The Real Sin of Potiphar’s Wife

The Real Sin of Potiphar’s Wife

Every time a new report emerges of accusations of sexual harassment or assault about or adjacent to a powerful man in a prominent position, the time it takes for his defenders to reference the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife as a warning about the reality of women who falsely accuse men of assault can be measured in nanoseconds. 

It’s an infamous chapter in a famous and beloved story. It reads a little bit like an episode in a Shonda Rhimes soapy nighttime drama. So perhaps the reflexive comparison is understandable. But it’s also deeply flawed.

Joseph was, for a time, the Hebrew slave of a prominent Egyptian military officer named Potiphar.  Moses notes that God blessed all of Joseph’s work with success and Potiphar took note of it, putting Joseph in charge of everything in his house (other than the catering) and making Joseph his personal attendant (vs 2-6).  God had apparently blessed Joseph in other ways because Moses writes that he was “handsome and well-built.”(v. 6b) So Potiphar’s wife takes note of him alas well, deciding that she wants him as a personal attendant of a different kind. So Potiphar’s wife propositions him, not once, but repeatedly. And Joseph repeatedly tells her no and tells her why (vs.8-9)

One day when all but Joseph are out of the house, Potiphar’s wife moves from persuasion to coercion, grabbing Joseph by his clothes and ordering him to sleep with her. Joseph runs, leaving only his garment in the woman’s clutches. Potiphar’s wife’s unfulfilled lust is transformed to rage. She uses Joseph’s clothes as circumstantial evidence to bolster the credibility of a story the rest of her household will already be inclined to believe that the foreign slave her husband had bought for the house had tried to rape her the minute she was alone. Her story achieves its purpose, and the enraged Potiphar throws the servant he once trusted into prison.

I can’t think of another Bible story that contemporary conservative Christians with a narrative to maintain about the prevalence of women making false rape accusations prefer to deploy more than this one, even as it’s literally the only one in the entire Bible that they can. There’s a particular irony that the numerous stories of women actually being assaulted in the Bible get so much less attention than the single story of one woman saying she was when she wasn’t.

But beyond the problem of elevating the story of the one over the many, there’s a greater problem with making this story simply about a woman’s false accusation. That interpretation ignores the clear, and clearly emphasized, power imbalance between Joseph and his accuser.

Joseph was probably physically stronger than Potiphar’s wife, but that is the only way in which his power exceeds hers. Joseph is a  slave from a foreign country, bought by Potiphar to serve in Potiphar’s house. Potiphar’s wife is… Potiphar’s wife, so closely attached to Potiphar’s authority that Moses declines to give her a name apart from it. Joseph too also temporarily loses his name, as Potiphar’s wife takes pains to diminish Joseph’s personhood by referring to him only in terms of the parts of his identity that are his greatest liabilities – his ethnicity, and his status as a slave (vs. 13-19).  Neither Joseph’s hard-earned reputation of trustworthiness and faithfulness to his master, nor the fruits of his labors, were sufficient defense against the hateful words of a powerful person wanting to simultaneously hide the sin of her predatory behavior and punish the innocent, powerless one who wouldn’t succumb to it.

The sin of Potiphar’s wife is the sin of any person with power who wields that power for their own selfish purposes – who exploits the vulnerability of those beneath them to both use them and abuse them when their evil desires are denied, and who destroys the lives of the ones they abuse in the name of keeping the sin of that abuse from being exposed.  The suffering of Joseph is the suffering of anyone whose attempts to live with integrity and purpose far above what their position in society might enable, are insufficient to withstand the determination of those above them to use their own position of power to abuse them.

The story of Potiphar’s wife and Joseph reminds us that the sinful proclivity of those possessing or even adjacent to power to exploit those without it isn’t bounded by gender. And it points to the time when another man, one to whom all power and authority had been given, set aside that power to become a servant to many, but suffered greatly for it (Phil. 2:7).

