Thursday, February 7, 2019

Potiphar's wife and the Billy Graham Rule (Gen 39)

Guess what?! We've almost made it through the first book of the Bible. It's been even richer than I had hoped for learning about women, from creation, to the curse, to the first families, to our prominent roles in how God's plan moves forward with the gift of children, to different situations to do with marriage and sex.

The women of Genesis have been complex. Their motives and their actions are neither shining examples of faith and femininity, nor cautionary tales. We've seen unique personalities, and varying levels of intimacy with God. Marriages have been both happy and horrible. Childbirth has always been dramatic and fraught with emotion. Both sin and faith have directed the lives of the women we've looked at, and their actions have often been motivated by a combination of both at once.

Potiphar's wife 
But the last woman we meet in Genesis is simple. Potiphar's wife is described in only one role, in only one scenario. She is a sexual temptress. She is really only a side-character in Joseph's story. And that part is interesting to me, that we pretty much only hear about Potiphar's wife from Joseph's perspective, how he experiences her. We don't know any backstory about her family, her marriage, whether she had children, any ulterior motives for her attraction to Joseph or her plan to get him in bed, or anything that happens to her before or after this one role she plays. The point of all of it is Joseph's strength of character in resisting Potiphar's wife's advances.

After having examined the interior lives and experiences of several women in Genesis, we now see what is really only an objectified woman, in the place we always find objectified women: displayed in front of men to hook them sexually.  As women, we don't feel like objects when we are seen in this role, because of course we aren't! But there are times when men see us this way. Rather than appreciating a female human being with hopes, fears, a backstory, weaknesses and unique talents, sometimes men simply see a body. This is how Potphar's wife comes across in the story, though we aren't told whether Joseph feels desire for her or not. Interestingly, while Potiphar's wife herself is so simply a temptress in this story, we also find her objectifying Joseph physically in return!

Potiphar's wife is attracted to Joseph, who was "a very handsome and well-built man." "Day after day" she continues to try to get him to come to bed with her. Joseph rightly understands that this would be wrong. He doesn't consider his own desires for her, we don't know how he feels. But he "kept out of her way as much as possible." This makes me think of the "Billy Graham rule" about avoiding one on one interactions with the opposite sex, though I don't think this is a strict application of it, since Joseph only begins to avoid Potiphar's wife after he senses the temperature rising in her relationship with him.

One day when Joseph does happen to be alone, what he was trying to avoid happens. Potiphar's wife grabs his cloak to get him into bed with her, and when he runs off, leaving it behind, she falsely accuses him of attempting to rape her.

I think it is so even-handed and true to life that within just a few chapters in Genesis we have a tragic reporting of an actual rape, a story of a woman using her feminine wiles and sexuality to lure an unjust man into giving her justice, and a woman using her feminine wiles to falsely accuse a good man and bring down his career. These situations can all happen in the real world, and they are all right here in the Bible. Neither "men are always trying to have sex with women," nor "women are always falsely accusing men of trying to have sex with them," are more categorically true from the biblical perspective. It's always complicated.

But in this situation, we have the dangerous seductress narrative in full effect. Potiphar's wife is up to no good with Joseph. She is completely out of line, and seems to have no regard for her own marriage faithfulness, nor Joseph's trust with his boss. She is simply trying to get him to fall, wanting to satisfy her own physical desires without any regard for right and wrong.

This story also brings to my mind the warning from the very beginning of Genesis about sin wanting to rule over a man, and his obligation to resist it and overcome. Remember we found that strange parallel between Eve's curse: "you will desire to control your husband but he will rule over you," and Cain's warning: "Sin is crouching at the door, eager to control you. But you must subdue it and be it's master."? The two ideas come together in this scenario. I still don't know entirely what to make of all of that. But I did like something I found that John Piper wrote about it. (See here if you're curious. It's more than halfway through the article.)

Joseph is up to the challenge. He resists temptation for the two reasons we said Potiphar's wife had no regard for. "My master trusts me with everything in his household  .  .  . you are his wife. How could I do such a wicked thing?"

But, as in the nightmares of many a man, when Potiphar's wife makes up a story about him, he is judged guilty and unfairly sent back to prison. This is Joseph's second major fall, after being sold into slavery, from which he has risen in the ranks to become the right hand man of an important official. (It will happen again on a grander scale.) But "the Lord was with Joseph in the prison and showed him his faithful love."

Some of the last few stories in Genesis have shown men and women acting in their own interests, sexual and otherwise, with great drama ensuing, but no mention of God's perspective or involvement. In contrast, here we have a declaration of God's favor with Joseph in his unfair suffering. God is pleased with how Joseph got through this scenario with his boss's wife. What could have been seen as a win-win for Joseph, if he had been able to keep an affair secret while maintaining his high position in Potiphar's house, in actuality became a major loss, when the consequences of exploiting the situation came to him even when he received no "benefits." But the theme of Joseph's story is God using for good what others intended for bad, of Joseph continuing in righteousness and faithful acceptance, no matter what circumstance he is faced with, and being rewarded by God.

Billy Graham's Rule?
Let's look for something women can take away to understand ourselves better from this story. Obviously, Potiphar's wife is a negative example, showing how we can act wrongly as women, by seducing honest men. Not an extremely nuanced lesson, but fair to note: using our power of sexual attraction to get what we want from men is not ok.

