Friday, December 8, 2017

A Biblical Story Familiar To Our Time

There are some Jewish commentators who state that the entire history of the world can be found in the Book of Genesis if one just knows where to look. The narratives of Genesis do indeed contain much of the good, the bad and the ugly of life.

One narrative that might strike a jarring chord with anyone following recent headlines is that of Potiphar’s wife. The story, as relayed through the written and the oral Torah, seems like a scintillating tale straight out of the tabloids. It begins with a simple statement: “Joseph was handsome and pleasing to look at” (Genesis 39:6). When Joseph became the head of Potiphar’s servants, his master’s wife took an interest in him and said, “Lie with me.” Joseph refused, attributing his refusal to his loyalty and devotion to his master. While the Torah states that Mrs. Potiphar “coaxed Joseph day after day,” the Talmud (Yoma 35b) explains that she changed her clothing often in order to entice him.

This case of basic harassment rose to the next level on a day when “none of the household was there in the house” (Genesis 39:11). The Midrash explains that Joseph expected the house to be empty since “It was the festival of the Nile. All had gone to the theater” (Genesis Rabbah 87:5).

Alone with Joseph, the mistress of the house grabbed him by his clothing and insisted that he lie with her. Joseph fled, leaving his garment behind. It was not, the Midrash explains, that Joseph was not tempted - after all, he was in the flush of his youth - but rather he overcame any thought of temptation by seeing a vision of his righteous father Jacob (Talmud Sotah 36b) and his departed mother Rachel (Genesis Rabbah 98:20).

The story ends with a further abuse of power. Potiphar’s wife accuses Joseph of trying to seduce her, and Joseph lands in jail. (In fact, according to the commentaries, Potiphar knew that his wife was lying, which is why Joseph was not summarily executed. Potiphar, however, did not want to be humiliated by his wife’s behavior, so he had Joseph sent to jail.)


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