Because it is not part of the Joseph story, I skip over Genesis 38, with its very strange sex stories. But never fear, we get to deal with a sex story in chapter 39 too.
This is the story of his master’s wife making a false attempted rape charge against Joseph. This has become controversial territory. I have heard sermons where Genesis gets accused of misogyny. Women who claim they have been raped should be taken more seriously than Genesis takes Potiphar’s wife. Of course, false accusations do occur. So to take this as sexist you have to say that it is part of a pattern of mistrust of women in the Hebrew Bible. There is some material to support this. But it is complicated and gets us onto the slippery ground of judging ancient texts by modern or post-modern standards.
Rather than making this a battle-of-the-sexes issue, it seems to me better to approach it from the point of view of general human vulnerability to false accusations. With the publicity about the clergy scandals in the Catholic church many organizations have put procedures in place to guard against both actual misconduct and false charges.
In several churches I served, I insisted on glass windows in the door of the pastor’s office–literal transparency. Also, we are more and more asking workers to avoid being alone with children without adult witnesses. The rule about not being alone with a member of the opposite sex is more controversial. But it is something a lot of us think about. Churches now have background checks and boundaries training, usually encouraged by our insurance companies.
I often hear people say it is a sad that it has come to this. But the Joseph story reminds us that people have always been vulnerable. In Genesis 39 it seems Joseph was able to evade several seduction attempts because someone else was around. But there came a day when “none of the men of the house were there” (v. 11). Then:
She grabbed him by his outer garment, saying, “Have sex with me!” But he left his outer garment in her hand and ran outside. When she saw that he had left his outer garment in her hand and had run outside, she called for her household servants and said to them, “See, my husband brought in a Hebrew man to us to humiliate us. He tried to have sex with me, but I screamed loudly. When he heard me raise my voice and scream, he left his outer garment beside me and ran outside” (vs. 12-15 The NET Bible).
If we think of this as a cautionary tale meant for civil servants, we may grasp its purpose. Like the warnings in Proverbs against loose women (Proverbs 5:3, etc.) it is meant to cause young men entering the king’s service to think about their vulnerability. The wisdom school wanted these men to recognize a threat to their reputations, careers, and marriages. I can think of a few recent American civil servants who could have used such a warning. (Note that the wisdom school also seems to have included a role known as “wise woman”. Proverbs 31 contains a woman’s advice to men. We do not have copies of the advise given to young women or those who came into the king’s harem, but such must have existed, at least orally.)
This cautionary tale is now part of the drama of the Joseph story. Joseph’s skill at organizing Potiphar’s household caused him to rise from being a 17-year-old slave boy in Egypt to a highly valued steward. But because of the false accusation, he looses that status and goes to prison.
But his skill again causes him to improve his status. In prison, he becomes the chief assistant to the warden. But this skill and the favor Joseph finds, first with Potiphar and then with the warden, really shows the kindness of God. Even after what his brothers did to him and even after the injustice Mrs. Potiphar brought upon him, he experiences God’s presence moving him toward a purpose.