Genesis Segment 26 (39:1-40:23)

Genesis 39:1 “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.”

In our last view of Joseph, when he was in the hands of the Arabs1 (Ishmaelites), we read: “And the Midianites sold him into Egypt unto Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh’s, and captain of the guard.” (Genesis 37:36). Potiphar was the chief henchman for Pharaoh. As captain of the guard, he executed the king’s slightest command instantly. If this command was to kill a person, death was nearly instant. There would have been no due process in such an action. Potiphar was most likely a very severe man who tolerated no incompetence. I base this upon my own experience in the military (for 20+ years). I never met a General and seldom met a Colonel that could not be described as severe or stern when the need arose. They were dedicated men who did not prevaricate and did not tolerate those who did. When they spoke, they expected their orders to be carried out without dissension. They were competent men (there were not many high-ranking women in my career field) who were assured and confident. They exuded assurance and competence. They demanded respect and got it. Had they not been these types of men, they would not have been in their positions. Undoubtedly, Potiphar was such a man. If not, he would not have been the chief of staff of the military.

Potiphar, can be translated “one who belongs to the sun”. The word for sun, ra, is also the name of the chief deity of that time in Egypt, Amen Ra—the sun god. So Potiphar could also mean, “one who belongs to Ra”. One might be tempted to say that perhaps the Hebrew is ‘Potipharah’ to make the ‘ra’ sound, but the Hebrew is פוטיפר, potiphar because, in Hebrew, potipharah would be feminine.

The word rendered officer is סריס, saris (sah-reese’), which is specifically “castrated”. It therefore means a eunuch. Potiphar had a wife so it is not likely that he was a eunuch. It can also mean, simply, an official, because eunuchs originally served in such positions. Later the title came to mean simply a state official. According to the Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, the word can mean either a high government official or a eunuch.

Eunuchs are supposed to have been castrated, but according to some commentators, a few eunuchs have historically had harems. We do not know if they were true eunuchs or not. Certainly, it is possible that a eunuch, who has a high government position with pay and status to match, would have had a harem for social and political purposes. If that were the case, the wives and concubines of eunuchs would never have had their marriages consummated. If Potiphar was a true eunuch who had a wife for social and political purposes, it could have been a factor in the pass his wife made at Joseph; but that is unlikely. According to the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, the word, saris, is not to be translated “eunuch” unless context or other evidence demands it; it should otherwise be rendered court official, government official, etc. Most likely the term rendered eunuch in this context was a high-ranking member of the government who was not castrated. Many translations have ‘official’ where others use “eunuch’ here. We should note here that a similar sounding Akkadian word is pronounced sarri, which means a royal official.

Genesis 39:2-6 “And the LORD was with Joseph, and he was a prosperous man; and he was in the house of his master the Egyptian. {3} And his master saw that the LORD was with him, and that the LORD made all that he did to prosper in his hand. {4} 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. {5} 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. {6} 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.”

Here prosperous means that Joseph was successful in his endeavors. The LORD prospered Joseph in everything he did. That means even his efforts prospered, that is, everything Joseph did was successful. Joseph’s owner, Potiphar, noticed his industry and advanced Joseph to overseer of his house. That meant that Joseph made all the decisions in the running of the household as Potiphar’s agent. This included the finances. Joseph could decide when to spend money and how to spend it. He was a trusted servant. Potiphar left Joseph in charge and did not even keep an eye on things himself. He trusted Joseph with everything. His trust was well placed.

Genesis 39:7-8 “And it came to pass after these things, that his master’s wife cast her eyes upon Joseph; and she said, Lie with me. {8} 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;”

At first glance, we see that things were not so different in Joseph’s day than now. To lie with her is to lie with her for sexual relations. We know that from the context and from the fact that a definition of שׁכבה, shakabah, from שׁכב, shakab, , is “to lie down for sexual connection.” Why she wished Joseph to do so is unknown. As we said above, perhaps Potiphar was really a eunuch and his wife was lonely for that reason, which is unlikely. Another reason may have been that Potiphar was so busy that he neglected his wife. This is just speculation. The plain fact is that she made a pass at Joseph; why we do not know. She was wrong to have done so, no matter the motive. Joseph was responsible for all of his master’s possessions, which included Potiphar’s wife. His responsibility was to prevent anyone from violating the sanctity of Potiphar’s marriage. She was asking him to violate his master’s trust. He would not be a part of such untrustworthiness.

Genesis 39:9 “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?”

Note that Joseph was more worried about sinning against God than against Potiphar. This would have been wicked on many accounts. He would betray his master, commit adultery, steal from his master, covet his master’s wife, etc., breaking quite a few of the (yet unwritten) Commandments.

