Genesis 39

The story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife (sadly only identified by role and not by name) is very well-known, and is one about which a great many commentaries have already been written: mostly lauding Joseph’s commitment to ethical behavior and fortitude, and also often highlighting how although at first he may have appeared to suffer for doing the right thing in the end that led to great reward. Such is of course the obvious reading of the chapter, and it is a good one insofar as it goes. In our pages though I will neither repeat this traditional reading nor attempt to add to it, and similarly I will not take away from it nor suggest that it has somehow missed the point (which is kind of the default contrarian position). Instead I want to focus on Potiphar himself and what we learn of the man’s tendencies from a single striking – and easy to overlook – verse (actually only the first half of the verse). Consider for a moment the following:

39.6a: “He [Potiphar] left all that he had in Joseph’s hands and, with him there, he paid attention to nothing save the food that he ate.”

What does the text go on to relate? Hereafter we are given the picture of a head of household who is typically not at home, whose wealth, status, and power allow him to leave matters to his many servants, and who evidently does not spend much time with his spouse either, a person herself seemingly bored but – in the reverse of her husband – bound to their shared residence (and this presumably by the cultural customs and sociopolitical realities of the time and place). This is not an altogether uncommon portrait: naturally we can think of a great many literary tales filled with upper-class personages whose luxury affords them time but cannot provide much purpose. Our man here may be one of legion but that does not bother us either, and neither should we care that the teaching imparted could have come from many sources. Rather we turn our attention to where Potiphar is recorded as having done: “nothing save the food that he ate.” In other words, his position had put him in charge of the entirety, and he excused himself from everything save the most core of daily pleasures. Might we really take the following turmoil as only indirectly resultant from this attitude?

I think we may take this fable as a lesson in the dangers of disowning one’s duties. Potiphar did not ask to be born into a rich and high-ranking Egyptian family which supplied him with a life in the royal court, he simply was. It would be only too easy for us, from our contemporary conceptions of individualism and self-directed pursuits, to side with him and think that he cannot be blamed for not wanting to manage the tedious home affairs he had merely had thrust upon him by the seeming accidents of fate. Yet to do so would be to miss that by the very same set of virtues which burdened him with responsibility he was further tasked with the welfare of a great number of others: those who served him and/or lived with him. Putting a capable other (in this case, Joseph) in charge of that which one perhaps may not wish to pursue is indeed a potential method of ensuring the well-being of those servants/cohabitants, but it is an inauthentic and disingenuous means. Potiphar was born with a great deal put upon him; he could have wished things otherwise, he might have resented his place in the hierarchy, he may have yearned for the “freedom” of the peasant (the delusion of underclass romanticizing!), we simply do not know. We do learn, however, that whatever Potiphar’s thoughts and feelings might have been, he disregarded that which he ought to have been engaged in and chaos resulted. He did not ask for his fate – none of us do – yet there he was and, if we follow this line of thought out, he should have taken care for those responsibilities that were placed upon him. Again, if we read the narrative this way, that he did not necessarily seek being “a courtier of Pharaoh and his chief steward” (verse one; this because such a rank would have been related to inherited nobility) is immaterial. As are also, I think, any excuses that by freeing himself from home issues he was able to focus more on Pharaoh’s (and by extension the state’s) needs; Potiphar should have been attending to each. Looking to ourselves the exact same result is only too easy to see – and equally simple to neglect or to ignore from a modern individualist perspective – wherever we find ourselves in life, we are tied in with others and situations for whom and to which, and asked for or not, we are responsible. Our reading of this verse and its context asserts that we cannot leave this to others without causing harm. Now, whether this tonic to twenty-first century “me, me, me-ism” was intended or not is irrelevant really; what is pertinent is that it is there.

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