Genesis 39 Bible Commentary

John Calvin’s Bible Commentary

(Read all of Genesis 39)

Verse 1. And Joseph was brought down . For the purpose of connecting it with the remaining part of the history, Moses repeats what he had briefly touched upon, that Joseph had been sold to Potiphar the Egyptian: he then subjoins that God was with Joseph, so that he prospered in all things. For although it often happens that all things proceed with wicked men according to their wish, whom God nevertheless does not bless with his favor; still the sentiment is true and the expression of it proper, that it is never well with men, except so far as the Lord shows himself to be gracious to them. For he vouchsafes his blessing, for a time, even to reprobates, with whom he is justly angry, in order that he may gently invite and even allure them to repentance; and may render them more inexcusable, if they remain obstinate; meanwhile, he curses their felicity. Therefore, while they think they have reached the height of fortune, their prosperity, in which they delighted themselves, is turned into ruin. Now whensoever God deprives men of his blessing, whether they be strangers or of his own household, they must necessarily decline; because no good flows except from Him as the fountain. The world indeed forms for itself a goddess of fortune, who whirls round the affairs of men; or each man adores his own industry; but Scripture draws us away from this depraved imagination, and declares that adversity is a sign of God's absence, but prosperity, a sign of his presence. However, there is not the least doubt that the peculiar and extraordinary favor of God appeared towards Joseph, so that he was plainly known to be blessed by God. Moses immediately afterwards adds, that Joseph was in the house of his master , to teach us that he was not at once elevated to an honorable condition. There was nothing more desirable than liberty; but he is reckoned among the slaves, and lives precariously, holding his life itself subject to the will of his master. Let us then learn, even amidst our sufferings, to perceive the grace of God; and let it suffice us, when anything severe is to be endured, to have our cup mingled with some portion of sweetness, lest we should be ungrateful to God, who, in this manner, declares that he is present with us.

Verse 3. And his master saw . Here that which has been lately alluded to more clearly appears, that the grace of God shone forth in Joseph, in no common or usual manner; since it became thus manifest to a man who was a heathen, and, in this respect, blind. How much more base is our ingratitude, if we do not refer all our prosperous events to God as their author; seeing that Scripture often teaches us, that nothing proceeding from men, whether counsels, or labors, or any means which they can devise, will profit them, except so far as God gives his blessing. And whereas Potiphar, on this account, conceived so much greater regard for Joseph, as to set him over his house; we hence gather, that heathens may be so affected by religion, as to be constrained to ascribe glory to God. However, his ingratitude again betrays itself, when he despises that God whose gifts he estimates so highly in the person of Joseph. He ought at least to have inquired who that God was, that he might conform himself to the worship due to him: but he deems it enough, insomuch as he thinks it will be for his private advantage, to acknowledge that Joseph was divinely directed, in order that he may use his labor with greater profit.

The lord made all that he did to prosper in his hand . This was a wonderful method of procedure, that the entire blessing by which the Lord was pleased to testify his paternal love towards Joseph, should turn to the gain of the Egyptians. For since Joseph neither sowed nor reaped for himself, he was not at all enriched by his labor. But in this way it was brought about that a proud man, who otherwise might have abused him as a vile and sordid slave, should treat him humanely and liberally. And the Lord often soothes the wicked by such favors, lest when they have suffered any injury, they should turn the fury of their indignation against the pious. We here see how abundantly the grace of God is poured out upon the faithful, since a portion of his kindness flows from them even to the reprobate. We are also taught what an advantage it is to receive the elect children of God to our hospitality, or to join ourselves to those whom the divine favor thus accompanies, that it may diffuse its fragrance to those who are near them. But since it would not greatly profit us to be saturated with those temporal benefits of God, which suffocate and ruin the reprobate; we ought to center all our wishes on this one point, that God may be propitious to us. Far better was it for Joseph that Potiphar's wealth should be increased for his sake; than it was for Potiphar to make great gain by Joseph.

