Joseph and Potiphar

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Meanwhile the Midianites had sold [Joseph] in Egypt to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard (Gen 37:36 ESV).

 It is well known that Joseph goes from being the favored son of Jacob, to being sold by his brothers to the Ishmaelites and then being sold by the Ishmaelites Joseph to Potiphar (see Genesis 37:1-35).

What is not well known is the significance of Potiphar’s title the captain of the guard. In Hebrew the root word for guard here is associated with slaughter or butcher. Alter states, “The actual responsibilities of this high imperial post remain unclear” (The Five Books of Moses, 2019, p. 144); however, I think we can make a connection that Potiphar had some degree of involvement with Pharaoh’s kitchen (as we will see in later events).

Joseph was both trustworthy and handsome (39:6). As much as Potiphar trusted Joseph, Potiphar’s wife wanted to seduce Joseph. Joseph continues to resist her advances until she had enough and told Potiphar that Joseph tried to lie with her (see vv 7-18). When Potiphar heard her story his “anger was kindled” (or “he burned with anger” NIV) and he put Joseph in prison (vv 19-20).

There are some misconceptions here. First, Potiphar was NOT angry with Joseph; he was angry with his wife. Potiphar is angry that she lied about Joseph trying to seduce her. Walton states, “Given his wife’s slander of his own motives [Potiphar bringing a Hebrew into the house to laugh at them], the proven trustworthiness of Jospeh, the fact that he is going to lose the services of a competent slave, and his knowledge of his wife’s character or lack of it, his anger arguably burns at his wife, not at Joseph” (J. Walton, Genesis, NIVAC, 2001, p. 671).

The second way we know that Potiphar believes Jospeh is because he did not have Jospeh executed immediately. To this point Walton states, “Jails were not common in the ancient world since imprisonment was not a standard punishment for crimes. If Potiphar truly believed that Joseph, his slave, was guilty of sexually assaulting his wife, execution would have been the swift and normal response” (J. Walton, “Genesis,” ZIBBC, 2009, p. 127). Potiphar puts Joseph imprison to keep his family’s honor and to preserve Joseph’s life. “The actions he takes against Joseph are as minimal as they can be” (Walton, Genesis, p. 672).

Later on we learn that “Pharaoh was angry with his two officers, the chief cupbearer and the chief baker, and he put them in custody in the house of the captain of the guard, in the prison where Joseph was confined” (Gen 40:2, emphasis mine). While Potiphar is not mentioned by name here, what is mentioned here is Potiphar’s title, captain of the guard.

Jospeh is not imprisoned in some other part of Egypt, he is “transferred to another part of Potiphar’s house” (“Genesis,” p. 127). This is why I think that guard has a connection to the kitchen. It only makes sense that Pharaoh’s chief cupbearer and chief baker would be imprisoned at the house of the captain of the guard. The chief cupbearer and chief baker are vital to the survival of Pharaoh. Walton states, “The potential for assassination attempts through the king’s food was real and constant, so these officials not only needed to be incorruptible themselves, but also had to be able to hire people above reproach and to identify attempts at infiltration of the staff by enemies of the king…it seems logical to speculate that the king may have gotten sick from a meal” (“Genesis,” p. 128).

If in fact the chief baker and chief cupbearer were enemies of Pharaoh, it makes perfect sense why Potiphar, “the captain of the guard appointed Joseph to be with them and attended them [because] they continued for some time in custody” (v 4, emphasis mine). Potiphar, as the captain of the guard would not want anything to happen to Pharaoh under his watch. Potiphar already knows the kind of man that Joseph is and again, it is no wonder that he “appoints” Joseph to watch over them!

No two people would be closer to Pharaoh than the chief cupbearer and chief baker and at some point each of these men had a dream (v 5). God gave Joseph the ability to interpret the dreams correctly. The chief baker was hanged and the chief cupbearer was restored to his position (vv 6-23).

Two years later, God caused the cupbearer to remember the “young Hebrew… a servant of the captain of the guard (41:12, emphasis mine) who interpreted correctly the dreams of himself and the chief baker. Pharaoh then sent for Joseph. God caused Joseph to interpret Pharaoh’s dream correctly, thus being elevated to the second most powerful person in Egypt (vv 14-45). In which Joseph is used by God to save Israel and sons from the famine in the land. Truly what Joseph’s brothers meant for evil God used for good.

By looking at the historical-cultural background we can see even more how God’s Hand, Favor and Protection were upon Joseph. Joseph was with Potiphar for 11 years (how the time is divided between house and prison is unknown; see Walton, Genesis, p. 672). God uses unbelieving people to accomplish His will in His people’s lives, both in blessing and in consequence/discipline. Potiphar is part of Joseph’s story more than we realize. Who are the unbelieving people that God has used in your life?

Father God, thank You that when we look deeper into Your Word we learn more about the time and place in which Your people who went before us lived. Lord God, may we be reminded that Your common grace rains on both the just and the unjust. Lord God, thank You for the life and story of both Joseph and Potiphar. Their lives are intertwined more than we usually realize. Lord God, help us to be a people of integrity regardless of who is watching. Lord God, while You may not elevate us to the palace in this life, may we be mindful that Your Kingdom that is coming is more glorious, more majestic and magnificent than any palace this world has to offer. May we be encouraged by Your past workings in our lives and in the lives of others, so that we may endure our current circumstances and to eagerly await Your second coming and the consummation of Your Kingdom. In Jesus’s Name I pray. Amen.