Genesis 39 COMMENTARY (Ellicott)

Genesis 39
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers


(1) Potiphar . . . bought him.—Having given the genealogy of Judah’s house, which, owing to the sins of Reuben, Simeon, and Levi, was now to be the Messianic line, and invested with the inheritance of the Abrahamic promises, the history reverts to Joseph, because it was through him that Israel was to be transplanted into Egypt. His life there is divided into two main portions, during the first of which, for thirteen years, he was a slave; while during the second, for seventy years, he was governor over all the land of Egypt. In his former capacity he is falsely accused by his mistress, and cast into prison. But this unjust treatment was the necessary pathway to his elevation, because it was in the prison that he interpreted the dreams of Pharaoh’s two officers, and so, in the king’s emergency, was summoned, upon the testimony of the chief butler, to appear before him.

(2) The Lord.—Heb., Jehovah. In the history of Joseph there is the greatest possible precision in the use of the divine names. Wherever, as here, the writer speaks in his own person, he uses the name Jehovah, which is a strong argument for the Mosaic authorship of this narrative, as while the whole colour of this Tôldôth is strongly Egyptian, the word Jehovah was not specifically the name, in the family of Abraham, for God in covenant with man until the time of the Exodus (Exodus 6:3). Once Jacob uses it in the blessing of Dan (Genesis 49:18), in an ejaculation marked by deep religious feeling, but the passage referred to in Exodus does not mean that the patriarchs did not use the name of Jehovah at all, but that it was a name with no particular fulness of meaning. Excepting this one place, the name of the Deity everywhere is either El or Elohim, with the article prefixed only on special occasions (see Notes on Genesis 45:8; Genesis 46:3). Very probably Joseph had left memorials of his life behind him, in which naturally he used only the general term God. In framing these into a history, the writer carefully shows that it was the covenant Jehovah who guarded and kept His innocent worshipper.

Prosperous.—Heb., causing to prosper. Joseph brought a blessing with him to his master’s house. (See Genesis 39:3, where the same word is translated made to prosper.)

In the house.—Slaves generally were bought for the hard work of the field, but Potiphar assigned to Joseph the lighter home service, because perhaps of his youth and comeliness.

(4) He served him.—Rather, he ministered to him (Numbers 3:6), as the word is used not so much of work as of office. So in Genesis 40:4, it is used of the attendance of Joseph upon the chief butler and baker in prison. His office is explained more exactly in the next verse, where we read that “he made him overseer,” or his deputy. In the Egyptian monuments we often find an overseer with writing materials keeping an account of all expenditure and of the labour done.

(6) Save the bread . . . —Aben Ezra connects this with the first clause in the verse, and says that Potiphar did not leave his food in Joseph’s hand, because as an Egyptian he could not eat victuals prepared by a Hebrew. (See Genesis 43:32.) But in any case the meaning would be, that Potiphar did not care to know about anything except the food prepared for his own use.

A goodly person and well favoured.—These are the words used of Rachel in Genesis 29:17, where see Note.

(7) His master’s wife.—Egyptian women did not live in seclusion, nor did they go veiled. (See Genesis 12:13; Rawlinson, Hist. Ancient Egypt, i. 552.) The story of an innocent youth calumniated by an unchaste woman whom he has repulsed, became a favourite subject with classical authors, as in the myths of Bellerophon and Anteia, Hippolytus and Phaedra, and others. The Egyptians had a favourite popular romance of this kind, called “The Two Brothers,” in which the wife of the elder brother Anpu behaves towards Bata, the younger, in exactly the same way as Potiphar’s wife towards Joseph. See Records of the Past, ii. 139-152.

(11) To do his business.—That is, to attend to his ordinary duties as steward. The absence of all men from the house is explained by the supposition that it was a festival; but as she called to them (Genesis 39:14) it seems as if they were engaged in their several departments close by.

(14) He hath brought in.—The wife ascribes it as a fault to Potiphar, that, by buying a foreign slave, he had exposed her to insult. And so in Genesis 39:17.

(20) Prison.—Heb., sohar. This word occurs in the Bible only in this and the next chapter, but in the Talmud it is used for a walled prison. It is supposed to mean a round or arched tower. As the king’s prisoners were confined there, it was a portion of Potiphar’s official residence, as he was captain of the royal bodyguard (see Genesis 40:3); but we learn that it had its own keeper, though Potiphar was the chief in command (Genesis 40:4). The Jewish commentators consider that Potiphar did not really believe the accusation, or he would certainly have put Joseph to death. We learn, however, from Psalm 105:18, that his treatment in the prison at first was very severe; but as Potiphar, in Genesis 40:4, is said to have entrusted Joseph with the charge of the chief butler and baker, he must soon have been convinced of his innocence.

And Joseph was brought down to Egypt; and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, captain of the guard, an Egyptian, bought him of the hands of the Ishmeelites, which had brought him down thither.
And the LORD was with Joseph, and he was a prosperous man; and he was in the house of his master the Egyptian.
And his master saw that the LORD was with him, and that the LORD made all that he did to prosper in his hand.
And Joseph found grace in his sight, and he served him: and he made him overseer over his house, and all that he had he put into his hand.
And it came to pass from the time that he had made him overseer in his house, and over all that he had, that the LORD blessed the Egyptian's house for Joseph's sake; and the blessing of the LORD was upon all that he had in the house, and in the field.
And he left all that he had in Joseph's hand; and he knew not ought he had, save the bread which he did eat. And Joseph was a goodly person, and well favoured.
And it came to pass after these things, that his master's wife cast her eyes upon Joseph; and she said, Lie with me.
But he refused, and said unto his master's wife, Behold, my master wotteth not what is with me in the house, and he hath committed all that he hath to my hand;
There is none greater in this house than I; neither hath he kept back any thing from me but thee, because thou art his wife: how then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?
And it came to pass, as she spake to Joseph day by day, that he hearkened not unto her, to lie by her, or to be with her.
And it came to pass about this time, that Joseph went into the house to do his business; and there was none of the men of the house there within.
And she caught him by his garment, saying, Lie with me: and he left his garment in her hand, and fled, and got him out.
And it came to pass, when she saw that he had left his garment in her hand, and was fled forth,
That she called unto the men of her house, and spake unto them, saying, See, he hath brought in an Hebrew unto us to mock us; he came in unto me to lie with me, and I cried with a loud voice:
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 got him out.
And she laid up his garment by her, until his lord came home.
And she spake unto him according to these words, saying, The Hebrew servant, which thou hast brought unto us, came in unto me to mock me:
And it came to pass, as I lifted up my voice and cried, that he left his garment with me, and fled out.
And it came to pass, when his master heard the words of his wife, which she spake unto him, saying, After this manner did thy servant to me; that his wrath was kindled.
And Joseph's master took him, and put him into the prison, a place where the king's prisoners were bound: and he was there in the prison.
But the LORD was with Joseph, and shewed him mercy, and gave him favour in the sight of the keeper of the prison.
And the keeper of the prison committed to Joseph's hand all the prisoners that were in the prison; and whatsoever they did there, he was the doer of it.
The keeper of the prison looked not to any thing that was under his hand; because the LORD was with him, and that which he did, the LORD made it to prosper.
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