It sounds more like a soap opera than a story from the
The characters in the story are pretty much the stock characters of popular entertainment — the good-looking, innocent young fellow who catches the eye of the bored housewife. She turns temptress and makes every effort to corrupt him. When her little scheme fails, she turns on him and tries to blame him for the whole thing. Finally there is the husband, who never suspects what his wife is up to. When she invents a story about Joseph’s improper advances, the husband responds in a predictable jealous rage.
As I said, at first glance, all this seems to be little more than a soap opera plot we’ve seen and heard countless times before. But there’s more to it than that. Let’s take a closer look at what happened in Potiphar’s house.
The young man Joseph, sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, is taken to Egypt and there becomes the property of Potiphar, a wealthy and powerful man described as “an officer of Pharaoh.” The very next thing the Bible tells us is that “the Lord was with Joseph.” What does that phrase imply? If the Lord is with Joseph, can no harm befall him? Maybe. Or perhaps it means Joseph will achieve great things. In fact, the very next sentence tells us that Joseph became a successful man in the house of his master. Even Potiphar saw that the Lord was with Joseph, the Bible says, and Potiphar saw that the Lord caused all that Joseph did to prosper in his hands.
At this point I must tell you that whoever wrote down this story in Genesis was a literary artist of the highest measure, one who gave attention to every detail, every shade of meaning. We must pay attention to each word in the story. Case in point — that word “hands”: “the Lord caused all that [Joseph] did to prosper in his hands.” Actually, the Hebrew word is singular — “hand.” Remember that innocent looking word; it will take on special meaning a bit later.
So Joseph is a success, and Potiphar makes him overseer of his house. Again, note that word, “house.” It will appear ten times in this story and will underscore the great trust Potiphar has in Joseph. If you bring someone into your house, you are extending to that person a great deal of intimacy. Your house is your private space, the place that says more about you than anywhere in the world. You don’t let just anyone cross your threshold. To have someone say to you, “please come in,” is to enjoy a holy privilege. It’s one of the reasons why as your pastors, Ann and I have encouraged all of you to extend this privilege to your fellow church members. The more often we visit in each other’s homes, the closer our Christian fellowship becomes.
After the storyteller has described Joseph’s great success and position of responsibility — telling us repeatedly that Potiphar has put Joseph in charge of all that he had, we come to an unexpected sentence, one that doesn’t seem to have any bearing at all on Joseph’s status. It’s a short sentence, and it catches us by surprise. “Now Joseph was handsome and good-looking.” And with that sentence, we immediately sit up and take notice. On top of all the other great things going for Joseph, he’s good looking. Some people have all the luck, don’t they?
Or do they? In Joseph’s case, his good looks turn out to be one blessing too many. Why? Because the wife of Potiphar desires Joseph, and she is determined to get him into her bed. One thing you’ve got to say for her — she isn’t bashful. The first words she utters in the story get right to the point: “Lie with me.”
Is this a liberated woman centuries ahead of her time, a woman sure enough of her sexual identity to know what she wants and go after it? Well, no, not really. That’s imposing 21st-century attitudes on a story of long ago. What we do have in this story though is a kind of situation that hasn’t changed much in thousands of years. It’s a situation where someone with power abuses that power for selfish purposes.
Remember that Joseph is a slave. If the mistress of the house wants him to do something, he has little choice in the matter. So Potiphar’s wife may flirt with Joseph if she likes, she may drop subtle or not-so-subtle sexual hints; she may wear provocative clothing and exotic perfume when Joseph is nearby. She may do all that, if she wants to, if she enjoys playing the game of let’s-see-if-I-can-seduce-Joseph. But in the end, it won’t be a sexy little game at all. It will be a power move, a superior telling a subordinate what he must do. “Lie with me,” says Potiphar’s wife to Joseph. It’s not a teasing come-on, it’s not a proposition from one consenting adult to another. It’s an order.
Today we call it sexual harassment. It has nothing to do with love. It has to do with power. The person in the power position uses that power to try to obtain sexual privileges. It can happen in a relationship between teacher and student, between pastor and parishioner, between boss and secretary, or, worst of all, between parent and child. The one in the subordinate position is faced with an agonizing choice, either to give in against his or her wishes or to fail a course, lose a job, or lose a relationship that has been very meaningful.
It is a cruel dilemma, and for many people it becomes a living nightmare, one that can damage their lives irretrievably. True, we no longer have slaves in our society, but we still have people with power who use it selfishly and ruthlessly. In that sense, the impossible situation Joseph faced is one that many people face today.
Joseph resists the woman’s advances. He appeals to her sense of justice. “Look/’ he says to her, “with me here, my master has no concern about anything in the house, and he has put everything that he has in my hand.” There’s that word “hand” again. It means power, control. Joseph reminds Potiphar’s wife of the great trust his master has placed in him, putting all that he has into Joseph’s hand. “How then could I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” Joseph asks the woman. Joseph recognizes that a betrayal of his master is also breaking one of God’s laws.
But his appeal gets him nowhere. The Bible says the wife continued her campaign “day after day.” Finally, one day when the two are alone in the house, she grabs him by his clothing. Joseph does the only thing he can do. He runs out of the house, leaving his garment in her hand. Did you catch that? “In her hand.” Joseph is about to learn that the situation is “out of hand” as far as he is concerned. He is, after all, only a slave. His master and his master’s wife hold “the upper hand.”
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.
It sounds more like a soap opera than a story from the