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Bible Commentaries
Genesis 39

Whedon's Commentary on the BibleWhedon's Commentary

Verse 1


1. Down to Egypt “Down from the Syrian Plains to the Desert, and down the Desert to the Nile Valley . The life of the chosen family now mingles for centuries with the stream of Egyptian civilization . The saviour of the Hebrew people, like his divine antitype, was to descend to the lowest depths that he might rise to the loftiest heights . ‘Down into Egypt,’ was down to the darkness of infamy also, in the estimation of men, where God was his solitary stay when utterly cut off from the sympathy of men, as the reward of virtue too high for them to see; yet up from that dungeon he was lifted to worldwide honour, sympathy, and love .

Potiphar This officer of Pharaoh (see Genesis 37:36) is not to be confounded with the Potipherah priest of On, or Heliopolis, whose daughter Joseph afterwards married . Genesis 41:45. The name seems to have been a common one in Egypt, since it is found very often written in hieroglyphics upon the monuments. The ancient Egyptian form of the name in the hieroglyphic inscriptions is PET-P-RA or PET-PH-RA, which signifies ‘belonging to the sun.’ GES., Thesaur. RA or RE, (with the article PRA or PhRA,) the SUN, was one of the great Egyptian gods, father of many deities, and is represented in the monuments by a circle with a dot in the centre, sometimes enveloped in the coil of a serpent, sometimes accompanied by a hawk. Poole, in Encyc. Brit. The name Pharaoh is derived from Phrah, since the Egyptian king was regarded as the representative of the sun. RAWL., Herodotus, ii, p. 241.

“It is generally supposed by the Egyptologists that Joseph was sold into Egypt during the reign of the ‘shepherd kings,’ (Hyksos,) a foreign dynasty who invaded the country from the north, (although their origin and race is as yet uncertain,) dispossessed the native kings of Lower Egypt, and held dominion there, perhaps five or six centuries, when they were driven out by a native dynasty. This alien line of kings maintained itself with difficulty against the native princes who still held Upper Egypt, being hated by the Egyptian people, and ever ready therefore to form alliances with foreigners. The native Egyptians, on the other hand, were remarkably exclusive, having strong prejudices, and even hatred and contempt, for foreigners. The monumental literature of Egypt shows this intense antipathy to foreigners in a thousand forms. The wonderful and more than romantic history of Joseph could not have taken place under the native Pharaohs. A foreigner could not, under the native Egyptian rule, have been elevated to the second place of authority, nor could families of foreigners have been welcomed, as were the families of Israel, to settle in the kingdom. Poole, in Smith’s Dict. Here, then, in this Hyksos invasion and possession of Egypt during the time that the three great patriarchs were roaming through Palestine, we find a providential preparation for the Egyptian period of the history of the chosen people. Not only was ‘the Lord with Joseph’ after his arrival at Potiphar’s house, but he had long before prepared the kingdom for him.” Newhall.

Verse 2

2. The Lord was with Joseph The holy covenant God of Israel was not absent from his faithful servant. He ever encampeth round about them that fear him.

A prosperous man Making to prosper whatever he undertook. Compare the Psalmist’s description of the blessed or happy man. Psalms 1:3.

He was in the house of his master First as a house-servant, then overseer of all his possessions . Genesis 39:4-6. Potiphar quickly discerned Joseph’s integrity and pious attention to all his affairs . He probably did not concern himself about the religious ideas of his slave, or learn from him any special doctrines of Jehovah . He doubtless adhered to his own Egyptian idolatries. But in Genesis 39:2-6 the sacred historian shows that the integrity and prosperity of Joseph were due to the divine providence which favoured the faithful son of Israel.

