8:24; Daniel 11:36 (Qal)

Be careful of English definitions and connotations guiding biblical word studies!

"he was in the house of his master the Egyptian" This is in contradistinction to the fact that he was not a field hand or that he lived in the master's house instead of the servant's quarters. Joseph became a trusted member of Potiphar's home.

Genesis 39:3 "his master saw that the LORD was with him" Potiphar did not put him in charge simply because of his administrative abilities, but because of his unique connection with the blessings of God. Potiphar did this strictly for personal gain and not in any religious sense.

Genesis 39:4 Joseph's service is described in two ways.

1. "personal servant," BDB 1058, KB 1661, Piel IMPERFECT, used of higher ranking minister, cf. 2 Samuel 13:17, 2 Samuel 13:18; 1 Kings 10:5; 2 Kings 4:43; 2 Kings 6:17

2. "overseer," BDB 823, KB 955, Hiphil IMPERFECT, cf. 2 Kings 25:23

Today we might call him "an administrative assistant" or "executive secretary." In Egyptian literature of this period "a household steward."

Genesis 39:5 "the LORD blessed the Egyptian's house on account of Joseph" This seems to be a truth throughout the OT period. There is a connection between physical blessing and one's relationship to the covenant people (cf. Genesis 12:3; Genesis 30:27).

Genesis 39:6 "So he left everything he owned in Joseph's charge. . .he did not concern himself with anything except the food which he ate" Some historians have mentioned that there was a strict dietary separation between the Egyptians and all other foreigners based on religious guidelines, as there is today between the Jews and all other foreigners. Whether this was the basis of this exception is uncertain, but this cultural distinction is apparent in Egyptian society (cf. Genesis 43:32).

Verses 6-18

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Genesis 39:6-18 6bNow Joseph was handsome in form and appearance. 7It came about after these events that his master's wife looked with desire at Joseph, and she said, "Lie with me." 8But he refused and said to his master's wife, "Behold, with me here, my master does not concern himself with anything in the house, and he has put all that he owns in my charge. 9There is no one greater in this house than I, and he has withheld nothing from me except you, because you are his wife. How then could I do this great evil and sin against God?" 10As she spoke to Joseph day after day, he did not listen to her to lie beside her or be with her. 11Now it happened one day that he went into the house to do his work, and none of the men of the household was there inside. 12She caught him by his garment, saying, "Lie with me!" And he left his garment in her hand and fled, and went outside. 13When she saw that he had left his garment in her hand and had fled outside, 14she called to the men of her household and said to them, "See, he has brought in a Hebrew to us to make sport of us; he came in to me to lie with me, and I screamed. 15When he heard that I raised my voice and screamed, he left his garment beside me and fled and went outside." 16So she left his garment beside her until his master came home. 17Then she spoke to him with these words, "The Hebrew slave, whom you brought to us, came in to me to make sport of me; 18and as I raised my voice and screamed, he left his garment beside me and fled outside."

"Now Joseph was handsome in form and appearance" This very same phrase ("handsome," BDB 421, "form," BDB 1061, "appearance," BDB 909) is used to describe his mother Rachel (cf. Genesis 29:17). There are several handsome men mentioned in the OT connected with the line of the Messiah. This phrase is also used in connection with David and his son Absalom. Even Saul is described as a tall, handsome man. Remember beauty/handsomeness is variable from culture to culture and age to age. Joseph's physical appearance will be the source of his problem with Potiphar's wife.

Genesis 39:7 "It came about after these events that his master's wife looked with desire at Joseph" We know from the social interaction that was possible for Egyptian women in their society that there came to be a cultural proverb connected with the licentiousness of Egyptian females. Potiphar's wife was very clever in her approach to Joseph. Her plan seems to have developed over time and she seems to make a multi-staged advance (cf. Genesis 39:10). This must have been a tremendous pressure on this young Hebrew lad as this manipulative lady approached him day after day with her sexual offers. There is an obvious contrast between the actions of Judah in chapter 38 and Joseph in this chapter!

Genesis 39:8-9 Joseph seems to make a very logical and appropriate answer to her advances in this verse. The first is connected to the kindness of Potiphar toward him and, in an implied way, that her unique position should not be violated. Also, Joseph sees God in connection with his sexual life as he sees Him in connection with all areas of his life. It is significant that sexual promiscuity, in his opinion, is not only a sin against Potiphar and also against Potiphar's wife, but certainly against Elohim. Notice that he uses the general name for God (i.e., Elohim) because this lady was obviously not a religiously informed person and she would not have recognized the covenant name for God, YHWH (see Special Topic: Names for Deity).

