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On 18 April 2018, Shiloh Project co-lead Johanna Stiebert gave the annual Humboldt Lecture at the University of Bamberg in Germany. 

The title of the lecture (delivered in German) translates as ‘Potiphar’s Wife and the Sexual Harassment of Joseph: What Can Genesis 39 Tell Us in Present Times?’ The lecture was very much relevant to the Shiloh Project and constitutes research towards a planned monograph on the Bible and rape myths.

The story of Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife is in Genesis 39. The story takes place not long after Joseph has been acquired as a slave by Potiphar, a man of high rank, working directly to Pharaoh. Things begin well enough: Joseph pleases Potiphar and is given virtually free rein in his household. But then, because Joseph is good-looking, he catches the eye of Potiphar’s wife and she commands Joseph to lie with her. Joseph refuses, explaining that this would be an affront to his master (Potiphar) and to his God. Day by day, Potiphar’s wife continues to pester him. Then one day, she seizes him and again commands him to lie with her. This time, Joseph flees – but leaves his garment behind in Potiphar’s wife’s hand. Next, she claims that it was Joseph who wanted to abuse her, that she screamed, causing Joseph to flee. She relates this lie both to her household servants and to her husband. Potiphar is angry and at the conclusion of the chapter Joseph is sent to prison. 

The story appears straightforward: Joseph is the hero who manages to withstand harassment. His steady ascent to success is hampered by the complication of an abusive, vengeful woman but he has God on his side and will eventually be vindicated.

The story is sparsely told, which leads to gaps, which in turn permit ambiguities and multiple interpretations. For instance: is the title sārîs (applied to Potiphar) of relevance? Does it refer (in more general terms) to a high office, or (more specifically) to Potiphar being a eunuch? If the latter, could this mean that he is infertile? Is Potiphar’s wife attempting to conceive a child with Joseph? Would or should this mitigate her actions? Is Potiphar likely to be in on the plan? 

The story also propels familiar stereotypes pertaining to women – in particular foreign women – of being lustful, dangerous and deceitful. How does the story of Potiphar’s wife relate intertextually to other stories of women in the Hebrew Bible?

And then there are all kinds of intersectional power dynamics, too. Joseph is Hebrew and a slave, bringing dimensions of ethnicity and class into the situation of sexual harassment. Unlike Egyptian Hagar, enslaved to Sarah (Genesis 16, 21) – he is, however, able, to refuse sex with his abuser. How does this story relate to other gendered biblical stories of abuse of power?

Finally, the story makes for uncomfortable reading in the present-day context of #MeToo, because the campaign has given air to recurrent accusations that women revise the past, or make false allegations against men out of spite. In other words, successful actresses who have spoken out about historic abuse are not infrequently accused of first, using sex with powerful men to their advantage, only to retroactively reinterpret consensual sex as sexual abuse. Why would they do this? Because – apparently – this is now expedient. In such accusations #MeToo is depicted as a bandwagon for vengeful women, for women who regret what is not rape but at best ‘bad sex’, or sex with men who are now maligned.

Such matters are more fully explored in a forthcoming publication based on this presentation. Look out for Johanna’s ‘The Wife of Potiphar, Sexual Harassment, and False Rape Allegation: Genesis 39 in Select Social Contexts of the Past and Present’. This paper will be available online and open access in Bible in Africa Studies (BiAS) 21 (The Bible and Gender Troubles in Africa). The expected publication date is October 2018.

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Johanna Stiebert

The author Johanna Stiebert

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