Abraham was called to leave his home, leave the place that he new, and go on a journey toward a new land. He became a stranger, an immigrant. There’s even a story about him lying about his papers in Egypt to try and stay out of trouble. Abraham begat Isaac, and Isaac begat Jacob, and Jacob begat Joseph and his half-brothers who sold him into slavery, sending him on a journey into Egypt.
In upcoming weeks, we’ll have the children of Israel leaving Egypt through the parted Red Sea, then their journey in the wilderness, and wrap up with the end of Joshua’s story in the Promised Land.
This story, though, of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife… it’s a hard one. It isn’t in the regular lectionary; it’s one of those awkward stories that we like to pass on by. It might not be a familiar story for some of you, so here’s a quick sketch:
Joseph is trafficked by slave-traders into Egypt where he’s bought by one of Pharaoh’s officials, a man named Potiphar. While there, because he is our pious protagonist, God is with him and his work goes well.
Joseph was promoted, within Potiphar’s house, and became the slave-in-charge. Joseph was still property, but he was managing the house and Potiphar didn’t have to worry about a thing.
Which is to say: Joseph’s situation has definitely improved. Joseph in Egypt is still a slave, and the text never obscures that or asks us to think that it’s an acceptable condition, but within that precarious position he’s about as safe and secure as he could be.
And then, all of it is taken away. Joseph was good-looking, a trait that he got from his mother, and Potiphar’s wife took notice. She ordered Joseph to come to bed with her.
Joseph refused, citing Potiphar’s trust in him and that sleeping with her would be evil and an offense to God.
It wasn’t a one-time request, though. She kept at it, day after day, but Joseph wouldn’t listen to her. So, one time when Joseph was working and there weren’t any other men around who could vouch for him, she turned to assault: grabbing ahold of him and making her demand again.
Joseph in Egypt didn’t say anything in response, that time. He just left his garment in her hand and ran.
Unable to get what she actually wanted, Potiphar’s wife called the other servants in and made a false accusation.
She threw her husband, who she had been trying to cheat on, under the bus, saying, he has brought us a Hebrew man to play with us. He came into me to lie with me and I called out in a loud voice, and so, when he heard me raise my voice and call out, he left his garment by me and fled and went out.
As her evidence, she kept his garment with her until her husband came home. Potiphar was incensed, when he heard her story, and he had Joseph thrown in jail.
This is the lowest point in the story of Joseph in Egypt, which is a pretty involved narrative that takes up much of the second half of Genesis. Joseph was Jacob’s favorite son, the one with the technicolor dreamcoat, who saw visions of his family bowing down to him. He was sent out to check on his brothers, who were tending the family’s sheep, and they stripped him of his fancy coat, threw him in a well, and then sold him to some travelling merchants.
Joseph gets sold to Potiphar, and you know how that went, and then he rises to prominence within the jail. He interprets some dreams, which eventually gets Pharaoh’s attention, and he gets back out of jail and is put in charge of a massive food stockpiling project in preparation for an upcoming famine.
While in charge of selling the stockpiled food during the famine, Joseph’s brothers come to buy from him without knowing who he is. Hijinks ensue, but eventually Joseph is reunited with his family and his dear old father, and the entire clan comes to live in Egypt where thanks to Joseph’s blessed management abilities, there is food to spare.
So, the narrative as a whole is a story of redemption and justification. It’s an example of a pretty common kind of Old Testament story, focused on exploring how to live faithfully while in exile. Joseph, like Daniel or Esther, has to find a way to remain loyal to God while navigating the real demands of living in an empire and being less than free.
And within that larger narrative, this is meant to be the moment in which the reader does not know how Joseph will go on.
It was bad enough that he was trafficked to begin with, bad enough that he was deprived of his freedom and taken from his family, but here he finds that even his own purity isn’t going to be rewarded. Joseph refuses to do something that he knows to be immoral, and for that choice the small amount of security that he had gained was ripped away by a web of lies and a piece of falsely-described evidence.
I learned this story as a child, or a version of it anyhow. It was a story about the importance of sexual purity, and Potiphar’s wife was depicted as much like a pin-up model as you could get away with in kids’ Sunday School materials. She wanted to do something immoral but Joseph wouldn’t go along, probably because he had a promise ring, and so she told lies about him and he went to jail. But God fixed that for Joseph, not by eradicating the institution of slavery but with a wacky side plot about dreams.
The story had an easy moral to it. People might pressure you to do bad things, and you might suffer for choosing not to go along with it, but God blesses people who obey and everything will be okay in the end.
That’s not exactly bad, I think, for a kid’s story. But when I read it again as an adult, it strikes me that the story is really about power.
Joseph in Egypt is in a no-win situation, right? His choices aren’t his own. He doesn’t have any standing to refuse to follow a command from his master’s wife. That’s what being a slave means.
