No, I’m not referring to Britney Spears circa 1999-2001.
I was thinking the other day about the Bible story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife. For those who are woefully ignorant unfamiliar, basically what happens is that Joseph, one of Jacob’s twelve sons, is sold into slavery by his jealous older brothers. He is purchased by Potiphar, the Egyptian Pharaoh’s captain of the guard. God gives Joseph success in everything he does, and Joseph rises through the servant ranks. Eventually, Potiphar puts Joseph in charge of his entire household, which prospers as a result. Unsurprisingly, Potiphar’s wife starts getting massive gina tingles, to use a Roissy-ism noticing that Joseph has both a great face and great bod, and eventually starts coming on to him. Joseph, however, respects both God and Potiphar and refuses Mrs. Potiphar, explaining that he cannot betray his master or sin against God by sleeping with her. Joseph starts to avoid Mrs. Potiphar, who only finds this resistance more gina-tingling refuses to take no for an answer and continues her pursuit.
One day Mrs. Potiphar manages to corner Joseph when the house is empty. According to the biblical account, she grabs his cloak and once again asks Joseph to sleep with her, but he runs out of the house, leaving the cloak in her hands. Mrs. Potiphar then calls to her servants and accuses Joseph of trying to rape her. She holds on to Joseph’s cloak and waits for Potiphar to come home. She then repeats her fake rape attempt story to her husband, who flies into a rage and has Joseph thrown into jail. (The story ends well: Joseph prospers in jail just as he did in Potiphar’s household and eventually is put in charge of the prison, and one thing leads to another and blah-de-blah ends up being Pharaoh’s Number One, saves Egypt from famine, and ends up having a happy reunion with his family.)
The Bible doesn’t give us any details about Potiphar’s wife other than that she tried to seduce Joseph and, when spurned, epitomized “hell hath no fury” revenge. As a result, it’s very easy to superimpose your own image of what Potiphar’s wife must have been like. When I was growing up, I always pictured her as a cougar-ish, menopausal woman who was clearly past the prime of her beauty but accustomed to wealth and privilege. I imagined her heavily-made up eyes following Joseph around like a hungry hawk, and her pouncing on him unawares, aggressively demanding sex at random times. I imagined her howling like a banshee and her indulgent husband white knighting for her honor. And as far as I can recall, no pastor or speaker that I’ve listened to has ever presented a really different idea of what Potiphar’s wife was like.
It’s very possible that Potiphar’s wife really was a menopausal cougar, an Ancient Egyptian crazy lady who refused to accept that she’d grown old and unattractive to men and basically had a psychotic breakdown when confronted with reality. There’s nothing about this take on Mrs. Potiphar that doesn’t jive with Scripture, or feminine nature as we know it today. Any woman who’s brazenly thrown herself at a man and been rejected usually suffers a horrible mixture of rage, embarrassment, and depression all at once. Mrs. Potiphar’s reaction, while a bit extreme, really isn’t anything out of the ordinary, especially if you watch a lot of Cops or any of the myriad of judge shows on afternoon TV.
More recently, though, in light of reading some Game blogs, I’ve started to rethink my idea of Potiphar’s wife. For starters, if Mrs. Potiphar were old and menopausal and therefore not all that attractive to a younger man whose own attractiveness was starting to peak, would it have been such an issue to turn her down? Why would Joseph’s refusal seem to contain an element of regret? Gen. 39:8-9 says,
“But he refused. ‘With me in charge,’ he told her, ‘my master does not concern himself with anything in the house; everything he owns he has entrusted to my care. No one is greater in this house than I am. My master has withheld nothing from me except you, because you are his wife. How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?'”
This doesn’t sound like a dude saying, in essence, “Mrs. Potiphar, I’m not the kind of guy who sleeps with his boss’s wife, but even if I were, well…I’m, uh, just not that into you.” Instead, Joseph seems to be saying, “Look, you’re really attractive, and if the circumstances were different, maybe we’d have a chance. But because things are the way they are, we don’t and can’t. I’m sorry. You need to accept this.” Another point to consider is that Potiphar was a very powerful man. As captain of the guard, not many men in Egypt had higher social standing than Potiphar. It seems very believable that Potiphar would have had a young, beautiful trophy wife rather than an aging crone of a wife. Maybe Mrs. Potiphar was even the second or third Mrs. Potiphar (the previous ones being “retired” as Potiphar ascended in rank).
The story takes on a much more dramatically and emotionally interesting read when you put a young, gorgeous, attentive, and admiring Mrs. Potiphar into the story. It wouldn’t have been (as) hard for Joseph to turn down a 40-something, papyrus-skinned Mrs. Potiphar whose bathroom was stocked with twenty different Jewel of the Nile anti-aging cold creams and mud masks. I imagine it would have been painfully difficult to turn down a soft-bodied, sweet-smelling, lush-lipped Mrs. Potiphar who was always impressed by the way he did things and never failed to say so, who might have teased him about finding the right girl for him while looking at him from under long, sooty lashes, who was open about being lonely and not able to relate to her much-older, always busy, never there husband.
