The Book of Genesis reveals the most incredible dramas, some of which just happen to be sexual in nature. Take, for instance, the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife (hereafter referred to as Mrs Potiphar). Though old as the Bible, it possesses a theme that thunders down through the ages – sexual harassment.
In Genesis 39, it is recorded that “Joseph was handsome in form and appearance.” If the Holy Scripture had to make a point of speaking about Joseph’s physical appearance, then the Bro must have been fine indeed. No doubt, this contributed in great measure to him becoming an object of lust.
Just picture the scenario: A powerful and predatory woman becomes obsessed by the handsome, young stud who is a slave purchased by her wealthy husband, but who, nonetheless, is an integral part of her household.
Potiphar’s wife is described by one Bible commentator as a “seductress and a man-eater”, and she acts true to form.
Genesis 39:7 relates: “And it came to pass after these things, that his master’s wife cast her eyes upon Joseph; and she said, lie with me.”
Just like that. Mrs Potiphar wasn’t into “no long talking”. She saw something that she desired and she made it known.
But then comes what could have been a shocker for her. Joseph, the God-fearing youth, who was said to be in his 20s at the time, point blank refused to do “this great wickedness, and sin against God”. He was not interested in being led down a sinful path by an adulterous woman, and he made that crystal clear.
Well, just like in the movies, Mrs Potiphar then becomes his personal stalker. Verse 10 states: “And it came to pass, as she spake to Joseph day by day, that he hearkened not unto her, to lie by her, or to be with her.”
Mrs Potiphar wanted the forbidden fruit and would stop at nothing to get it. She ups the ante and decides that it’s time to get physical. Mrs Potiphar, the Bible relates, grabs Joseph by his clothes and orders him to sleep with her. Joseph flees, leaving his garment in her hand. Frustrated and armed with “proof”, Mrs Potiphar falsely accuses him of attempted rape by concocting a story which her husband fully believes. The angry husband flings Joseph in prison.
This story, Father Sean Major Campbell states, relates the age-old reality of human sexuality, attraction, sex appeal, sexual appetite, and greed. It also explores gender-based violence, which, he points out, is also nothing new to Holy Scripture.
“Joseph was a victim of gender-based violence. If Potiphar’s wife got the chance to rape him, she would have.
“Being the wife of a powerful man, and having social capital and financial independence are no guarantee against infidelity. Was it that she felt like a woman scorned? Wanting Joseph was not a crime. However, she crossed a line when she tried to rape him. The fact that men are often the aggressors in sexual assault did not excuse her attempt to hold Joseph amid her salivating lust,” he states.
Fr Sean makes the point that Potiphar’s wife is an excellent reminder that lust is not love, because had she loved Joseph, she would not have lied about him and would not have had him imprisoned for a crime he did not commit.
He also stirs the conversation around Potiphar himself, as the silent third person in this love triangle of sorts. “The text does not give any indication about Potiphar’s capacity to do his homework. Was there a problem? Was his wife having chamber concerns? Was it that Potiphar’s heavy responsibilities as one of Pharaoh’s officials and captain of the guard taking a toll on his sexual prowess? The Bible does not tell us.
“Maybe Potiphar’s wife reminds us that women, like men, have the capacity too, to go after what they want. Maybe she also reminds us that women, like men, sometimes make unwise decisions when caught in the throes of lust,” Fr Sean adds.
Power of class
He notes that it is significant to us in a post-slavery context to remember that Joseph was bought by Potiphar from the Ishmaelites who had brought him to Egypt. Although he was entrusted with the care of Potiphar’s household, Joseph was still vulnerable to the power of class over his life and very being. Potiphar’s wife knew this!
“How interesting that while she failed to rob Joseph of his dignity, or to have him fall for her, she was able to make a fool of Potiphar who believed every word she said. Even powerful men are quick to buy the stories of deceitful women!
“Beware of the wives of Potiphar in your workplace, in the boardroom, in the church. They envy your capacity to think for yourself. They despise your moral courage. They will hurt you. They may not get a chance to grab your cloak. They may, however, abuse their privileged status and connections. Keep on doing what you know is right, and be wise,” he warns.
Fr Sean concludes, “It is difficult for the contemporary mind to comprehend this. However, the text consistently notes that the Lord was present with Joseph. An important lesson then is that the Lord’s presence is never an indication that the believer will be immune to the challenges of false accusation and the experiences of oppression. In Joseph, we see one who remained faithful to God, even in adversity.”