It's Complicated

Today we are going to continue exploring the story of Joseph and his brothers, but for reasons that will become clear in a minute, we can’t start with the scripture reading.  

Last week, we heard about Joseph being betrayed by his brothers. They resent how he is their father’s favourite, and they resent his dreams of becoming their master. So, when they get a chance to get rid of him, they consider killing him. But his big brother Judah decides it would be better to sell him as a slave to a caravan headed for Egypt.  

Many of you know the next part of this story, because it is the sexy part, a good fit for Valentine’s Day. Joseph arrives in Egypt, and it purchased by Potiphar, one of the Pharoah’s top officials. Joseph becomes a house slave, where he quickly rises through the ranks because he has God’s favour. Soon he is in charge of all the slaves, and is being treated like a son by Potiphar.  

However, he is also beautiful, and he attracts the interests of Potiphar’s wife. She comes on to him repeatedly. In our Sunday school books and the Broadway show she is portrayed as the desperate housewife who wants to make it with Joseph the sexy pool boy.    

In the movie version of the Broadway show, she’s played by Joan Collins, surrounded by a cast of Egyptians in pancake make up. It’s a fun, sexy part of the show, where the sexual tension crackles.  

Joseph is a pious Jew, and refuses to have sex with his boss’ wife. This enrages her, and she accuses him of raping her. This lands him in jail, his dignity intact, but his rise to the top interrupted. We are told throughout this episode that God is on his side.  

But there’s just one problem with this part of the story. In the Bible, this isn’t what happens after Joseph is sold into slavery. Don’t get me wrong, all of these details are correct. It’s just that this isn’t what happens next. In the Bible, right after Joseph is sold, another story is told about his brother Judah. The one who sold him. It’s a story about Judah and a young woman called Tamar. Joseph is nowhere to be seen in this story. It’s ignored in the Sunday school books and the Broadway shows, but the Bible seems to think that it is critical that we hear this story before we find out about Joseph and Potiphar’s wife.  

So,we are going to hear the Scripture story now, read by Joyce Taylor.  

Genesis 38:6-26

Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn; her name was Tamar. But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord put him to death. Then Judah said to Onan, “Go in to your brother’s wife and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her; raise up offspring for your brother.” But since Onan knew that the offspring would not be his, he spilled his semen on the ground whenever he went in to his brother’s wife, so that he would not give offspring to his brother. 10 What he did was displeasing in the sight of the Lord, and he put him to death also. 11 Then Judah said to his daughter-in-law Tamar, “Remain a widow in your father’s house until my son Shelah grows up”—for he feared that he too would die, like his brothers. So Tamar went to live in her father’s house. 12 In course of time the wife of Judah, Shua’s daughter, died; when Judah’s time of mourning was over, he went up to Timnah to his sheepshearers, he and his friend Hirah the Adullamite. 13 When Tamar was told, “Your father-in-law is going up to Timnah to shear his sheep,” 14 she put off her widow’s garments, put on a veil, wrapped herself up, and sat down at the entrance to Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah. She saw that Shelah was grown up, yet she had not been given to him in marriage.  15 When Judah saw her, he thought her to be a prostitute, for she had covered her face. 16 He went over to her at the roadside, and said, “Come, let me come in to you,” for he did not know that she was his daughter-in-law. She said, “What will you give me, that you may come in to me?” 17 He answered, “I will send you a kid from the flock.” And she said, “Only if you give me a pledge, until you send it.” 18 He said, “What pledge shall I give you?” She replied, “Your signet and your cord, and the staff that is in your hand.” So he gave them to her, and went in to her, and she conceived by him. 19 Then she got up and went away, and taking off her veil she put on the garments of her widowhood. 20 When Judah sent the kid by his friend the Adullamite, to recover the pledge from the woman, he could not find her. 21 He asked the townspeople, “Where is the temple prostitute who was at Enaim by the wayside?” But they said, “No prostitute has been here.” 22 So he returned to Judah, and said, “I have not found her; moreover the townspeople said, ‘No prostitute has been here.’” 23 Judah replied, “Let her keep the things as her own, otherwise we will be laughed at; you see, I sent this kid, and you could not find her.” 24 About three months later Judah was told, “Your daughter-in-law Tamar has played the whore; moreover she is pregnant as a result of whoredom.” And Judah said, “Bring her out, and let her be burned.” 25 As she was being brought out, she sent word to her father-in-law, “It was the owner of these who made me pregnant.” And she said, “Take note, please, whose these are, the signet and the cord and the staff.” 26 Then Judah acknowledged them and said, “She is more in the right than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah.” And he did not lie with her again. 27 When the time of her delivery came, there were twins in her womb. 28 While she was in labor, one put out a hand; and the midwife took and bound on his hand a crimson thread, saying, “This one came out first.” 29 But just then he drew back his hand, and out came his brother; and she said, “What a breach you have made for yourself!” Therefore he was named Perez.[c] 30 Afterward his brother came out with the crimson thread on his hand; and he was named Zerah.    

