Thursday, December 15, 2011

Joseph’s Other Coat (Genesis 39:12)

Where did Joseph leave his cloak? Potiphar’s wife (Genesis 39:12)

Joseph had a tough time keeping his clothes on. Joseph’s famous garment, his “coat of many colors” (Genesis 37:3), was used as false evidence of his presumed death (Genesis 37:31-33). In reality he was sold into slavery (Genesis 37:27-28) and found his way into Potiphar’s house (Genesis 37:36). Joseph thrived in this new environment and he was left in charge of everything, presumably even Potiphar’s wife (Genesis 39:4-5). As Robert Alter (b. 1935) quips, “Joseph may suffer from one endowment too many (Alter, The Art of the Biblical Narrative, 135).”

Potiphar’s name is mentioned only twice in the Bible (Genesis 37:36, 39:1) which is fitting as it is his wife who dominates the story. The unnamed woman unsuccessfully attempted to seduce Joseph on a daily basis (Genesis 39:7). (Potiphar’s was the ancient version of a “cougar”.) When her efforts failed, the scorned woman masterfully accused him of attempted rape, got the servants on her side, and kept his coat as evidence (Genesis 39:12-18).

She caught him by his garment, saying, “Lie with me!” And he left his garment in her hand and fled, and went outside. (Genesis 39:12 NASB)
The word for cloak used here is beged, the most common term for garment in the Old Testament. Victor P. Hamilton (b. 1941) comments:
It appears that it could refer both to an outer garment (II Kings 7:15) and an inner garment (Ezekiel 26:16). According to the end of Genesis 39:12 Joseph left all his beged with Potiphar’s wife, which means he left behind either his outer garment or one of his undergarments...By using beged at this point, the narrator may be implying something about Joseph’s own emotional involvement in the story. He is on the verge of acting faithlessly to his master. Also, it is interesting to note that the homonymous Hebrew verb bagad is sometimes used for marital unfaithfulness (Jeremiah 3:7-8, 20; Malachi 2:14). (Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 18-50 (New International Commentary on the Old Testament Series), 465)
Potiphar’s wife played the game well. She enlisted the servants as witnesses and even by the standards of the Law, a woman caught in rape was off the hook if she sought help (Deuteronomy 22:23-28). Despite his innocense (at least in action if not thought), Joseph was left imprisoned (Genesis 39:20) and Potiphar’s wife was left with the coat. Alter documents, “The Midrash Bereishit Rabbah 87:10 makes the brilliant if somewhat fanciful observation...that she spent the time kissing and caressing it (Alter, 138).”

What historical cases exist of people being convicted on the basis of false evidence? What do you do when you are wrongfully accused? Do you think that it is merely coincidence that discarded garments played a role in both of Joseph’s early trials? Do you think Joseph was entirely innocent in this episode?

Through God’s providence, things worked out well for Joseph (Genesis 39:21, 23, 50:20), Still, in this incident, no good deed goes unpunished and Joseph actually suffers for doing the right thing by resisting his employer’s wife’s advances. In contrast, the Bible records no negative consequences for Potiphar’s wife. Her story ends and she is written out of the text.

Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) included Potiphar’s wife in the eighth circle of hell in his famed The Divine Comedy (Inferno Canto XXX:91-129). Though she does not speak, Dante is told that, along with another perjurer, Sinon of Troy, she is condemned to suffer a burning fever for all eternity.

Is justice served in the account of Potiphar’s wife? Is there always an earthly consequence for sin? How should the Christian respond to the injustice in the world?

“There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” - Elie Wiesel (b. 1928)

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