Potiphar (Petephres [LXX]), an Egyptian in the service of Pharaoh, bought Joseph from the Ishmaelite traders who had come to Egypt. The Hebrew expression that designates Potiphar’s position is “eunuch of Pharaoh.” As a married man, however, Potiphar would not have been a literal eunuch. Therefore, the word “eunuch” here means a royal officer, official, or courtier. Additionally, Potiphar was called “captain of the guard.” The Hebrew word for “guard” can also mean “cook” or “butcher” and, by extension, an “executioner.” This explains why the Septuagint rendering may be translated “chief cook” or “chief butcher.” (39:1; see the Notes section.) Josephus likewise referred to Potiphar as “chief cook” and indicated that he provided Joseph with the kind of learning that befitted a free man and a diet that was superior to one that was commonly allotted to slaves. (Antiquities, II, iv, 1)
In the service of Potiphar, Joseph performed his tasks in an exemplary manner and contributed significantly to the prosperity of Potiphar’s household. It appears that Joseph made known his faith in the one true God, YHWH. Seemingly because of having come to know about YHWH and on the basis of what he observed, Potiphar came to recognize that YHWH was with Joseph and caused everything to prosper “in his hands” or everything he did to succeed. Joseph “found favor in [Potiphar’s] eyes” or came to be liked by him, leading to his being put in charge of his entire household. As the overseer in the house of Potiphar, with responsibility for all his master’s possessions, Joseph conscientiously fulfilled his responsibilities. The Genesis account attributes all the benefits from Joseph’s service to the blessing of YHWH and that it was bestowed for Joseph’s sake or, according to Targum Jonathan, on account of Joseph’s “righteousness” or uprightness. Everything that Potiphar possessed in his house and in his field prospered on account of YHWH’s blessing. Potiphar did not have to concern himself about anything, with the exception of partaking of the food available to him. (39:2-6)
Joseph came to be an exceptionally handsome man. In time, the wife of Potiphar became infatuated with him on account of his good looks and the way he handled himself and began to proposition him. He refused her advances, making it clear to her that yielding to her would be a betrayal of his master who had entrusted him with his entire household and elevated him to the highest position in his house. Potiphar had not given her to him, for she was his wife. Therefore, Joseph said, “How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” His words did not persuade her to stop propositioning him “day after day,” but he remained firm in his determination not to sin. (39:6-10)
One day Potiphar’s wife seized the opportunity to take hold of Joseph when he entered the house to care for his duties and while no one was then present inside where she was. (39:11) According to Josephus (Antiquities, II, iv, 3), it was the day of a public festival which the women customarily attended, but Potiphar’s wife pretended to be sick so that she could maneuver Joseph into having sexual intimacy with her. Among other things, Josephus quoted her as telling him that, “if he complied with her affections, he might expect the enjoyment of the advantages he already had; and if he were submissive to her, he should have still greater advantages; but that he must look for revenge and hatred from her in case he rejected her desires,” preferring the reputation to being chaste instead of his mistress. She added that “he would gain nothing by such procedure, for she would then become his accuser,” informing her husband that he had attempted to defile her chastity.
Nothing dissuaded Potiphar’s wife from her passionate desire. She grabbed hold of Joseph’s garment, seeking to force him to have sexual relations with her. He freed himself, leaving his garment in her hand and fled out of the house. She then cried out so as to get the attention of the “men of her house” or her servants. Regarding her husband and Joseph, she said to them, “See, he has brought among us a Hebrew servant to mock us. He came in to me to lie with me and I screamed.” She claimed that, when Joseph heard her scream, he left his garment with her and fled out of the house. Thereafter she kept Joseph’s garment beside her, waiting until Joseph’s master, her husband, came home, and she then repeated her false accusation that Joseph had intended to rape her. (39:12-18)
After hearing his wife’s lies, Potiphar became furious at Joseph and had him imprisoned. Joseph then found himself in confinement with prisoners who had incurred the wrath of Pharaoh, the Egyptian ruler. YHWH did not abandon Joseph but continued to allow him to enjoy his providential care (his kindness, enduring love, or “mercy” [LXX]). The chief jailer came to be favorably inclined toward Joseph and placed him in charge of everything in the prison so that he personally did not have to care for anything. Just as had been the case in the house of Potiphar, YHWH was with Joseph and prospered everything he did in carrying out the duties entrusted to him. (39:19-23; see the Notes section.)
In Genesis 37:1, the ones who sold Joseph are called Midianites, but in verse 1 of chapter 39, they are referred to as Ishmaelites. Both peoples were descendants of Abraham and, therefore, the designations may either be used interchangeably or the caravan included both Ishmaelites and Midianites, with the Ishmaelites representing the entire group.
Targum Jonathan says that Potiphar first took counsel with the priests before having Joseph imprisoned.
Josephus (Antiquities, II, v, 1) wrote that Joseph did not try to make a defense against the false charge that had been leveled against him and did not give an account of the exact circumstances. He silently submitted to the bonds and distress in which he found himself, “believing that God, who knew the cause of his affliction and the truth of the matter, would be more powerful than those who inflicted the punishments upon him.” Joseph soon received a proof of God’s providence, “for the keeper of the prison” noticed Joseph’s care and trustworthiness in the affairs he entrusted to him and also the “dignity of his countenance.” Therefore, the jailer relaxed Joseph’s bonds, making it easier for him to bear his distress. He also allowed Joseph to have a better diet than the other prisoners.