Verse 6. And he left all that he had . 1 Joseph reaped this fruit of the divine love and kindness towards him, that he was cheered by some alleviation of his servitude, at least, for a short time. But a new temptation soon assailed him. For the favor which he had obtained was not only annihilated, but became the cause and origin of a harsher fortune. Joseph was governor over the whole house of Potiphar. From that post of honor he is hurried into prison, in order that he may be soon brought forth to the punishment of death. What then could enter into his mind, but that he was forsaken and abandoned by God, and was continually exposed to new dangers? He might even imagine that God had declared himself his enemy. This history, therefore, teaches us that the pious have need of peculiar discernment to enable them, with the eyes of faith, to consider those benefits of God by which he mitigates the severity of their crosses. For when he seems to stretch out his hand to them, for the sake of bringing them assistance, the light which had shone forth often vanishes in a moment, and denser darkness follows in its place. But here it is evident, that the Lord, though he often plunges his own people into the waves of adversity, yet does not deceive them; seeing that, by sometimes moderating their sufferings, he grants them time to breathe. So Joseph, though fallen from his office as governor of the house, was yet never deserted; nor had that relaxation of his sufferings proved in vain, by which his mind was raised, not to pride, but to the patient endurance of a new cross. And truly for this end, God meets with us in our difficulties, that then, with collected strength, as men refreshed, we may be the better prepared for other conflicts.

And Joseph was a goodly person, and well-favored . Whereas elegance of form was the occasion of great calamity to holy Joseph, let us learn not greatly to desire those graces of person which may conciliate the favor of the world; but rather let each be content with his own lot. We see to how many dangers they are exposed, who excel in beauty; for it is very difficult for such to restrain themselves from all lascivious desires. Although in Joseph religion so prevailed that he abhorred all impurity; yet Satan contrived a means of destruction for him, from another quarter, just as he is accustomed to turn the gifts of God into snares whereby to catch souls. Wherefore we must earnestly ask of God, that amid so many dangers, he would govern us by his Spirit, and preserve those gifts with which he has adorned us, pure from every stain. When it is said that Potiphar's wife "cast her eyes upon Joseph," the Holy Spirit, by this form of speech, admonishes all women, that if they have chastity in their heart, they must guard it by modesty of demeanor. For, on this account also, they bear a veil upon their heads, that they may restrain themselves from every sinful allurement: not that it is wrong for a woman to look at men; but Moses here describes an impure and dissolute look. She had often before looked upon Joseph without sin: but now, for the first time, she casts her eyes upon him, and contemplates his beauty more boldly and wantonly than became a modest woman. Thus we see that the eyes were as torches to inflame the heart to lust. By which example we are taught that nothing is more easy, than for all our senses to infect our minds with depraved desires, unless we are very earnestly on our guard. For Satan never ceases diligently to suggest those things which may incite us to sin. The senses both readily embrace the occasion of sin which is presented to them, and also eagerly and quickly convey it to the mind. Wherefore let every one endeavor sedulously to govern his eyes, and his ears, and the other members of his body, unless he wishes to open so many doors to Satan, into the innermost affections of his heart: and especially as the sense of the eyes is the most tender, no common care must be used in putting them under restraint.

Verse 7. Lie with me . 2 Moses only briefly touches upon the chief points, and the sum of the things he relates. For there is no doubt that this impure woman endeavored, by various arts, to allure the pious youth, and that she insinuated herself by indirect blandishments, before she broke forth to such a shameless kind of license. But Moses, omitting other things, shows that she had been pushed so far by base lust, as not to shrink from openly soliciting a connection with Joseph. Now as this filthiness is a signal proof that carnal lust acts from blind and furious impulses; so, in the person of Joseph, an admirable example of fidelity and continence is set before us. His fidelity and integrity appear in this, that he acknowledges himself to be the more strictly bound, the greater the power with which he is entrusted. Ingenuous and courageous men have this property, that the more is confided to them, the less they can bear to deceive: but it is a rare virtue for those who have the power of doing injury to cultivate honesty gratuitously. Wherefore Joseph is not undeservedly commended by Moses, for regarding the authority with which he was invested by his master, as a bridle to restrain him from transgressing the bounds of duty. Besides, he gives also a proof of his gratitude, in bringing forward the benefits received from his master, as a reason why he should not subject him to any disgrace. And truly hence arises at this day such confusion everywhere, that men are half brutal, because this sacred bond of mutual society is broken. All, indeed, confess, that if they have received any benefit from another, they are under obligation to him: one even reproaches another for his ingratitude; but there are few who sincerely follow the example of Joseph. Lest, however, he should seem to be restrained only by a regard to man, he also declares that the act would be offensive to God. And, indeed, nothing is more powerful to overcome temptation than the fear of God. But he designedly commends the generosity of his master, in order that the wicked woman may desist from her abandoned purpose. To the same point is the objection which he mentions, Neither hath he kept anything back from me but thee, because thou art his wife . Why does he say this, except that, by recalling the religious obligation of marriage, he may wound the corrupt mind of the woman, and may cure her of her insane passion? Therefore he not only strenuously strives to liberate himself from her wicked allurements; but, lest her lusts should prove indomitable, he proposes to her the best remedy. And we may know that the sanctity of marriage is here commended to us in the history of Joseph, whereby the Lord would declare himself to be the maintainer of matrimonial fidelity, so that none who violate another's bed should escape his vengeance. For he is a surety between the man and his wife, and requires mutual chastity from each. Whence it follows that, besides the injury inflicted upon man, God himself is grievously wronged.

