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Potiphar's Wife
by Carole McDonnell
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Potiphar's wife
Verses: Genesis 39: 1 - 19
Summary of the story: After Joseph is sold into slavery by his brothers, he is taken into the household of a rich nobleman. The nobleman's wife develops a longing for Joseph and tempts him. Joseph escapes her and the woman claims he tried to rape her. Joseph is put in jail.

In her own words.
One day, my husband brought home a young slave he'd bought from nomadic traders. I noticed his hands first: they were bruised, being bound for so long. My husband was one of the king's chamberlains, a eunuch. A very high and trustworthy position. He had a great house. Many slaves are needed. We had them. Slaves were born in our house and brought from afar. They all had their respective duties. We had musicians, cooks, craftsmen, herdsmen, gardeners, weavers, managers. As I've said, the house was a great house. My husband had many responsibilities and pleasures, not that he was ever around to enjoy the pleasures his great position afforded him. He was always busy elsewhere. There was always some political intrigue, assassination threat, rumor of war, military exercise. And so it was easy enough that a competent and honorable person like Joseph would end up guarding Potiphar's home while Potiphar, himself, was guarding the king's home.

Joseph's rise to prominence in our household happened slowly. He was efficient, wise, humble, and good-humored. He was, perhaps, a little too sure of himself. He had, a subtle arrogance that a slave, after all, should not have. My husband suspected that he was the eldest son of some great chief, a boy who had been told that the world and the sun and moon were his. But the Hebrew was respectful towards us and that is what mattes. He soon became chief steward of my husband's property. All activities and arrangements were in his hands. Social functions, governmental meetings, everything. Day by day, in the entire house, all arrangements were made by him or by me. We planned events together. We talked. It was as if he and I were the true householders because my husband was never at home and the responsibilities for the upkeep of the house was in Joseph's hands. Sometimes when I rose from my bed in the mornings, my husband would have already gone. Sometimes he had not come home. But Joseph was always there. And I looked forward to our daily conversations. Generally I don't lust after slaves, and Egyptians have nothing to do with sheepherders (they are anathema to us), but after awhile I realized that when I went to bed, I imagined Joseph's young body near mine, sweet words dropping from his lips, telling me how much he loved and wanted me. Joseph had something about him: a depth of suffering, strength and silence in his handsome face, such spirituality, too, such wisdom in one so young. There is something about spirituality, wisdom, beauty and a kind heart. I am not excusing myself; I am merely saying what I've discovered to be true. Sex and spirituality go together: one kind of admiration mixes dangerously with another. It was as if I suddenly found myself again.

I would compliment Joseph daily, flirt coyly, hint until he looked up with a nervous blush. And sometimes, I would ignore him completely --no mere pretension, this, after all he was no more than a mere servant... a foreign one at that. And I was married. But even pretending was hard to do. My heart would flutter when he approached, a smile would break over my face when anyone mentioned his name. I praised him excessively.

The funny thing in all this is that I hardly had a chance. Joseph was a spiritual man. Not that we Egyptians aren't spiritual. We have many Gods whom we worship and adore. But he spoke as if he spoke to his God everyday. He spoke as if this One God cared about the small and great matters of his daily life. Always, always, he could not come to my bed because His All-Seeing God ruled over all and that God would know and would not approve. This religiosity of his was charming at first. It was the reason I liked him so much. But at times, it was too much.

I'd joke with him. "You have a great God, Joseph," I'd say. "To treat someone who loves him so harshly. Our Gods have made Egypt great. But what has your God done? Sold you into slavery."

And he'd say some silly cliche about his God's will. Whenever I asked him to come to bed with me, he would say, "How could I do this in God's sight?" As if his God were right there seeing every interaction between us. As if his God were all our valley gods and hill gods and sea gods and wind gods all combined.

Sometimes the rejection would work its way into me. My husband was a good hard-working man who had provided everything for me, except himself. And there I was, the wife of the king's highest military man, begging a Hebrew slave to love me, committing myself to him more and more and deeper and deeper and dropping my defenses and my guard. In the time I knew him, I had proceeded from subtle compliments to non-committal flirtations to passionate and forced pleading. And always, I gave my husband hints: I begged him to take some time off, go with me on a long trip. I spoke of being lonely without him, of needing company. He said, "Soon, soon. Just another project, my love.."

I pleaded with both men, day after day. I pleaded with my husband to stay and with Joseph to come to my bed. I, who had power over him, sat there begging for a mere slave to love me. Funny thing, though: Joseph never said he did not love me. I have that to hold on to...even now. Perhaps he did love me. Perhaps he pitied me for my husband's absence. Perhaps he saw that the emptiness of my wealthy life did not fulfill me. Perhaps he wanted me as much as I wanted him.

And one morning, as I listened to my husband read the day's itinerary --planned and arranged, by Joseph of course-- I realized that during that particular day all the men in the house would be out in the city on errands. I was so afraid of what I might do, I could hardly breathe. I begged Potiphar not to leave me home alone. He said Joseph would be at home to take care of me and to keep me company. He called Joseph into the dining room and told Joseph to take care of me. And then he left.

All morning I sat alone at one end of the house and then I decided: I would get Joseph to give in to his love for me as much as I had given in to my love for him. I bathed and perfumed myself in cinnamon, cassia, acacia. I put on my costliest and most beautiful apparel -- the ones that never failed to elicit compliments-- and I called him into my bed chamber.

When he arrived at the door, I begged him to sleep with me. I pleaded and begged. But he rejected me. I held on to his cloak, pulled him over to my bed. This son of shepherders ran out of my house. Ran out! Me, the wife of the great captain of the guards. The shame that went through me just then. I have never felt such shame. It was as if I was dirt under someone's feet. Never had I felt so old, so needy, so evil. My mind couldn't contain the hurt. I wept and wept and the tears streamed down my face. And then I realized that I was holding his cloak. And instantly I knew what to do. He would not have spoken against me to my husband, of course. He was a smart kid. But I wanted revenge for the hurt he had inflicted on me and for the shame I felt. I've never been good at handling shame. All I could feel was that he was pitying this older woman who had wanted him so much.

I sat on my bed with the clothes beside me and waited for my husband to come home. I don't know where Joseph was at this time. When my husband came home, I told him Joseph tried to rape him. I showed him Joseph's garment as evidence; my husband believed me. After all Joseph was a foreigner and you know how foreigners are...always wanting our women.

They put Joseph in the king's prison where all the king's prisoners were kept. His assault on me was considered a crime against Pharoah himself. Sometimes I would think of Joseph languishing in the prison, waiting and wondering if he would be reprieved or executed. I felt guilty, yes. Sometimes. But not enough to recant. It would've required too much on my part. All the same: he later came out and ended up serving the king. I've seen him in the royal court. Life certainly has funny ways of working itself out.

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Member Comments
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Jay Cookingham 01 Oct 2002
Carole, Such a powerful and insightful look into that wonderful story of Joseph. "Seeing" it from the eyes of Potiphar's wife is a new twist for me...thanks for sharing it. - Jay Cookingham


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