Joseph and Potiphar's Wife, by Guido Reni 1631
I recently heard a sermon about Joseph and Potiphar’s wife that focused on how Joseph dealt with his sexual desire for Potiphar’s wife — he refused to act on it because it would be a sin against God, and when pressed, he fled. A fine message about how to deal with desire for someone you shouldn’t have sex with. With one problem. Nowhere in the passage does it mention that Joseph felt desire for Potiphar’s wife.
True confessions: instead of listening with my full attention to the sermon, I was thinking about how I’d characterize what the story was really about.
This is the first story of Joseph after his brothers faked his death and sold him to slave traders, who sold him to Potiphar, the captain of the Pharaoh’s palace guard in Egypt. Joseph quickly became Potiphar’s favorite, because everything he did succeeded. So Potiphar gave him more and more responsibility until Joseph was running the entire household, and Potiphar “didn’t have a worry in the world, except to decide what he wanted to eat” (Genesis 39:6, NLT).
After Joseph started running the household, the Bible tells us that Potiphar’s wife began to desire Joseph, and “invited him to sleep with her” (39:7). Oh, to have more details. Is “invited” the best translation of whatever that ancient word is? An invitation takes place between equals. It’s a hospitality word. It makes me imagine it as part of the day’s rundown of household work: “I’m craving fig cakes, so make sure we have enough. My favorite tunic is getting thin, so I need more flax. Get me some purple thread. I have a palace event to go to and my robes need more embroidery. And, if you have time, take care of me in bed, as well.”
Whether it’s the correct translation or not, there remains the fact that Joseph and Potiphar’s wife are not equals. She owns him. He may be spoken of as Potiphar’s slave, and he may be running the entire household, but the fact remains that Joseph belonged to the household, and as the woman of the household, she owned him. As a slave, he had no right to determine what happened to him. His owners got to dictate everything about his day and his night. And you better believe that Joseph never forgot that fact — he used to be free to do as he wished, even more so than his brothers, since he was the favorite and coddled son, and now he was a slave. God was blessing the work he did, but he was still a slave, subject to the whims of his owners.
So Potiphar’s wife’s “invitation” had the weight of her power over him behind it. Which makes it terrifying, not attractive; an occasion for fear, not desire. This isn’t a pleasant seduction, and it doesn’t really matter how attractive she may or may not have been. If he does what she demanded of him (let’s drop the whole “invitation” charade), then he’d be violating the trust of his owner, who would then be free to do anything to him — throw him in jail, cut off the offending member, kill him. So he refuses. She continues to pressure him, day after day, and he tries to avoid her. Until one day, when nobody else is around, she grabs his shirt and demands that he do the deed. He runs away, leaving his shirt behind. She cries rape, and Joseph is thrown into jail without a chance to defend himself. All his responsibilities and all his success gave him no advantage, because he was a slave.
I have another reason for recognizing that the situation is not one of desire on Joseph’s part: I’ve been Joseph. Not so dramatically, thankfully, but with enough resonance that I could empathize with him.
In my 20s, I worked for a stockbroker. I started out as a temp, doing basic data entry, but when they discovered the depth of my administrative skills, I was given more and more involved tasks to do, until I was working as an assistant for a newly-hired stockbroker. He was less than ten years older than me, fairly established in his career (or as established as anyone in that highly volatile field can be). He’d been fired from his previous employer, under some kind of cloud, and the previous employer was trash-talking him to his clients and trying to make sure his clients didn’t move with him to the new firm. Things were in flux, so I had a desk in his office. I ghost-wrote beautiful, heartfelt letters to his clients that helped convince them to move with him to the new firm. Anything he gave me to do, I did it, quickly and very well. He could count on me, so he gave me more and more responsibility. I was hired on full-time.
And then it started. If he had to show me something, he’d pull his chair up right next to mine until our arms or legs were touching; if I scootched away, he’d pull my chair back until we were touching again. If he had to pass me in a doorway or hallway, he’d brush up against me. He’d talk about my hair or my clothes in very flattering ways. After one letter that meant two extremely wealthy clients would stay with him, he kissed me on the top of my head. He called me endearing terms with more affection than he exhibited when he spoke about his wife. He made a point of mentioning that he had an empty apartment on the upper east side. He was attractive and fit. He praised my work effusively. He was rich.
Did I feel desire for him? No.
Discomfort and anxiety, yes. Sure, the early compliments were nice and I was flattered by his praise of my work, but once the rest of it started up, even the compliments made my stomach twist. His actions towards me were expressions of his power over me as his employee. I experienced them as coercion, not invitation. I was not remotely tempted to take him up on his implied offer.
I tried what Joseph tried, just keeping away from him, keeping my distance. But he was my boss, and I wanted to keep the job, so there was only so much I could do. I put up with it for not even 3 months before leaving — letting them know exactly why I was leaving and getting some “severance” pay for my troubles. Because I was an employee and not a slave, I had rights.
Joseph was not so lucky. God used it all for glory, but those weeks (or however long it was) when Potiphar’s wife was hounding him had to be full of anxiety, if not outright fear. He was not fighting desire for a woman — he was fighting to keep his position and his life. In some ways, though, Joseph was lucky: he was a man. A female slave in that situation didn’t have the option of “no.” She’d be raped and tossed aside when she became inconvenient — think of Hagar, “given” to Abraham and then cast out into the desert with her young son. Heck, even wives didn’t have the option of “no” — think of Sarah, told to masquerade as Abraham’s sister and entering the households of a couple of foreign kings (and what was asked of her there?) because Abraham was afraid they’d kill him if they knew she was his wife.
So I submit that the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife is only about sex on the surface. Underneath, it’s really about power and powerlessness, coercion and fear.