Like Joseph, Jesus lived a life of righteous, fruitful service, under the watch of a loving God. But like Joseph, He also suffered the ignominy of punishment based on trumped up charges of sin He had never committed. He atoned for the world of sins committed against the bodies of vulnerable women and men with His own. And He too emerged from darkness into the light of vindication, not just for Himself, but for all those who identify with Him.

The story of Potiphar’s wife and Joseph isn’t the story of an ordinary woman falsely accusing a man of assault and not suffering the consequences; it’s the story of a powerful person using her power to exploit someone weaker, and then bearing false witness against them to cause them to suffer even further in the midst of their vulnerability.  

But most importantly, it’s the story of the good news that there is no human power so great that it can ultimately thwart the purposes of an all-powerful and all-loving God.

“But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You planned evil against me; God planned it for good to bring about the present result ​— ​the survival of many people. “– Genesis 50:19-20 (CSB)

 

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How Necessary Are Women?

 

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Last week, I caught glimpses of the latest firestorm John Piper ignited over his assertions that women shouldn’t be seminary professors via my iPhone as I sat in the back of a conference room near the Venture Capital district of Palo Alto. I was helping lead a sales training workshop for an up and coming Silicon Valley startup. There were 75 salesmen in the room, and 3 saleswomen.

When I say I was “helping lead” the training, what I mean is that I had written the digital sales playbook that comprised the curriculum, while my partner, a man about ten years my senior, lead the actual training. My partner is brilliant, with decades of experience under his belt. I’m apprenticing with him because I’m a good writer, but I’m a really good teacher, and I know I can make a significant and particular contribution to the companies we serve when I move into that role.

But Piper’s comments, and the dynamics I observed in that room so dominated by male presence, had me wondering whether I’ll ever be at the place where I’ll get the chance to.


I watched the way my partner lead the group through different exercises with great skill, even as occasionally he missed things that I would have handled differently. But then I put myself in his position. I thought about the sum total of all the things I would have to do and say differently from my partner, and *not* do and say differently, to be viewed as someone worthy of learning anything from.

Not because I’m not as experienced as my partner, although that’s true.

But because I’m a woman.

With Dr. Piper’s belief about the invalidity of women as seminary professors in the back of my mind, I found myself meditating, for the gazillionth time, on Genesis 1 and 2. I wasn’t thinking just about the nature of women’s calling – to be necessary allies alongside men in the collective filling and subduing of the world. I was thinking about all the boundaries that get built around that calling, that determine all the ways we’re deemed *un*necessary to a man’s flourishing.

And I found myself asking – just how necessary are women to men, as women?
We’re necessary for shaping men’s bodies, of course.

Every man who has ever walked the earth has spent the first nine months of his earthly existence having his entire physical being, the vehicle in which his mind and soul reside, shaped and nourished by a woman. And usually months and years after that.

And we’re necessary for serving those same bodies after they’re grown. (We hear that way too often, for too many of the wrong reasons, but that’s a post for another day.)

But while we’re necessary for the shaping and serving of a man’s body, does the necessity of women to men, as women, extend to the shaping of their minds – their intellect, their skills, their gifts?

How about their souls?

At what point does my calling as a necessary ally to a man reach its God-ordained  limit?

Is the limit his age? That mix of biological and cultural transition from boyhood to manhood that has no concrete date, and a myriad of different cultural prescriptions?

Is the limit his vocation? Is it my place only to cheer him on in his work? Do I have nothing to contribute,  as a woman,  to a man’s ability to sell software, or give a speech, or make a decision?

Is the limit full time ministry? Is that the realm of influence and help where women are divinely rendered unnecessary?

Or maybe the boundaries should be around me as a woman, and not around men?

Is it a matter of my motives? What if I’m not setting myself up as a spiritual authority, but simply want to be a godly spiritual influence on him – is that still a step too far?

