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Bible Commentaries

Dr. Constable's Expository Notes

Genesis 39

4. Joseph in Potiphar’s house ch. 39

Joseph experienced God’s blessing as he served faithfully in Potiphar’s house. His master’s wife repeatedly seduced him, but he refused her offers because he did not want to sin against God and betray Potiphar’s trust. Joseph continued to enjoy God’s abundant blessing even when imprisoned because of her false charge.

"Each scene in the record of Joseph’s life reveals some distinctive trait of character elicited by means of a crisis." [Note: Thomas, p. 369. Cf. James 1:2-4.]

"Rhetorically, the Joseph narrative often couples events, especially the double dreams of Joseph (chap. 37), the duo of the baker and butler (ch. 40), and the two dreams of Pharaoh (chap. 41). After the Judah-Tamar incident, chap. 39 provides the second story of a patriarch’s temptation by a married woman." [Note: Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, p. 725.]

Both of the seductresses were not Israelites.

Verses 1-6

The clause "the Lord was with Joseph" occurs four times in this chapter (Genesis 39:2-3; Genesis 39:21; Genesis 39:23) and explains the reason for his success. The divine name "LORD," Yahweh, appears seven times in this chapter (Genesis 39:2-3 [twice], 5 [twice], 21, and 23) but only one other time in the Jacob toledot (Genesis 37:2 to Genesis 50:26): in Genesis 49:18. God had previously promised to be with Isaac and Jacob (Genesis 26:3; Genesis 26:24; Genesis 26:28; Genesis 28:15; Genesis 28:20; Genesis 31:3). Yahweh is the name for God used. The covenant-keeping God of the patriarchs was with this son of Jacob far from home. Joseph had a fine physique and a handsome face, features that he seems to have inherited from his mother Rachel (cf. Genesis 29:17). He proved faithful in a little and therefore the Lord placed him in charge of much (cf. Luke 16:10). Note that God blessed Potiphar because of Joseph (cf. Genesis 12:3 a).

"The whole sequence of Genesis 39:2-6 is a particularly apt and clear example of the meaning of blessing in the Old Testament. Assistance and blessing belong together, though they are different. Blessing embraces both people and the rest of creation. The narrator simply presupposes that the blessing can flow over from the one whom Yahweh assists to a foreign people and adherents of a foreign religion precisely because of the one whom Yahweh assists. The power inherent in the blessing is expansive . . ." [Note: Westermann, Genesis 36-50, p. 63.]

Verses 7-23

Joseph was evidently in his mid-twenties at this time. He was in a "no win" position with Potiphar’s wife. As a slave he had to obey her, but as a trustworthy and moral servant of Potiphar he had to refuse her. The typical male clothing in patriarchal times consisted of mid-calf-length shorts and a tunic that resembled a long T-shirt (cf. Genesis 3:21; Genesis 37:3). [Note: Wenham, Genesis 16-50, p. 376.] Joseph regarded obedience to God as his primary responsibility (Genesis 39:9) and therefore chose as he did (cf. Psalms 51:4).

Note that Potiphar’s wife’s invitation was for Joseph to lie "beside" (Heb. ’esel) her (Genesis 39:10; cf. Genesis 39:15-16; Genesis 39:18; Genesis 41:3), not to lie "with" her, the more common phrase that describes sexual intercourse (cf. Genesis 34:7; Genesis 39:14). Evidently she invited his physical familiarity, which she hoped would lead to intercourse. Joseph, realizing where this first step might lead, wisely set a boundary for himself and refused even to be alone with her (Genesis 39:10). [Note: Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, p. 735.]

"This story about Joseph reverses a well-known plot in the patriarchal narratives. Whereas before it was the beautiful wife . . . of the patriarch who was sought by the foreign ruler, now it was Joseph, the handsome patriarch . . . himself who was sought by the wife of the foreign ruler. Whereas in the earlier narratives it was either the Lord (Genesis 12:17; Genesis 20:3) or the moral purity of the foreign ruler (Genesis 26:10) that rescued the wife rather than the patriarch, here it was Joseph’s own moral courage that saved the day. . . . Whereas in the preceding narratives, the focus of the writer had been on God’s faithfulness in fulfilling his covenant promises, in the story of Joseph his attention is turned to the human response.

"The Joseph narratives are intended then to give balance to the narratives of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Together the two sections show both God’s faithfulness in spite of human failure as well as the necessity of an obedient and faithful response." [Note: Sailhamer, "Genesis," pp. 234, 235.]

Success in temptation depends more on character than on circumstances. Character rests on commitment to the will of God. We can see Joseph’s character in his loyalty to Potiphar concerning what his master had entrusted to his care (Genesis 39:9). We also see it in his responsibility to God for what belonged to someone else (Genesis 39:9). It is further obvious in his responsibility to God respecting his special personal calling (Genesis 37:5-9; Genesis 45:5-9). Additionally, we see it in his responsibility to God concerning his sacred vocation as a member of the house of Israel.

"It is too little observed, and especially by young men who have most need to observe it, that in such temptations it is not only the sensual that needs to be guarded against, but also two much deeper-lying tendencies-the craving for loving recognition, and the desire to respond to the feminine love for admiration and devotion . . . a large proportion of misery is due to a kind of uncontrolled and mistaken chivalry." [Note: Dods, p. 344.]

Joseph’s punishment was light in view of the charge against him. Joseph’s integrity had obviously impressed Potiphar, but he may also have had questions about his wife’s chastity (cf. Psalms 105:18). Joseph’s slavery in Potiphar’s house prefigures Israel’s Egyptian bondage.

Because God was still with Joseph (Genesis 39:21; Genesis 39:23), and because his character had not changed, Joseph experienced the same kind of favor at the hand of the chief jailer that he had from Potiphar. The Lord honored Joseph as one who had honored Him (1 Samuel 2:30).

"Yokes borne in youth have at least three results; they prove personal integrity, they promote spiritual maturity, and they prepare for fuller opportunity. In nature and in human life the best things are not the easiest but the hardest to obtain. . . .

"How nobly Joseph comported himself amidst all these trials and hardships! He might have sulked and become embittered; but instead of this his spirit was unconquerable by reason of its trust in God. He steadfastly refused to be unfaithful to his God, whatever might be the consequences. In duty he was loyal, in temptation he was strong, and in prison he was faithful. When this spirit actuates our life, difficulties become means of grace and stepping-stones to higher things. On the other hand, if difficulties are met in a fretful, murmuring, complaining, disheartened spirit, not only do we lose the blessings that would otherwise come through them, but our spiritual life suffers untold injury, and we are weakened for the next encounter of temptation whenever it comes. There is scarcely anything in the Christian life which reveals more thoroughly what our Christianity is worth than the way we meet difficulties by the use of the grace of God." [Note: Thomas, pp. 375-76. Cf. James 1.]

This chapter reveals that dedication to God’s calling enables His servants to resist temptation. [Note: See Doug Mennen, "How the Wise Man Overcomes Temptation," Exegesis and Exposition 3:1 (Fall 1988):90.]

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Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Genesis 39". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/genesis-39.html. 2012.