“The great pictures of Egyptian civilization which are found in the monumental sepulchres, abound in representations of overseership in the house and in the field. Workmen are represented as engaged in various kinds of labour, such as gardening, farming, fishing, while the overseer watches and directs, and keeps the record of the work with a reed pen in a papyrus register. Division and subdivision of labour, and minute supervision, had at this time been carried to a high degree in this home of science and civilization. Great native talent as well as integrity is displayed in this sudden rise of a shepherd-lad, sold as a slave into such a land as Egypt. We see here unmistakable signs of superior abilities, which serve to explain the previous envy of his brethren. A man so clearly born to command must have displayed something of his power and the natural bent of his genius in early youth.” Newhall.

Verse 7

7. Cast her eyes upon Joseph Having briefly but impressively explained how Joseph became exalted in the house of his Egyptian master, and now Potiphar trusted every thing to his management; also having, at the close of Genesis 39:6, mentioned the great personal beauty of the Hebrew slave, the writer has prepared us to understand the power of the great temptation which came to Joseph . The licentiousness of Egyptian women is evidenced by numerous testimonies. The monuments, as well as ancient writers, show that they did not live the secluded life to which the women of other eastern nations were compelled. See Wilkinson, Ancient Egypt, vol. i, p. 144; vol. ii, p. 224. An Egyptian papyrus in the British Museum relates the story of two brothers, the wife of the elder of whom acts and speaks toward the younger almost in the same words that Potiphar’s wife used with Joseph. See Ebers, Egypten, p. 311.

Verse 9

9. This great wickedness Joseph’s answer is most noble . He sees and shows the monstrous criminality of thus abusing his master’s confidence; it would be a double sin, wickedness against Potiphar, sin against God.

Verse 11

11. About this time The time, or day, definite in the writer’s mind as that on which this event occurred .

Verse 14

14. She called unto the men of her house To other men-servants, who were under Joseph’s oversight . Like the evil woman of all times and nations, she was quick to ruin the man who would not follow her desires . She seeks first to make the men-servants witnesses in the case, and then waits until her husband’s return to repeat the same abominable falsehood to him . Genesis 39:16-18. The story of Potiphar’s wife, whose traditionary name is Zuleekha, is told with much amplification by Josephus, ( Ant . , book ii, chap. iv,) and in Oriental romance. The Koran relates it in that chapter (12) to which Mohammed appealed as bearing the manifest signs of inspiration.

Verse 20

20. Put him into the prison Or, house of the round tower, “the fortified house where the king’s prisoners were guarded . A very light punishment, considering the severity of the Egyptian laws, apparently showing that it was inflicted rather to save his wife’s reputation than to punish Joseph. (Le Clerc.) There is no evidence that Joseph attempted to vindicate himself. Indeed, it would have been useless. It was one of those fearful trials which shut the righteous man up to a single course, namely, to suffer, and wait in faith.” Newhall.

Verse 21

21. The Lord was with Joseph “Jehovah is with him in the prison as well as in the house of Potiphar, and he wins the confidence of his new master, the jailer, as completely as he did that of Potiphar . Amid allurements and enticements, and amid degradation and suffering, in honour and dishonour, Joseph’s faith and integrity shine on the same . Unlike his father Jacob, or even his great-grandfather Abraham, Joseph is never seen to slip into temptation . He reveals the most steady and uniform faith, and on the whole the best-balanced character that we find in the patriarchal age . Especially is Joseph a remarkable example of youthful piety . In fact, while Abraham lives as a hoary sage in our imagination, Joseph rises before us ever in the beauty and freshness of youth . At the age of seventeen he exchanged the simple pastoral life of Palestine, with its tents and pastures and sheepfolds, for the massive cities and luxurious splendours of Egyptian civilization; the rude altars of Beth-el and Beer-sheba for the bewildering grandeur of temples which fill the soul with awe today; yet he never forgot the God of his fathers, and to the law of that God he clung, not only in obedience, but in love, when to disobey would seem to have been the dictate of every worldly interest. He came to that land a slave, and friendless, yet by the simple force of character he rose to be next to Pharaoh. This is moral greatness and grandeur.” Newhall.

Bibliographical Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Genesis 39". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/whe/genesis-39.html. 1874-1909.
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