Commentary on Genesis 39

Last updated: November 19, 2009

English Translation (ESV)

1Now Joseph had been brought down to Egypt, and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard, an Egyptian, had bought him from the Ishmaelites who had brought him down there. 2The LORD was with Joseph, and he became a successful man, and he was in the house of his Egyptian master. 3His master saw that the LORD was with him and that the LORD caused all that he did to succeed in his hands. 4So Joseph found favor in his sight and attended him, and he made him overseer of his house and put him in charge of all that he had. 5From the time that he made him overseer in his house and over all that he had the LORD blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake; the blessing of the LORD was on all that he had, in house and field. 6So he left all that he had in Joseph’s charge, and because of him he had no concern about anything but the food he ate.

Now Joseph was handsome in form and appearance. 7And after a time his master’s wife cast her eyes on Joseph and said, “Lie with me.” 8But he refused and said to his master’s wife, “Behold, because of me my master has no concern about anything in the house, and he has put everything that he has in my charge. 9He is not greater in this house than I am, nor has he kept back anything from me except yourself, because you are his wife. How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” 10And as she spoke to Joseph day after day, he would not listen to her, to lie beside her or to be with her.

11But one day, when he went into the house to do his work and none of the men of the house was there in the house, 12she caught him by his garment, saying, “Lie with me.” But he left his garment in her hand and fled and got out of the house. 13And as soon as she saw that he had left his garment in her hand and had fled out of the house, 14she called to the men of her household and said to them, “See, he has brought among us a Hebrew to laugh at us. He came in to me to lie with me, and I cried out with a loud voice. 15And as soon as he heard that I lifted up my voice and cried out, he left his garment beside me and fled and got out of the house.” 16Then she laid up his garment by her until his master came home, 17and she told him the same story, saying, “The Hebrew servant, whom you have brought among us, came in to me to laugh at me. 18But as soon as I lifted up my voice and cried, he left his garment beside me and fled out of the house.”

19As soon as his master heard the words that his wife spoke to him, “This is the way your servant treated me,” his anger was kindled. 20And Joseph’s master took him and put him into the prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were confined, and he was there in prison. 21But the LORD was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love and gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison. 22And the keeper of the prison put Joseph in charge of all the prisoners who were in the prison. Whatever was done there, he was the one who did it. 23The keeper of the prison paid no attention to anything that was in Joseph’s charge, because the LORD was with him. And whatever he did, the LORD made it succeed.

Notes

1 Now Joseph had been brought down to Egypt, and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard, an Egyptian, had bought him from the Ishmaelites who had brought him down there.

The prophecy to Abraham in 15:13, that his offspring will be afflicted servants in a foreign land, is beginning to be fulfilled.

2 The LORD was with Joseph, and he became a successful man, and he was in the house of his Egyptian master.

This passage stresses that God was with Joseph to provide coherence and meaning to what may, at first, appear to be a series of random events. The divine presence allows Joseph to persevere in situations where many men would have been driven to despair.

7 And after a time his master’s wife cast her eyes on Joseph and said, “Lie with me.”

“After a time” Joseph’s relative independence and authority was accepted as commonplace in the household. She can speak brazenly due to Joseph’s status as a slave.

8-9 But he refused and said to his master’s wife, “Behold, because of me my master has no concern about anything in the house, and he has put everything that he has in my charge. He is not greater in this house than I am, nor has he kept back anything from me except yourself, because you are his wife. How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?”

Joseph’s spontaneous response is a categorical no. His moral excellence can be appreciated all the more if one remembers that he is a slave and that sexual promiscuity was a perennial feature of all slave societies. Moreover, an ambitious person might well have considered that the importuning woman had presented him with a rare opportunity to advance his personal and selfish interests.

Conscious of his subordinate position, Joseph dares not display anger. Nor does he preach. He only explains his personal reasons for refusing her advances, and he presents these in an order that reflects his perception of her hierarchy of values. First he points to the abuse of trust that would be involved, then to the violation of the husband’s proprietary rights over his wife, then to the religious and moral nature of the offense. The second of these reasons reflects pagan legal theory that adultery was largely a private injury, an affront and indignity to the husband. The third line of argument conforms to the distinctive Israelite concept of morality as having its source and sanction in divine will, not in social convention or utilitarian considerations.1

10 And as she spoke to Joseph day after day, he would not listen to her, to lie beside her or to be with her.

Joseph tries to stay clear of temptation.

13-15 And as soon as she saw that he had left his garment in her hand and had fled out of the house, she called to the men of her household and said to them, “See, he has brought among us a Hebrew to laugh at us. He came in to me to lie with me, and I cried out with a loud voice. And as soon as he heard that I lifted up my voice and cried out, he left his garment beside me and fled and got out of the house.”

The master’s wife may have been afraid that the true story would get out and so acted quickly by telling the men of the household a lie to cover up her misdeeds. The scream was intended as a sign that she had resisted Joseph’s advances. She knew no one was close enough to actually confirm that part of her story. She subtly avoids mentioning that the garment was in her hand (vv 12, 13) and instead says he left the garment behind (v 15, 18).

20 And Joseph’s master took him and put him into the prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were confined, and he was there in prison.

The prison was on the master’s property (40:3, 7; 41:10). That Joseph was placed where the king’s prisoners were confined sets the stage for the next episode. It is not clear why Joseph was not executed for his alleged crime.

Bibliography

Hamilton, Victor P. The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament 1B. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995.

Sarna, Nahum M. JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis. 1st ed. Jewish Publication Society of America, 1989.

1Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 273.

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