Genesis 39:1-23 “Joseph in Potiphar’s House, God’s Faithfulness in Adverse Circumstances”

Posted on March 18, 2013. Filed under: Genesis: Answers to Life's Crucial Questions |

Sunday, March, 3rd, 2013

Bryan E. Walker

 Read: Genesis 39:1-23

Now Joseph had been brought down to Egypt, and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard, an Egyptian, had bought him from the Ishmaelites who had brought him down there. 2 The Lord was with Joseph, and he became a successful man, and he was in the house of his Egyptian master. 3 His master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord caused all that he did to succeed in his hands. 4 So Joseph found favor in his sight and attended him, and he made him overseer of his house and put him in charge of all that he had. 5 From the time that he made him overseer in his house and over all that he had, the Lord blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake; the blessing of the Lord was on all that he had, in house and field. 6 So he left all that he had in Joseph’s charge, and because of him he had no concern about anything but the food he ate.

Now Joseph was handsome in form and appearance. 7 And after a time 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, because of me my master has no concern about anything in the house, and he has put everything that he has in my charge. 9 He is not greater in this house than I am, nor has he kept back anything from me except you, because you are his wife. How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” 10 And as she spoke to Joseph day after day, he would not listen to her, to lie beside her or to be with her.

11 But one day, when he went into the house to do his work and none of the men of the house was there in the house, 12 she caught him by his garment, saying, “Lie with me.” But he left his garment in her hand and fled and got out of the house. 13 And as soon as she saw that he had left his garment in her hand and had fled out of the house, 14 she called to the men of her household and said to them, “See, he has brought among us a Hebrew to laugh at us. He came in to me to lie with me, and I cried out with a loud voice. 15 And as soon as he heard that I lifted up my voice and cried out, he left his garment beside me and fled and got out of the house.” 16 Then she laid up his garment by her until his master came home, 17 and she told him the same story, saying, “The Hebrew servant, whom you have brought among us, came in to me to laugh at me. 18 But as soon as I lifted up my voice and cried, he left his garment beside me and fled out of the house.”

19 As soon as his master heard the words that his wife spoke to him, “This is the way your servant treated me,” his anger was kindled. 20 And Joseph’s master took him and put him into the prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were confined, and he was there in prison. 21 But the Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love and gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison. 22 And the keeper of the prison put Joseph in charge of all the prisoners who were in the prison. Whatever was done there, he was the one who did it. 23 The keeper of the prison paid no attention to anything that was in Joseph’s charge, because the Lord was with him. And whatever he did, the Lord made it succeed.

Main Idea/Gospel Points: While certainly doing a character study of Joseph is profitable for our sanctification, the greater point lies in looking towards the God who shows his steadfast love to Joseph. Here we see God’s sovereign grace being poured out on young Joseph while Potiphar himself recognizes that it is the Lord prospering his household because of Joseph. This points us to abide in Christ til He comes, spreading the Kingdom as we go through the mundane things of this life.  The movement in Joseph’s life from exaltation to humiliation back to exaltation points forward to how God will act in Israel’s life as a people, but beyond Israel to the Son of God himself who existed in glory forever in heaven with the Father and the Holy Spirit, but then came to earth as a humble peasant baby who grow up and gain a large following based upon his dynamic preaching and his mighty miracles only to be abandoned by his followers and tortured, crucified and buried. THEN, he is resurrected and ascends to the Father in glory.


Literary Analysis



XI. The Account of Jacob: Joseph and His Brothers, or, How Israel Came to Live in Egypt Instead of the Promised Land

  1. Joseph’s Beginning: The Beloved Son, Sent By his Father, Providentially Sold Into Slavery in Egypt by His Brothers, 37:2-36
    1. Joseph, Beloved of His Father, and His Dreams, 37:2-11
    2. Joseph Betrayed By His Brothers, Sold into Slavery, 37:12-36

*Note: the rise of Judah

  1. The Descent of Judah, Foreshadowing God’s Work of Grace 38:1-30
    1. Judah Marries a Canaanite, 38:1-11
    2. Judah, Deceived by Tamar, Fathers Twins, 38:12-30


  1. Joseph in Potiphar’s House, Faithfulness in Adverse Circumstances, 39:1-23
    1. Joseph’s Faithfulness Leads to Prosperity, 39:1-6
    2. Joseph’s Faithfulness in Temptation, 39:7-20
    3. Joseph’s Faithfulness in Prison, 36:21-23

