Stop Using Potiphar's Wife to Discredit Survivors

Commentary
By Justin Cober-Lake 8-21-2018
Joseph and Potiphar's Wife by Guido Reni (1631) 

In the midst of recent public sexual assault allegations – including those against various church leaders – some Christians are bringing up the story of Joseph and Potiphar's wife. While the ostensible reason for these references is to remind us of the idea of “innocent until proven guilty” in protecting the accused, the implicit purpose and functional result is to discredit victims. If we can find a woman in history who lied about sexual assault, the insinuation goes, then we should hold off on deciding anything until all the facts are in.

The problems with this application of the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife are manifold and stem from both social and biblical misunderstandings. On the social front, these sorts of arguments ignore the rarity of false allegations, the risk to accusers, and the drastic difference in cultures between the contemporary United States and ancient Egypt.

As the #metoo and #churchtoo movements have met resistance, the misreading of the story from Genesis 39 has entered the conversation in ways that betray not only the social issues mentioned above but also a short-sighted reading of Scripture. The story is relevant to current discussions, but not as a means to discredit survivors. Instead, it offers a look at abuses of power and points toward a gospel-based use of power.

To be clear, it is true that Potiphar's wife made a false allegation. No one denies that false accusations happen but using this story to somehow discredit all women coming forward devalues holy text, turning it into a political bludgeon rather than a liberating truth. Doing so is a political error leading to dangerous eisegesis; the text isn't about the reliability of women, victims, or witnesses. Making that issue central misses the larger point of Joseph's story and the redeeming work of God.

That's not to say we can't apply the story to current events. What we primarily see is a person in power using that position to try to gain sexual access to a subordinate. Potiphar's wife pursues a pattern of inappropriate behavior troubling enough in its persistence, then culminating in the overt command to “lie with me” as she physically grabs Joseph's clothing (Gen. 39:12). Joseph’s only recourse is to flee.

We don’t know whether Potiphar's wife made any sort of job-related threat. Regardless, Joseph was a servant, and his master's wife used her power over him to initiate unwanted sex. That power relationship lies at the heart of the story. Joseph has no means of defense either during or after the event. When things do not work out as Potiphar's wife plans, she silences the victim by using her higher station.

The Bible repeatedly speaks to this sort of abuse of power. The structural forces that landed Joseph in prison are largely the same forces that prevent modern assault victims from having a voice. Power oppresses individuals in multiple ways, and one of the most immediate is through enforcing silence. We have no knowledge of Joseph's response because he was likely allowed none.

God upends traditional worldly power structures. Jesus came, not as the expected conquering Messiah, but as a humble servant. Rather than overpowering the world, he served it through his humility, the king who “humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Phil. 2:8).

The villain of Genesis 39 is less a lying woman than it is the social and political structures that enable human predators, whether sexual, political, or economic. Joseph's integrity and God's remarkable work remain the focus of the story, rather than a potential vituperative battle for truth.

As we look at modern allegations of sexual assault and impropriety – whether they be related to Republicans or Democrats, Hollywood moguls or regular people – the Bible can still provide a guide. In looking to Scripture, we see fallen humanity and our desire to impose our wills on others, but we also see God's willingness to work with us and through us.

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.

Justin Cober-Lake is based in central Virginia and has worked in publishing for the past 15 years. His editing and freelance writing have focused on cultural criticism. He's also the co-founder of One Focus Press.

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