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Bible Commentaries
Genesis 40

The Church Pulpit CommentaryChurch Pulpit Commentary

Verse 3


‘The place where Joseph was bound.’

Genesis 40:3

The oldest prison story that has been preserved from the oblivion underneath which time buries human events is this of Joseph in Egypt. Prisons were then no new thing in the earth. We are introduced to them as well known and familiar institutions. They may have existed before the Flood; we can scarcely imagine them not to have existed. This first mention of them in Egypt, the foremost of the world’s nations in civilisation and power, reminds us of the twofold use which has been made of them in most countries and ages, as a means of punishment and as an instrument of tyranny.

I. Even in prison Joseph prospered. He had prospered in the service of Potiphar. The Lord was with him, and made all that he did to prosper in his hand. His reputation no doubt followed him into his prison. And the keeper of his prison soon discovered that he was worthy of it, and availed himself of his trustworthiness, and devolved upon him much of his responsibility, and felt his work and charge safe in the hands of Joseph. There may have been a bit of superstition in the sentiment with which the Hebrew youth was regarded. There is nothing that tends more to one’s advancement in the East, we are told, than the opinion that everything prospers in his hands. In an old translation of the Bible we have the homely words, ‘The Lord was with Joseph, and he was a lucky fellow.’ The reputation of being ‘lucky’ will, in the East, perhaps in the West, make a man’s fortune. In the case of Joseph, there was a pure character and a Divine blessing to account for his prosperity or luck. Potiphar had already found the purchase of Joseph to be one of the best bargains he had ever made. And now the keeper of the prison found that this was no common prisoner who had been committed to his hands.

II. What of his prison thoughts? We have no record of them, but conjecture cannot lead us far astray. That he felt his imprisonment painfully, we infer from his desire to escape from it. When he interpreted the butler’s dream as foreshadowing his restoration to freedom and his former position, he said—‘But think on me when it shall be well with thee, and show kindness, I pray thee, unto me, and make mention of me unto Pharaoh, and bring me out of this house … I have done nothing that they should put me into the dungeon’ ( Genesis 40:14-15). Nothing could reconcile him to being shut up within these prison walls. Honour and trust and work were blessings which he prized. But bondage was bondage still. His heart wandered to what he called the land of the Hebrews.

III. With his faith in God there was a source of comfort which never failed the young man in his Egyptian prison, and that was a good conscience both towards God and towards man. It was a hard thing, indeed, to bear so foul and false a charge as that on which he was thrust into prison. To his pure mind the shame of such a charge was painful as it would not be to others. But the pain of suffering rightfully would have been far worse than the pain of suffering wrongfully, because it would have in it the bitterest of all ingredients, the accusations of a guilty conscience. Had he yielded to temptation, and suffered imprisonment for thus wronging the master who had trusted him, he would have lost those supports which his faith in God now brought him, and his conscience would have punished him more severely than did the fetters of iron. Conscience is a terrible foe or a most beneficent friend. As it was, Joseph and his conscience were good friends, and his conscience comforted his heart.


(1) ‘Oriental legend commemorated Joseph’s peace and happiness in its own way. His cell became a pleasant and cheerful abode, for a fountain sprang up in the midst of it, and a tree grew at his door to afford him shade and refreshing fruit. The legend indeed says that the fountain dried up and the tree withered when Joseph asked the butler to remember him and promote his release, because, instead of trusting in God, he relied on the help of a feeble man. There seems to me no ground for the notion that Joseph did wrong in seeking the interposition of his fellow prisoner. But we may accept the legend as a beautiful parable. Within those prison walls there was a fountain opened whence the young Hebrew drew constant strength and solace. And there, sunless as the prison was, grew a tree, from which he derived food that the world knew not of. His God was with him.’

(2) ‘God’s providence works for far distant objects. With a view to Israel’s settlement in Egypt, Joseph is carried there, sold to Potiphar, cast into prison, has fellow prisoners, who again get special dreams, with a view to Joseph’s future, and so God leads through a prison to a throne. Look at your troubles in the bright light of that to which they lead you.’

(3) ‘Jeremy Taylor says that he must be in love with peevishness who chooses to sit down upon “his little handful of thorns” when there are so many causes for joy in this wide world. But this is just what Joseph did not do. He refused to sit down upon his handful of thorns, but went out of himself in thoughtful ministry to others. He anointed his head, and washed his face, that he might not appear to men to be suffering, and devoted himself to alleviate the griefs around him by kindly sympathy.’

Bibliographical Information
Nisbet, James. "Commentary on Genesis 40". The Church Pulpit Commentary. https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/cpc/genesis-40.html. 1876.
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