Bad Girls of the Bible – Mrs. Potiphar, pt.2

Tonight we are discussing chapter 2 of Liz Curtis Higgs’ book Bad Girls of the Bible. The character this week is Potiphar’s wife and her dealings with Joseph as recorded in Genesis 39.  If you have time today, please read the Biblical narrative.

This story has an interesting life after the Scriptures. First, in the Jewish literature composed prior to Jesus, the story becomes the defining story of Joseph.  For example, in the Apocryphal passages of Wisdom 10:13-14, 4 Maccabees 2:1-6, and Jubileess 39, Joseph is held up as the paragon of virtue for resisting Mrs. Potiphar.   

Second, in later Jewish rabbinic literature and in the Koran (Surah 12:21-35), this story becomes reworked with some of the gaps in the Biblical narratives filled in or even changed. I have attached an excerpt from James Kugel’s In Potiphar’s House (pp.28-89) exploring these additions.  For example, the Scripture says:  “Now Joseph was handsome and good-looking. And after this time, his master’s wife cast her eyes upon him.” (vv.6-7). One question for the rabbis was what was the antecedent to the word “this.”  In other words, after what time or occurrence did Potiphar’s wife act?

One solution looks at the description of Joseph.  The Hebrew verb tense is uncertain, and therefore the passage can be read as saying that “Joseph was handsome” or “Joseph became handsome.”  This second reading fits well within the story.  Joseph entered Potiphar’s household as a 17-year-old slave boy. However, as Joseph matured, and was given responsibility over Potiphar’s house, he now had access to Egyptian personal care products and better clothing. Therefore, it was after this time of Joseph’s primping and preening that Mrs. Potiphar noticed him. (pp.76-79). This also fits within the rabbinic ideal that all punishment is deserved, for in this reading it would be Joseph’s actions that directly caused Mrs. Potiphar’s actions. Another solution proposed by the rabbis was that “this time” referred to a time when Mrs. Potiphar kept changing her clothes to have Joseph notice her. It was only after “this time” when her passive seductions failed that she decided to take the initiative. (p.42). 

Another anomaly is that the Scripture says on the day of the incident “none of the household was present.” (v.11). However, after the incident, Mrs. Potiphar “called to the members of the household saying ‘See. He has brought among us a Hebrew to insult us.’” (v.12). The question is whether the household was present or not and who is the “us” to “see.”  Here the rabbis add in an assembly of women. (pp.28-60). In their retelling of the story, nothing happened immediately after the incident because no one else was present. Later, once rumors started, Mrs. Potiphar invited other women to a meal where she showed them Joseph so that they would agree with her that he was irresistible. Mrs. Potiphar then stages the incident either to 1) keep Joseph close so she can admire him whenever, or 2) in retribution. Interestingly, the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife as told in the Koran also contains this assembly of women.   

Of course, we will not be discussing these extra-Biblical writings tonight. But it is interesting to see how the Jewish contemporaries of Jesus and the early church read this story. Within the Jewish tradition, the Biblical account never tells the whole story and always can be supplemented. There is never a specific correct reading, but conversations among differing interpretations.

Dinner is a 6. Menu is chicken and eggplant parmigiana. Discussion about 6:45. Please bring a friend.

When a righteous man was sold, wisdom did not desert him, but delivered him from sin.
She descended with him into the dungeon, and when he was in prison she did not leave him,
until she brought him the scepter of a kingdom and authority over his masters.
Those who accused him she showed to be false, and she gave him everlasting honor.

Wisdom 10:13-14

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