Verse 10. As she spake to Joseph day by day . The constancy of Joseph is commended; from which it appears that a real fear of God reigned in his mind. Whence it came to pass that he not only repelled one attack, but stood forth, to the last, the conqueror of all temptations. We know how easy it is to fall when Satan tempts us through another: because we seem exempt from blame, if he who induces us to commit the crime, bears a part of it. 3 Holy Joseph, therefore, must have been endowed with the extraordinary power of the Spirit, seeing that he stood invincible to the last, against all the allurements of the impious woman. So much the more detestable is the wickedness of her, who is neither corrected by time, nor restrained by many repulses. When she sees a stranger, and one who had been sold as a slave, so discreet and so faithful to his master, when she is also sacredly admonished by him not to provoke the anger of God, how indomitable is that lust which gives no place to shame. Now, because we here see into what evils persons will rush, when regard to propriety is extinguished by carnal intemperance, we must entreat the Lord that He will not suffer the light of his Spirit to be quenched within us.

Verse 11. And it came to pass about this time . That is, in the process of time, seeing she will not desist from soliciting holy Joseph, it happens at length, that she adds force to blandishments. Now, Moses here describes the crisis 4 of the combat. Joseph had already exhibited a noble and memorable example of constancy; because, as a youth, so often tempted, through a constant succession of many days, he had preserved the even tenor of his way; and at that age, to which pardon is wont to be granted, if it break forth into intemperance, he was more moderate than almost any old man. But now when the woman openly raves, and her love is turned into fury, the more arduous the contest has become, the more worthy of praise is his magnanimity, which remains inflexible against this assault. Joseph saw that he must incur the danger of losing both his character and his life: he chose to sacrifice his character, and was prepared to relinquish life itself, rather than to be guilty of such wickedness before God. Seeing the Spirit of God proposes to us such an example in a youth, what excuse does he leave for men and women of mature age, if they voluntarily precipitate themselves into crime, or fall into it by a light temptation? To this, therefore, we must bend all our efforts, that regard for God alone, may prevail to subdue all carnal affections, and even that we may more highly value a good and upright conscience than the plaudits of the whole world. For no one will prove that he heartily loves virtue, but he who, being content with God as his only witness, does not hesitate to submit to any disgrace, rather than decline from the path of duty. And truly, since even among heathens such proverbs as these are current, "that conscience is a thousand witnesses", and that it is "a most beautiful theater", we should be greatly ashamed of our stupor, unless the tribunal of God stands so conspicuously in our view, as to cast all the perverse judgments of the world into the shade. Therefore, away with those vain pretexts, "I wish to avoid offense", "I am afraid lest men should interpret amiss what I have done aright;" because God does not regard himself as being duly honored, unless we, ceasing to be anxious about our own reputation, follow wheresoever he alone calls us; not that he wishes us simply to be indifferent to our own reputation, but because it is an indignity, as well as an absurdity, that he should not be preferred to men. Let, then, the faithful, as much as in them lies, endeavor to edify their neighbors by the example of an upright life; and for this end, let them prudently guard against every mark of evil; but if it be necessary to endure the infamy of the world, let them through this temptation also, proceed in the direction of their divine vocation.

