Potiphar’s Wife: the seductress

Genesis 39

Potiphar’s Wife ©MicahHayns
Potiphar was cool and so fine
But his wife would never toe the line
It's all there in chapter 39 of Genesis
She was beautiful but evil
Saw a lot of men against his will
(from Joseph the Musical)

One of the things you quickly notice when reading about the women in scripture is often they are often only allowed one characteristic (jealous sister, childless woman, whore), whilst the men are able to be complex and multi-faceted.

Take the story in Genesis about Joseph – he’s a good example. Joseph, sold by his jealous and deceitful brothers into slavery in Egypt, had been the favoured and much beloved son of Jacob and Rachel. He was a dreamer and rather vain (he loved that coat!), but was also resourceful and cunning, fearful and faithful.

Potiphar’s Wife, on the other hand, was only one thing:

A Seductress.

We don’t find out anything much about her life and we don’t even get to know her name.  We don’t know whether she had children, whether she was a kind or demanding mistress, or what Potiphar, an Officer of the King of Egypt (Pharaoh), was like as a husband.

It’s likely that she lived in luxury. They had servants and a large household, within which Joseph had worked his way up the ranks to become the overseer, like a young Mr Carson (from Downton Abbey).

Now Joseph was handsome and good-looking. And after a time his master’s wife cast her eyes on Joseph

Genesis 39.6-7

Mrs Potiphar was clearly very taken by this handsome young Hebrew man. She began to pay him ‘special attention’ and then one day propositioned him:

Lie with me

Genesis 39.7

The story is told as if this attraction was entirely one way but this may well not have been the case. It has all the hallmarks of a Downton Abbey upstairs-downstairs affair. She was certainly infatuated with Joseph and he may well have been attracted by his mistress, but he would have known that if he slept with her he risked his job, his place in the household, and even his life: adultery was punishable by death. He was also faithful to God:

How then could I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?

Genesis 39.9

So, Joseph resisted but Mrs P persisted, until one day they found themselves alone.  She made a pass at him and even got some of his clothes off, but Joseph ran out of the house leaving her holding his ‘garment’.

Joseph wanted to resist her till
One day she proved too eager
Joseph cried in vain
"Please stop, I don't believe in free love"
1910 comic caricature of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife by Joseph Kuhn-Régnier,
Notice the chilled wine bottle and glasses on the small table at the left!

She was furious. How dare he, a slave, spurn her. She turned against him, and in her fury accused him of attacking her: she had his coat as proof. Joseph was thrown into prison.

Poor, poor Joseph, what'cha gonna do?
Things look bad for you, hey, what'cha gonna do?

Once in Prison Joseph began to interpret dreams and this led to him being introduced to Pharaoh himself, and becoming the Egyptian King’s right hand man. We hear nothing more of Potiphar’s wife.

Her role as ‘the seductress’ has been fulfilled and she’s no longer necessary for the rest of the story.

Reflection and Prayer

I pray, O Lord, that I will not fall into temptation; for the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak
Matthew 26.41 (Good News Version, adapted)

Many of the women in the Hebrew Scriptures are portrayed as innocent victims and so it’s surprising and rather refreshing to come across a woman like Potiphar’s wife, a powerful protagonist and an instigator, and who desired love rather than children. Perhaps today we can pray for all those whose love is unrequited, for those who are tempted into adultery, and for those who continue to resist.

O God our Father, hear me, who am trembling in this darkness, and stretch forth thy hand unto me; hold forth thy light before me; recall me from my wanderings; and thou be my guide, may I be restored to myself and to thee
Augustine, 354-430

Author: clarehayns

College Chaplain and Welfare Coordinator of Christ Church, Oxford | Mum of three boys | wife of a juggler and magician | Council of Reference of ZANE - http://www.zane-zimbabweanationalemergency.com | enjoys board games, dog walking, films, eating out.

9 thoughts on “Potiphar’s Wife: the seductress”

  1. The story of Yusuf and Zulaikha (the nameless wife of Potifar) is told in Arabic literature, and the Sufi poet Jami tells it as an allegory of the soul’s longing for God. There is a good translation by David Pendlebury. Thank you for this lent series. It is very thought provoking!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I am really enjoying your posts, Claire. They are thoughtful, thought-provoking, nourishing, challenging. I am finding them good content for my Lent time. Thank you.

    Like

  3. In the musical and in most biblical adaptations, Mrs Potiphar is often portrayed as one of the antagonists and a rather fun one as well for about two minutes of that number, but I’m never too sure. I’m sure it’s a fun role to play though.

    Like

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