The Attempted Rape of Joseph

I have heard the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife many times. Here’s the text for those unfamiliar:

39 When Joseph had been taken down to Egypt, Potiphar, Pharaoh’s chief officer, the commander of the royal guard and an Egyptian, purchased him from the Ishmaelites who had brought him down there. 2 The Lord was with Joseph, and he became a successful man and served in his Egyptian master’s household. 3 His master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord made everything he did successful. 4 Potiphar thought highly of Joseph, and Joseph became his assistant; he appointed Joseph head of his household and put everything he had under Joseph’s supervision. 5 From the time he appointed Joseph head of his household and of everything he had, the Lord blessed the Egyptian’s household because of Joseph. The Lord blessed everything he had, both in the household and in the field. 6 So he handed over everything he had to Joseph and didn’t pay attention to anything except the food he ate.

Now Joseph was well-built and handsome.

7 Some time later, his master’s wife became attracted to Joseph and said, “Sleep with me.”

8 He refused and said to his master’s wife, “With me here, my master doesn’t pay attention to anything in his household; he’s put everything he has under my supervision. 9 No one is greater than I am in this household, and he hasn’t denied me anything except you, since you are his wife. How could I do this terrible thing and sin against God?” 10 Every single day she tried to convince him, but he wouldn’t agree to sleep with her or even to be with her.

11 One day when Joseph arrived at the house to do his work, none of the household’s men were there. 12 She grabbed his garment, saying, “Lie down with me.” But he left his garment in her hands and ran outside.13 When she realized that he had left his garment in her hands and run outside, 14 she summoned the men of her house and said to them, “Look, my husband brought us a Hebrew to ridicule us. He came to me to lie down with me, but I screamed. 15 When he heard me raise my voice and scream, he left his garment with me and ran outside.” 16 She kept his garment with her until Joseph’s master came home, 17 and she told him the same thing: “The Hebrew slave whom you brought to us, to ridicule me, came to me; 18 but when I raised my voice and screamed, he left his garment with me and ran outside.”

19 When Joseph’s master heard the thing that his wife told him, “This is what your servant did to me,” he was incensed. 20 Joseph’s master took him and threw him in jail, the place where the king’s prisoners were held. While he was in jail, 21 the Lord was with Joseph and remained loyal to him. He caused the jail’s commander to think highly of Joseph. 22 The jail’s commander put all of the prisoners in the jail under Joseph’s supervision, and he was the one who determined everything that happened there. 23 The jail’s commander paid no attention to anything under Joseph’s supervision, because the Lord was with him and made everything he did successful. (Genesis 39:1-23 CEB)

As man who spent time in more conservative evangelical circles while in my teens and young adult years, the moral was also told to me to be very clear: stay away from any woman attractive enough to be a temptation. It’s typically left vague about where that line is, but I think I interpreted it to mean the vast majority of women. Not stay away from as in never have anything at all to do with, but you probably shouldn’t ever be alone together, ever touch more than maybe a handshake, and similar rules like that. Like Joseph, we should run away from our temptations, temptations which are constant as men in the area of sex!

The thing is, Joseph didn’t actually run from his temptation. We’re just making assumptions about the nature of men and women and projecting more than the story says.

For one, there’s no hint that he was ever actually tempted. We just assume he was because we assume that all men are sex-crazed animals. Since Potiphar’s wife offered it, we simply assume that Joseph would have taken that offer. But it doesn’t say that. In fact, he consistently resists until she actually tries to force herself on him. In other words, she tries to rape him!

Another point that doesn’t quite fit with how the story is usually told: she’s the horny one. Sure, we usually get the portrayals of the seductress, but it’s never because she just legitimately desired a man. Maybe we assume that she was trying to get back at her husband for something. Maybe we assume she wanted to leverage his position of power in the household, the way we usually assume that women are scheming and manipulating men to do what they want. Maybe we never ask why because we’re only concerned with the man’s position. But I’ve never heard anybody simply stick with what the text says: he was attractive and so she wanted to have sex with him. If the genders were reversed, we would assume this, another man who couldn’t keep himself under control when a hot servant came nearby.

Maybe a moral of the story is simply that our gender generalisations aren’t always as based in reality as we think. Men are not inherently sex-crazed animals who just need a little bit too much skin to be shown to completely lose control. Even a direct offer and then attempted rape wasn’t enough to take away Joseph’s control! Women are not inherently uninterested in sex other than when it can be used to manipulate others. Nor are they responsible for when men do fail.

Of course, I’m not saying that we can’t learn from Joseph’s resolve, including the resolve to run away. If somebody is trying to rape you, I do suggest resisting and/or running away. If somebody is persistently and blatantly trying to seduce you, I do suggest avoiding that person. But let’s get past the stupid and harmful assumptions based on gender, extending this to the slightest attraction and making men animals and women always to blame.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.

  • Remiel Gythreuliaid

    Finally!
    Quote: ‘The thing is, Joseph didn’t actually run from his temptation. We’re just making assumptions about the nature of men and women and projecting more than the story says.’
    &
    *For one, there’s no hint that he was ever actually tempted.* We just assume he was because we assume that all men are sex-crazed animals’

    -End quote
    Knowing my scripture, Genesis 39 isn’t a story that teaches to flee from temptation, and even if that were the case, then we should conclude the story as that of failing to flee from temptation. And where does it even say or imply that Joseph was interested? Joseph’s reasoning in Genesis 39:9 doesn’t necessary mean he was in any relationship, other than being personal property, with Potiphar’s wife. I wonder how the brethren would portray Joseph if he wasn’t stronger than her even physically and truly couldn’t have avoided nor escape the situation? In other words, how would Christians see Joseph if Mrs. Potiphar somehow managed to have her way (euphenism for what is legally called sexual assault and what I would call rape) with a clearly unwilling Joseph? I’d say, being the objectification of someone else’s sexual temptation must really suck.