 

Or is it a merely the boundaries of my covenant?  Am I precluded from any kind of spiritual influence or guidance of a man unless I’m married to him, or unless I’m his mother, (until he reaches that indeterminate age where my identity as his mother is superseded by his identity as a man?)?

For those who fight so relentlessly to uphold the distinctive beauty of manhood and womanhood, why is it that the only time it’s permissible, or required to diminish the beauty of my womanhood, and declare it safely mediated behind words on page or a screen,

is when I’m teaching something to a man? (1)

And if those are legitimate boundaries around the ways women are called to influence and inform the thoughts and actions of men, as women, what should the world look like where those dynamics hold true?


It can’t look like the world of Bible – of Abigail, or Esther, or the woman of wisdom in Proverbs 8, or the Samaritan woman, or the women of the resurrection, or Priscilla.
What it does look like is the world I live and work in. Like Silicon Valley. And it looks like some parts of the church, too.

If I didn’t take God at His Word, I’d, frankly, I’d rather discouraged. And maybe looking for a different line of work.

But I do, so I’m not. So I’ll keep going – asking God to help me be helpful in whatever He calling He gives me, and for more opportunities to do the same.

And maybe my calling, at this stage, is just to keep thinking through these things, and asking these things, out loud. And asking God to give us the answers, and for the grace and strength and humility to live them out, as men and women, together.

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  1. “There is this interposition of the phenomenon called book and writing that puts the woman as author out of the reader’s sight and, in a sense, takes away the dimension of her female personhood.” From  https://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/do-you-use-bible-commentaries-written-by-women

A Prescription For Our Roy Moore Problem

A Prescription For Our Roy Moore Problem

For  Christians who’ve read Genesis 3:15 at least once, the problem of men sinfully exploiting their power over women shouldn’t really be news. The fact that the world is beginning to recognize the problem is something that should give us hope.  But before we race to write various prescriptions to heal America’s institutional sickness – the eradication of pornography, a return to marriage and traditional sexual ethics and, of course, the gospel, we should stop to ask what it is that has finally opened the world’s eyes, even as so many in the church remain blind to the ways it manifests the identical symptoms, because it is suffering from the same disease.

One of the hermeneutical rules I strived to follow as I was writing about Ruth and Boaz last month was to focus far more on what the text says than on what it doesn’t. I tried not to argue from silence. When Ruth 2 describes Boaz’ unequivocal instructions to his men that Ruth wasn’t to be harassed in any way, nothing in the text suggests anything other than that they obeyed him. So we should assume that they did and believe what the text implies – that Ruth was left to work in peace, and was never sexually assaulted or harassed.

But the question I’ve been asking myself repeatedly of late is – what if she had been?
What if a man ignored Boaz’s warning, looked for a window of opportunity, and took it? What if Ruth told Boaz what happened? How would he have responded?

Would Ruth have been believed?

Until recently in contemporary America, women’s reports of sexual assault would follow a predictable pattern:

  • Cycles of insider whispers would circulate.
  • Isolated stories would bubble up onto a tabloid or gossipy website.
  • Salacious reporting about the alleged victim would emerge on the same channels, mitigating the charges by challenging the accuser’s credibility, motives, and character.
  • Friends would rally to the accused’s defense, testifying loudly to his character, and appealing to civic precedents about innocence until being proven guilty.
  • The accused would embark on a media campaign of denial and moral outrage over his own victimization.
  • Occasionally, news of a financial settlement with accompanying NDA would emerge, and the accused’s PR team would declare the matter closed.

Then the Internet was invented, with its ability to aggregate and amplify women’s voices.

One story on social media became two, and then four, then forty. Patterns emerged – in the methods of grooming, in the bait and switch tactics, in the grotesque specifics of the behavior.

Like the famous Magic Eye pictures from the 1980s, a myriad of data points once hidden in silos of secrecy melded together to reveal the truth that had been there all along.

