Wednesday, September 21, 2016

New Lessons from the Genesis 39 Story of Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife

The story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife is easily boiled down to the lesson of resisting temptation of immorality with immediate flight. Sometimes it is easy to think Joseph had an easy choice or that Potiphar’s wife was completely evil from beginning to end.

However, I’ve recently come to the conclusion that the story holds insight not just from examining Joseph’s perspective, but also the perspective of Potiphar’s wife.  I think that by seeing her as an ordinary woman in need of love, we can gain additional insights about vulnerabilities to temptation.   

On the surface, Mrs. Potiphar seems like she has a wandering eye. We’ve read her this way so many times. She’s forward and vocal about what she wants, and eventually she becomes physically aggressive as well, taking hold of Joseph’s clothes to the point that he has to slide out of them to escape her.   But…at the beginning, when you read the account closely, you might see that she doesn’t even notice Joseph until after some time that he is made overseer in Potiphar’s house.  It takes time for him to even appear on her radar at all.  Potiphar notices Joseph’s abilities and virtues much faster than Mrs. Potiphar does.  Joseph finds grace in Potiphar’s sight much faster than with Mrs. Potiphar.

1 And Joseph was brought down to Egypt; and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, captain of the guard, an Egyptian, bought him of the hands of the Ishmeelites, which had brought him down thither.
2 And the Lord was with Joseph, and he was a prosperous man; and he was in the house of his master the Egyptian.
3 And his master saw that the Lord was with him, and that the Lord made all that he did to prosper in his hand.
4 And Joseph found grace in his sight, and he served him: and he made him overseer over his house, and all that he had he put into his hand.
5 And it came to pass from the time that he had made him overseer in his house, and over all that he had, that the Lord blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake; and the blessing of the Lord was upon all that he had in the house, and in the field.
6 And he left all that he had in Joseph’s hand; and he knew not ought he had, save the bread which he did eat. And Joseph was a goodly person, and well favoured.
7 ¶And it came to pass after these things, that his master’s wife cast her eyes upon Joseph; and she said, Lie with me. (Genesis 39:1-7)

So what is it that draws Mrs. Potiphar’s notice?  It’s probably a combination of factors.
First, Joseph is a goodly person and well-favoured. Some commentators point out this is similar language to how Rachel, David, and Absalom were described and say this means Joseph was good-looking.  Probably he was.  Second, he must have been pretty likable, both to the other servants and to Potiphar. (A slave certainly isn’t going to want to make enemies.) Third, he was trustworthy and successful in his work.  I also think it very likely he gave everyone an impression of care and consideration as he worked with them. 

I suspect that Mrs. Potiphar noticed his care and consideration along with all his other good traits and then by imperceptible degrees began to feel that some of that was directed specifically at her.  And how could it not be? If everything in the house had been made Joseph’s responsibility, then he probably had to do things for Mrs. Potiphar as well as her husband.  He probably served her in his usual superior fashion. For some women, service is a major love language, and it may have been Mrs. Potiphar’s. Soo.. she may have reasoned that Joseph’s exemplary service was done because he loved her.   I don’t think the trouble between them erupted in a short period of time. It could have built up over months and maybe even years. 

Further, at the same time Joseph is daily demonstrating his competence and running the household in every respect, Potiphar is doing less and less around the house until he is doing nothing. Potiphar may have been focusing more on work for Pharaoh, but to Mrs. Potiphar it would appear as though her husband had turned lazy at home.  At home, Joseph showed to greater advantage than Potiphar. It would be really hard for Mrs. Potiphar to not make comparisons between Joseph and her husband.

I notice that our record is pretty clear about Mrs. Potiphar’s feelings for Joseph, but it says nothing about how Joseph felt about her. We assume that he was completely indifferent to her. But…is anyone ever completely indifferent to someone they see every day, someone they serve, someone they try to please, someone whose material interests they are bound to do all they can to promote?

7 ¶And it came to pass after these things, that his master’s wife cast her eyes upon Joseph; and she said, Lie with me.
8 But he refused, and said unto his master’s wife, Behold, my master wotteth not what is with me in the house, and he hath committed all that he hath to my hand;
9 There is none greater in this house than I; neither hath he kept back any thing from me but thee, because thou art his wife: how then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God? (Genesis 39:7-9)

If this were a simple case of sexual harassment—if she liked him and he didn’t—after his first refusal, Mrs. Potiphar could simply have lowered the boom and made Joseph’s life heck with some sort of physical punishment.   I personally wonder if Joseph did at least like her, and maybe she made that first invitation because she thought he would accept easily. Maybe she thought he felt some sort of constraint and she wanted to remove it.

