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Bible Commentaries

MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture

Genesis 39

Verses 20-23



Gen_39:20 - Gen_39:23 . - Gen_40:1 - Gen_40:15 .

Potiphar was ‘captain of the guard,’ or, as the title literally runs, chief of the executioners. In that capacity he had charge of the prison, which was connected with his house Gen_40:3. It is, therefore, quite intelligible that he should have put Joseph in confinement on his own authority, and the distinction drawn between such a prisoner and the ‘king’s prisoners,’ who were there by royal warrant or due process of law, is natural. Such high-handed treatment of a slave was a small matter, and it was merciful as well as arrogant, for death would have been the punishment of the crime of which Joseph was accused. Either Potiphar was singularly lenient, or, as is perhaps more probable, he did not quite believe his wife’s story, and thought it best to hush up a scandal. The transfer of Joseph from the house to the adjoining prison would be quietly managed, and then no more need be said about an ugly business.

So now we see him at the lowest ebb of his fortunes, flung down in a moment by a lie from the height to which he had slowly been climbing, having lost the confidence of his master, and earned the unslumbering hatred of a wicked woman. He had wrecked his career by his goodness. ‘What a fool!’ says the world. ‘How badly managed things are in this life,’ say doubters, ‘that virtue should not be paid by prosperity!’ But the end, even the nearer end in this life, will show whether he was a fool, and whether things are so badly arranged; and the lesson enforced by the picture of Joseph in his dungeon, and which young beginners in life have special need to learn, is that, come what will of it, right is right, and sin is sin, that consequences are never to deter from duty, and that it is better to have a clean conscience and be in prison than do wickedness and sit at a king’s table. A very threadbare lesson, but needing to be often repeated.

‘But the Lord was with Joseph.’ That is one of the eloquent ‘buts’ of Scripture. The prison is light when God is there, and chains do not chafe if He wraps His love round them. Many a prisoner for God since Joseph’s time has had his experience repeated, and received tenderer tokens from Him in a dungeon than ever before. Paul the prisoner, John in Patmos, Bunyan in Bedford jail, George Fox in Lancaster Castle, Rutherford in Aberdeen, and many more, have found the Lord with them, and showing them His kindness. We may all be sure that, if ever faithfulness to conscience involves us in difficulties, the faithfulness and the difficulties will combine to bring to us sweet and strong tokens of God’s approval and presence, the winning of which will make a prison a palace and a gate of heaven.

Joseph’s relations to jailer and fellow-prisoners are beautiful and instructive. The former is called ‘the keeper of the prison,’ and is evidently Potiphar’s deputy, in more immediate charge of the prison. Of course, the great man had an underling to do the work, and probably that underling was not chosen for sweetness of temper or facile leniency to his charges. But he fell under the charm of Joseph’s character-all the more readily, perhaps, because his occupation had not brought many good men to his knowledge. This jewel would flash all the more brightly for the dark background of criminals, and the jailer would wonder at a type of character so unlike what he was accustomed to. Eastern prisons to-day present a curious mixture of cruelty and companionship. The jailers are on intimate terms with prisoners, and yet are ready to torture them. There is no discipline, nor any rules, nor inspection. The jailer does as he likes. So it seems to have been in Egypt, and there would be nothing unnatural in making a prisoner jailer of the rest, and leaving everything in his hands. The ‘keeper of the prison’ was lazy, like most of us, and very glad to shift duties on to any capable shoulders. Such a thing would, of course, be impossible with us, but it is a bit of true local colouring here.

Joseph won hearts because God was with him, as the story is careful to point out. Our religion should recommend us, and therefore itself, to those who have to do with us. It is not enough that we should be severely righteous, as Joseph had been, or ready to meet trouble with stoical resignation, but we are to be gentle and lovable, gracious towards men, because we receive grace from God. We owe it to our Lord and to our fellows, and to ourselves, to be magnets to attract to Jesus, by showing how fair He can make a life. Joseph in prison found work to do, and he did not shirk it. He might have said to himself: ‘This is poor work for me, who had all Potiphar’s house to rule. Shall such a man as I come down to such small tasks as this?’ He might have sulked or desponded in idleness, but he took the kind of work that offered, and did his best by it. Many young people nowadays do nothing, because they think themselves above the small humdrum duties that lie near them. It would do some of us good to remember Joseph in the jail, and his cheerful discharge of what his hands found to do there.

Of course, work done ‘because the Lord was with him,’ in the consciousness of His presence, and in obedience to Him, went well. ‘The Lord made it to prosper,’ as He always will make such work.

‘When thou dost favour any action,

It runs, it flies.’

And even if, sometimes, work done in the fear of the Lord does not outwardly prosper, it does so in deepest truth, if it work in us the peaceable fruit of righteousness. We need to have a more Christian idea of what constitutes prosperity, and then we shall understand that there are no exceptions to the law that, if a man does his work by God and with God and for God, ‘that which he does, the Lord makes it to prosper.’

The help that Joseph gave by interpreting the two high officials’ dreams cannot be considered here in detail, but we note that the names of similar officers, evidently higher in rank than we should suppose, with our notions of bakers and butlers, are found in Egyptian documents, and that these two were ‘king’s prisoners,’ and put in charge of Potiphar, who alleviated their imprisonment by detailing Joseph as their attendant, thus showing that his feeling to the young Hebrew was friendly still. Dreams are the usual method of divine communication in Genesis, and belong to a certain stage in the process of revelation. The friend of God, who is in touch with Him, can interpret these. ‘The secret of the Lord is with them that fear Him,’ and it is still true that they who live close by God have insight into His purposes. Joseph showed sympathy with the two dreamers, and his question, ‘Why look ye so sadly?’ unlocked their hearts. He was not so swallowed up in his own trouble as to be blind to the signs of another’s sorrow, or slow to try to comfort. Grief is apt to make us selfish, but it is meant to make us tender of heart and quick of hand to help our fellows in calamity. We win comfort for our own sorrows by trying to soothe those of others. Jesus stooped to suffer that He might succour them that suffer, and we are to tread in His steps.

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Bibliographical Information
MacLaren, Alexander. "Commentary on Genesis 39". MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture.