The Bible is filled with some major players. Potiphar’s wife is one from the Old Testament.
The story of Potiphar’s wife is a part of the Joseph narrative found in Genesis 39. Joseph was sold in slavery by his jealous brothers. Through a series of fortunate events, guided by the hand of God, Joseph was purchased by Potiphar, the commander of Pharaoh’s royal guard, and an Egyptian. Joseph was quickly put in charge of the household. The Mr. Carson of Potiphar’s house (Genesis 39:6).
The Bible tells us that Joseph was young, handsome, and smart. He was a natural leader. No wonder he was in charge of the whole household at such a young age. So, here is Joseph the young, handsome, smart leader of the household. He has been rejected by his family, sold into slavery, and sent to a foreign land. He spends the bulk of his day in charge while his master is at work.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Potiphar is at home too. She was an older woman home with her servants most of the day. Maybe she was neglected. Maybe she was needy. Maybe Mr. P worked long hours. Maybe she needed attention.
Mrs. Potiphar is the original Real Housewife. She is attracted to Joseph and makes passes at him. And even though he denies her invitations, she doesn’t stop asking.
One day when Joseph arrived at the house to do his work, none of the household’s men were there. (Gen. 39:11, CEB)
Anyone else think this should cause a red flag?
She grabbed his garment, saying, “Lie down with me.” But he left his garment in her hands and run outside, she summoned the men of her house and said to them, “Look, my husband brought us a Hebrew to ridicule us. He came to me to lie down with me, but I screamed. When he heard me raise my voice and scream, he left his garment with me and ran outside.” (Gen. 39:12-14, CEB)
Joan Collins as Potiphar’s wife in Joseph and the Technicolor Dream Coat
You got to give her an A for effort. We quickly switched channels in this story from the Real Housewives to Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. When Mrs. P didn’t get what she wanted, she cried rape. A serious accusation, then and now.
There is no telling how many other housemen she had tried this with. Imagine the Real Housewives anger she must have experienced. Angry enough to blame her husband AND insult Joseph. “Look what this Hebrew my husband gave us did,” she says. But, let us not forget that she still had Joseph’s garments in her hand. But in Joseph’s case, clothes don’t make the man. God does.
But she is still part of the rich and powerful. She pleads her case to her husband, and he sends Joseph to jail. Some have suggested that if Potiphar really truly believed that Joseph had attempted to rape his wife, he would have had Joseph sentenced to death. Perhaps there is something special about this Hebrew.
Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann, in his commentary on Genesis, suggests that the two main characters in this episode symbolize a tension between the Kingdom and the empire. (Notice the upper and lower case letters, I did that on purpose). It is the tension between living as a faithful disciple and living as the world demands us to. It is the tension between living as called by the power of God and living as called by the power of society.
Potiphar’s wife represents the empire and those in power. Joseph is a symbol of the faithful. The faithful will be faced with moments when they will be asked by those in power (sex aside) to do something that goes against the Kingdom. Joseph’s response was to not do it, and to remain faithful to his God.
It should be noted that it was in jail that Joseph meets the men who tell him about Pharaoh’s dreams and interprets them. It because of these men in jail that Joseph rises to power as a Governor. Crappy things happened to Joseph, but God was with him through it all, and Joseph was faithful through it all.
What will your response be?
Resources: Brueggemann, Walter. Genesis. John Knox Press, 1982.