Genesis 39

Joseph’s Faithfulness in the Face of Temptation
Genesis 39
Genesis 39. This chapter brings out two things preeminently: Joseph’s godliness in the face of temptation, and the prosperity given to him from the Lord. “Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly… whatsoever he doeth shall prosper” (Psa. 1:1-3).We find in this chapter in type the Gentile enmity against Christ, as we had previously the treachery of the Jews pictured in ch.37.

Joseph Flourishes in Potiphar’s House (39:1-6)

1 And Joseph was brought down to Egypt; and Potiphar, a chamberlain of Pharaoh, the captain of the life-guard, an Egyptian, bought him of the hand of the Ishmaelites who had brought him down thither. 2 And Jehovah was with Joseph, and he was a prosperous man; and he was in the house of his master the Egyptian. 3 And his master saw that Jehovah was with him, and that Jehovah made all that he did to prosper in his hand. 4 And Joseph found favour in his eyes, and attended on him; and he set him over his house, and all that he had he gave into his hand. 5 And it came to pass from the time he had set him over his house and all that he had, that Jehovah blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake; and the blessing of Jehovah was on all that he had in the house and in the field. 6 And he left all that he had in Joseph’s hand, and took cognizance of nothing with him, save the bread that he ate. And Joseph was of a beautiful form and of a beautiful countenance. vv.1-6 Joseph was sold to Potiphar, who was one of Pharaoh’s officials, who was the captain over the life-guard, which were Pharaoh’s bodyguards. Now the world translated “officer” or “chamberlain” is really the same word elsewhere translated “eunuch”. It could be that Potiphar himself was castrated, or it could be that the word was used for his position as a royal servant, meaning that he was not necessarily a physical eunuch. In any case, Joseph was treated well, and he prospered in the house. Soon Potiphar set Joseph over his whole house. William Kelly suggested “there is ground to accept the view that Potiphar had command of the White Castle at Noph” which “involved the administration of an immense establishment.” The house was blessed “for Joseph’s sake”. Throughout the life of Joseph, whenever he was honored, there was prosperity. We wouldn’t expect prosperity in slavery, but this is what we find. We see a similar thing with Daniel, the Jewish captive in Babylon. Potiphar trusted Joseph implicitly. It wasn’t that Potiphar had any real love for Joseph, but that he wanted to use him for the prosperity he brought, just as Laban had used Jacob. Special note is made that Joseph was physically handsome; “of a beautiful form and of a beautiful countenance”. The same thing is said of Rachel in Gen. 29:17.

Potiphar’s Wife and Joseph’s Imprisonment (39:7-20)

