September 14, 2007

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Biblical women: The story of Potiphar’s wife

John F. Fink(Seventh in a series of columns)

The story of the patriarch Joseph, in Chapters 37-50 of Genesis, has been praised for its remarkable integrity.

Each step in the story lays the groundwork for the next and results in God’s master plan to bring the Israelites to Egypt. For example, Joseph’s imprisonment was necessary for him to win the Pharaoh’s favor.

In those 14 chapters, though, women appear only three times. One was the story about Tamar that we told last week, a story that had nothing to do with Joseph’s story. It probably was inserted to indicate the long lapse of time during which Joseph’s family knew nothing of his life in Egypt. Another woman mentioned is Asenath, Joseph’s wife, and the mother of their sons, Manasseh and Ephraim.

The third woman, Potiphar’s wife, did figure in the story. Her story is in Chapter 39. Potiphar was Pharaoh’s chief steward and the man who bought Joseph from the Ishmaelites to whom Joseph’s brothers sold him. Potiphar took a liking to Joseph and put him in charge of his household and his possessions.

Joseph was a capable manager. With him in charge, Potiphar didn’t have to worry about a thing except the food he ate. Because of Joseph, God blessed Potiphar’s household and everything he owned.

Potiphar’s wife, though, also took a liking to Joseph since he was “strikingly handsome.” Eventually, she tried to seduce him, telling him quite bluntly, “Lie with me.”

However, Joseph refused, telling her that her husband trusted him with all his possessions and didn’t concern himself with anything in the house as long as Joseph was there. He said that Potiphar had withheld nothing from him except, of course, his wife. “How, then,” he asked, “could I commit so great a wrong and thus stand condemned before God?”

Potiphar’s wife continued to entice Joseph. He kept refusing, doing his best to avoid her.

One day, though, when Joseph came into the house to do his work, she grabbed him by his cloak and said, “Lie with me!” Joseph struggled to get away, leaving his cloak in her hand as he fled outside.

With that, Potiphar’s wife screamed for the other household servants. When they came to see what was wrong, she showed them the cloak and accused Joseph of trying to have sex with her. When Potiphar came home, she repeated the accusation, saying that his “Hebrew slave” had broken in on her, but she screamed for the servants and Joseph ran away. She showed him Joseph’s cloak as her proof.

Potiphar believed his wife. He became enraged, seized Joseph and threw him into the jail where the royal prisoners were confined.

It might be nice to think that Potiphar eventually learned the truth, but that’s not in the story. There was no redemption of Joseph in the eyes of Potiphar. But Joseph’s imprisonment did lead to the recognition of his ability to interpret dreams, which led to his interpreting the Pharaoh’s dream, and so on in this tale about Joseph. †

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