Scripture ends

Well, wow. Sex, lies, death, deception and even some incest. Quite a story for Valentine’s day. You can see why it gets left out of the Sunday school books. But it is in the Bible, inserted between Joseph getting sold into slavery, and his arrival in Egypt. The question is why?  

Better we get to that, let me fill in a few key details. In the Middle East at this time, Infant mortality rates were very high. Every farm and family business relied on children as their workforce. So, when men and women married, it was not for love, but to have children. A woman who could not have children would live in shame.[1] If her husband died before she could have a child, it was lawful for the husband’s brother to marry her, so his family could fulfill its promise to have children with her, and carry on the family name. [2] That is why when Tamar’s first husband dies, she marries the next brother. His refusal to give her children is a shameful act, and so the story has God kill him. By rights, she can expect to marry and have children with the last brother. This is the dignified thing to do, it is what she is owed. But Judah, Joseph’s brother, lies to her. He won’t give her his last son, fearing that he will die, too. Judah will leave her childless, condemned to a life of shame.  

But Tamar does not give up. When she hears that Judah and the youngest son are coming to town, she disguises herself as a temple prostitute, and has sex with her father in law so she can finally have a child with a man from this family. This story highlights that that what people want sexually does not always fit with the rules. Tamar is seen as virtuous, even though to the people in her society, she is just a prostitute sitting in the dirt by the side of the road.  

 That’s the story that the Bible has inserted before we hear the tale of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife. On the surface, she seems like a sinful woman, too. But after hearing Tamar’s story, we need to pause. Was she like Tamar? Was her husband cruel, like Tamar’s first husband? Or is he unable or unwilling to give her children? There’s no mention of children in the story, and Joseph takes on the role of a son in ruling the slaves. It is possible that Potiphar’s wife was like Tamar – shamed for not having children, and now, she sees a chance to have one with one of her slaves.  

Now, it may sound like I am being too clever by half, applying 21st century ideas to an old story. Perhaps. But I am not alone in seeing Potiphar’s wife as more than a vamp. In Jewish midrashes on this story, they point out that the word which describes her husband as a court official also has the meaning of being a eunuch. One midrash, a retelling of the story, has her say that since her husband cannot give her children, she is not unfaithful to him by wanting sex with Joseph.[3] In the Muslim world, the story is also sympathetic to her. There, she has a name, Zuleika .[4] She has become entranced by Joseph’s beauty. To show her girlfriends why she is so hung up on him, she invites them for lunch, to hide behind a screen. They are slicing a piece of fruit with knives when he appears. They are so shocked by his beauty that their knives slip and they cut themselves. Suddenly, they understand exactly why she wants to have sex with him. God has made his beauty irresistable.  

Muslims and Jews alike did not think that Potiphar’s wife was just a tramp. But in the Christian West, it is as though no one read Tamar’s story.    

In European paintings, Potiphar is depicted sa a very white temptress, usually barely clothed.[5] It took a while to find a picture I could show in church since she is usually completely naked.  

In our Sunday school books and Broadway shows, Potiphar’s wife is just seen as a sex craved temptress. It seems like everyone decided to ignore Tamar’s story and doubt it casts on this view of her.  

That tendency can even be seen among Biblical scholars. During the 20th century, theologians argued that the placement of Tamar’s story had been a mistake made by one of the ancient editors of the Bible. It was human error. It should have been placed after the Joseph story.  

But not everyone sees it this way. In the late 1960s, a new branch of theology began, led by African Americans. They looked at theology as it existed and noticed that it was produced mostly by white men. The sort of people who write the rules of our society, and so read the Bible as though it is all about rules. [6]  

Black theologians argue that there’s another way to read the Bible. Blacks have often been on the receiving end of white people’s rules. To them, rules are often an alibi for oppressing people. Slavery was allowed by the rules, so was segregation. Black theologians point out that for their people, the Bible is not a dusty old document, but an inspiration. In its stories, Black people have drawn strength. In the Bible they found a God who was on the side of people who were oppressed. People like Tamar. People like the Israelites Moses led out of bondage in Egypt.[7] To Black theologians, the Bible is the story of God’s desire for everyone on Earth to be liberated from oppression, and if it means breaking rules, then so be it.[8]  

For Black theology, the Bible is not a relic from the past, but more like person who is alive right now. Think of it as getting together for coffee with a friend. The Bible tells her story of her weekend, a story of Tamar and Potiphar’s wife. That’s my reality, she says. Now how was your weekend? And you tell her about your life. But like coffee with a real person, the way you tell your story is shaped by who you are talking to. You have to highlight some details, and relate them to what she just said.  

So, the Bible has just been telling us a story about sex and rules, so let’s talk about how that plays out in our life. Over the cup of coffee, we’d need to explain that in our time, the rules of marriage are different. People don’t get married just to have children and keep the family business alive. In our time, people get married for love, then they might have children, or they might not. Men and women walk into marriages expecting personal fulfillment and happiness. We want our partnerships to be loving, and based on equality and respect. When we don’t get it, we may get divorced, even if we have children. Marriage isn’t about children anymore, it’s about happiness and personal fulfillment.  

