Background: abt. 1544 BC
After Joseph's brothers sold him to the Ishmaelities (Gen. 37) he was bought as a slave by an Egyptian named Potiphar who took him to Egypt. The Lord was with Joseph and when Potiphar saw that the Lord prospered everything that Joseph did he "found grace in his sight" (Gen. 39:4). Consequently Potiphar made Joseph the overseer (head servant) of his entire household and gave him complete control of his finances, so much that Potiphar, "Knew not ought he had, save the bread which he did eat" (Gen. 39:6). Potiphar and all his household were blessed for Joseph's sake.
Facts About Her:
- She was the wife of Potiphar who was the, "officer of Pharaoh, captain of the guard" (Gen. 39:1);
- After Potiphar put Joseph in charge of his entire household she saw that Joseph was "a goodly person, and well favored", meaning that he was talented and good looking. She "cast her eyes upon Joseph" and asked him to lie with her (Gen 39: 7);
- Joseph refused her explaining that her husband had trusted him with the care of his whole household and had given him access to anything he wanted, except for her because she was his Master's wife (Gen. 39: 8-9). Even so Joseph didn't refuse her on Potiphars' behalf but because he served a high master, he asked her, "...how then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God? (Gen. 39: 9)"
- Even after this she continued to solicit advances from Joseph and "...she spake to Joseph day by day" yet, "...he hearkened not unto her, to lie by her, or to be with her " (Gen. 39:10).
- One day, when all of the other men of the house were out except for Joseph, she caught him by his garment and again begged him to lie with her her. To escape from her Joseph had to leave his garment in her hand and flee from the house (Gen. 39: 11-12).
- When Potiphar's wife saw that he had fled, but that she still had his garment in her hand, she called all the men of the house and tried to frame Joseph for attempted rape saying, "See.... he came in unto me to lie with me, and I cried with a loud voice. And it came to pass, when he heard that I lifted up my voice and cried, that he left his garment with me, and fled, and got him out" (Gen. 39:14-15).
- She "laid up his garment by her" until Potiphar got home and told him the same story of how Joseph attempted to rape her while all the men of the house were out. When Potiphar heard her story "his wrath was kindled" and he took Joseph and put him into the prison where the King's prisoners were kept (Gen. 39: 19-20).
Speculations About Her:
- Some have speculated that Potiphar may have been an eunuch (a castrated man) because the Hebrew word ("cariyc") which is translated as "officer" of Pharaoh can also be translated as "eunuch". Traditionally eunuchs were used (or made) in order to protect the sexual purity of a king's harem or family. Yet, scholars have agreed that the use of this word does not necessarily indicate that the man was castrated but that could be used in a general way to describe someone who was a high official in the King's court. In the Bible the word "cariyc" is translated as "officer" or "chamberlain" 13 times and translated as "eunuch" 17 times (source). Seeing that Potiphar was married it is likely that he was not a "real" eunuch, but that this word was used to describe his high rank. Though it is always possible that he was.
- It appears that Potiphar may not have fully believed his wife's story because it appears that Joseph received a very light punishment, considering the charge. In "Women's Rights in the Old Testament" James A. Baker writes,
"Even with our limited understanding of Egyptian law, this seems like light punishment for attempted rape of the wife of a high-ranking official of the Egyptian government. An instructive Egyptian folk tale from the thirteenth century B.C., about two or three hundred years after Joseph’s period, concerns two brothers, Anubis and Bata. Anubis was married, and Bata came to work for him on his farm. One day as they were out planting in the field, Anubis sent Bata to the house to get more seed. Not wishing to make more than one trip, Bata took a huge load. Anubis’s wife admired his physical strength and suggested he spend an hour in bed with her. Appalled, Bata told her never to say such a thing again and he would not mention anything about it.
The unnamed angry wife ingested some fat and grease to make herself sick and to look as if she had been beaten. When her husband came home, she told him that Bata had propositioned her and that when she had refused he had beaten her so she would not tell. She asked him to kill Bata so that he would not try to rape her again. Anubis was enraged and waited in ambush at the shed for Bata. As Bata brought the cows into the shed, the animals warned him of Anubis’s intent, and Bata was able to escape.
