The story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife, this week of all weeks, lends itself to a bewildering variety of readings, most of them bereft of good news.
Here’s the Sunday school version of the story—call it Joseph’s Righteous Prosperity. Joseph does what is right and so God blesses him, increases his power, his possessions, his friendships. Psalm 1 says of the righteous, “In all that they do, they prosper.” That’s our guy. We see Joseph’s righteousness as he stands firm against the temptress, Potiphar’s wife. Even once this lands him in jail the irresistible magnetism of divine blessing pulls him out of his cell and places him in the palace once more, this time next to Pharaoh.
I called this version Joseph’s Righteous Prosperity; this week we might also call it the Brett Kavanaugh reading. Those who hate you (the righteous guy) will attack you with lies (after they’ve tempted you with sin) but God will vindicate you, and you’ll get your seat on the Supreme Court. Be like the tree planted by the water in Psalm 1, this version says, be righteous like Joseph and you will get your reward, no matter what all the haters say.
And so we might be inclined to a second version of this story: Joseph the Fraud. This story has been used countless times to discredit women’s accounts of being abused, and the narrative itself is just one more case where the truth has been covered up. This is not about righteous perseverance in the face of temptation, it is about how men use their power to dominate women and then lie about it with impunity and pin the blame on the women themselves. Whatever happened in that bedroom in Potiphar’s house, Joseph is the real abuser. Joseph, obsessed with purity, but no doubt himself self-indulgent and domineering—he is the wicked one in Psalm 1 who will, in the end, get what’s coming to him—blown away like chaff on the wind. All the unnamed, maligned women, starting with Potiphar’s lonely and misunderstood wife—they are the righteous trees watched over by God. Be like those trees, don’t be like Joseph.
I don’t think, however, that we can—or should—evade Joseph’s victimization in Potiphar’s house. So here’s version 3: Joseph’s Righteous Suffering. “Now Joseph was taken down to Egypt, and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard, an Egyptian”—feel the weight of this litany—”bought him from the Ishmaelites who had brought him down there.” Joseph enters the story as someone who is both foreign and a slave. He takes on responsibilities and prestige in Potiphar’s house, but he doesn’t escape that enslaved status, in this story at least. Potiphar, and his wife, are the ones with economic and ethnic status on their side. Ambrose of Milan, commenting on this, states, “It was not within the power of a mere servant not to be looked upon.” He has no control over how he is treated, how he is seen, what is demanded of his body.
Those demands come, in quick, repeated imperatives. “Lie with me.” Joseph says no, and she demands again, and he says no again, and she grabs him, and he runs. And when he does, what does she call him, for the first time in the chapter? “Hebrew,” she calls out, forming a united ethnic front with the members of her household, with her husband.
In this version, Joseph does what is right, he resists his abuser, and he suffers in jail because of that righteousness. This is a version I think my 16th century Anabaptist parents in the faith would like. How do we know we’re doing the right thing? Well, are we in the empire’s prison? Be like Joseph, be like the trees in Psalm 1 that face storm and wind and flood but refuse to let their leaves wither.
Each of these three versions assert that we should be like someone in the story. Each assumes that we have a clear idea about whether or not Joseph is righteous. I don’t buy that certainty. So I want to read back through this narrative with a different theme in mind. Call this version Joseph the Human—a deeply ambiguous figure adrift most of the time, lost in his own ambition and tethered only by the God who won’t stop loving him.
“Now Joseph was handsome and good-looking.” Seizing on this phrase, Rashi, a medieval French rabbi, sees in the story here an occasion for Joseph’s pride to metastasize. Rashi states, imaginatively, ”As soon as [Joseph] saw that he was ruler (in the house) he began to eat and drink and curl his hair. The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him, ‘Your Father is mourning and you curl your hair! I will let a bear loose against you.’ Immediately his lord’s wife lifted up her eyes.”
Pinning the guilt on Joseph’s beauty—it’s almost refreshing to see this victim-blaming technique deployed against a man. But of course I want to say to Rashi, with Ambrose, “it is not within the power of a mere servant not to be looked upon.” His beauty isn’t his fault. Also, hair curling? And yet, with this weird and troubling addition, Rashi sets his finger on the beating pulse of Joseph’s story: Joseph is unbearably successful and always ruins it by being entirely insufferable. First with his family and then with Potiphar’s household, he flaunts his success, loses his jacket, and ends up in a pit.
