I’m working on a project for a friend who is developing Sunday school curriculum. The project has required that I reread and paraphrase a lot of the Old Testament for reading out loud to children. It has been a good project for me, even if often I have had to make myself do it. It is not very intellectually stimulating.
However, reading through the life of Joseph this morning I saw something that arrested my attention. The translation of the Old Testament that I am relying on as my primary text is the English translation of the Septuagint found in the Orthodox Study Bible. In this text, Genesis 39: 1 tells us the following information about Potiphar, Joseph’s first master in Egypt: he was a eunuch and captain of the guard. A eunuch?
As is my wont, whenever I encounter something in the Bible that startles me, I immediately checked the original languages. Yep, both in the Hebrew Masoretic text and in the Greek Septuagint text Genesis 39:1 says Potiphar was a eunuch. But Potiphar had a wife, a wife who tried to seduce Joseph.
In the Orthodox liturgical texts, Potiphar’s wife gets a very rough treatment. She is referred to as a new Eve found by the serpent to seduce Joseph–who is a type of Christ, for no sin is ever recorded concerning him. And while she did become a tool of the evil one to try to seduce Joseph into sin, I feel a little sorry for her.
I had always assumed that Potiphar’s wife was somehow just a wanton woman not satisfied with her husband; but realizing that her husband was a eunuch puts a new dimension on what was going on. It wasn’t that she wasn’t satisfied with her husband so much as it was her husband who couldn’t satisfy her, ever.
I find in myself a tendency to seek fault, to want to blame someone, to want to be able to show clearly who’s at fault, who erred, who made the mistake. But life is really much more messy than that. Certainly as Christians we can say Potiphar’s wife should not be seducing servants, regardless of her marital difficulties. Were she an Orthodox Christian, I would encourage her to look to God for help, to accept the cross she had been given. But she wasn’t an Orthodox Christian. She was an lonely, frustrated yet powerful Egyptian woman several thousand years before Christ. She lived in a culture in which there was no shame in seducing servants–in many such cultures, sex with slaves didn’t count.
Joseph did the right thing in fleeing from temptation. Today, in regard to sexual morality, we live in a culture that is more and more like the pre-Christian world Joseph experienced in Egypt: you are allowed to do what ever you lust to do, whatever you can imagine is acceptable, so long as it is with consenting adult partners. And so we Christians, like Joseph as a slave in Egypt, are tempted to give in to our carnal lusts just because it’s not a big deal culturally, everyone is doing it. Just like Joseph we must flee temptation–even if it means creating misunderstanding and angering those who don’t understand our Christ-like calling.
However, even as we flee the world, we must be careful not to judge the world. The serpent uses hurt and broken people to tempt us, people who don’t realize what they are doing. Aren’t these Jesus’ exact words from the cross: “Forgive them Father, for they don’t know what they are doing.” Like Jesus, we are crucified; but our crosses are often of the self-inflicted kind. We linger in passions until it feels like torment as we try to flee them.
But let’s not blame the world or those in the world. Let’s blame ourselves and pray that God have mercy on us and on all His broken creatures.