The story of Potiphar’s wife attempting to seduce Joseph is a rare and remarkable biblical example of women having power over men and displaying agency over their own sexuality. 

Read at face-value and especially in light of the current public debate about widespread sexual harassment in our society, we should be scandalised by this story.  
Joseph, while being portrayed as a faithful servant to God who withstands temptation, is very clearly the victim. Yet, having rejected her advances, it is Joseph who is sent to prison.

But rather than critiquing the actions of Potiphar’s wife, the midrashic tradition attempts to rob her of her power and agency. In a medieval aggadah (Midrash Hagadol on Genesis 39:14 — which exists in a parallel version in the Qu’ran (Sura XII 30-32) — we read about Potiphar’s wife joined by an assembly of ladies, all of whom are so seduced by Joseph’s beauty that they lose all self-control, illustrated by them cutting their hands. 

Potiphar’s wife is rendered powerless to fall in line with the dominant image of women, while Joseph regains power through his looks.

It is our duty as modern readers of this story to acknowledge that the midrashic approach is not fit for our time. Sexual harassment is always accompanied by an abuse of power. It certainly does not help a woman — the victim is statistically much more likely to be a woman than a man — to be told that she has only been victimised because her looks were simply irresistible. 

Instead we have to ensure that our society responds to stories like these by punishing the perpetrator not the victim — it is Potiphar’s wife not Joseph who should end up in prison.

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