Next comes his response to Potiphar’s wife’s demand. “Lie with me.” The longer I look at Joseph’s answer to her, the stranger it seems. He says, “‘Look, with me here, my master has no concern about anything in the house, and he has put everything that he has in my hand. He is not greater in this house than I am, nor has he kept back anything from me except yourself, because you are his wife. How then could I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” It’s a long answer, and most of it has to do with him, his position, his power. The part that catches me is this: “He is not greater in this house than I am.” What can he possibly mean? Whatever his responsibilities, he is still a foreign slave, as the next events will make clear. Is this naive trust? Is it proud self-delusion? Is it, even, a subtle dig at Potiphar? “I could lie with you, for he is blind, and I am the real master of this house.” Joseph goes on to reject the idea with a quick throwaway question at the end. “How could I do this great wickedness and sin against God.” The word for God Joseph uses here is the general “Elohim,” not YHWH. Here, in the words of one commentator, is one of “several occasions in which Joseph talks about God, but in which we suspect he is really referring only to himself.”
Even the climactic moment of struggle refuses our certainty. “One day… when he went into the house to do his work, and while no one else was in the house, she caught hold of his garment.” To do his work, while no one else was in the house. Can the narrator mean this innocently? Rashi, again, summarizes two other commentators on this verse who reach opposite conclusions about work in an empty house: “Rab and Samuel differ as to what this means. One holds that it means his actual housework; the other that it means to associate with her, but a vision of his father’s face appeared to him and he resisted the temptation and did not sin.”
However we read that moment, Joseph ends up in prison for it, where, we learn, the Lord is with him and he soon gains more authority. And I, tired of Joseph’s drama, can’t help but think that this sounds like scheming again. Joseph is figuring out who can be bribed with this commodity, or that secret, until the warden gives him the power he’s after.
At the very end of Joseph’s story we’re left with these same tensions. He saves the nation from famine, and in the process feeds his family and is reconciled to his brothers. And yet, in his final major act before the narrative ends, he helps Pharaoh put everyone in chains. When the starving masses come at the very end of the famine, desperate for grain, and with nothing to sell, crafty Joseph gets them to sell themselves. Genesis 47 summarizes, “As for the people, he [Joseph] made slaves of them from one end of Egypt to the other.” He saves the lives of his family, and forges, in the same instant, the chains that will bind their grandchildren.
What sense does Psalm 1 make in the dim light of this reading of Joseph’s story? The Lord certainly watches over Joseph, so I hesitate to put him in the wicked column, but when it says, “the wicked are…like chaff that the wind drives away” I can’t help but think of the way Joseph flits, birdlike, from success to failure, from pasture to pit, from bedroom to jail cell all across these pages. Meditating on this story this week, Joseph came to represent humanity to me, in all our lost brilliance. We are beautiful and vain. We are clever and conniving. We are sincere and faithful. We are wounded, and we wound. In Joseph, as in us, the wicked and those righteous trees in Psalm 1 coincide. He is both. We are both.
But the good news, then, is simple. God doesn’t give up on him. The moral exemplar of faithfulness and love in this story isn’t Joseph, it’s God. No matter what Joseph does, God’s presence never leaves him. That presence is like the wind driving the chaff away in Psalm 1 to the place where it will fertilize the earth, or like the water coursing up the roots of those blessed trees, or like Potiphar’s wife—relentlessly pursuing him, but without a trace of domination.
I want to say that in the redemption of all things there will be a restored Joseph. A Joseph who says no to Potiphar’s wife, but also refuses to sell his soul to Pharaoh’s enslaving desire. A Joseph who has dreams of power and prophecy, but refuses to use them to dominate others. That is the Joseph God is bringing into being in this pages, pruning here, irrigating there. Joseph resists, he refuses to be who he really is. That matters, but it isn’t decisive because God has fallen desperately in love with Joseph—I can’t read this relentless providence any other way—and keeps showing up.
That’s us, too. We are the trees planted beside the streams of divine love. And the fruit we bear sometimes looks like prosperity, and sometimes like suffering, and sometimes like resisting abuse and sometimes like resisting temptation, but it always reveals the traces of a God who loves us into existence and will love us through eternity.
 Leon Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom, 544. I am indebted to Kass for his skeptical reading of Joseph. I am also drawing the quotes from Rashi from his commentary.