Genesis 39


Last week we spent our time on Genesis 38 and the story of Judah and Tamar. And though it may seem that chapter 38 interrupts the story of Joseph which began in chapter 37 and resumes in chapter 39, nevertheless I explained last week that chapter 38 and the story of Judah and Tamar provides a contrast with the story of Joseph. Judah’s shame in chapter 38 highlights Joseph’s purity in chapter 39.

So, in chapter 38 we read that Judah went down to stay with a Canaanite. In other words, he lived among the pagans. And he did this freely. In chapter 38 we read that Joseph went down to stay with the Egyptians. In other words, he too lived among the pagans. But whereas Judah went down freely, Joseph was taken down as a slave. And while Judah seemed to be absorbed into the pagan culture, Joseph remained faithful to the Lord.

And then, both men — Judah and Joseph — were faced with sexual temptation. But whereas Judah gave in to temptation and he slept with Tamar, Joseph fled from Potiphar’s wife.

And then, Judah, after sleeping with Tamar, left behind his seal, its cord and his staff. Well, Joseph too left something behind: he left behind his cloak. And whereas Tamar was able to say with all honesty that the man who owns these things slept with me, Potiphar’s wife was lying when she said that the man who owns this cloak tried to sleep with me.

So, chapter 38 and the story of Judah and Tamar provides a contrast with chapter 39 and the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife. Judah’s sin and shame highlight for us, and emphasise for us, Joseph’s purity and perfect righteousness. Rather than interrupt the story of Joseph, the story of Judah and Tamar helps us to appreciate Joseph’s purity all the more.


As we turn to study chapter 39, let me do as I did last week and run through the chapter first of all, making a few comments on the way. And then, at the end, I’ll make a couple of points to try to show the significance of this passage for us today.

And really, the chapter can be divided into three sections. First of all, in verses 1 to 6 we read how Joseph became Potiphar’s slave and God blessed Joseph. Then, in verses 7 to 20 we have the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife. And finally, in verses 21 to 23 we read how Joseph became a prisoner in the Egyptian jail, but God blessed him once again.

Verses 1 to 6

And so, in verses 1 to 6 we read how Joseph was taken down to Egypt. And Potiphar — who is described as one of Pharaoh’s officials and the captain of the guard — bought him from the Ishmaelites who had taken him there. The word ‘Ishmaelites’ is another name for the Midianites who bought Joseph from his brothers back in chapter 37.

And look how verse 2 begins. It tells us very plainly that the Lord was with Joseph. In fact, the presence of the Lord is highlighted at the beginning of this chapter and at the end. So, we’re told the Lord was with Joseph in verse 2. And we’re told in verse 3 that Potiphar saw that the Lord was with Joseph. And down in verse 21, we’re told that the Lord was with Joseph when he was in the jail. And then in verse 23 we’re told that the prison warder was happy to leave everything in Joseph’s hand, because the Lord was with Joseph. So, like bookends — at the beginning of the chapter and the end of the chapter — we’re told that the Lord was with Joseph.

Now, that’s important. Over the last two Sunday mornings when I’ve been in another church, I’ve been preaching on James 1 and on the things James teaches us there about the trials and troubles believers face in this life. And I was reminded of a friend who I mentioned here as well, who was having a really hard time in his new job. Every day was a struggle and at night, he was worrying about his job and wondering what he should do. And he said to me that he was really puzzled. He was sure it was God’s will for him to have this job. But, if that’s the case, why was it so hard? He thought that if it was God’s will for him to have this job, then the job would be easy. But it wasn’t; it was hard. And so, I pointed my friend to what James said about believers suffering all kinds of trials in this life. Well, I could also have pointed my friend to the story of Joseph. The Lord was with Joseph, and yet Joseph still suffered. The Lord was with Joseph, but Joseph still ended up a slave. The Lord was with Joseph, but Joseph still ended up a prisoner. The Lord was with Joseph, and yet he faced trials of various kinds.

And that tells us at least two things. First of all, sometimes when we’re struggling, we think God has abandoned us. And so, we complain to him:

Father, why have you forgotten me? Why have you left me alone? Don’t you care?

