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    What happened in jail? – Vayyeshev

    The Joseph story sees our hero thrown into jail, bet ha-sohar, “where the royal prisoners were bound” (Gen. 39:20).

    Since we do not have details of the ancient Egyptian prison service we do not know how to interpret the reference to prisoners being bound.

    It probably does mean that they were kept chained up. It is possible that some form of physical restraint like fetters was in use.

    The Brown, Driver and Briggs lexicon thinks the word sohar comes from a root that means round, and hence the prison was a sort of roundhouse, possibly a domed building, maybe with a hole in the roof that let in a little light (the Ramban thinks sohar is linked to an Aramaic word for light).

    The king must have had his favourite prisoners, possibly placed there for political reasons and not as punishment for a criminal offence, and this could well be Joseph’s situation.

    The idea of a special place of incarceration for political offences could explain why fellow prisoners of Joseph were the royal butler and baker.

    All this being said, it is important to note that Joseph never lost heart or hope, and it was his prison term that led to his later career in which he brought credit to himself, support to the king, and a future to Jacob and the tribes of Israel.

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