After a long chase Bata and Anubis talked at a distance. Bata convinced Anubis of his innocence, and Anubis after returning home slew his wife and threw her body to the dogs. If this story embodies any accepted Egyptian legal principle, [p.122]death may have been the penalty for attempted rape. Perhaps Potiphar was less than convinced by his wife’s evidence. In the biblical story, Joseph eventually rises to become chief minister of Egypt, but the wife of Potiphar is not heard from again." Source
Until several months ago I hadn't given much attention to the story of Potiphar's wife. Honestly, most of what I knew about her story I had learned from Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical, "Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat". Remember...
She was beautiful but evil,
Saw a lot of men against his will
He could have to tell he that she still
Joseph's looks and handsome figure
Had attracted her attention
Every morning she would beckon
He could have to tell he that she still
Joseph's looks and handsome figure
Had attracted her attention
Every morning she would beckon
Come and lie with me love
Joseph wanted to resist her,
Till one day she proved too eager
Joseph cried in vain
I don't believe in free love
(listen to the song here)
|Poor Joseph didn't stand a chance, right?|
It had never really dawned on me that there might be something to learn from the story of a woman who was vilified as a sexually promiscuous "man-eater." Then one day for my scripture study I randomly opened up to Genesis 39 and as I read the story of Potiphar's wife I saw her story with new eyes.
Genesis 39 is almost always taught from Joseph's perspective and is used as an example of how to flee from sexual sin. I think that this is an important aspect of the story and I agree that Joseph should be upheld as a worthy example. Yet, I think that understanding the story--tragedy, really-- of Potiphar's wife is an equally important story and one that has powerful lessons for youth and adults.
As I have studied the story of Potiphar's wife the less I think that she was the promiscuous sexual predator that she is often made out to be. What I see is a bored, lonely rich woman whose life was not everything she had dreamed it would be. Perhaps her marriage with Potiphar was unhappy, perhaps she lacked intellectual stimulation, perhaps she was far from home and family, perhaps she felt unwanted or undervalued. Perhaps Potiphar really was an eunuch and she lacked intimacy and the possibility for children. There are hundreds of reasons why she began-- perhaps even unknowingly-- to "cast her eyes" (Gen. 39:7)around in search of something else. It just so happened that her eyes fell upon Joseph-- young, handsome, talented, honest, smart, loyal, and blessed by the Lord. One can only imagine that she must have compared him to Potiphar and saw in Joseph all the things she felt her marriage and life were lacking.
I think that when you closely study the story of Potiphar's wife and Joseph it becomes apparent that her desire and passion for Joseph was something that was built over time. I don't think she saw Joseph and a few days later was chasing him around trying to get him into bed with her. No, the story suggests that she and Joseph knew each other well and that she had allowed an emotional intimacy to build between them-- way before she ever asked Joseph to be with her.
Consider the manner in which Joseph rejects her initial invitation. The first time she offers her self to him Joseph does not run away or dismiss her rudely, instead he speaks kindly to her and explains in great depth (by Bible standards) why he can not be with her. He tells her,
"Behold, my master wotteth not what is with me in the house, and he hath committed all that he hath to my hand; There is none greater in this house than I; neither hath he kept back any thing from me but thee, because thou art his wife.." Genesis 39:9
These aren't the words of someone who is trying to escape the advances of a "man-eater" but rather his manner indicates that he cares about her feelings and wants to treat them with respect. His words sound to me like he is speaking to a friend, and his final phrase to her indicates that she knows him well enough to understand his heart and his moral beliefs. He says,
It appears that she couldn't accept this answer. Maybe she was convinced that Joseph cared for her and that if she tried hard enough she could make him choose her over his God, or maybe she was a woman who was use to getting what she wanted and didn't take no for an answer. Genesis 39:10 tells us that she continued (indicating that she already had been) speaking to Joseph, ".... day by day, [but] that he hearkened not unto her, to lie by her, or to be with her.""... how then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?"
Since they lived in the same household Joseph was unable to completely avoid her and one day, when all the other men servants were out of the house, she cornered Joseph and begged him to lie with her. She was mostly likely not physically strong enough to force him into intimacy, and so the most she could do was hang onto his clothes. This time Joseph knew what her intentions was and he fled and leaving his "garment" in her hands.
After this rejection it appears that her pride and feelings were hurt so deeply that she tried to hurt Joseph like he hurt her. She kept his garment and called in the other men servants and (perhaps playing off of already existing jealousy among the servants) told them how her husband, " hath brought in an Hebrew unto us to mock us" and claimed that Joseph made sexual advances to her. Later she told the same story to Potiphar and the relative meekness of Joseph's punishment indicates that Potiphar may not have totally believed her story. Perhaps because she had been unfaithful to him before, or because he knew the strength of Joseph's character and integrity.