But what happened to Joseph shows us that we mustn’t assume God has abandoned us when we’re going through hard times, because the Lord was with Joseph in the midst of hard times.

And secondly, we assume that if God is with us, everything will be plain sailing. But no, the Lord was with Joseph, but his life was far from being plain sailing. His life was hard and difficult even though God was with him.

So, let’s not assume God has forgotten us when we go through trials. And then, let’s not assume that life will be easy when God is with us. But here’s the thing: Whatever trials we have to face, whatever troubles we may suffer, let’s remember and believe that God has promised never to leave us or forsake us. Let’s remember and believe that he is with us to help us.

And sure enough, the Lord was with Joseph to help him. And so, we read in verse 2 that the Lord was with Joseph in Potiphar’s house and Joseph prospered. In other words, the Lord helped him to do well. And he was allowed to live in Potiphar’s house. Maybe the other slaves had their own basic quarters, but some of the most trusted and valuable slaves were given their own room within Potiphar’s home.

And look at verse 3: Potiphar saw that the Lord was with Joseph. Had Joseph talked about his faith? Had he mentioned to his master that he believed in the Lord? We don’t know whether that’s the case, but however it came about, Potiphar noticed this about Joseph. And he noticed that Joseph’s God was helping him to do well.

And look at the result in verse 4: Joseph found favour in the eyes of Potiphar and became his attendant. That is, he became Potiphar’s personal assistant. And Potiphar put him in charge of his household and he entrusted to his care everything he owned. Well, that speaks to us of Joseph’s trustworthiness and integrity and his honesty and his hard work and his loyalty. It speaks to us of his righteousness. So, once again, we should notice that Joseph is quite unlike his brother, Judah.

But look at verse 5 now. From the time Potiphar placed Joseph in charge of all his affairs, the Lord blessed Potiphar and his household. He blessed Potiphar in the home and in the field — in other words, he blessed him everywhere — for the sake of Joseph. And with Joseph in charge, Potiphar didn’t concern himself with anything at all, except for the food he ate. Wouldn’t you love an assistant like that? Someone who would run your life for you? Someone who would do the shopping and make sure all the bills are paid in time; and who would look after your business; and who would make sure all the chores are done around the house and in the garden? Wouldn’t it be great to have someone like that, so the only thing you’d need to think about is the food on your plate? Well, that’s what Potiphar’s life was like, thanks to Joseph. And Joseph had become so dependable, because the Lord was with him to help him.

But then this section ends with one little comment, which is going to lead to trouble. Verse 6 tells us that Joseph was well-built and handsome.

Verses 7 to 20

And so, we come to verses 7 to 20. Joseph was well-built and handsome and Potiphar’s wife noticed him. And she invited him to sleep with her. But he refused. And look at his explanation in verses 8 and 9. First of all, he points out the trust Potiphar has placed in him:

With me in charge, my master does not concern himself with anything in the house; everything he owns he has entrusted to my care.

So, to sleep with her would be to betray that trust. Then he points out the kindness of Potiphar towards him:

My master has withheld nothing from me, except you.

So, to sleep with her would be to repay Potiphar’s kindness with ingratitude. And, of course, Joseph’s words here are reminiscent of what we read about Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, where God had said they may eat from every tree in the Garden, except one. God withheld nothing from them, apart from the fruit from that one tree. But whereas Adam and Eve reached out and took the one thing they were forbidden, Joseph refused to take the one thing in Potiphar’s’ house he was forbidden to take. Joseph was far, far more righteous than Adam.

And then, finally, Joseph refers to what Christians in the past have called the exceedingly sinfulness of sin. He said:

How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?

In other words:

How could I do such a sinful thing as this?

And, of course — like King David in Psalm 51 who said to the Lord: ‘Against you, you only, have I sinned’ — Joseph knows that every sin we commit is a sin against the Lord, because every time we sin, we not only harm our neighbour, but we’re breaking the law of the Lord. And Joseph, who both loves and trusts the Lord, does not want to offend his God by doing such a shameful thing as this.