But if he obeys her command – and it’s a command, not a flirty invitation – and Potiphar finds out, his life is forfeit.
And, perhaps more importantly, Joseph knows that it’s wrong. He may be a slave, but if he does this he’ll lose an important piece of who he is. So, this is where he draws the line.
As an adult, I find that I can’t read this story without thinking about Emmett Till, fourteen in 1955, being murdered over a made-up story that he tried to flirt with a white woman. He was innocent of that, not that flirting should be a capital crime anyhow, but that didn’t matter.
Nothing mattered, then, except for the word of the people who had the power and the social caste system that they wanted to preserve.
Once the murderers were found innocent by a jury of their peers (and their peers only), they were free to say openly that they had in fact murdered the boy, to describe exactly how they did it, and to give what they thought were justifications. He didn’t know his place, see. He needed to be made into a public example, so that others would learn and understand.
You can read that and more in an interview with the murderers, which was published a year after they killed him, because they got to tell their story.
We find the same dynamic of listening and silencing in Joseph’s story. We get the whole set-up for how Potiphar’s wife tells her story: how she waits until there’s no one around but Joseph, how she tries to use her power to get what she wants, how she curates her evidence, how she tells all the other slaves her version of the story while Joseph is still hiding.
Nobody asks Joseph, though. Nobody listens to Joseph’s story.
That matters, because this isn’t a story about a guy who turned down a date. There’s nothing coy about it. It’s a story about a powerful person taking advantage of someone under their power, and then punishing them for resisting.
One of the complaints I hear about reading stories in the Old Testament is that they’re sometimes violent and dehumanizing.
This isn’t a good story, they say. It wouldn’t get published in Guideposts or the Reader’s Digest. It’s not very inspiring.
Which is true, as far as it goes… but then the question becomes why are we telling these stories at all? Wouldn’t it be nicer if we didn’t? What do these primitive bloody stories have to do with us?
But it wasn’t that long ago that it was legal, in this country, to breed slaves. There’s a massive problem, right now, with sex trafficking. Native American women are twice as likely to experience sexual assault than other women; they’re intentionally targeted because their ability to press charges is legally limited.
One of the ways that we get lost, Friends, is in our stubborn reluctance to say those kinds of things out loud. They’re not nice things to say.
I think the phrase for it is lost in our sins, because it becomes a systemic thing; a fog that prevents us from seeing clearly, a web of ways in which we turn away from seeing and naming the world as it actually is.
And one of the ways in which the word of God saves us is by pushing us to speak truth, pulling us out of that fog, guiding us to acknowledge the ocean of darkness.
That’s why we tell these primitive bloody stories- because sexualized violence isn’t just something that happened in Ancient Egypt, because #WhyIDidntReport is trending on Twitter and it’s full of people – men and women both – telling stories like Joseph’s.
If we can’t bear witness to Joseph’s story, then what hope do we have of bearing witness to theirs?
The answers people give for why they didn’t report a rape or an assault vary. People say things like:
I didn’t think it would matter, or
It would have upset my family, or
I needed the job, or
I had been drinking, or
I heard how the cops in town talked about victims, or
Even talking about it was traumatizing, or
I didn’t have any evidence, or
I was too young to know how, or
I knew I would be blamed for it.
No one was listening- that’s one of the themes there. They didn’t say anything because they knew that they weren’t going to be heard.
Just like Joseph doesn’t say anything. Why bother? Who is listening?
In a way, it’s bit like another ugly story from Genesis- the story of Hagar. She was Abraham’s concubine. They got her pregnant, trying to make God’s promise of a child come true in their own way, and then she runs away, out into the wilderness.
There, the angel of the Lord comes to her. This slave woman without earthly status receives a similar promise to Abraham’s, that her descendants will be too numerous to count.
Hagar, in turn, becomes the only person in the Bible with the audacity to name God. She calls God ‘El Roi,’ which means ‘the God who sees me.’
Hagar, as a human being deserving of respect, is invisible to all the other human characters in this story. In God’s eyes, though, Hagar is seen. Hagar is valued and given a promise of her own.
And as we are called to grow in holiness, to become more like Christ, who reveals to us God’s own heart, part of that process is becoming people who are willing to see and hear the marginalized, the forsaken, the people with stories to share that aren’t nice, that aren’t inspiring, and that maybe we’d just rather not hear.
Stories like Hagar’s. Stories like Joseph’s. Stories like some of our own. All of which are held in the loving grace of a God who is always listening.
The ocean of darkness and death is real, and failing to name and recognize that gets us nowhere. Denial isn’t a viable option. Ignoring it just means losing more people to the undertow.
But flowing over it, as George Fox saw, is an infinite ocean of light and love. And in it, we too can have great openings.