Genesis 39:10-12 “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. {11} 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. {12} 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.”

She continued to seek him until he was finally alone with her. It had become a conquest of hers to turn Joseph away from his integrity. Joseph probably went into the house to do business at a regular time. It is very probable that Joseph did not know that he would have been alone in the house with her because there were normally men in the house. She might have even planned this. Why did he flee? Not because he was guilty of anything, but because he realized he was trapped and he wanted only to get out of there as quickly as possible. He was in such a hurry to flee that he slipped out of his garment. This garment was probably a close personal garment. If it had been a cloak or coat, then that would not so readily have aroused the suspicions of Potiphar. Joseph might have left a cloak lying about in the course of his daily duties in the house. Of course even a cloak could have been damning evidence when accompanied by the wife’s testimony. After all, what husband would believe a servant over his wife? This is a very good reason, men, to have another person, preferably a woman, with you when you visit women in your evangelizing efforts. As a pastor, I will not go into a woman’s house unless her husband or family is there. If not, and I am alone, I will not enter. But I rarely go visiting without someone with me. At our church we strive to go in threes, with both sexes represented in each group of three.

Genesis 39:13-16 “And it came to pass, when she saw that he had left his garment in her hand, and was fled forth, {14} 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: {15} 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. {16} And she laid up his garment by her, until his lord came home.”

It took a few moments before she realized what she had in her hand and what use it was. Perhaps because he had shunned her, she was angry and became vindictive. It looks like racial prejudice may have been in play here. It is likely that the workers in Potiphar’s house were not happy about a Hebrew being put in charge of them. Perhaps Potiphar’s wife had always shared their opinion and this played into her hand. This may have been the plan all along. She probably said this to enflame the already poor opinion the servants had of Joesph thus giving her an advantage when she told her husband. Judging from the next verse, she was apparently enraged that Joseph had rejected her advances.

Genesis 39:17-19 “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: {18} And it came to pass, as I lifted up my voice and cried, that he left his garment with me, and fled out. {19} 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.”

She basically told her husband that Joseph entered into the house with the explicit purpose of trying to have his way with her. When he approached her, she cried for help and that spooked him so he fled leaving his clothing with her. That was an abject lie, but evidently she told it convincingly. Put yourself in Potiphar’s place. It is Joseph’s word against the word of Potiphar’s wife. Who would you believe; a servant or your wife? That is an easy answer. Potiphar believed his wife.

Genesis 39:20 “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.”

This was not the general prison. It was the palace prison. Literally, the verse reads, “…and put him into the round house, a place where the king’s prisoners were kept.” God’s plan was for Joseph to protect and succor the family of Jacob, and ultimately, the line of Christ. This prison would give him access to the king’s personal servants and eventually to the king himself.

This episode in Joseph’s life is a picture of the Messiah. When Jesus began His ministry in his Nazareth, His Own hometown, His Own people rejected Him (Luke 4:21-24) much like Joseph’s brothers rejected him. So Jesus went outside His hometown to preach. This corresponds to Joseph’ s sojourn in Egypt. When Jesus preached in Jerusalem after entering the city upon a donkey (fulfilling prophecy-Zechariah 9:9), He was falsely accused and convicted, just like Joseph was here.

Genesis 39:21-23 “But the LORD was with Joseph, and showed him mercy, and gave him favour in the sight of the keeper of the prison {22} 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. {23} 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.”

Again God prospered Joseph, who was successful in all he did. This success did not go unnoticed by Joseph’s superiors. The LORD made sure the keeper had favor on Joseph. These things were not Joseph’s doing, they were the LORD’s. Joseph became a trustee. Even a prison could not keep him down. Joseph did the same for the prison keeper that he did for Potiphar. He took over all the work. He became the head trustee. The keeper trusted him implicitly and never though anything but good of Joseph. There is no doubt in my mind that Joseph simply relied on God for everything. He was probably happy even in prison because he knew that the hand of God was upon him.

Gen 40:1-3 And it came to pass after these things, that the butler of the king of Egypt and his baker had offended their lord the king of Egypt. (2) And Pharaoh was wroth against two of his officers, against the chief of the butlers, and against the chief of the bakers. (3) And he put them in ward in the house of the captain of the guard, into the prison, the place where Joseph was bound.

Since this was the LORD’s will, it is reasonable to assume that God foreknew these offenses and used them to His glory. In one case God may have allowed the course of events to continue, resulting in the execution of the baker, while in the other He may have influenced Pharaoh to allow the butler (the chief cupbearer) to live. This would bring Him glory by placing Joseph in a position to eventually meet Pharaoh. It is more likely that the butler would see the Pharaoh often, while the baker would have seen him seldom. The best advantage for Joseph was for the butler to remember him before the king.

