Blogging The Bible

Joseph and His Amazing Technical Abstinence Policy

Chapter 39
Genesis describes straight rape, attempted gay rape, father-daughter incest, coitus interruptus with dead brother’s wife, sex with wife, sex with wrong wife, sex with concubine, sex with dad’s concubine, sex with prostitute who is also daughter-in-law. In any situation in which sex is available, men seize it. What’s remarkable about Joseph? He’s the first person to resist sexual temptation. (OK, Onan partway resisted, but he certainly didn’t deprive himself of sexual pleasure.)

Joseph’s encounter with his Egyptian slavemistress is pure Desperate Housewives. Joseph is “well built and handsome”—ancient Egypt’s version of the cabana boy. * Over and over, Potiphar’s predatory wife demands, “Lie with me.” Over and over, Joseph rebuffs her. He doesn’t even succumb when she threatens to frame him for rape. It’s not as if Joseph has a nice little wifey back home whom he’s being faithful to. The kid just has character. The chapter reminds us four times that, “The Lord was with Joseph” while he was enslaved. His willpower, we are to believe, derives from that divine backing.

Chapter 40 and Chapter 41
It’s impossible not to like Joseph. But it’s also true that he’s got a lot of Sammy Glick in him—he’s always ingratiating himself with powerful men. He quickly makes himself indispensable to Potiphar and takes charge of his house. When the Desperate Pyramidwife sends him to prison on the trumped-up rape charge, he immediately becomes the warden’s right-hand man. 

One particularly appealing trait of Joseph’s—and a stark contrast to almost everyone else in Genesis, especially his father and brothers—is that he always tells the truth, even when it hurts him. In jail, he’s asked to interpret the dreams of two fellow prisoners, the Pharaoh’s cupbearer and the Pharaoh’s baker. He tells the cupbearer that his dream means that in three days he’ll be out of jail and back in Pharaoh’s favor. But then he tells the baker that his dream means he’ll be executed in three days. There’s no upside to giving the baker the bad news, but he does it anyway.

Both dreams, of course, come true. Two years later, when the Pharaoh has a dream his sorcerers and wise men can’t interpret, the cupbearer finally remembers Joseph’s talent and urges Pharaoh to have him interpret the dream. Here’s what follows, according to the King James:

Then Pharaoh sent and called Joseph, and they brought him hastily out of the dungeon: and he shaved himself, and changed his raiment, and came in unto Pharaoh.

He stops for a shave! What a genius detail! It’s the touch of an astounding storyteller. How much that one throwaway sentence tells us about Joseph, about his life in jail, about Pharaoh’s court. Most important, it suspends the story for just a moment. It holds the tension, delays the encounter with the king just long enough to make a reader nervous.

Joseph, as we all know from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, informs Pharaoh that his dream of seven fat cows and seven gaunt cows, and seven plump ears of grain and seven shriveled ones, means that Egypt would enjoy seven rich years and then suffer seven famine years. With his Glickian eye for the main chance, Joseph advises Pharaoh that he needs to hire “a man of discernment and wisdom” to coordinate Egypt’s homeland security during the famine, to store the bounteous crops during the fat years and ration the surplus during the lean ones. And who, pray tell, is such a man? Why, Joseph!

Pharaoh picks Joseph not for his obvious intelligence or moxie, but because he recognizes that Joseph has “the spirit of God” in him. Pharaoh, the polytheist and animal worshiper, is a canny enough monarch to appreciate God’s power. (This Pharaoh is obviously supposed to be contrasted favorably with the detestable Pharaoh to come in Exodus, who was so thick-skulled that it took him 10 plagues before he’d acknowledge the Lord.)

Last week, I wrote (excessively) about the amazing amounts of fraternal envy and wickedness in Genesis, most of which seem to go unpunished. With a stupidity to rival Pharaoh, I never realized until this reading that God does punish all this fraternal misbehavior. The greatest of the fraternal sins—the brothers selling Joseph into slavery in Egypt—is carried forward. The Israelites, who are the descendants of those brothers, end up enslaved in Egypt. This appears to be a kind of cosmic joke (with dire, and well-deserved, consequences) that God is playing on his chosen people—a warning that they’d better behave.

An incident I had forgotten, which speaks again to Joseph’s strength of character: Pharaoh gives Joseph an Egyptian name, “Zaphenath-paneah,” and orders him to marry a high-ranking Egyptian girl (she’s the Nilotic equivalent of Donald Rumsfeld’s daughter, God help her). But when his two sons are born, Joseph gives them Hebrew names, Ephraim and Manasseh. He obviously does not forget God and does not forget who he truly is.

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Correction, June 1, 2006: This entry incorrectly stated that Chapter 39 of the Bible calls Jacob “well built and handsome.” The passage refers to Joseph. (Return to the corrected sentence.)