It’s easy to imagine this scenario: New slave Joseph proves again and again that he’s very good at whatever task he is given, and what’s more, he doesn’t gripe or complain. The other servants like and respect him, and Potiphar starts to realize that Joseph is a much better administrator than the guy who’s currently in charge of the house. Potiphar says “smell ya later” to the current guy and puts Joseph in charge of the household.
With Joseph in charge, the household has never run better. It’s clean and organized, bills are paid on time, the other servants are getting along and are more productive, and Joseph is even talking about getting those long-put-off renovations taken care of. Potiphar is thrilled and wonders why he didn’t put Joseph in charge much earlier. At night, Potiphar talks up Joseph to his gorgeous new wife, who agrees that Joseph is doing a great job and mentally makes a note to take a closer look at Joseph herself.
Joseph notices that Mrs. Potiphar is being more friendly these days. She also looks and smells amazing as she teases him about his cute accent. Joseph reminds her that he’s busy, but he’s struck by her charm. His boss is a lucky man.
Joseph is inspecting part of the property with another servant, making notes for improvements, when Mrs. Potiphar joins them. Joseph greets her with a smile and begins to tell her about his tentative plans to landscape the area. Mrs. Potiphar listens politely for a few minutes, then dismisses the other servant, saying she has business to discuss with Joseph. Joseph asks her what she needs help with. Mrs. Potiphar says that her husband is going to be out of town for a few days. Joseph says that Potiphar had recently informed him — just a business trip, nothing major. Mrs. Potiphar lays a hand on Joseph’s arm and says that they can get to know each other better while her husband is away. Every hair on Joseph’s body stands on end. He jokes that they know each other pretty well already, as he can name her favorite foods, how she likes her clothes laundered, and what her favorite song is. Mrs. Potiphar tells Joseph that she knows he can feel the chemistry between them and that it’s not wrong. And they get along so well, Joseph really gets her, unlike her husband. She asks Joseph if he’s ever wondered what it would be like to be with her. Joseph’s brain is about to explode — she’s standing so near, it would be so easy to take a taste — and then somehow all of his convictions about God and his morals come rushing back, and he removes her hand from his arm and tells her that she is the one thing he cannot have, and that he could not betray his master nor sin against God this way. To his surprise, Mrs. Potiphar doesn’t seem disappointed; oddly enough, she seems charmed. Joseph quickly excuses himself and goes back to the house.
Joseph does everything in his power not to be in the same room as Mrs. Potiphar. When she enters a room, he leaves. When she calls for him, he sends another servant in his place. But he can’t avoid her always, and he endures some very tension-filled moments where he tries not to look her directly in the eyes. At night he prays for relief from the situation, but none seems to come. Things get to the point where the other servants have started whispering about them.
One day Joseph goes to the house to look for some documents in storage. The house is quiet since all of the other servants are outside. Joseph opens the closet where Potiphar keeps his files and is so deep in thought mode that he doesn’t notice that someone else has entered the room. A rush of cool air on his back — his cloak — he spins around to see his master’s wife clutching his cloak to her chest, her eyes full of feminine victory. He stammers her name — she presses a finger to his lips as she comes closer. “I’m yours,” she says, and now her hands are touching his chest. “You can have me however you want.” Joseph tries to speak — no words come — her touch burns trails of fire — all his blood — her tunic drops to the floor — “I’ve given the servants a lot of work. We won’t be bothered.” Suddenly he receives a bright-white moment of clarity — and he runs — runs hard — past the servants — to the most distant corner of the property.
Inside the house, Potiphar’s wife is stunned and embarrassed. Joseph left. He ran. He ran away from her, when she offered him the finest curves he could ever hope to find in all of Egypt. She picks up her tunic and starts to redress — and then it occurs to her: what if he tells Potiphar, or word somehow leaks out? Potiphar adores Joseph, like a combination of a brother and a son. Fear paralyzes her for a moment; Potiphar is a permissive husband but very possessive. He will not suffer a wayward wife. Self-preservation kicks in, along with a hot streak of anger. Joseph just made a huge mistake. He didn’t know who he was messing with. No one walks away from her and gets off scott free. She screams, then screams louder. She hears the sound of running footsteps, and within seconds, two servants burst into the room. Potiphar’s wife clutches her tunic to her body with one hand. In the other hand she holds Joseph’s cloak. “He tried to rape me!” she screams.
When Potiphar arrives home from work, the atmosphere at the house is chillingly subdued. A servant greets him. “Your wife would like to speak with you.”
Potiphar finds his wife lying in bed, disheveled and listless. He asks what’s wrong, and she tells him. Potiphar can hardly believe it — but his wife wouldn’t lie — of course Joseph would have tried to take her, she’s beautiful, and Potiphar had given Joseph too much power. A seed of anger bursts into a raging fire. He yells to his servants.
As Joseph is being escorted out of the house, Potiphar can’t bear to watch. As angry as he is about Joseph’s betrayal, he can’t help but feel pain at losing the best house manager, and maybe even friend, he’s ever had. Kid was so promising. Such a shame.