And look at verse 10: though she kept asking him again and again and again, he kept refusing, again and again and again. In fact, the end of verse 10 tells us that he tried to stay away from her completely.

But then, one day, when all the other servants were away, Joseph was in the house and she came up to him and she grabbed hold of him and she insisted that he sleep with her. But again he refused. And he ran away from her.

But look, she kept hold of his cloak. And suddenly, something changed in her. Was she angry because Joseph refused her? Was she embarrassed at what she had become? Was she ashamed of herself? Was she afraid that Potiphar would find out? Whatever it was, something changed inside her and instead of wanting Joseph, she now hated him. And she made up this story which she told to the other servants first of all, and then she told it to her husband. She said:

This Hebrew slave which you brought us….

And notice she’s blaming her husband for bringing Joseph into their home. And notice too that she’s emphasising that Joseph was a foreigner, as if to imply that you can’t trust those foreigners. So, she said:

This Hebrew slave which you brought us came to me to make sport of me. And whenever I screamed, he ran away, leaving his cloak behind.

And in verse 19, we read that when Potiphar heard her story, he burned with anger. Interestingly, the text doesn’t tell us where his angry was directed. We assume he was angry with Joseph, but some of the commentators suggest that he was angry with his wife, because perhaps he knew she was telling a lie. But what else could he do? He couldn’t side with Joseph against his wife. And so, there was only one thing he could do, and that was to get rid of Joseph. So, though he had done nothing wrong, Joseph was taken away and placed in the prison.

You know, if this were a morality tale, or a children’s fairy tale, the story would be very different, wouldn’t it? If this were a fairy tale, we’d go on to read how, in the end, Potiphar’s lying, unfaithful wife would get her comeuppance; and Joseph would be rewarded for his loyalty. But this is not a fairy tale or a morality tale. In this story, Joseph’s faithfulness to the Lord only gets him into deeper trouble, because he’s taken from Potiphar’s nice home and he ends up in prison. Again, we sometimes assume that when we trust in the Lord and walk in his ways, our life will be easy. But no. Joseph was faithful; and he ended up in prison. Daniel was faithful; and he ended up in the lion’s den. Daniel’s three friends were faithful; and they ended up in the fiery furnace. And of course, the Lord Jesus was faithful; and he was crucified. Now, we believe that the Lord will rescue his people from all our troubles. We believe that. But still, when we walk in the ways of the Lord, the Lord often leads us into hardships.

Verses 21 to 23

And so, Joseph ended up in prison. But the Lord was with him. And the Lord was kind towards him and the prison warder looked on him with favour. The warder put Joseph in charge of the other prisoners and Joseph was made responsible for everything that happened there. The warder was happy to leave it all to Joseph, because the Lord was with Joseph to help him.


That’s the story of chapter 39. What can we learn from it? Well, the significance of this story for us today is to see Joseph as a type of Christ. In other words, God was revealing to the world in what happened to Joseph what would one day happen to the Lord Jesus Christ, God’s Beloved Son, for our salvation.

Here we read how the Lord was with Joseph; and in the gospels we read how God the Father was with the Lord Jesus throughout his life on earth. And here we read how Joseph was tempted by this woman; and in the gospels we read how the Lord was tempted by the Devil. And just as Potiphar’s wife kept at Joseph, again and again and again, so in the gospels we read how the Devil tempted the Lord again and again and again; not just during the forty days in the wilderness, but on other occasions as well. And just as Joseph refused to give in to Potiphar’s wife, so the Lord Jesus never once gave in to the Devil, but he remained faithful and obedient to his Father in heaven, always. And just as Joseph was falsely accused, so the Lord Jesus was falsely accused, because he never, ever did anything wrong. Do you remember? Pontius Pilate said that the Lord had done nothing to deserve the death sentence. And then, did you notice that there’s no record of Joseph protesting his innocence? He didn’t complain and he didn’t accuse Potiphar’s wife of lying. No, in the face of the accusations, he was silent. And in the face of his accusers, the Lord Jesus was silent and he humbly and quietly suffered at their hands, because, like a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. And having been falsely accused, good and upright Joseph was taken and placed in a jail. And in the gospels we read how the Lord Jesus was taken away by wicked men and he was killed and his body was placed in a tomb, and the stone was rolled over the entrance so as to lock his dead body inside.

