The accusation of Potiphar’s wife—Genesis 39

Years ago it looked as if my life and ministry were over on account of some matters over which I had no control. I took comfort in the story of Joseph; he was falsely accused by Potiphar’s wife, but eventually God exalted him in such a way that Potiphar’s wife was no longer even an issue. I could hope for ultimate vindication, on the day of judgment if not before. But if God was going to fulfill my calling, I hoped that somehow he would vindicate me, like Joseph, in this life as well as the one to come. Graciously, God has done so.

Why does Potiphar’s wife accuse Joseph to begin with? As noted in an earlier post, Potiphar’s wife seizes Joseph’s clothing just as his brothers had seized his robe. Some assume that her subsequent actions reflect a sudden change of heart, desiring vengeance because of Joseph’s rejection. That is possible, and Egyptians and others in antiquity even had stories about such false accusations. But her actions may simply reflect an interest in self-preservation. Once she sees Joseph’s garment in her hand, her options are limited; she cannot go out of the house and simply return it to him, and she would not dare to explain her possession of this garment by saying that she seized it while harassing Joseph.

Her only remaining option is to accuse Joseph of having tried to force himself on her, claiming that she successfully frightened him off with her screams (39:15; cf. Deut 22:24, 27); her hearers will then presume that he had left his cloak because he had removed it in front of her. So now, just as a non-Israelite man raped an Israelite girl several chapters earlier (34:2), here a non-Israelite woman falsely charges an Israelite young man of trying to rape her, even slanderously exploiting a stereotype about his ethnicity (39:14). She also implicitly blames her husband for bringing the slave there (39:14, 17; cf. Adam implicitly blaming God for giving him Eve, 3:12).

When Potiphar’s wife accuses Joseph of laughing at or mocking her (39:14, 17), the verb she uses is one that appears ten times in Genesis but only twice elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible. It can apply to the laughter of Abraham and Sarah at the thought of having a child at their age, a silent laughter of disbelief (17:17; 18:12-15); to the supposed jesting of Lot over Sodom’s coming destruction (19:14); and to the laughter of delight in God’s fulfilled promise (21:6). But the term can also have sexual connotations, such as in Isaac playing maritally with his wife (26:8) and perhaps Israelites later “playing” sexually in Exod 32:6. What Ishmael does to Isaac in 21:9 is less clear—it might be mocking (cf. the noun cognate in Ezek 23:32)—but its arousal of Sarah’s ire (21:9-10) presumes something more hostile than friendly laughter. Here Potiphar’s wife may claim that Joseph came to toy with her, whether to abuse her sexually or to ridicule her as if she is inferior and an object subject to his exploitation.

Meanwhile, deception continues as a common theme, now at a more serious level than that of Jacob or Laban, and certainly far more than Abraham or Isaac about their related wives as their sisters. Joseph’s brothers lied to their father about Joseph’s fate; now Potiphar’s wife lies to Joseph’s master about Joseph’s behavior.

Overnight Joseph goes from being a high-class servant to being a prisoner in something like a dungeon; indeed, Joseph could have been killed. But God still had a plan for Joseph. And even in our most difficult times, when we face unfair accusations or other hardships, God still has a plan for us.

Scripture challenges racism

Craig was invited to preach and address race issues in a forum with Christena Cleveland of Duke, and also in chapel this past week. This is his 30-minute chapel message, from Ephesians 2:11-22.

(For those who wonder: Yes, I know some people don’t think Paul wrote Ephesians. I think he did. Even if you disagree, you can still get good ideas from the sermon. 🙂 )

Challenging sexual double standards: Judah vs. Joseph

Genesis 38-39

Judah’s voluntary sexual misbehavior contrasts starkly with Joseph’s refusal to sin sexually even under duress. Judah found himself doubly condemned for condemning Tamar for a sin that he had also committed (Gen 38:26); this challenges the conventional sexual double standard commonly observed in antiquity for men and women. The following contrast with Joseph drives home this point further.

Joseph was attractive (39:6); the text does not count relevant whether Potiphar’s wife was. It also does not inform us whether Potiphar had given Joseph a female partner, which might befit Joseph’s rank in the household. It may depend partly on whether most of the some thirteen years Joseph spent in Egypt before his exaltation (37:2; 41:46) was spent in Potiphar’s household or in prison; a mate was likelier in the former circumstance than in the latter. The narrator does not inform us whether Joseph struggled with temptation; it is simply clear that he refused to sin against God and against Potiphar.

If Potiphar was a literal eunuch (the Hebrew designation appears for Potiphar in both 37:36 and 39:1, as if emphatically), the struggle of Potiphar’s probably younger wife would not be surprising (albeit still a case of sexual harassment). The term might simply designate any officer, however (it appears also in 40:2, 7; cf. 1 Sam 8:15; Jer 29:2). In any case, Joseph recognizes that betraying the trust of Potiphar and sinning with his wife would be a sin against God himself (39:8-9). Joseph’s piety contrasts with Judah’s impiety; see further