We do not know the offenses of these two men. We can make an educated guess. Since the butler lived and the baker was executed, perhaps the baker made a poor dish and the butler allowed it to be set before the king. Some say they conspired to poison the kin; but this is just conjecture. Whatever the reason, they were both jailed. After reflecting on the issue for a season, the king may have realized the baker was at fault and not the butler. He then restored the butler and had the baker killed. This is just a guess; there is no provable fact in it.

Divine Providence had put Joseph in the round house and Divine Providence placed the two servants in the round house with Joseph. Being the chief trustee of the prison, Joseph would be charged with their keep. They were important individuals, requiring attention. It is possible that Joseph served these two men only.

Gen 40:4 And the captain of the guard charged Joseph with them, and he served them: and they continued a season in ward.

By serving them, it is understood that Joseph attended them. He was not their servant, but their attendant. He was responsible for them to the jailer.

Gen 40:5-7 And they dreamed a dream both of them, each man his dream in one night, each man according to the interpretation of his dream, the butler and the baker of the king of Egypt, which were bound in the prison. (6) And Joseph came in unto them in the morning, and looked upon them, and, behold, they were sad. (7) And he asked Pharaoh’s officers that were with him in the ward of his lord’s house, saying, Wherefore look ye so sadly to day?

Do you not think that God gave them these dreams? He did so to allow Joseph to interpret both dreams accurately thus proving that is was not just coincidence. After all, the accurate interpretation of one dream could have just been a fluke. But to accurately interpret two dreams of two different individuals was no accident. This would have imprinted the incident on their two minds.

They were bewildered and somewhat frightened by their vivid dreams and their countenances showed it.

Gen 40:8 And they said unto him, We have dreamed a dream, and there is no interpreter of it. And Joseph said unto them, Do not interpretations belong to God? tell me them, I pray you.

Joseph knew that the only One able to interpret a dream was God. Joseph would take no credit upon himself. Being a godly man, He would take their dreams before the LORD to try to ascertain their meaning. By asking them their dreams, Joseph also gave them comfort. They knew they were not alone.

Gen 40:9-11 And the chief butler told his dream to Joseph, and said to him, In my dream, behold, a vine was before me; (10) And in the vine were three branches: and it was as though it budded, and her blossoms shot forth; and the clusters thereof brought forth ripe grapes: (11) And Pharaoh’s cup was in my hand: and I took the grapes, and pressed them into Pharaoh’s cup, and I gave the cup into Pharaoh’s hand.

The butler was the chief cupbearer, because Hebrew word, משׁקה, mashqeh, 

means “one who causes to drink.” The cupbearer would bring the king’s food and drink to him. The cupbearer was responsible for the food and drink. If it was poisoned, or not fit to eat, the cupbearer was held liable. On the other hand, the cupbearer could be very influential, being often in the king’s presence. Nehemiah was a masqeh, or cupbearer to Artaxerxes (Neh 1:11). He was well respected by Artaxerxes.

This dream basically showed the butler doing his duty to the king. He placed fresh grape juice in the king’s cup and offered it to him. This was his normal duty. As for the butler watching as the vine budded and the grapes grew and ripened, Joseph will interpret:

Gen 40:12-13 And Joseph said unto him, This is the interpretation of it: The three branches are three days: (13) Yet within three days shall Pharaoh lift up thine head, and restore thee unto thy place: and thou shalt deliver Pharaoh’s cup into his hand, after the former manner when thou wast his butler.

God had given Joseph the interpretation. Day one was the day when the vine bloomed in the spring. Day two was when the tiny grapes first begin blossom. Day three was when they were fully ripe. These were three different days in three different seasons.

Genesis 40:14-15 But think on me when it shall be well with thee, and shew kindness, I pray thee, unto me, and make mention of me unto Pharaoh, and bring me out of this house: (15) For indeed I was stolen away out of the land of the Hebrews: and here also have I done nothing that they should put me into the dungeon.

In return for the interpretation, Joseph asked to be remembered for he was an innocent man unjustly jailed. This shows that the butler or chief cupbearer could be influential to the king. Joseph understood this and that is why he placed his own case before the man. He asked the butler to entreat Pharaoh to pardon him, seeing that he was innocent of all charges preferred against him. Of course, due process in those days was a many times a matter of social standing. If a man as the captain of the king’s guard had aught against a servant, his word was sufficient to have the servant locked up. After all, the captain owned the servant. That is no different from our own justice system in the antebellum American South. A slave owner had complete control over his slaves. He had life or death authority over them. They were no more than chattel. Joseph was no more than chattel to his owner so he did not receive any due process. The only way out for him was a pardon, which is what he requested through the proxy of the chief butler.