The story of Potiphar's wife is a tragedy. It is a sad example of what happens when a husband or wife allows themselves to "cast their eyes" around. It is rare that fornication or adultery happens quickly, it is often something that is built slowly and steadily over time. It usually begins with people becoming emotionally intimate first. In the 2009 Ensign article, "Fidelity in Marriage: It's More than You Think", it explains,
"Fidelity includes refraining from physical contact—but that is not all. Fidelity also means complete commitment, trust, and respect between husband and wife... Physical infidelity is only one of the many temptations Satan uses to break up families and marriages. Emotional infidelity, which occurs when emotions and thoughts are focused on someone other than a spouse, is an insidious threat that can weaken the trust between a couple and shatter peace of mind. Emotional infidelity doesn’t usually happen suddenly; rather, it occurs gradually—often imperceptibly at first. This is one reason why those involved often feel innocent of any wrongdoing."
Being unfaithful to your spouse starts with your thoughts. It begins when you start comparing your spouse to someone else, it escalates when you start rationalizing the time you are spending with someone else, and climaxes when you start investing the energy that should go into fixing your marriage into creating a new relationship with someone other than your spouse. As Spencer W. Kimball said,
"There are those married people who permit their eyes to wander and their hearts to become vagrant, who think it is not improper to flirt a little, to share their hearts and have desire for someone other than the wife or the husband. The Lord says in no uncertain terms: “Thou shalt love thy wife with all thy heart, and shalt cleave unto her and none else” (D&C 42:22) And, when the Lord says all thy heart, it allows for no sharing nor dividing nor depriving. And, to the woman it is paraphrased: “Thou shalt love thy husband with all thy heart and shalt cleave unto him and none else.” The words none else eliminate everyone and everything. The spouse then becomes preeminent in the life of the husband or wife, and neither social life nor occupational life nor political life nor any other interest nor person nor thing shall ever take precedence over the companion spouse." ("Faith Precedes the Miracle" (1972), 142–43.)
The story of Potiphar's wife is just as applicable in our modern world as it was in ancient times. In fact, I think that the opportunity for married people to "cast their eyes" about is even greater now than it has ever been before. Not only do we have multiple opportunities to interact closely with men and women in work, school and church settings but we also have the expanded world of the Internet. "Casting your eyes" about can start with seemingly small interactions, like re-connecting with an old friend or boyfriend on Facebook, confiding your ideas and dreams with an online friend rather than your spouse, or saving up your thoughts to tell to a co-worker who seems to understand you much better. In her article, "Virtual Reality, Actual Risks" the author shares how her marriage and family were destroyed because of her involvement with an online acquaintance. She says,
"I don’t know any [one] who intends to turn a friendship into an extramarital affair. I know I never imagined such devastation. But emotional affairs are affairs, and they damage relationships, even when they don’t involve sexual infidelity... Emotional attachment to someone who is not our spouse makes it impossible to love our spouse as the Lord commanded. The resulting heartache and feelings of betrayal are difficult to imagine when such relationships begin, but they can be devastating."
In the end, I can't help but feel sorry for Potiphar's wife. She had numerous occasions to stop and walk away from the mess she had created, but she couldn't. She let her appetites and desires rule her spirit and it resulted in tragedy-- for Joseph, for her, and for Potiphar.
Learn from her mistakes and be fiercely loyal to your spouse-- heart, mind and body.
Questions to Think About:
- How do you think she felt when Joseph ended up in jail? Do you think she felt remorse? How do you imagine she felt when later Joseph became Pharaoh's advisor and one of the most powerful men in Egypt?
- How can you relate to Potiphar's wife? Are there people or things in your life that you "cast your eyes" upon that are leading your heart down the wrong path?
- How can helping young men and women understand this story better help them create stronger relationships and be fiercely loyal in marriage?
- How do you think Potihpar's wife's actions affected her marriage and her relationship with Potiphar? What could she have done to avoid or escape the situation she put herself in?
- "Warning Signs of Infedielity" by Veon G. Smith. 1975 Ensign
- "Virtual Reality, Actual Risk" by name withheld. March 2010 Ensign.
- "Fidelity in Marriage: It is More than You Think." by Kenneth W. Matheson. Sept. 2009 Ensign.