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)