Flee from Sexual…Assault?
If you have been in church circles for any length of time like I have, you have heard the sermon about fleeing from sexual immorality.
The example given for this “flight” is often Joseph, in Genesis 39. In this story, our Pastors tell us, Joseph was tempted and he fled from the temptation to sleep with another man’s wife…literally! He ran away so quickly that he left a garment behind and ended up thrown in prison after being falsely accused by the rejected woman!
Because of the stereotypes that exist about men and women, it’s really easy to miss what actually happened between Joseph, Potipher and his wife in this account. It’s easy to misread the passage through the lens of our own expectations and biases.
So let’s go back together and look at what Joseph experienced, from his perspective.
At approximately the age of 17, Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers to the Ishmaelites, who then sold him to Potipher. Potipher, who was an officer of Pharaoh and Captain of the Guard (some sources even suspect that he was lead executioner) became Joseph’s master. It is important to note the significant power, and likely age, differential that existed between Potipher and Joseph, as well as between Joseph and Potipher’s wife.
Joseph worked hard and found favor with both Potipher and God. Throughout Joseph’s story, scripture tells us that “The Lord was with Joseph.” The Lord even blessed Potipher’s house as a direct result of Joseph, and Potipher’s trust in Joseph grew so much that Joseph became the overseer of the entire household.
At this point scripture zooms out and gives us some additional information about Joseph. The author wants us to understand something. The author wants us to understand that Joseph is handsome and attractive, and much like the victim-blaming language we still see today, explains that as a result of Joseph’s handsome, attractive appearance, Potipher’s wife “cast her eyes on him,” asking him to “lie with her.” (Genesis 39:6-7)
“ If only Joseph hadn’t been so handsome. So attractive. So young. Maybe none of this would have happened.” Our victim-blame infused culture screams at us, as we read this passage. Was she tempted by him? Maybe he should have recognized that he was “causing his sister to stumble into lust” and done something to be… well…less tempting.
Except. Joseph is not responsible for her thoughts. Joseph is not responsible for her lust, and Joseph existed within her home because Joseph HAD to. His face was his face, just like female bodies are female bodies. His age was his age, just like teenage girls and young adult women are teenage girls and young adult women. It is not the responsibility of the party being preyed upon to address the predatory behavior. She should have mitigated those thoughts herself, and when it became clear that she wasn’t mitigating them, someone with a more egalitarian relationship to hers should have intervened. Joseph did not invite her lust by being attractive and desirable.
Joseph then told her “no.” He used his “no” clearly, sternly and articulately. He even gave her more than she needed, providing a myriad of reasons why he was saying, “no.”
She refused to accept his “no.” In fact, “although she spoke to Joseph day after day, he would not consent to lie beside her or be with her.” (Genesis 39:10) She harassed him. Incessantly, in a space he could not escape from. He was a slave, and his master’s wife was soliciting sex from him day after day, refusing to take “no” for an answer.
And what happened when Joseph held his no in the face of unspeakable pressure and odds? In the face of pervasive and ongoing sexual harassment?
She took it a step further, actually grabbing his clothing while insisting that he lie with her. “One day, however, 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, saying, “Lie with me!” Genesis 39:11-12
Where was everyone, anyway? They had an entire household of servants
At this, Joseph ran, leaving his garment behind as he tries to get away.
He was DONE. Her predatory behavior had escalated from harassment to assault. Fight. Flight. Freeze. Fawn. He tried to fawn. He really did try. Now she was grabbing him, trying to physically coerce him into sex when he has said “no” over and over again, day after day. He fled.
He fled from sexual assault. Not from sexual temptation.
There is no evidence anywhere in the text that Joseph was tempted by Potipher’s wife. He told her “no” from the very beginning, and the only reference to “eyes being cast” were HERS.
After Joseph fled, she called to her household, declaring that Joseph had attempted to lie with her. He only fled, she claimed, when she shouted for help. This is the same story that she gave to Potipher when he arrived home to find nothing but a garment left where his trusted slave once stood.
Potipher was furious. Enraged is the word the NRSV uses, and he put Joseph into prison. He didn’t just throw him into any prison, though. He threw him into the prison reserved for the Pharaoh’s prisoners- the most elite prisoners. In fact, Joseph does his time alongside the chief cupbearer and chief baker; two people who had spent a significant amount of time with the Pharaoh himself.
This begs the question: Why would Potipher, a man of immense power and influence, imprison a slave who had attempted to rape his wife among the most elite prisoners? A slave accused of attempted rape (of an official’s wife, no less!) would have been considered worthy of the most severe punishment, including death, especially if Potipher’s role truly was that of an executioner. Could it be that Potipher recognized the Lord’s hand and favor upon Joseph, and he knew and trusted Joseph at his word? Could it be that he knew his wife, and “read the room,” grasping the reality of the situation and the implications of the accusations, which had already spread throughout the household? Could it be that Potipher understood the predicament of the accusation, and knew that imprisoning Joseph would be protective rather than punitive, given the cultural context and climate at the time? After all, prison with Pharoah’s men was a much safer place than a community full of hostile, angry people believing this Israelite slave had attempted to rape one of their own. The shouts of “crucify him,” echo in my mind, a reminder of accusations and community outrage to come.
We can’t truly know the answers to those questions.
We can take the bias-colored glasses off and read this story with an accurate contextual lens, accepting that Joseph was not a man fleeing from sexual temptation, despite decades of this portrayal, but rather a vulnerable, exploited and harassed young man who finally fled from sexual assault at the hands of a woman with significant power and influence. We can remember that women can be predators too.
And maybe, just maybe, the story of a powerful man who angrily imprisoned him protectively rather than punitively.
Be Bold. Live Out Loud.