Our pastor, Sam Miranda, preached this past Sunday morning on the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife. As is customary at our worship service, the bulletin provided the scripture, Genesis 39:1-23, using the English Standard Version (“ESV”). As is also customary, Sam read the scripture, in its entirety, as we followed along, before he began preaching. Here is that reading, as the ESV gives it. I have added italics in places pertinent to what I would like to discuss:
39 Now Joseph had been brought down to Egypt, and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard, an Egyptian, had bought him from the Ishmaelites who had brought him down there. 2 The Lord was with Joseph, and he became a successful man, and he was in the house of his Egyptian master. 3 His master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord caused all that he did to succeed in his hands. 4 So Joseph found favor in his sight and attended him, and he made him overseer of his house and put him in charge of all that he had. 5 From the time that he made him overseer in his house and over all that he had, the Lord blessed the Egyptian's house for Joseph's sake; the blessing of the Lord was on all that he had, in house and field. 6 So he left all that he had in Joseph's charge, and because of him he had no concern about anything but the food he ate.
11 But one day, when he went into the house to do his work and none of the men of the house was there in the house, 12 she caught him by his garment, saying, “Lie with me.” But he left his garment in her hand and fled and got out of the house. 13 And as soon as she saw that he had left his garment in her hand and had fled out of the house, 14 she called to the men of her household and said to them, “See, he has brought among us a Hebrew to laugh at us. He came in to me to lie with me, and I cried out with a loud voice. 15 And as soon as he heard that I lifted up my voice and cried out, he left his garment beside me and fled and got out of the house.” 16 Then she laid up his garment by her until his master came home, 17 and she told him the same story, saying, “The Hebrew servant, whom you have brought among us, came in to me to laugh at me. 18 But as soon as I lifted up my voice and cried, he left his garment beside me and fled out of the house.”
19 As soon as his master heard the words that his wife spoke to him, “This is the way your servant treated me,” his anger was kindled. 20 And Joseph's master took him and put him into the prison, the place where the king's prisoners were confined, and he was there in prison. 21 But the Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love and gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison. 22 And the keeper of the prison put Joseph in charge of all the prisoners who were in the prison. Whatever was done there, he was the one who did it. 23 The keeper of the prison paid no attention to anything that was in Joseph's charge, because the Lord was with him. And whatever he did, the Lord made it succeed.
What caught my attention was the apparent difference between what Potiphar’s wife told the men of her household about Joseph’s purpose “in coming in to her” and what she told her husband about Joseph’s purpose. As the scripture reads in the ESV, she told the household men that Joseph came in to “lie with me,” but to Potiphar that Joseph came in to “laugh at her.” This account confuses me further because the passage states that Potiphar’s wife told Potiphar “the same story” about the incident. I will concede that in speaking to the household men, Potiphar’s wife said that her husband brought among them a Hebrew “to laugh us,” but as far as Joseph’s alleged particular purpose as to her, she told them that Joseph’s intention was “to lie with me.”
Here is how the NIV renders verses 14 – 18. It translates “laugh” as “to make sport of,” but is otherwise about the same:
she called her household servants. “Look,” she said to them, “this Hebrew has been brought to us to make sport of us! He came in here to sleep with me, but I screamed. 15 When he heard me scream for help, he left his cloak beside me and ran out of the house.”
16 She kept his cloak beside her until his master came home. 17 Then she told him this story: “That Hebrew slave you brought us came to me to make sport of me. 18 But as soon as I screamed for help, he left his cloak beside me and ran out of the house.”
I have the ESV Study Bible, and it has a note on Genesis 39:13-15 that includes the following statement:
“Laugh” recalls 21:9 and 26:8, where it has the connotations of “making fun of someone” and “caressing,” respectively.The reference to Gen. 21:9 is to the son of Hagar, Ishmael, whose “laughter” so offended Sarah that she demanded of Abraham that he cast out both Hagar and her son. The reference to 26:8 is to the Philistine King Abimelech who, seeing Abraham and Rebekah “laughing” together, infers that there is something more intimate in their relationship than the brother-and-sister lie that Abraham had told him.
In verse 14, the New English Translation translates the word for “laugh” (ESV) or “sport” (NIV) as “humiliate,” and has the following translation footnote (footnote 35) for that translation:
Heb. “to make fun of us.” The verb translated “to humiliate us” here means to hold something up for ridicule, or to toy with something harmfully. Attempted rape would be such an activity, for it would hold the victim in contempt.My surmise is that the use of the word translated “to make fun of us” had a breadth of meaning that did not necessarily refer to “rape” or “having sex,” but, given the context, could be understood as meaning the lie that Potiphar’s wife wants her husband to believe. But by using a sort of euphemism and not something explicit, it gives Potiphar himself a way out: He would throw Joseph in prison and not seek what was probably the ultimate penalty for attempted rape. If word had gotten around that Potiphar had imprudently allowed a Hebrew slave sufficient access to make such an attempt, it would have damaged Potiphar’s reputation. The lie of Potiphar’s wife maintains appearances for both of them, and Potiphar will not push the details.
But my main point concerns the different translations of a given Hebrew word that we see from Bible version to Bible version. I think the ESV choice is the least appropriate among all of the alternate translations. In the Preface to the ESV, a body described as "The Translation Oversight Committee" states that the ESV is an "essentially literal translation. If it is that approach that gets us "to laugh at," rather than "to humiliate," then I think they fall short here.
Let me also observe that in each case where Potiphar's wife mentions Joseph, she never gives his name. Instead her is "the Hebrew slave." One commentary notes that Potiphar's wife is not merely descriptive, she evidences her racial bigotry. If that is the case, then it would have been all the more "humiliating" to Potiphar that his wife would "lie with" such a creature, and it would have been a public disgrace.