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Scholar’s Corner: The fate of Potiphar’s wife

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PROVO, Utah — The Neal A. Maxwell Institute's Kristian S. Heal recently spoke about how ancient Christians interpreted the stories of Joseph, his brothers in Egypt, and the woman whose immorality and lies sent Joseph to prison.

When Heal spoke last month at BYU's Campus Education week, he looked at the ways ancient Christians interpreted scriptures. One way of reading the scriptures, Heal said, was to find hidden messages of Christ.

Joseph was the son of Jacob who was sold into slavery by his brothers and who later became a powerful ruler in Egypt. Heal said it is one of the most beautiful stories in the Bible. Linking the story to Christ enhances that beauty.

One way of looking at the story of Joseph is to look at Joseph as a type of Christ. The story symbolically represents Jesus' life and mission.

Heal displayed a chart that compared Christ's betrayal, death, return and judgment to Joseph's life. The betrayal happened with Joseph's brothers, who sold him into slavery. Death was like the pit Joseph was cast into. The return is like Joseph's ruling as regent over Egypt. Judgment is equated with Joseph's testing and dealing with his brothers.

But it doesn't stop there. The story of Joseph has a second parallel in the story of Joseph and Potiphar's wife. The wife betrayed Joseph. Prison was like death. Becoming regent was like a return. And, in early Christian traditions, Potiphar's wife receives a judgment before Joseph.

The judgment of Potiphar's wife was a story not found in the Bible, of course, and some contradictory traditions arose around it among ancient Christian commentators.

"There are several important morals to the story of Joseph, and many types for our day. But one of them has to be reconciliation and forgiveness. Forgiving someone who has ruined your life in many ways. Who has done a great hurt and harm to you," Heal said. "The ancient sources couldn't bear this silence (about the fate of Potiphar's wife). Whether through traditions they had received or simply from their own imagination, they tell us what happened."

When Potiphar saw the honor heaped by Pharaoh upon Joseph, he was afraid and said to his wife, "You have brought all these terrible things upon me. You dishonored me and made me a disgrace and an object of derision."

Heal said, "He is panicked and he is looking for someone to blame."

Potiphar can't see how he can show his face to Joseph. He says he always knew that Joseph was not really a slave and that his wife's story about Joseph trying to assault her was a sham. Joseph had fled Potiphar's wife's advances, leaving her holding his clothes. "If you had been assaulted by him," Potiphar tells her, "you would have left your clothes in his hands."

Potiphar's wife responds, "Truly I have sinned and wronged him. Now don't be upset, for I will appease him, and he will honor you more than all of your friends, and he will make you a great man and a ruler over all the freemen and nobles of Pharaoh."

Potiphar's wife petitions Joseph and begs his forgiveness. Joseph sends her gifts in response and invites her to a feast where he calls Potiphar "father" and Potiphar's wife "mother."

Joseph declares, "Were it not for you, sending me to that prison, I would never have been brought into a situation where I could have interpreted Pharaoh's dreams."

It is a beautiful example in the spirit of forgiveness that Joseph showed toward his brothers — and that Christ shows towards sinners.

Heal said he believed this story was the earliest thread of the fate of Potiphar's wife.

"Other writers just couldn't stand this idea," Heal said, "particularly as we see the rise of monasticism and (the idea that) women are the root of all evil. They couldn't bear the idea of Potiphar's wife, this 'brazen hussy,' being forgiven."

What happens in the less-kind version? Heal didn't go into any detail, but said, "They do, rest assured, confine her to years of psychological torment."

e-mail: mdegroote@desnews.com