Incidentally, we interpret her request “Lie with me” as a direct demand for sex, but compared to “come in unto me” it seems less direct. She may have been asking him to lie next to her, but Joseph would not even do that, probably seeing it as a gateway act to the sin.  The point is, however the way she phrased her request/demand, the intention was transparent.

It is interesting that Joseph’s refusal emphasizes 1) the trust put in him by Potiphar, 2) his status in Potiphar’s household, 3) how nothing had been kept back from him except her because she was already married, and 4) the sin it would be against God. He recognizes his privileged place and doesn’t want to ruin it.  He’s full of reasons. It’s like he was ready. Like he’d already had to start convincing himself. Like he’d already had practice talking to himself about it.

Also interesting is that he sees Mrs. Potiphar as one who has been “kept back” from him.  I have to wonder if he would say she had been “kept back” from him unless he had wanted her on some level and pondered the situation deeply.  There is something here that reminds me of the story of Adam and Eve who could eat any fruit except that which had been forbidden, while Satan tried to make the forbidden fruit seem the most attractive.  

Ultimately, Joseph’s deepest commitment was to God, and that gave him the motivation to resist.

Once Mrs. Potiphar speaks and he refuses, Joseph seems to have realized that he needed to guard himself.

And it came to pass, as she spake to Joseph day by day, that he hearkened not unto her, to lie by her, or to be with her. (Gen. 39:10)

Mrs. Potiphar was thoroughly infatuated. She couldn’t leave him alone, but indulged herself by speaking to him day by day, which would be very wearing over time for him. We don’t know whether she kept repeating the request that he lie with her or whether she merely made herself as charming as possible.
Joseph, on his part, seems to have used his status in the household to manufacture safety measures for himself. It is hard to imagine how he could get away with straight ignoring her to her face, but he had other options. It is likely he gave himself lots of things to do to keep out of her way, that he took other servants with him so he was never alone with her, and he sent messengers to her instead of talking to her himself. He was a slave, so he couldn’t just change jobs to a different household. So he had to find creative ways to isolate himself from her.

Sadly, she seems to have misunderstood.  (And I have to wonder if she had nothing meaningful to occupy her time and attention to keep her from thinking so much about him.)  It is possible she thought that the people always with him and the constant work kept him from expressing his true feelings for her.  So she set up what she thought was the perfect situation.

And it came to pass about this time, that Joseph went into the house to do his business; and there was none of the men of the house there within. (v11)

Hmmm. No one is there in the house except Joseph and Mrs. Potiphar for some reason. Astonishing coincidence. All the servants are off skylarking except for Joseph, who is intent on his task list.  It sounds like Mrs. Potiphar has sent everyone away.

And she caught him by his garment, saying, Lie with me: and he left his garment in her hand, and fled, and got him out. (v12)

This time she is more forceful in her invitation, grabbing onto his clothes, perhaps hoping some violent passion would get the message across that she was ready and willing.

Joseph would not have felt he needed to guard himself if he didn’t feel vulnerable, and without those precautions, he must have been suddenly afraid, maybe not of her, but of himself. So in the heat of the moment of ambush, he doesn’t say anything—he already said his say earlier.  If he was unsure of his strength to resist, touching her would be last thing he’d want to do for any reason, so grappling with her to get his clothes out of her clutches would be out of the question.   Better to forget his dignity, leave them behind, and run.

I have to wonder where he went or how long he stayed away or what he thought would happen afterward.

Mrs. Potiphar, for her part, starts spreading lies about Joseph and gets him in trouble. For the longest time, I thought it was very peculiar that she accuses him of rape and then Potiphar only threw him in jail. Joseph is a slave. A high status slave, yes, but still a slave. It would be more believable for him to be executed. And perhaps the Lord protected him that way.

But recently, I noticed something peculiar in Mrs. Potiphar’s story she tells about Joseph. She tells things one way to the men of her house, and another way to Potiphar.

