To cover her embarrassment, to save her reputation, and to take revenge on Joseph for rejecting her, Potiphar's wife screams, and everyone comes running. She tells a lie, accuses Joseph of trying to have sex with her. When her husband comes home, she tells him the same story.
You may have noticed that the Bible offers no explanation for the woman's behavior. We are not told anything about her motives. For all we know, she may have had a terrible life living in Potiphar's house. Maybe she was lonely. No doubt she was bored. There's a good chance her husband ignored her, maybe even mistreated her. We have no way of knowing. Not that any of these things can excuse her behavior. Whatever bad things have happened in your life or my life, we dare not use them to justify our own wrongdoing.
And yet I think we can understand why Potiphar's wife lied. She was trying to save her own neck. And now we must look closely at Potiphar's reaction to the situation.
It's an impossible situation for him. The man he has trusted with his house and everything in it, the man to whom he has given stewardship of the most intimate things in his life, this man Joseph is accused of betraying that trust. The Bible says that when Potiphar heard the story his wife told him, "he became enraged." And the way we usually understand that statement is that Potiphar was enraged at Joseph. The very next sentence in the text says that he took Joseph and put him into prison. So doesn't that mean Potiphar believed his wife's story, believed that Joseph had done wrong and deserved to be punished?
Not necessarily. The normal punishment for the wrongdoing Joseph was accused of was not prison. It was death. It's possible that when, as the Bible says, Potiphar "became enraged," it wasn't Joseph he was enraged at. Maybe he was enraged at his wife, enraged because he guessed what had really happened. Enraged that she would try to lie her way out of it. Enraged that she had cleverly put him into a position of having to take her word over Joseph's. Because how would it look to have everyone know that he thought his wife was actually capable of such wickedness, that he would put more stock in the word of a slave than in the story his own wife told him? Potiphar may also have been enraged that all this meant he would lose the smartest, most trustworthy slave he had ever owned.
What enraged Potiphar? The Bible doesn't say. But there is one more possibility. Potiphar may have been enraged because he was confronted with an impossible situation. Here were two people he loved, his wife and his servant. Their stories contradicted each other. Whom should he believe?
What do you do when you are in that situation? You sit on a jury and hear arguments made by the prosecution and defense, good arguments. How will you decide? Two people you work with give you differing accounts of some screw-up that you will be held responsible for. Whose story do you believe?
You hear a ruckus in the living room. You walk in and your two kids come running up to you. "She hit me," one wails. "Yeah, but he pinched me first," the other one says. "He started it." What's a good parent to do?
Sometimes life has a way of confronting us with impossible situations. There is no easy solution, no alternative that is clearly right or wrong. We call them moral dilemmas. For some people they may not be dilemmas at all, but for you or me they are agonizing. To end the relationship or try to salvage it. To join the military or to declare your conscientious objection to war. To stay on in a dead end job that offers security or take a risk and try something new. To get an abortion or have the baby. And if the latter, to keep the child or put it up for adoption. To keep a loved one on a life support system or pull the plug.
There are no easy answers. You pray and no clear direction is given. These are the testing times of faith.
The Bible tells us the Lord was with Joseph. That did not mean Joseph was protected from trouble or that he did not have to face difficult choices. It meant only what it said, that God was with Joseph, come what may. Sometimes God leads, sometimes God supports, sometimes God simply is there. Hidden and silent perhaps, but there, with us.
"Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me." That is the affirmation of David, the Psalmist. The valley is dark, the shadow of death is real. There is no denying that. But God is with David. God is with Joseph.
God is with us. Immanuel. In human form we see it best in the face of Jesus the Christ. And in ways we can name in our own lives, God is with us, to guide, to strengthen, to love.
Do you believe that? Do you believe God is with you? If you do, take some moments now in silence, to express your thanks for God's steadfast love.
If you don't believe it, take some moments now to listen to the silence. Listen for a still, small voice that invites you to doubt your doubts. And maybe that will be enough. For now.