Not Worthy of Defense: Potiphar's Wife, Biblical Narrative and Feminist Criticism

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Genesis 39 presents Potiphar's wife in an extremely negative light: First she is painted as a lustful and uninhibited woman who repeatedly harasses Joseph in her attempt to get him to sleep with her. Then she is presented as a scheming and unscrupulous woman who does not hesitate to tell lies and ruin Joseph's life. A comparison of this story to the biblical accounts of rape indicates that Potiphar's wife is painted in the same terms as a rapist. Nevertheless, in feminist scholarship we find a trend toward an apologetic and even sympathetic treatment of Potiphar's wife. Their defense of Potiphar's wife is performed by using a strategy of filling gaps. My claim in this article is that defending Potiphar's wife, the aggressor in our story, is a mistake for three reasons. First, from the professional aspect of the study of biblical narrative, such an interpretation is clearly antithetical to the story's intentions and it requires what I consider to be an illegitimate filling of gaps. Second, from the human and moral perspective, it provides support to the attacker and ignores the distress of the victim. Finally, from the perspective of feminist ideology, defending Potiphar's wife is a tactical error that harms the interests of women, because it makes it possible to legitimize sexual harassment in other cases, which almost always involve men harassing women.
Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)46-76
JournalBeit Mikra
StatePublished - 2010


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