Posted by: mattcolvin | March 3, 2012

Law in the Joseph Narrative 2: Evidences of Rape

Monday of the first week in Lent: Genesis 39:7-23.

I don’t know if our REC lectionary is prudish or what, but it goes straight from Genesis 37 to 39, omitting all that unseemly stuff about Onan, Tamar, and Judah. At any rate, here’s my attempt at imitating Robert Alter and David Daube for Genesis 39:

Joseph rises to the top like a cork in water no matter where he is placed. His first ascent is to the stewardship of Potiphar’s household; then to a position over the prison; then to something like grand vizier of Egypt. In every case, the narrative stresses the scope of Joseph’s power: Potiphar “left all that he had in Joseph’s hand, and he did not know what he had except for the bread which he ate.” (39:6) The keeper of the prison “committed to Joseph’s hand all the prisoners who were in the prison; whatever they did there, it was his doing.” (39:22) And Pharaoh tells him that “without your consent no man may lift his hand or foot in all the land of Egypt.” (41:43)

Potiphar’s wife is quite brazen in her demand for sex (39:7 and 39:12), saying only: “Lie with me” (shikhvah ‘immiy), a phrase used again in the story of Tamar and Amnon (2 Sam. 13:11).

Joseph flees, leaving his garment in her hand — the first of several Biblical young men to “flee naked”. This is a piece of evidence around which she will construct her story, without which she would merely be pitting her word against Joseph’s. Indeed, 39:14 says that she sets her scheme in action “when she saw that he had left his garment in her hand.” As with Judah’s tokens to Tamar in Gen. 38 and Joseph’s coat of many colors in 37, the story of Potiphar’s wife revolves around the legal significance of a physical object.

When Joseph leaves, Potiphar’s wife makes up a lie: “He came in to me to lie with me, and I cried out with a loud voice.” The allusion is to such laws as Deuteronomy 22:23-24, where sex with a betrothed virgin is treated as adultery, punishable by the deaths of both parties, and distinguished from forcible rape because the woman does not cry out, indicating that she is a complicit participant, not a victim. Here the wife of Potiphar lies in order to claim the victim-status that would normally attach to the woman who cries out. The evil that she does is precisely what the much-maligned law in Dt. 22:23-24 is designed to prevent.



  1. […] for the first Monday in Lent. But then I went and checked on my archives and saw that I had already blogged the same ideas last year. I was delighted to hear my son Ezekiel during our discussion of the […]

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