He hath brought in an Hebrew unto us. Here we see what desperation can effect. For the wicked woman breaks forth from love into fury. Whence it clearly appears what brutal impulses lust brings with it, when its reins are loosened. Certainly alien Satan has once gained the dominion over miserable men, he never ceases to hurry them hither and thither, until he drives them headlong by the spirit of giddiness and madness. We see, also, how he hardens to obstinacy the reprobate, whom he holds fast bound under his power. God, indeed, often inspires the wicked with terror, so that they commit their crimes with trembling. And it is possible that the signs of a guilty conscience appeared in the countenance and in the words of this impure woman: nevertheless, Satan confirms her in that degree of hardness, that she boldly adopts the design to ruin the holy youth; and, at the moment, contrives the fraud by which she may oppress him, though innocent, just as if she had long meditated, at leisure, on his destruction. She had before sought secrecy, that no witness might be present; now she calls her domestics, that, by this kind of prejudging of the case, she may condemn the youth before her husband. Besides, she involves her husband in the accusation, that she may compel him, by a sense of shame, to punish the guiltless. "It is by thy fault, (she says,) that this stranger has been mocking me." What other course does she leave open to her husband, than that he should hasten, with closed eyes, to avenge her, for the sake of purging himself from this charge? Therefore, though all wicked persons are fearful, yet they contract such hardness from their stupor, that no fear hinders them from rushing obstinately forward into every abyss of iniquity, and insolently trampling upon the good and simple. And we must obscene this trial of the holy man, in order that we may take care to be clothed with that spirit of fortitude, which not even the iron-hardness of the wicked shall be able to break. Even this other trial was not a light one, that he receives so unworthy a reward of his humanity. He had covered the disgrace of the woman in silence, in order that she might have had opportunity to repent, if she had been curable; he now sees that, by his modesty, he has brought himself into danger of death. We learn, by his not sinking under the trial, that it was his sincere determination to yield himself freely to the service of God. And we must do the same, in order that the ingratitude of men may, by no means, cause us to swerve from our duty.

Verse 19. When his master heard the words of his wife . Seeing that a color so probable was given to the transaction, there is no wonder that jealousy, the motions of which are exceedingly vehement and ardent, should so far have prevailed with Potiphar, as to cause him to credit the calumnies of his wife. Yet the levity with which he instantly thrust a servant, whom he had found prudent and honest, into prison, without examining the cause, cannot be excused. He ought certainly to have been less under the influence of his wife. And, therefore, he received the just reward of his too easy folly, by cherishing with honor, a harlot in the place of a wife, and by almost performing the office of a pander. This example is useful to all; yet husbands especially are taught that they must use prudence, lest they should be carried rashly hither and thither, at the will of their wives. And, truly, since we everywhere see that they who are too obsequious to their wives are held up to ridicule; let us know that the folly of these men is condemned by the just judgment of God, so that we may learn to pray for the spirit of gravity and moderation. There is no doubt that Moses expressly condemns the rashness of Potiphar, in becoming inflamed against Joseph, as soon as he had heard his wife, and in giving the reins to his indignation, just as if the guilt of Joseph had been proved; for thus all equity is excluded, no just defense is allowed, and finally, the true and accurate investigation of the cause is utterly rejected. But it may be asked, How could the jealousy of Potiphar be excited, since Moses before has said that he was an eunuch? 5 The solution of the question is easy; they were accustomed to be called eunuchs in the East, not only who were so really, but who were satraps and nobles. Wherefore, this name is of the same force as if Moses had said that he was one of the chief men of the court. 6

Verse 20. And put him into the prison . Though Moses does not state with what degree of severity Joseph was afflicted at the beginning of his imprisonment, yet we readily gather that he was not allowed any liberty, but was thrust into some obscure dungeon. The authority of Potiphar was paramount; he had the keeper of the prison under his power, and at his disposal. What clemency could be hoped for from a man who was jealous and carried away with the vehemence of his anger? There is no doubt that what is related of Joseph in Psalm 105:18,

"His feet were made fast in fetters, and the iron entered into his soul,"

had been handed down by tradition from the fathers. What a reward of innocence! For, according to the flesh, he might ascribe whatever he was suffering to his integrity. Truly, in this temptation he must have mourned in great perplexity and anxiety before God. And though Moses does not record his prayers, yet, since it is certain that he was not crushed beneath the cross, and did not murmur against it, it is also probable that he was reposing on the hope of Divine help. And to flee unto God is the only stay which will support us in our afflictions, the only armor which renders us invincible.