And so the truth about Bill Cosby has come to light. And Roger Ailes. And Bill O’Reily, and Harvey Weinstein, and John Besh, and Kevin Spacey, and Louis C.K. and…and..and….

Amplified by the digital megaphone of the Internet, the aggregated, harmonized voices of women have become so numerous, so loud, and so unified, that they are finally being believed.

At least, in most places.

Whenever sexual assault stories bubble up within a Christian context (involving either a prominent Christian ministry leader, or an influential man whose outspoken Christian faith has been an essential part of his platform), they’ve followed a similar pattern:

  • Cycles of insider whispers begin to circulate.
  • A story bubbles up onto a gossipy discernment blogger website, or through one of the mistrusted channels of the demonized “mainstream media”.
  • Friends of the accused race to accused’s defense, testifying to his deep Christian faith, character, title, and good works, appealing to American civic precedents about innocence until guilt is proven in a court of law, and throwing in biblical proof texts about “two or three witnesses” for good measure.

The accuser’s treatment varies, depending on who she, or he, is. If it’s a child in single digits – the default defense is “innocent until proven guilty”. If she is a woman with any kind of perceived character defect – a sexual history, a divorce, a bankruptcy, a perceived pattern of emotional instability- any and all are deployed to dilute her credibility and dismiss the allegations

Occasionally, the “digital witness” of the accused’s own words in the form of emails or text messages find their way into the light. Then the naysayers and defenders go silent.

But when the witness is a woman, not even when their number is multiple orders of magnitude beyond the Biblical standard are they believed.

And so men like Roy Moore hide in plain sight behind a wall of defense built and guarded by professing Christians. They double down on denials, dial-up conspiracy theories, and drape themselves in American legal precedents and blasphemous Biblical allusions to persecution.

Jesus is not pleased.

While the women of Jesus’ day enjoyed a measure of greater cultural stability than those of his ancestor Boaz, they still suffered numerous societal disadvantages because of their gender. I wrote about one of the most significant ones last year. Jewish tradition held that where civil and legal matters were concerned, a woman’s testimony was unreliable and inferior to that of a man, and thus invalid in court.  But the gospels repeatedly depict Jesus turning that precedent on its head- as  revival breaks out through the testimony of a disenfranchised Samaritan woman (John 4:39), as a powerful politician’s wife publicly warns her husband not to execute a righteous man (Matt 27:19), and as a group of women proclaim the good news of the Resurrection to the apostles, men who rightly, they believe, follow prevailing civic tradition in dismissing their report as idle gossip (Luke 24:1-11).

Jesus dismantled the cultural scaffolding of man-centered prescriptions built around the law that privileged and protected groups with social power against those with less. He recalibrated the scales of justice and power by actively lifting the marginalized, and their voices, up and into the work of His kingdom.

In Jesus’ economy, the voices of those lacking societal power were amplified and elevated, and the call of the powerful was to not so much lean in, as to lean down and listen to them.

In Jesus’ economy, a woman’s testimony had evidentiary value in and of itself.  When a woman in Jesus’ day spoke up, Jesus expected her to be heard, and to be believed.

There are important caveats about this conviction that are worthy of their own discussion. Arguing from the Scriptures that God wants women’s voices to be amplified is not the same as arguing that He wants them treated as absolute. The stories of Potiphar’s wife in the Old Testament (Gen. 39:1-20) and Sapphira in the New Testament (Acts 5:1-11), descriptively and prescriptively warn women of the grievous sin of bearing false witness against a man. In fact, there could be room to argue that those stories are the exceptions that prove the rule – that in an economy where a woman’s word is given special weight, a woman who presumes upon or exploits the power inherent in her words is guilty of the same egregious sin that a man commits when he exploits the power inherent in his position or physical strength.

American cultural institutions are finally waking up to the historical imbalance of power it has enabled by dismissing the testimony of women, and is beginning to recalibrate its scales.

The church should do the same, not because it is responding to the example of the culture, but because the culture is subconsciously responding to the example of Christ.