Potiphar’s wife and #MeToo

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After my Episcopal church service I went to my husband’s evangelical church to wait for him in the cafe like I usually do. When I stepped out to use the restroom, I heard the sermon topic introduced. It was about Potiphar’s wife. The one who falsely accused Joseph of rape. THIS weekend of all weekends. Right as it began, a friend texted me from inside the sanctuary and said, “The pastor swears this sermon was planned months in advance, but people around me are whispering that Kavanaugh is the real victim.”

After the sermon I went up to the pastor to share that with him. To his credit, he said that he didn’t mean for it to coincide with the hearings, that was just a coincidence, but false accusations do happen, and the church needs to be concerned about the truth. I said, “Pastor, with all due respect, figuring out the ‘truth’ is not the church’s job. The church’s job is to support the victim. For a church that claims to want to make a difference in the community, it concerns me that it attracts so many people who automatically rushed to Kavanaugh’s defense instead of Ford’s.”

It was a civil, if not somewhat disappointing conversation. I didn’t go all “Angry Liberal Feminist” on him (though it was tempting). He felt I interpreted the sermon through a ‘filter,’ and maybe I did. But I have a feeling that that sermon was heard by more victims of assault than victims of false accusations. And statistics are pretty clear on which group is more common.

The collection of documents known as the Holy Scriptures is filled with rape stories: the rape of Dinah in Genesis 34, the rape of Tamar in 2 Samuel 13, and the rape of the anonymous concubine in Judges 19, to name a few. But the story of Potiphar’s wife falsely accusing Joseph in Genesis 39 is the only biblical story in which a woman is lying about her assault.

It’s all too easy – and lazy, in my opinion – to read this story as nothing more than a way to paint all rape accusations with the same brush of doubt. Regardless of how the pastor meant to have his sermon interpreted, it is through the “Women are liars” lens that many Christians read this story.

Curious for an alternate viewpoint, I reached out to Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, whose work I greatly respect. Here’s what she had to say about it:

This is a story about a person with power abusing that power to exploit someone with less power sexually, and retaliating when refused.

So Joseph has been sold into slavery by his brothers (very loving move there, guys) and works for Potiphar. Potiphar was a rich Egyptian, Joseph was a foreigner who was literally his property. Yes Joseph wound up with a lot of responsibility, but in context as an enslaved foreigner.

Potiphar’s wife decided she wanted him sexually, approached him repeatedly, was rebuffed. One day he fled an advance and she was left holding his garment, lied that he tried to assault her, got him thrown in jail.

This is a story about power. Many #metoo stories are. Potiphar’s wife’s lies were believed not because she was a woman, but because she was wealthy, had the right national status, was married to someone with power, etc. Also why she demanded in the first place.

She is like Harvey Weinstein bent on ruining actresses’ careers—spurned and vengeful and abusing that power to do even more harm. Joseph was an enslaved foreigner. Of course he was not believed.

There are plenty of places in the Bible where we can look for evidence of patriarchy, women’s sexual exploitation, women not being believed or taken seriously. Women as chattel. It’s just in this case, Potiphar’s wife had so many other kinds of power, and she exploited them.

This seems like a good time to just name Hagar, Bilhah, Zilpah, the captive woman of Deut 21, the woman stoned to death for not having proof of virginity, the sotah, Tamar, Sarah and Rebecca esp in Egypt, the concubine at Gibeah, Dina, forcing women to marry their rapists, etc.

#Metoo never said that women never ever abuse or exploit or sexually harass or rape. But look at the story of Potiphar’s wife and the examples mentioned above and not surprisingly, it’s pretty clear where power is held in each of these cases.

Systemically, men hold power. But that’s not true in every case. And yes, there are #metoo stories not about the abuse of power. But a lot of them are.

I don’t know but do assume that there was sexual abuse of enslaved Black men in America by white women, for example. White women had less power than white men but much more than the men they enslaved. Analogous (though of course imperfectly) to Joseph.

Anyway. Believer survivors. Of all genders.

As usual, when it comes to reading and interpreting Scripture, the words on the page are usually the tip of the hermeneutical iceberg. An entire series about power dynamics in church history could be pulled from this one story.

I’m curious how many congregations – Jewish or Christian – would consider it.

Here’s another viewpoint from Sojourners: Stop using Potiphar’s wife to discredit survivors: “Rather than inspiring us to attack victims, the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife should remind us of the injustices in the world. Recognizing these power dynamics, Christians should confront the brokenness of worldly systems by showing Christ’s grace to its victims. By listening to their voices – those who have been marginalized and silenced – we can help them find healing.”

Photo by Eric Ward on Unsplash

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8 thoughts on “Potiphar’s wife and #MeToo

  1. Anne Mackie Morelli says:

    Sarahbeth, Thank you for this post. This is such a complex, multi-layered issue, and it needs to be treated, discussed and written about very carefully and very respectfully. Taking one story out of Scripture and using it to make a point can put us in danger of mis-interpreting the message(s) the Bible as a whole text conveys. Context, context, context is key. The context of the passage within the chapter, the chapter before and after, the book it lands in, the books before and after, and the Bible as a whole. And as you point out – this was one story amid many and must be considered within the larger context. You also make an interesting observation about the number of sexual assaults in the Bible and how it would be to the interpreter’s advantage to consider them all when they are addressing this issue. Thanks for the post – lots to consider.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Marian Beaman says:

    All of us read and interpret stories, biblical or not, through filters. It is one mark of an educated mind to have the ability to see oppositing viewpoints.

    Thank you for telling your story here and then allowing the conversation to unfold here in comments.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sarahbeth Caplin says:

      That’s one thing I wish I had said in the moment: “My filter? But what about yours – the one you used to write this sermon?” Or something to that effect (worded more respectfully and articulately).

      Like

  3. Melody says:

    “This is a story about power. Many #metoo stories are. Potiphar’s wife’s lies were believed not because she was a woman, but because she was wealthy, had the right national status, was married to someone with power, etc. Also why she demanded in the first place.”

    This so much! I can’t believe the story got twisted into a generic “all women lie about rape because Potiphar’s wife did.” That is so not the point of the story. It’s about the powerful taking advantage of that very fact, especially with easy victims which was the position Joseph was in.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Kelley Danahy says:

    I feel like, if anything, the story of Potiphar’s wife is a prime example of not believing an attempted rape victim. The genders just happen to be switched from the norm here.

    Liked by 1 person

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