Everything that happened to righteous Joseph speaks to us of the Lord Jesus Christ, who, out of obedience to his Father, came to earth and suffered and died and was buried, not for his owns sins — because he had none — but for our sins. In the life of Joseph God was revealing to the world what would one day happen to his Son and how his faithful, Beloved Son would suffer so much for us.

But, of course, in the life of Joseph, God was revealing to the world that the suffering of his Beloved Son would lead to glory too. The Lord was with Joseph, and in due course, when the time was right, he was taken from the prison and he was exalted to the right hand of the Pharaoh. And from that place of power and prestige, he brought salvation to the descendants of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob who were in danger of dying from the famine. And so, God was revealing to the world in the life of Joseph what he was going to do to bring everlasting salvation to the spiritual descendants of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. He was going to save his believing people by sending his one and only, the Beloved Son, into the world. And his one and only, Beloved Son would be falsely accused; and he would be crucified; and his body laid in the prison of a tomb. But the path of suffering would lead to glory, because on the third day, he was taken from the tomb and raised to life again and exalted to the Father’s right hand in heaven. And from his throne in heaven he gives salvation to his people.

Through the events of Joseph’s life — his humiliation and his suffering and his imprisonment and his exaltation — God was revealing what Christ the Beloved Son would do for us.

And here’s the thing: Whoever is united to Christ through faith will one day rise like him and enter that same glory. So, just as Joseph was raised from the prison and glorified in the presence of the Pharaoh, and just as Christ our Saviour was raised from the dead and glorified in the presence of his Father in heaven, so we too will be raised from the dead and we will be glorified with him in God’s heavenly kingdom. And so, the story of Joseph not only speaks to us of the suffering and death and resurrection and ascension of our Saviour, but it also speaks to us of the great hope God gives to all who are united to his Son through faith of our resurrection from the dead and the glory that awaits us in the life to come. The history of Joseph’s life reveals to us the history of our Lord’s life. And the history of the Lord’s life reveals to us the glory God has in store for all who believe in him.

And so, as we read this story, our hearts should rise up in faith and in thanksgiving, for what Christ has done for us and for the glory which awaits all who trust in God’s Son, our Saviour.

In the world, but not of it

But then, secondly, and briefly, in Joseph we have an example of someone who was in the world, but who was not of the world. He was in the world: living in Potiphar’s home, working for Potiphar, working among the other servants, going about his duties every day, and taking care of Potiphar’s affairs. He was in the world.

But he was not of the world, because he refused to become like Potiphar’s wife who wanted to sleep with him. And though he lived among sinful, godless people in Egypt — people who did not know or honour the Lord — he refused to become like them. And when he answered Potiphar’s wife and said he could not do such a wicked thing and sin against God, he showed that his mind was not on the things of the earth, but his mind was on the things above, where the Lord his God dwells in glory. Joseph showed that his one desire was to live his life on earth in a way that would please his Father in heaven.

And that’s the way we ought to be, because we believe — don’t we? — that when we first trusted in Christ we died to our old way of life. We’re no longer to live in sin as we once did and as the unbelieving world still does. And we were raised with Christ to live a new life, one of obedience to our heavenly Father. We were raised with Christ and so we’re to set our mind on the things above where Christ our Saviour is and where we belong and where we will one day come.

And so, we’re to be like Joseph: while we go on living in the world, we know that we’re not of the world. We’ve not to give in to sin and temptation and we’re not to do what the members of the unbelieving world do. And instead of following the ways of the world, we’re to do the will of our Father in heaven.


And so, as we read this story about Joseph, it not only points us to Christ who died for us and who was raised to glory, and who will one day raise us to glory, but it also speaks to us of the way we’re to live our lives: in the world, but not of the world because we belong in heaven with God our Father and Jesus Christ our Saviour. And while we go on living on the earth, we’re to set our mind on things above and we’re to show by the way we live that we are members, not of the world, but of Christ’s heavenly kingdom.