What else? Even though in this story the initiative goes the opposite way that we might expect--the woman is after the man for sex, we have a connection to modern life when we consider the false accusation plotline, which is one we are very familiar with. How many times within the last year has a woman come forward to accuse a powerful man of unwanted sexual advances, with an ensuing investigation of whether she is just trying to bring him down or whether he is really guilty?

I think the best help this story can give us in these situations is to point to the practicality of something like the Billy Graham rule. This was definitely part of Joseph's initial strategy with Potiphar's wife, though it was only put in place after her advances. A blanket Billy Graham rule has the disadvantage for women that they miss opportunities for professional advancement if they can't have one on one interactions with men who are often the ones in leadership roles. But arguing for the complete interchangeability of men and women in social interactions is not as simple as some would hope. Biological sparks do fly. And sparks sometimes start fires, even unintentional ones. How to deal with this dynamic is something that we have not totally solved, and with all the headlines lately, it seems like we are more *fully grasping the problem* than *reaching a solution* at this point.

The story tells us, at least, that when facing sexual temptation it would be wrong to act on, avoidance is a fine strategy. It's actually not clear in this circumstance how tempted Joseph was by Potiphar's wife's advances. But whether the feeling was one sided or mutual, it was important for Joseph to remove himself from the situation. Ultimately he was vulnerable when he was alone, and the appearance of evil was enough to convict him.

Can we use this story to give approval to a strategy of never being alone with the opposite sex? I don't think it takes us all the way there. But I do think it shows one reason why the strategy has been chosen by some people. If we think that sometimes avoidance of sexual temptation is the best policy, how could we logistically implement that on a case by case basis? Wouldn't there be some awkwardness around only denying one on one meetings to people you find attractive, while taking meetings with people who are then obviously classified as completely unattractive? You definitely could not openly have that as your policy! Wouldn't it be better if we all just use a little self control and do our best to navigate those possibly dangerous sexual situations without falling into sin? Yes, but I think it's an open question whether the potential for sexual sin, or the lost opportunities for platonic or professional interaction, is a bigger danger. I respect the stance of taking the safe route against sexual sin. I also think you could hope and expect that the care for others that stance represents would at the same time be exhibited in finding ways to help and bring along people of the opposite sex, even without regularly being alone with them.

Women's deepest vulnerability and greatest gift
As I've written the posts for Genesis, I've noticed some patterns taking root in our expectations for the lives of the women we are looking at. When we began, in the first few chapters of Genesis, we could imagine the whole world as fresh and full of potential for human development and relationships, including our focus: what is going on with women in the Bible stories.  But as things have unfolded, we have settled into accepting patterns like a woman being dependent on her father, brothers, and sons to care for her, and the rule that what is most important for women in life is having children, particularly sons. These ideas were accepted in ancient history, where we are reading, and have continued to be though valid for an awful lot of the rest of history as well, though they are quite controversial in our moment. I just want to acknowledge these patterns we have seen developing at the beginning so we don't have to stop and say, "why is this happening, where did this all come from?" as we keep reading.

After thinking through the experiences of the women in Genesis, my own understanding of why these patterns exist goes something like this. Eve was created after Adam and would have looked to him as a leader. There was a relationship that had a leader/follower dynamic at the perfect beginning, but it was in an ideal state. Exactly how it worked, we don't know. This is especially true because children only enter the narrative after the fall, and childbearing is so crucial to the relationship between men and women. After the fall, the curse deeply shapes how men and women relate, particularly in a struggle for control and mastery of each other. Women, partially due to the physical trouble and vulnerability caused by bearing children, are limited and can expect to lose these power struggles.

We can see from the beginning the centrality of reproduction, as the difference and the connection between the genders. Also we find God's primary concern for the lives of his people being wrapped up in the children they are having, or wishing they could have. Starting with Adam and continuing forward, men are serving as representatives for families, and women are doing the dramatic and miraculous work of bearing the children. With a lack of power for women comes the incredibly important task of bringing children into the world. But they go hand in hand. Women are vulnerable because of this work, and we are also privileged to be so deeply involved in the unfolding of humanity in this incredible, overwhelming, and exclusively feminine way. The fact that being able to bring children into the world is not something we can do through our own strength or will increases our vulnerability, but this vulnerability is the context for many of the deep relationships between God and the women in Genesis, and the same context is where he meets many of us today as well.

I want to put a flag here saying that where women lose power through their physical weakness in having children, they receive a gift of joining with God in the supernatural work of creation that can bring joy that surpasses anything they could have used superior physical power to work for. I think this pattern of gifts being worth more than gotten gains is vital, both throughout the Bible and throughout the whole of life. And it shows up early and prominently here in Genesis in the identity of women.

I'm looking forward to learning even more about how this plays out as we jump into Exodus next!


  • Joseph tried to avoid Potiphar's wife in order to avoid sexual sin.
  • When they were alone, she had an opportunity to claim that he tried to assault her.
  • Though Potiphar's wife was as complicated as the rest of us, in this situation, she is reduced to just her sexual role, and she reduces Joseph to his in the same way.
  • Genesis has shown us a pattern of the importance of childbearing as a driving factor in women's lives. It causes deep vulnerability and brings great blessing at the same time.


  • Is it fair to avoid all one on one interaction with the opposite sex due to the potential for sexual temptation?
  • If something like the Billy Graham rule is good to follow, how can we help each other along in the world as men and women without being in compromising situations?
  • If you think the Billy Graham rule doesn't work, what do you think is a good way to navigate this and avoid temptation to sin?
  • What do you think are the most important themes about women from Genesis for us to keep in mind as we move on?

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