19 As soon as his master heard the words that his wife spoke to him, “This is the way your servant treated me,” his anger was kindled. 20 And Joseph’s master took him and put him into the prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were confined, and he was there in prison. 21 But the Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love and gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison. 22 And the keeper of the prison put Joseph in charge of all the prisoners who were in the prison. Whatever was done there, he was the one who did it. 23 The keeper of the prison paid no attention to anything that was in Joseph’s charge, because the Lord was with him. And whatever he did, the Lord made it succeed. – Genesis 39:19-23 ESV
Angered by Joseph’s repeated refusals to accommodate her sexual advances, Potiphar’s humiliated wife falsely and maliciously accused him of attempted rape. And her husband, shocked but also angered by this news, was forced to confine Joseph to prison. Had the master truly believed in Joseph’s guilt, it is likely he would have ordered his execution. After all, for a common slave to attempt to violate his master’s wife would have been a crime worthy of death. Considered to be little more than personal property, a slave had no rights and his life was in the hand of his master. But rather than having Joseph executed for this egregious crime, Potiphar chose to spare his life by confining him to prison.
This echoes the treatment Joseph had received at the hands of his brothers. When he had shown up in Dothan, their first response had been to put him to death.
“Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits. Then we will say that a fierce animal has devoured him, and we will see what will become of his dreams.” – Genesis 37:19-20 ESV
But Reuben had intervened and spared Joseph’s life. Rather than committing murder, he suggested that they confine Joseph to an empty cistern, where he would be left to die of natural causes. Reuben had hoped to come back later and rescue Joseph. But before he could do so, Judah convinced his brothers to sell Joseph to Ishmaelite traders. And that sale had resulted in Joseph’s purchase by Potiphar, which eventually led to his imprisonment for a crime of which he was completely innocent. But, as before, Joseph was spared from death.
While preferable to capital punishment, Joseph’s imprisonment was still undeserved and would have been a far-from-pleasant experience. Yet, Moses points out that “the Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love and gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison” (Genesis 39:21 ESV). This theme runs throughout the entire narrative found in chapter 10. God had been the one to protect Joseph from the murderous intentions of his brothers. And God had been behind Joseph’s sale to the Ishmaelites and his eventual purchase by Potiphar. None of this was blind luck or a case of cosmic karma.
The Lord was with Joseph, and he became a successful man, and he was in the house of his Egyptian master. His master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord caused all that he did to succeed in his hands. – Genesis 39:2-3 ESV
God had orchestrated every facet of this story, including Joseph’s imprisonment in the facility reserved solely for the king’s prisoners. This factor will become more important and pertinent as chapter 40 unfolds. But suffice it to say that each and every sequence of this story took place according to the sovereign plan of God.
Just as God had shown Joseph favor in the eyes of Potiphar, He also elevated Joseph in the eyes of the prison’s warden.
…the keeper of the prison put Joseph in charge of all the prisoners who were in the prison. Whatever was done there, he was the one who did it. – Genesis 39:22 ESV
This innocent young man displayed an uncanny knack for leadership that led the warden to place all the prisoners under Joseph’s supervision. And before long, Joseph found himself functioning more as a prison administrator than a prisoner. He wielded power, authority, and great influence. He had entered as a common criminal but, before he knew it, Joseph was functioning as the second most powerful man in the entire prison.
The warden had no more worries, because Joseph took care of everything. The Lord was with him and caused everything he did to succeed. – Genesis 39:23 NLT
Prison walls were an insufficient barrier against the sovereign hand of God. The vindictive plans of a bitter woman could not derail God’s plans for His child. God’s love for Joseph was far superior to anything Potiphar or his wife could try to do to him. As the psalmist wrote, “The LORD is for me, so I will have no fear. What can mere people do to me?” (Psalm 118:6 NLT). They could falsely accuse Joseph. They could imprison him. They could even threaten to take his life. But as the apostle Paul so aptly put it:
“If God is for us, who can ever be against us?” – Genesis 8:31 NLT
And Paul would go on to remind his readers that God’s love for His children was inseparable and unwavering.
I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord. – Romans 8:38-39 NLT
God, out of His marvelous love and mercy, was making Joseph a success – even in prison. He was protecting Joseph’s life, expanding his influence, and preparing him for the next phase of his God-ordained journey. The prison would prove to be a doorway to freedom, a portal to salvation, and a divine pathway to Israel’s promised future. No one would have seen this coming, including Joseph. Potiphar and his wife will disappear into the pages of ancient history, never to be heard from again. Joseph’s brothers will go on with their lives, oblivious of Joseph’s fate and ignorant of their own pre-ordained destiny with drought and famine.
Little did Joseph know that his unexpected and undeserved imprisonment would foreshadow another captivity to come. This son of Abraham would become a symbol for the descendants of Abraham who would one day find themselves also living as captives in the land of Egypt. And they too would discover that, despite their unpleasant circumstances, God was with them. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob would step into the darkness of their predicament and turn their seeming failure into success.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.