To the men of her house she says, “See, he hath brought in an Hebrew unto us to mock us; he came in unto me to lie with me, and I cried with a loud voice: And it came to pass, when he heard that I lifted up my voice and cried, that he left his garment with me, and fled, and got him out.” (v14-15)

To Potiphar, she says, The Hebrew servant, which thou hast brought unto us, came in unto me to mock me: And it came to pass, as I lifted up my voice and cried, that he left his garment with me, and fled out. (v17-18)

Notice that not only does she make Joseph the bad guy, but also Potiphar for bringing Joseph into the household. This is another indication that she’s become distanced from Potiphar over this time. Also, when she talks to the men of the household, she makes it out that Joseph has not just mocked her, but mocked them too. (She’s trying to turn the men of the house against Joseph first and Potiphar secondarily.) Then when she talks to Potiphar, she only says that Joseph mocked her.  

Another thing that is peculiar, is that Mrs. Potiphar places emphasis in a peculiar place in her accusation. There’s the rape part, but then there’s the detail that she cried and then Joseph left his clothes and fled.  It almost seems like she is making a bigger deal over the lie that he left her crying than the lie that he raped her. But why? What is going on here?

Mrs. Potiphar is accusing Joseph of being unfeeling and uncaring. “He did it to mock me,” she says to her husband. “He saw me crying and he just left.

What is going on in her head? Mrs. Potiphar, having been previously convinced that Joseph loved her, was shocked to learn by his hasty departure that he actually did not want to have sex with her. (He’d told her before, but she had believed his caring acts of service more than his verbal denial.) So, after his speedy exit, she would think back on all the things she remembered him doing for her and say to herself, Soo…that nice thing he did for me wasn’t love? This other thing wasn’t love? And that? And that? And that? (ad nauseum) and she’d ask herself, Then why did he do all that stuff at all? She’d conclude, He must have been messing with me, trying to make a fool of me for his own amusement.  (Of course, Joseph hadn’t been doing that. She had just allowed her own heart to deceive her.)

But then, she would reason, If his care for me was an act, then what about his care for anyone else in the household? Is that an act too? It made her doubt Joseph’s care for all the other servants as well.  When she told the servants, “He’s mocking us,” she meant, “He messed with me, and he’s been messing with you too.  He just pretends to love us.” Along with rape, she represents Joseph to the other servants and to Potiphar as a manipulator and a sociopath, someone who acts like they care, but doesn’t. And rapist sociopaths are dangerous, even if they are good estate managers, so Potiphar would think taking Joseph out of society (putting him in jail) would prevent him from “using” other people.

But why would she claim Joseph raped her if he didn’t? She’s been infatuated with him for so long, so why accuse him of something like that? She may have reasoned, If he doesn’t really care about me the way I do about him, then keeping him around is going to be torture. I can’t see him day after day. I can’t do this any more.  I have to get rid of him somehow.  But Joseph hadn’t done anything wrong to justify his removal, and everyone knew he was a great manager, so she couldn’t accuse him of mismanagement. Thus, she had to make up something awful enough to get him out of the way, but I can’t see her wanting to get him killed.  Yes, the false accusation was very wrong, but she probably felt she couldn’t explain the real problem to her husband, having already emotionally distanced herself from him.

Joseph may have seen the imprisonment as a welcome separation and a relief. We have no record that he fought the accusation.

So with this view of the story, it is no longer about the exceptionally virtuous man who dares to defy the power of the EVIL WOMAN.  With a sympathetic view of both Joseph and Mrs. Potiphar, assuming that both were trying to do the best they could to meet their needs and live according to their respective lights, we can learn a lot about the real vulnerabilities of men and women, about the conditions of close association that can create temptation over time, about misunderstandings and assumptions that make things worse, and even about the kind of drastic measures that might be taken to keep oneself safe.

We see that both Joseph and Mrs. Potiphar were vulnerable, and their close proximity over a long period of time put them in a pressure-cooker of temptation. 

Joseph would be tempted by the way Mrs. Potiphar respected him and the way she tried to make herself so sexually available. Mrs. Potiphar would be tempted by Joseph’s good looks, competence, caring, and attention.  The happy thing is that Joseph had the integrity to keep both himself and Mrs. Potiphar from sinning. And for all the awful injustice Mrs. Potiphar perpetrated upon Joseph, it’s possible she deserves at least a small bit of credit for having the guts to effect their final separation. (If she didn’t call for some sort of change, who would? Joseph couldn’t; he was a slave. Potiphar wouldn’t; he profited from Joseph’s management.)