7 And it came to pass after these things, that his master’s wife cast her eyes on Joseph, and said, Lie with me! 8 But he refused, and said to his master’s wife, Behold, my master takes cognizance of nothing with me: what is in the house, and all that he has, he has given into my hand. 9 There is none greater in this house than I; neither has he withheld anything from me but thee, because thou art his wife; and how should I do this great wickedness, and sin against God? 10 And it came to pass as she spoke to Joseph day by day and he hearkened not to her, to lie with her and to be with her, vv.7-10 As Joseph grew in prominence, the woman of the house took notice of him, and boldly asked him to commit fornication with her. As an highly modern society, it is reported that Egyptian woman were notoriously promiscuous, although formally infidelity was taboo. This was no doubt a great temptation. It is extremely common in the business world for young people to be tempted with offers like this. It is commonly considered to be “perks of the job”. But Joseph had God’s claims in mind; “how should I do this great wickedness, and sin against God”. Not only would Joseph sleeping with her be a sin against Potiphar, but more importantly it would be a sin against God. David could say, “Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight (Psa. 51:4). What Judah had no qualms about doing in ch.38, Joseph refused in ch.39. It was a repeated temptation. Daily dependence was needed. We too need daily dependence, walking in the Spirit, to be preserved from the evil that our sinful flesh desires. If Potiphar was indeed a eunuch, perhaps his wife was sexually frustrated, and felt trapped. Either way, she handled the pressure wrongly. Notice that Joseph “hearkened not to her, to lie with her and to be with her”. He would not even be with her; i.e. he stayed away, and didn’t play with the temptation.
11 that on a certain day he went into the house to do his business, and there was none of the men of the house there in the house. 12 Then she caught him by his garment, saying, Lie with me! But he left his garment in her hand, and fled and ran out. vv.11-12 When speaking of the armor of God in Ephesians 6, Paul says “that ye may be able to stand in the evil day”. What is the “evil day”? In one generic sense, it is every day, because we are living in an evil world. This is like Joseph in vv.7-10, facing daily temptation. But in another sense, the “evil day” is a specific and extreme attack that will come on us at one point or another in our lives. Before it was the woman’s words, but here she “caught him by his garment”. He slipped out of his garment and ran out of the house. This is a graphical example of what Paul says in 1 Cor. 6:18, “Flee fornication”, or in 2 Tim. 2:22, “Flee also youthful lusts”. Notice that this happened when there were no men in the house. Potiphar’s wife may have planned this, or may simply have seized an opportunity. There is far more danger of sexual sin when a man and a woman are alone together.
13 And it came to pass, when she saw that he had left his garment in her hand and had fled forth, 14 that she called to the men of her house, and spoke to them, saying, See, he has brought in a Hebrew man to us, to mock us: he came in to me, to lie with me; and I cried with a loud voice; 15 and 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 went out. 16 And she laid his garment by her until his lord came home. 17 And she spoke to him according to these words, saying, The Hebrew bondman that thou hast brought to us came in to me to mock me; 18 and it came to pass as I lifted up my voice and cried, that he left his garment with me, and fled forth. 19 And it came to pass when his lord heard the words of his wife which she spoke to him, saying, After this manner did thy bondman to me, that his wrath was kindled. 20 And Joseph’s lord took him and put him into the tower-house, the place where the king’s prisoners were confined; and he was there in the tower-house. vv.13-20 The woman’s passions turned from desire to hatred in a flash. There is an old saying that “Hell hath no fury like a woman spurned”.1 We see a similar thing with Amnon, who sexually assaulted his sister Tamar, then it says, “Then Amnon hated her exceedingly; so that the hatred wherewith he hated her was greater than the love wherewith he had loved her. And Amnon said unto her, Arise, be gone” (2 Sam. 13:15). The love that Amnon professed was really lust; thus it quickly changed to hatred. So with Potiphar’s wife. She was filled with vindictive anger, and wove a lie to get Joseph into trouble. In v.14, v.17, and v.19 she seems to blame Potiphar for bringing Joseph into the house; blaming circumstances for her own lusts. It reminds us of the excuse of Adam; “The woman whom thou gavest me…”. She also refers to Joseph as “the Hebrew”, which was a disparaging, racial term. Notice that Joseph’s garment was used by his brothers to deceive Jacob in ch.37, and now his garment is used by this woman to deceive Potiphar. We’ll see his garments again in exaltation in ch.41. No doubt Potiphar’s wife expected Joseph to accuse her, so she acted preemptively to force her husband to remove Joseph. Infidelity, though very common in Egypt, was a scandal when formally recognized (much like in modern Western civilization), and so she made a public cry for justice. Yet Joseph did not accuse her as it would have brought shame to his master. Whether Potiphar believed his treacherous wife is unclear. It is possible that Potiphar knew better, but his hand was forced because of the public statement his wife made. Or perhaps, he was momentarily deceived by her cries, because it says “his wrath was kindled”, but afterward quickly realized the truth. Regardless, Potiphar never asked for Joseph’s side of the story, and instead had Joseph thrown into the royal prison which was actually in his jurisdiction. It was simply easier for Potiphar to play along with the drama than to justify his faithful servant. Joseph’s devotion to his master was rewarded with evil. Joseph is a picture of the Lord in that we do not read of one word of protest or self-defense (Isa. 53:7).

Joseph Flourishes in Prison (39:21-23)

21 And Jehovah was with Joseph, and extended mercy to him, and gave him favour in the eyes of the chief of the tower-house. 22 And the chief of the tower-house committed to Joseph’s hand all the prisoners that were in the tower-house; and whatever they had to do there he did. 23 The chief of the tower-house looked not to anything under his hand, because Jehovah was with him; and what he did, Jehovah made it prosper. vv.21-23 At first Joseph was treated badly in prison; “Whose feet they hurt with fetters: he was laid in iron: until the time that his word came: the word of the LORD tried him” (Psa. 105:18-19). How did Joseph endure this? Like others of faith, “he endured, as seeing him who is invisible” (Heb. 11:27). But soon the Lord showed him merce, and even in prison, Joseph flourished. Before long, the chief of the prison committed all the prisoners to Joseph’s care. Why? For the same reason that Potiphar had committed his house to Joseph earlier: because he saw that the Lord was with him and everything he did would prosper! This chapter brings out two things preeminently: Joseph’s godliness in the face of temptation, and the prosperity given to him from the Lord. “Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful. But his delight is in the law of the LORD; and in his law doth he meditate day and night. And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper” (Psa. 1:1-3).
  1. Adapted from lines in The Mourning Bride, a tragic play by English playwright William Congreve, performed in 1697.
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