A.  Introduction: beginning of Joseph’s story 37:2-11

  B.  Jacob mourns ‘death’ of Joseph 37:12-36

    C.  Interlude: Judah signified as leader 38:1-30

      D.  Joseph’s enslavement in Egypt 39:1-23

        E.  Joseph savior of Egypt through disfavor at Pharaoh’s court 40:1-41:57

          F.  Journeys of brothers to Egypt 42:1-43:34

            G.  Brothers pass Joseph’s test of love for brother 44:1-34

            G1.Joseph gives up his power over brothers 45:1-28

          F1. Migration of family to Egypt 46:1-27

        E1. Joseph savior of family through favor at Pharaoh’s court 46:28-47:12

      D1. Joseph’s enslavement of Egyptians 47:13-31

    C1. Interlude: Judah blessed as ruler 48:1-49:28

  B1. Joseph mourns death of Jacob 49:29-50:14

A1. Conclusion: end of Joseph story 50:15-26


Moses deliberately links 39:1 and this story of Joseph, with where he last mentioned Joseph in 37:36 through the use of the words “had bought him from the Ishmaelites” in 39:1 and “the Midianites had sold him in Egypt to Potiphar” in 37:36. This is called a Janus, meaning it looks back at what has previously occurred and looks forward to what is about to happen. In between, of course, lies ch.38, which was a side-story away from the main story, yet itself pointing forward to a major turn in the story, and even to the coming Messiah, Jesus. There is a pattern in Joseph’s story which links chapters 37, 39 and40-41 which adds yet another layer to the outline. This is a pattern of exaltation and humiliation. In 37 Joseph is exalted by his father through the many coloured robe (designating him as the eldest son, even though he was next to the youngest of 12 sons) but then is humiliated by his brothers in their hatred and plan to kill him, and their eventual selling him. Notice that it was not just Jacob who exalted young Joseph, however, in that the Lord sent him two dreams which portrayed him as the ruler over his whole family. This message from the Lord was rejected by Joseph’s brothers and led to his humiliating persecution.


Now, in ch.39, we see that although he was but a slave, he got assigned to Potiphar’s household staff, NOT as a field hand, then he worked his way up, as the Lord blessed him, to being in charge of the entire household, an exalted position. Joseph will then be humiliated as Mrs. Potiphar attempts to seduce him and ultimately accuses him of attempted rape, earning the wrath of Captain Potiphar and an immediate trip to the local jail. In the gaol, however, Joseph continues to work hard and win the respect of those he works with and for and he is soon running the jail as a trustee, again being exalted. In ch.40 Joseph is exalted again, in a miraculous manner, as his two jailmates, the Cupbearer to Pharaoh and the Chief Baker, come to Jospeh with their disturbing dreams, and Joseph is enabled to interpret the dreams. Joseph is humbled again in ch.41 as 2 full years pass and the Cupbearer forgets about Joseph until Pharaoh mentions his disturbing dreams and the Cupbearer tells the Pharaoh of Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams. Joseph is then exalted again to be the right hand to Pharaoh as he guides Egypt into managing the years of plenty and prepares for the years of famine.


Notice how the narration of the story changes with these exaltations and humiliations. In 39:2-6 it is a theological narrative “The Lord was with Joseph…the Lord gave him success…the Lord blessed the household….” but in 7-20 it is a phenomenological narration, “his master’s wife took notice…he refused…she spoke with Joseph day after day…she called her household servants…she kept his cloak…Joseph’s master…put him in prison.” Verses 21-23 go back to theological narrative and ch.40 is phenomenological.



QQ: How does Joseph grow and mature throughout ch.39? What godly virtues do you see in this young man?


One can only imagine the terror, the hopelessness, and the depression Joseph most likely faced as a teenager being sold in a big city as a slave. This past month, February, was Black History month and I started a habit a few years ago of reading some form of Black History during the month. This year I read another edition of Frederick Douglas’ autobiography and was deeply moved by his story. Douglass is great about sharing his inner feelings and reeling you the reader in so that you feel what he feels. These slave narratives not only help you understand our past as a nation, but will help you understand this Joseph story of being sold as a slave.


In v.2 we that “The Lord was with Joseph” (and in v.3, 5). We do not see Joseph building any altars or having conversations, wrestling matches, or other encounters with God like we have seen with the other patriarchs, but we see that the Lord was with him. This can imply piety, reverence, some form of faith and personal religious discipline on the part of young Joseph. As a slave he may not have had the freedom to worship in the same way his fathers worshipped, with altars and sacrifices, but his depth of understanding of doctrine later in the story, and his commitment to a high moral standard here in ch.39 seems to indicate great personal holiness and devotion to the Lord. Here is a young man who knew God. This part of his characterization points us to Christ with the phrase, “So Joseph found favor in his sight” in v. 4 because it is so similar to Luke 2:52 “And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.”


