June 13, 2008

A Bad Girl of the Bible question

My friend Dani sent me the following question via Facebook. I told her it would make a great blog post entry and that I would answer it in the Dojo!

Hey how are you? I figured I would try and give you something to blog about if you ever have a block.

Actually, if you don't mind; I need someone smarter then me to answer a question about Potiphar's Wife. My small group is studying "Bad Girls of the Bible" by Liz Higgs... Anyway, this week we are reading about Potiphar's wife. In the lesson part Higgs makes the comment about how she must have been so desperate to break her marriage vows and talks about how adultry was a sin of death for God.

My question is if the Egyptian's didn't worship or know God's law how then can they be held accountable for breaking them? If Joseph had slept with her, then I can see holding him accountable -- because he knew better.

Also weren't the Egyptian's very much like the Greeks and Romans, in that they were "swingers", meaning they slept around? And weren't women at that time disposable? If Potiphar didn't want her, he could get rid of her?

Lastly, I understand the lesson that we are to get out of this story, but she brings up again that this women doesn't do what is right in the eyes of the Lord. Well, if you don't know Him -- how are you supposed to. Higgs points out that all she had to do was admit her sin before God and then all would be good. So I'm I off base, in thinking that though there are lessons we can learn, Higgs is off base in theology?


Dani, this is a great question. I think there are some assumptions which must be addressed in order to help answer your questions. The main issues are:
1) the role of women in Egyptian culture, including the dynamics of marriage, particularly in the highest strata of Egyptian society,
and 2) culpability before God apart from the Torah law.
You ask if the Egyptians were "swingers", like the Greeks and Romans. Well, one thing to remember is that the Egyptians of Potiphar's day are separated by the Greeks and Romans of Jesus day by over 1,000 years. That's a long time! So any comparison of the Egyptians of Genesis to the later Greeks and Romans is kinda like comparing Americans today with Germanic peoples in medieval times.
So we have to look at the Egyptians on their own terms when it comes to the issue of marriage and adultery. And in fact, there is an absolutely fascinating parallel to the story of Joseph and Potiphar's wife found in an ancient Egyptian text called "The Story of Two Brothers." Here's the reader's digest version:
There were two brothers (Anubis (older) and Bata (younger). Anubis was married and had a home. Bata lived with Anubis and his wife, helping tend the cattle and harvest the fields. Bata lived in the stable with his cattle (Interestingly, the text says about Bata that "There was no on elike him in the entire land. Why, the strength of a god was in him.")
At the prompting of his cattle (yes, in the story the cows can talk and tell Anubis where to lead them to good grass that they like!), Anubis and Bata lead them out into the fields for many days in order to plow and harvest. They run low on seed, so Anubis sends Bata home to get some more supplies from the house.
When Bata arrives at the house, Anubis' wife is sitting there doing her hair. He asks her to help him get supplies loaded to take back. She tells him to get it himself because she doesn't want to interrupt combing her hair (yes, the text literally says that!). So Bata gets the supplies and brings them out to load up. She asks how much he's taking and he tells her. Here's what the text says happens next:

Then she [talked with] him, saying "There is [great] strength in you! Now I see your energies every day!" And she wanted to know him as one knows a man.
Then she stood up and took hold of him and said to him: "Come, let's spend an [hour] sleeping (together)! This will do you good, because I shall make fine clothes for you!"
Then the lad [became] like a leopard with [great] rage at the wicked suggestion which she had made to him, and she was very, very much frightened. Then he argued with her, saying: "See here--you are like a mother to me, and your husband is like a father to me! Because--being older than I--he was the one who brought me up. What is this great crime which you have said to me? Dont' say it to me again! And I won't tell a single person, nor will I let it out of my mouth to any man!" And he lifted up his load , and he went to the fields."

(From Pritchard, "Ancient Near East Texts...", Princeton, pp.23-24)

The parallels with Potiphar's wife and this story are so strong that many critics have simply dismissed both accounts as Egyptian fables, one of which got incorporated into the book of Genesis. However, there's no reason to assume this. One could just as easily argue that the actual story of Joseph got transformed into the fable of Bata (the time period allows for this).
Regardless, what's important for our discussion is that in this non-Biblical Egyptian fable, adultery is seen as a horrible crime by the Egyptians themselves. This also fits with the Biblical account in Genesis 12 where Abram tells that Pharaoh that Sarai is his sister and Pharaoh takes her as a wife. When Pharaoh finds out via a dream that the Sarai is already married, his response to Abram is "What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me she was yoru wife? Why did you say, 'She is my sister,' so that I took her for my wife? Now then, here is your wife, take her and be gone!" (Gen.12:18-19).
So from these two texts, one Biblical and one extrabiblical, we see that the Egyptians were definitely not "swingers" and that sleeping with someone else's spouse was a very, very serious wrong. I think this is a perfect example of the Biblical doctrine of Common Grace, whereby God has not left people completely without any moral compass. Rather, God's foundational moral nature is implanted within all humanity and even despite the fall, vestiges of it remain--some of which are preserved in law codes in various societies apart from the Biblical tradition. This is why in Romans 1, Paul can appeal to this natural revelation by God to gentiles in order to show their guilt in going against it, even though they did not have the written law of Moses which contained the Ten Commandments.

So Potiphar's wife was morally guilty by the universal moral revelation by God against adultery as well as by her own culture's recognition of it as wrong--not to mention her lying and bearing false witness against Joseph which could have potentially led to his execution. Yes, she was indeed a "Bad Girl of the Bible"! However, as for her being "desperate to break her marriage vows", well, that's not really found in the text. In fact, she propositions him when no one else is around intentionally, so that it will remain a secret and her marriage would remain intact. I think this is where many popular authors of Christian books begin to take liberties with the text in order to fit their preconceived ideas for their books. It's very hard to psychoanalyze the emotional state of a Biblical character--particularly one who is never even mentioned by name! We simply don't have that level of detail in the text. This leaves room for all kinds of reading into the text our own ideas or opinions. I haven't read Higgs' book, but it would not suprise me if it was a bit guilty of this, as almost every biographical account of Biblical characters, even by the best authors, usually is.

So what happened to Bata, you may wonder? Well, this is where the parallels with Joseph start to diminish. Anubis comes home and his wife makes herself look as if she'd been victimized. She says that Bata came and tried to seduce her, but she refused so he beat her. Anubis is enraged and hides in the stable to kill Bata with a spear. But as the first of the cows arrive back in the stable, one of them sees Anubis and shouts for Bata to run away! Anubis chases Bata, but Bata prays to Re, the Sun God, and Re creates a river between them full of crocodiles so that Anubis can't cross it. Bata says to wait until the morning and Re will judge between them. When the sun rises, Bata chastizes Anubis for believing his wife rather than him and as proof of his lack of desire for Anubis' wife, he "took a reed-knife, and he cut off his phallus, and he threw it into the water"! Bata goes off into exile in the Valley of Cedar and Anubis is so upset that he goes home and kills his wife, throws her body to the dogs, and sits in mourning for his younger brother.

Talk about a happy ending! Yikes!

Thanks for the question, Dani. And keep up the jiujitsu training!


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