Genesis 39:10 "she spoke to Joseph day after day" This is the repeated burden of continual sexual pressure or possibly a sexual command from his owner's wife. Joseph was a slave! He did not have the right to control his own actions!

Genesis 39:11 From the connotation of the text, she planned for the other servants to be absent when Joseph came in for his regular household duties. The rabbis say that this was on an Egyptian feast day and she claimed to be sick in order to stay home and seduce Joseph.

Genesis 39:12 "And he left his garment and fled and went outside" Some accuse Joseph of being dumb because he left his garment (BDB 93, exactly what kind is uncertain, UBS A Handbook on Genesis, p. 895, asserts that servants in Egypt in this day wore no top, only a small shirt), but what was he supposed to do?! This was an appropriate, spiritual answer to lustful temptation (cf. 2 Timothy 2:22; 2 Peter 1:4).

Genesis 39:13-18 These verses contain Potiphar's wife's accusations to her other Egyptian servants and then her husband.

Genesis 39:14 "she called to the men of her household and said to them" They must have been close by, but not in the house. There are several elements in her statement which are interesting.

1. she blamed her husband for bringing this Hebrew slave into the house (cf. Genesis 39:19)

2. she made a racial slur because he was a Hebrew

It is obvious from Egyptian records that they felt themselves to be superior to other foreign peoples.

"Hebrew"The term for "Hebrew" (BDB 720) has one of two possible origins: (1) it comes from Eber, the ancestor from which Abraham's family developed (cf. Genesis 11:16, used of Abraham in Genesis 14:13 and his descendants (cf. Genesis 39:14, Genesis 39:17; Genesis 40:15; Genesis 41:12; Genesis 43:32) or (2) it comes from the general name for the nomadic people who came from beyond the river called the Habiri (immigrant) in the Tel El Armarna letters.

"to make sport of us" The Hebrew term "make sport of us" (BDB 850, KB 1019, Piel INFINITIVE CONSTRUCT) in this verse seems to be a cultural idiom for "try to sexually harass us" (cf. Genesis 26:8). The implication is that Joseph had done this repeatedly to her and to other members of Potiphar's house.

Verses 19-23

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Genesis 39:19-23 19Now when his master heard the words of his wife, which she spoke to him, saying, "This is what your slave did to me," his anger burned. 20So Joseph's master took him and put him into the jail, the place where the king's prisoners were confined; and he was there in the jail. 21But the LORD was with Joseph and extended kindness to him, and gave him favor in the sight of the chief jailer. 22The chief jailer committed to Joseph's charge all the prisoners who were in the jail; so that whatever was done there, he was responsible for it. 23The chief jailer did not supervise anything under Joseph's charge because the LORD was with him; and whatever he did, the LORD made to prosper.

Genesis 39:20 "So Joseph's master took him and put him in jail" The normal punishment for this kind of crime was death (The IVP Bible Background Commentary, p. 71). It seems that Potiphar might have had some doubts concerning the veracity of his wife's statement. I am sure that at this point in Joseph's life, even with great faith in God, he must have wondered what was happening (cf. Genesis 40:15)!

"the place where the king's prisoners were confined; and he was placed there in the jail" This is a very unusual term for jail. It seems to be from the root "to be circular" (from Song of Song of Solomon 7:2) or "enclosed" (BDB 690, found only in Genesis 39:3 and 40:3,5) and some commentators assert that it was a round-shaped prison, while others believe it was a special building on the grounds of the captain of the guard (i.e., Potiphar). If this is true we can see how Joseph was apparently transferred from the master's house to the master's prison which was not too far distant.

God's "unseen hand" is at work to start the next step of His plan. Joseph has been radically changed by his faith in YHWH since chapter 37. Knowing God should affect our character and actions!

Genesis 39:21-23 The presence of God was still with Joseph in a very unique and, apparently, visible way. This does not mean that there were not some very difficult experiences of body and mind which he went through, but God's care was obviously with him.

Genesis 39:23 This phrasing is similar to Genesis 39:6. Joseph took care of everything. He was a divinely gifted administrator and later we will learn, dream interpreter.

Bibliographical Information
Utley. Dr. Robert. "Commentary on Genesis 39". "Utley's You Can Understand the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ubc/genesis-39.html. 2021.
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