Verse 21. But the Lord was with Joseph . It appears, from the testimony of the Psalmist just cited, that Joseph's extreme sufferings were not immediately alleviated. The Lord purposely suffered him to be reduced to extremity, that he might bring him back as from the grave. We know that as the light of the sun is most clearly seen when we are looking from a dark place; so, in the darkness of our miseries, the grace of God shines more brightly when, beyond expectation, he succors us. Moreover, Moses says, the Lord was with Joseph, because he extended this grace or mercy towards him; whence we may learn, that God, even when he delivers us from unjust violence, or when he assists us in a good cause, is yet induced to do so by his own goodness. For since we are unworthy that he should grant us his help, the cause of its communication must be in himself; seeing that he is merciful. Certainly if merits, which should lay God under obligation, are to be sought for in men, they would have been found in Joseph; yet Moses declares that he was assisted by the gratuitous favor of God. This, however, is no obstacle to his leaving received the reward of his piety, which is perfectly consistent with the gratuitous kindness of God. The manner of exercising this kindness is also added; namely, that the Lord gave him favor with the keeper of the prison. There is, indeed, no doubt that Joseph was acceptable to the keeper for many reasons: for even virtue conciliates favor to itself; and Moses has before shown that the holy man was amiable in many ways; but because it often happens that the children of God are treated with as great inhumanity as if they were the worst of all men, Moses expressly states that the keeper of the prison, at length, became humane; because his mind, which was not spontaneously disposed to equity, had been divinely inclined to it. Therefore, that the keeper of the prison, having laid aside his cruelty, acted with kindness and gentleness, was a change which proceeded from God, who governs the hearts of men according to his own will. But it is a wonder that the keeper of the prison did not fear lest he should incur the displeasure of Potiphar: and even that Potiphar himself, who without difficulty could have interfered, should yet have suffered a man whom he mortally hated to be thus kindly and liberally treated. It may be answered with truth, that his cruelty had been divinely restrained: but it is also probable that he had suspected, and at length, been made acquainted with the subtle scheme of his wife. Although, however, he might be appeased towards holy Joseph, he was unwilling to acquit him to his own dishonor. Meanwhile the remarkable integrity of Joseph manifests itself in this, that when he is made the guard of the prison, and has the free administration of it, he nevertheless does not attempt to escape, but waits for the proper season of his liberation.

1 "Potiphar placed Joseph over his house and over all his substance, and the Lord blessed him for the sake of Joseph, in all which he had, in the house and in the field. Joseph had also, after his exaltation, a man who was over his house. A peculiar and characteristic Egyptian trait! 'Among the objects of tillage and husbandry,' says Rosellini, 'which are pourtrayed on the Egyptian tombs, we often see a steward who takes account and makes a registry of the harvest, before it is deposited in the store-house.'"—Hengstenberg's Egypt and the Books of Moses, p. 24. Such incidental testimony to the truth of the sacred narrative, is invaluable, especially at a time when men, wise above what is written, are endeavoring to bring the sacred volume into contempt, by casting a doubt upon the veracity of Moses.—Ed.

2 "How great the corruption of manners with reference to the marriage relation was among the Egyptians, appears from Herodotus, whose account Larcher has compared with the one under consideration. The wife of one of the oldest kings was untrue to him. It was long before a woman could be found who was faithful to her husband; and when one was, at last, found, the king took her without hesitation to himself. From such a state of morals the Biblical narrative can easily be conceived to be natural. The evidence of the monuments is also not very favorable to the Egyptian women. Thus they are represented as addicted to excess in drinking wine, as even becoming so much intoxicated, as to be unable to stand or walk alone, or to carry their liquor discreetly.""—Egypt and the Books of Moses, p. 25.—Ed.

3 Scimus quam lubricus sit lapsus, dum aliunde nobis flabella suscitat Satan: quia videmur culpa exempti, si ejus partem sustinet qui nos ad flagitium inducit. The French translation is, Nous savons combien il est aise de tomber, quand Satan nous suscite des soufflets d'ailleurs: car il nous semble que nous sommes exempts de la faute, si celuy qui nous a induit a mal en soustient une partie. The sentiment of the passage seems loosely expressed, and certainly required some limitation. The old English translator omits it, as he does many others, entirely.—Ed.

4 Epitasis, Greek ejpi>tasiv the point in a play wherein the plot thickens.—Ed.

5 See the comment on Genesis 37:36.

6 To the whole of this account the sceptical writers of the continent imagine that they have found an insurable objection. Tuch remarks, ""he narrator abandons the representation of a distinguished Egyptian, in whose house the women live separately," etc. "The error," observes Hengstenberg, "however, lies here, not on the side of the author, but on that of his critics. They are guilty of inadvertently transferring that which universally prevails in the East to Egypt, which the author avoids, and thereby exhibits his knowledge of the condition of the Egyptians. According to the monuments, the women in Egypt lived under far less restraint than in the East, or even in Greece."—Egypt and the Books of Moses, p. 26.—Ed.