Also in v. 2 we see that because the Lord was with him “he became a successful man” both in Potiphar’s house and later in the prison and then in Pharaoh’s court. While it is crucial to know that Joseph was successful because of the Lord being with him, we need to understand that it appears that Joseph had a strong work ethic and was very intelligent, applying himself to the tasks  given him. Whether it was working for his father in ch.37 earning the trust of his father and the scorn of his brothers, working in Potiphar’s house from the newest slave performing the most dirty and menial of tasks to becoming the chief steward of Potiphar’s house, and then after being unjustly sent to prison he becomes a trustee and ends up as the superintendent of the prison working for the warden! Here is a man who had an exemplary work ethic and a positive attitude regardless of what bad situation he found himself in. Joseph’s life resembles a tale from Horatio Alger! This work ethic also points us to Jesus of Nazareth who did not enter public ministry until about his thirtieth year and worked in humble obscurity as a carpenter prior to entering his ministry. Yet after those years of hard work and obscurity God himself pronounces, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”


The character of Joseph is developed in chapter 39 most dramatically as he resists the advances of Mrs. Potiphar. Here was a rich and powerful man whose wife was no doubt beautiful and a leading socialite in their social circles. She most likely enjoyed the best spas in the country and spared no expense with cosmetics and clothing. Yet she was seeking an affair with a young Hebrew slave. She no doubt had some serious sin and moral issues, maybe even some psychological disorder that would land her on an ancient Egyptian reality show, but Joseph resisted the temptation. Repeatedly, for the text says “she spoke to Joseph day after day” (v.10). This was not a one time event of resisting temptation, this was a daily discipline in purity. This was steadfastness in adversity.


There is not much information given about Potiphar himself or his wife, but we can see that Potipher was a good judge of character in those who worked for him, but perhaps blind in regards to his wife. It seems that Potiphar “saw that the Lord was with [Joseph]” so perhaps there was some form of religious dialogue going on between Joseph and Potiphar. When Potiphar places Joseph as the head of the household economy he is exerting tremendous trust in a foreigner thus showing he is no xenophobe and that he recognizes talent when he sees it. His quickness in sending Joseph to jail may indicate a righteous anger if he sincerely believes his wife or it may indicate pride in that he gets rid of the the surface problem without dealing with the real underlying issues in his marriage. It is doubtful that Mrs. Potiphar was engaging in her first effort at adultery. She may have had some self respect issues.


QQ: How is the Lord characterized in this passage? The Lord is shown to be sovereign over circumstances in that whatever circumstances Joseph finds himself in, the Lord is there with him and using the circumstances for His will, thus frustrating the will of those evil people who place young Joseph in those circumstances desiring to harm him. The Lord is shown to be full of loving-kindness towards his own, Joseph.

QQ: Please relate to the class a time when you were brought low but eventually realized the Lord was with you and blessing you in the adverse circumstances.


Key Words- read through the text and identify the key words or phrases and tell why you think they are key:

Joseph-12x; Potiphar is only actually named once and his wife’s name is not given at all, like Judah’s wife. “The Lord” 8x. “his master” 8x. “House”-15x; “garment” 4x. “Steadfast love”


Structure and Plot-

The first 6 verses are from a theological perspective where we see the Lord was with Joseph and blessing him. Here we see young Joseph purchased by Potiphar and advancing in his work to become the chief slave of the household. The emphasis here is not so much Joseph’s success and work ethic as it is the blessings from the Lord which are understood by Potiphar to be from the Lord.


In vv.7-20 we see things from an earthly or phenomenological perspective and the emphasis is on the temptation of Joseph by Mrs. Potiphar and Joseph’s remarkable degree of integrity and purity. The frustrated Mrs. Potiphar ultimately turns on Joseph who refuses to go to bed with her and she cries rape. The “garment” theme that stretches back to chapters 37 and 38 arises again and is used to convict Joseph unjustly. Joseph is placed in prison by an indignant Potiphar.


The concluding third section of the story, vv.21-23 again shows things from a theological perspective as Joseph is again blessed by the Lord who shows Joseph “steadfast love” while he is prison.


Joseph moves from enslavement to success as a slave, to being cast off into prison (much as he was cast into a cistern by his brothers) where he again emerges as successful due to the Lord’s blessings.

 Conclusion: This text challenges us to not only remain faithful to the Lord in whatever circumstances we find ourselves, but to actively trust in God’s loving-kindness and proclaim his sovereignty and grace to others with whom we share our present circumstances. Just as Joseph serves as a type of Christ by his exemplary behavior we can imitate Christ in our every day life so that others will look at us and  realize that it is in fact the Lord who is blessing us. Notice, however, that the world will have a variety of reactions to our faithfulness to God: Potiphar rejoiced in the blessings but Mrs. Potiphar became resentful and vengeful.

 Next Week: A verse by verse exposition of ch.39.


            Waltke, Bruce K. Genesis, A Commentary. Zondervan: Grand Rapids, MI 2001 (pp.516-525.)




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