It is possible that the Lord allowed Joseph to be tested this way as preparation for making him Pharaoh’s right hand man. That power as second-to-Pharah would have such great privileges and opportunities to indulge any kind of appetite that it could destroy anyone who wielded it unless they were committed to living a moral life. Joseph was undeniably faithful in management, but could he keep his integrity and purity even in a position of power, even in a foreign country, even if propositioned directly? 

Yes he could. He proved it in this refiner’s fire that was not of his choosing.

Lessons from Joseph for men:
·      Your exemplary service may be mistaken by women for secret love and admiration. (Serve well anyway. You only have control over yourself, not how people interpret your actions.)
·      When inappropriate interest arises in you, remind yourself of all the reasons you have to resist.  Remember the trust others have in you, and commit that you will never let them down. Give your love of God your highest allegiance.
·      If a married woman expresses blatant interest, give a firm “No” with all your reasons.
·      Guard yourself. Keep busy and keep people around you. Don’t be alone with that woman.
·      The measures you take to guard yourself may not be appreciated or even understood by that woman. If she is not as committed to purity as you, she may come to the point of deliberately trying to defeat your safety measures. You must be prepared to run. And dignity be hanged.
·      If you can do anything to move out of her range of influence, do so.

Lessons for women from Mrs. Potiphar’s mistakes:
·      If a man periodically in your service seems to be extra helpful, don’t jump to the conclusion that means he likes/loves you. (Today media is so sexualized that to avoid the assumption is counter-cultural, but it can be done. Hang on to humility, and don’t flatter yourself.)
·      Even if you get a pretty strong like/love vibe from that man, don’t say anything to him about it or do anything that might show you notice.
·      Don’t compare that man to your husband; it’s unfair. Chances are you’ll be comparing one man’s strengths with another man’s weaknesses.
·      Don’t seek out more opportunities to be with that man. 
·      Don’t create opportunities for physical or emotional closeness with him.
·      Don’t allow yourself to be alone with him.
·      If you can do anything fair to move out of his range of influence, do so.

Universally helpful principles:
Do not betray the trust others have put in you.
Love the Lord the most.


MrShorty said...

Perhaps it is just coincidence, but Wally Goddard published his analysis of this story earlier this week: He chose to supplement the Genesis account with the more detailed account from the apocryphal book of Jasher. In your discussion here, you dismiss the possibility of sexual harassment (and subsequent assault and attempted rape) as unlikely. Without taking away from your excellent discussion here (which assumes they are pursuing/avoiding a consensual sexual relationship), what happens to the discussion if we don't make these assumptions? What does our discussion look like if we hypothesize (as indicated by the Book of Jasher) that Mrs. Potiphar threatened Joseph with his life if he refused?

Our modern culture (in and out of the Church) is dialoging about sexual assault and rape (especially on college campuses like BYU). Does Joseph's story change or inform this dialog at all, if we allow that Mrs. Potiphar was harassing and maybe even attempting to rape Joseph?

Michaela Stephens said...

Hi MrShorty,

You ask, “What does our discussion look like if we hypothesize (as indicated by the Book of Jasher) that Mrs. Potiphar threatened Joseph with his life if he refused?”
You also ask what happens if we make the assumption that Mrs. Potiphar uses sexual harassment and attempted rape.

To me, the assumption of sexual harassment and attempted rape is pretty dang close to the way the story is usually read. Harassment and rape is about power and control. It suggests that Mrs. Potiphar did not have any affectionate feelings for Joseph at all, but merely wanted to show she had power over him.

If, as in the Book of Jasher, she threatened his life, it was either insincere or incredibly stupid. As a high-status slave who was directly instrumental in adding to Potiphar’s prosperity, Joseph was much more valuable to Mrs. Potiphar alive than dead. To execute him would be foolish in the extreme. She could not truthfully threaten his life.

In the context of rape, the continued sexual harassment would constitute a rough grooming process, attempting to manipulate the victim into accepting their fate, into believing they’re asking for it, and into thinking that they are the ones at fault.
Would you say these characteristics fit the story?

Thanks for stopping by.