And part of that definition of happiness is sexual satisfaction. The rules say that we can only have sex with our spouse. And that’s where things get complicated. Because, like in Biblical times, sexual desire doesn’t always want to play by the rules. In marriage we crave equality between the partners. But sexual desire doesn’t always dance to that tune. Desire craves difference. The old adage that opposites attract is absolutely true for what turns us on. Our love stories are full of people who are from opposite sides of the tracks and forbidden loves – Tamar and Judah, Romeo and Juliet, Lancelot and Guinevere, Aniken and Padme in Star Wars. In fact, the top selling books of the last decade, by far, were the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy. [9]The story of a billionaire’s affair with a young literature student. Equality is great for a partnership, but difference is what turns us on.   

It's not just in stories. At the same time as we expect our love relationships to be based on equality, in many couples, both spouses have jobs. Workplaces are supposed to be based on merit and performance. You do well, you can rise up through the ranks, get promoted, make more money. Workplaces are hierarchical, defined by rules and regulations. And that is why they are a perfect place for sexual desire to bloom.

Studies of modern companies have found that over half of all workers have had romantic relationships with co-workers[10].

Most of those relationships were with people of higher or lower rank than them.

36% of workplace love affairs involved married people.[11]  

The #metoo movement has brought workplace sexual harassment into the spotlight. What has become clear is that for some powerful men, the presence of less powerful women is hugely exciting, and they are willing to risk their marriages and careers to get what they desire. This is grotesquely unfair to the women involved, who may be afraid to say no, or leave suddenly, short circuiting their career. Better rules are needed, but that alone won’t solve it. Sexual desire can find breaking the rules part of the thrill, whether it is two single people dating each other, or a sexual predator harassing someone lower in the ranks. Like the rom com says, it’s complicated.  

At this point, the Bible sitting across from you nods her head. I hear that, she says. Rules and sex often do not make good bedfellows. But the Bible doesn’t jump in and say the answer is simple. Because it isn’t. Tamar has desires she knows she has a right to have fulfilled, and she breaks the rules to make that happen. Potiphar’s wife does the same, but she lied and endangered someone else in the process. So, Is the Bible saying that we should all just break the rules anytime we want to fulfill our desires? Isn’t that what Harvey Weinstein would say?

I imagine the Bible taking a big sip of coffee, and getting quiet for a moment. The way I see it, the Bible says after a long pause, is that it is all about dignity. Tamar would not have her dignity restored until she had children with Judah’s family. She was promised a child, and she was going to get it from that family of liars. So she did what she had to do. And one of her twins? He’s the start of King David’s royal line, nine generations back. [12] And that makes him one of the ancestors of Mary, the mother of Jesus. She was a woman who also got pregnant outside the rules, and lived with that to raise a son who would change the world. [13]It all started with gumption and a desire for dignity.  

That desire for dignity applies to Joseph, too. He stands firm, refusing to have sex with the boss’ wife. God doesn’t strike her down dead like Tamar’s husbands. God understands desire , and dignity. But dignity is what matters most. When we keep our dignity, then everyone wins. Tamar asserted her dignity, and even Judah, who had been tricked, finally saw her and her dignity. She is more righteous than I am, he declares. When people stand up for their dignity, whether in getting sex or refusing it, the world wins. Because evil cannot inhabit a person who has dignity.[14]  

Then the Bible pauses and looks at you. So, where are you finding your dignity? Where do you make that happen within your relationship, and at work when people come on to you? How are you going to preserve your dignity so you can make the world a better place for everyone? How are you going to help other people regain their dignity? Are you ready to change the rules to make that happen? Tamar was. She did good. Not a story we should leave out.   Amen.



[1] L. Juliana M Classens, “Resisting Dehumanizations: Ruth, Tamar and The Quest for Human Dignity,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 74, 2012, 662. [2] L. Juliana M Classens, “resisting dehumanizations: Ruth, Tamar and The Quest for Human Dignity,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 74, 2012, 662. [3] The midrash is Genesis Rabba. Thalia Gur-Klein, “Potiphar’s Wife and the Cultural Template of Sacred Sexuality,” lectio difficilior , August 1, 2001. [4] Adamo, “The Nameless African Wife,” OTE 26/2 (2013), 236. [5] Adamo, “The Nameless African Wife,” OTE 26/2 (2013), 239. [6] Michael Joseph Brown, Blackening of the Bible, Trinity Press International, Harrisburg, 2004, 79. [7] Michael Joseph Brown, Blackening of the Bible, Trinity Press International, Harrisburg, 2004, 71-2. [8] Michael Joseph Brown, Blackening of the Bible, Trinity Press International, Harrisburg, 2004, 18. [9] [10] [11]   [12] Rachel Adelman, “Seduction and recognition  in the story of Judah and Tamar and the book of Ruth “, Nashim, Spring/fall 2012, [13] Rachel Adelman, “Seduction and recognition  in the story of Judah and Tamar and the book of Ruth “, Nashim, Spring/fall 2012, 104. [14] Rosita deAnn Mathews, “ using power from the periphery,” A Troubling in my Soul: Womanist Perspectives on Evil and Suffering, Ed, Emilie M Townes, Marynoll: New York, 1997, 101; 108.