The example here for us to see is that Joseph had no hope. He was a slave who had no rights, no freedom, and no chance to redeem himself of the charges pressed against him. As far as the state was concerned, he was guilty as charged and sentenced with no possibility of parole. He could do nothing. He was completely at the mercy of the king and he pleaded his case to the king through an intermediary.

All people are sinners. We are born into sin and have a sinful nature. Our propensity to sin is very great. We are guilty and without hope. We are culpable and condemned to the fire (John 3:18). There is no possibility of parole. We can do nothing. Our only chance is to appeal to the mercy and grace of the King. We do so through our Intermediary, Jesus Christ. Joseph could plead his innocence, but we must plead Christ’s innocence. An innocent man, He died for our sins. We appeal to His work, and to His righteousness, and not ours.

Gen 40:16 When the chief baker saw that the interpretation was good, he said unto Joseph, I also was in my dream, and, behold, I had three white baskets on my head:

The baker had his interest piqued by the interpretation of the butler’s dream. Since the butler’s dream had a happy conclusion, the return of the butler to the king’s good graces, he probably hoped that Joseph would pronounce such an ending to his own dream. Remember that two correct interpretations would set the matter aright in the heart of the butler, so it was important for Joseph to interpret the baker’s dream.

One can see by looking at ancient Egyptian art that men carried baskets upon their heads. Women carried them upon their shoulders. Herodotus 2:35 says, “the women likewise carry burthens upon their shoulders, while the men carry them upon their heads.

Gen 40:17 And in the uppermost basket there was of all manner of bakemeats for Pharaoh; and the birds did eat them out of the basket upon my head.

In the case of the king’s court, a servant would carry three baskets upon his head from the kitchen to the court. They placed the cooked and baked foods in the top basket, while other foods were carried in the lower baskets. In Egypt, birds like vultures and eagles were sacred and it was unlawful to harm them. Often, when crossing open areas from the kitchen to the court, birds would swoop down and steal some of the food. This is the picture in the baker’s dream.

Gen 40:18-19 And Joseph answered and said, This is the interpretation thereof: The three baskets are three days: (19) Yet within three days shall Pharaoh lift up thy head from off thee, and shall hang thee on a tree; and the birds shall eat thy flesh from off thee.

This punishment, or that like it, occurred in other places beside Egypt (England, for example). It was known as beheading and gibbeting. The baker was to have his head cut off and then his body would hang from a tree or post. He would be left there until the carrion fowl ate his rotting flesh. When the Israelites hanged a man, under the law he was to be taken down and buried before dusk (Deuteronomy 21:22-23). The Egyptians had no such law.

Gen 40:20-22 And it came to pass the third day, which was Pharaoh’s birthday, that he made a feast unto all his servants: and he lifted up the head of the chief butler and of the chief baker among his servants. (21) And he restored the chief butler unto his butlership again; and he gave the cup into Pharaoh’s hand: (22) But he hanged the chief baker: as Joseph had interpreted to them.

The interpretations proved true. Therefore, the interpretations were of Yehovah (Deuteronomy 18:22).

Gen 40:23 Yet did not the chief butler remember Joseph, but forgot him.

The timing was not yet correct. Pharaoh had to have his dream and the time of plenty had to be in evidence to quickly prove Joseph correct in his interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream.

Joseph then had to count his days in prison until the fullness of time arose. God did not tell Joseph this, He allowed Joseph to stay in that jail until it was the correct time and all things were in readiness for Joseph’s emergence. He would become the second in command of all Egypt, but it would be some time before God had all the arrangements made. It would have taken a great faith to sit quietly in jail until the Lord freed him. Nevertheless, we see from the whole story of Joseph that he had great faith.

  1. The company of Ishmaelites was a mixed group of tribes travelling together in one caravan (not a travel trailer as in UK English, but the American use of the word caravan—a group traveling together; here called arab, which means to mingle). The Persian language renders them araban, from the Chaldee. So you see, the Arabs of more modern times were then simply groups of mixed tribes from the Middle East. In Persian the whole phrase is translated into English thus: “a company of Arabs.” These commingled tribes eventually became associated as one nation, the Arab Nation. (Note: nation as opposed to state; one nation in several states.)
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A primitive root; to lie down (for rest, sexual connection, decease or any other purpose): –  X at all, cast down, ([over-]) lay (self) (down), (make to) lie (down, down to sleep, still, with), lodge, ravish, take rest, sleep, stay.



From H8248; properly causing to drink, that is, a butler; by implication (intransitively) drink (itself); figuratively a well watered region: – butler (-ship), cupbearer, drink (-ing), fat pasture, watered.

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