False Accusations: Is It Mrs. Potiphar’s Fault?
By Lindsey Abston Painter | 30 April 2021 |
Some years ago when Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testified against Judge Brett Kavanaugh, I wrote a piece for Adventist Today about believing women who share their stories of sexual assault.
Though I’ve written many controversial articles, about everything from gun control to my own divorce, the response to this one surprised me the most. The number of people who worried that this “poor, vulnerable” federal judge would have his life ruined by false allegations against him was alarming and confusing to me. From reading the comments on my piece, one might conclude that every man is terrified at every moment, lest a woman make a false claim against him.
More than one of the angry comments mentioned the biblical account of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife. By the time I finished reading, I had a headache from excessive eye rolling. As I went to search for some Advil, I stopped to ponder Potiphar’s wife and Joseph.
Let’s assume that Joseph was totally blameless, that a rejected woman, in her anger, accused him falsely, and he was consequently thrown into prison. That’s a pretty sobering story.
But then I pull back my biblical lens and try to see the picture from a wider perspective. What about the women in Scripture who had every right to make an accusation of rape but didn’t? Were there any of them?
Silly question. The Bible is full, from cover to cover, of stories of women being brutalized—some by villains, but many by biblical heroes. Bathsheba, for example, probably wasn’t thrilled about the peeping-tom king who “requested” her presence in his bed and then killed her husband. Moses commanded his army to kill all of the Midianite women except the virgins, whom the soldiers got to “keep for themselves.” It doesn’t sound like the Israelites bothered to secure consent from the captive virgins. Then we read how Lot offered his two daughters to be gang-raped—thanks, Dad!—and they were saved not by the intervention of their father, but by angels who struck the mob with blindness. More than one of the beloved patriarchs had sex—and children—with their slave women. How consensual is sex with someone who literally owns you?
Of course, these biblical stories of countless brutalized women don’t justify a false accusation by one woman. But it puts the story of Potiphar’s wife into a larger perspective, doesn’t it?
The False-Accusation Myth
President Trump famously said that “it’s a very scary time for young men in America,” implying that false accusations are rampant. But how common are they, really?
Since so many women never report their rape, it is difficult to get accurate statistics on rape or on false rape accusations. Analysts estimate that somewhere between 2 percent and 10 percent of rape accusations are considered false. The higher end of that range includes cases that lack enough evidence to convict the accused (okay, but remember the unprocessed evidence in thousands of rape kits found in police storage all over the country?), cases in which the accuser changes her story or gives conflicting accounts (perhaps because she’s gone through a horrible trauma), or instances when police unilaterally decide they don’t believe the victim and report it as false (it happens more often than you’d think) or where the accusation doesn’t meet the legal definition of rape (such as groping over clothing). Also, it is a common practice for police to threaten victims with legal consequences if their report is deemed false, thus scaring them out of completing their report.
The result? Just 2 percent of reported rapes—one in 50—are determined to be false because an accuser is judged to be intentionally lying.
I’d have a hard time believing that a greater percentage of false reports were made thousands of years ago, when women were regularly raped without any legal ramifications or social stigma. So if Joseph were innocent, then Mrs. Potiphar’s allegation would fall, at most, among that 2 percent. Although not to be taken lightly, it’s hardly representative of a common problem and is, therefore, a rather strange choice for such a popular cautionary tale.
Assuming this event was documented accurately, Mrs. Potiphar would be the single exception among the literally thousands of women in the Bible who were actually raped.
Can We Assume Joseph’s Story Is True?
But what if we don’t take Joseph’s story at face value? What if this is someone’s—presumably a man’s—biased or inaccurate telling of what happened?
I’m an Agency Trainer for a social work agency that deals every day with people at risk for violence. Part of my job is to train all employees how to document an incident so each report is clear, accurate, and would hold up in court if there were any type of dispute.
The writers of the Bible had no such training. They often recorded stories that had been passed down by many generations through oral tradition, and undoubtedly some of the stories contained inaccuracies. The Bible writers also told these stories from their own culturally influenced, patriarchal perspective.
I believe we’re justified in questioning Joseph’s testimony against Mrs. Potiphar, based on what we know about Old Testament men. They had serious moral and character flaws, and almost all of them had problems with women. David had Bathsheba, drunken Lot had his daughters, Abraham had Sarah and Hagar, Isaac had Rebekah, Jacob had sisters Rachel and Leah in addition to their handmaids Bilhah and Zilpah, and Joseph had Potiphar’s wife.
Please note that most of these stories of Bible heroes tended to blame the women. David sinned because Bathsheba took off her clothes to take a bath. Lot blamed his daughters for making him drunk so they could get pregnant by him. Abraham blamed Sarah and Hagar for their scheme to give him a child. Isaac blamed Rebekah for favoring Jacob over Esau and for devising a scheme to rob the latter of his birthright. Jacob blamed his quarreling sister wives for further complicating his already dysfunctional family by offering their handmaids to him as concubines. Judah blamed Tamar for wearing a veil so that he didn’t recognize her when he solicited a prostitute (though when she got pregnant with the heir she deserved he finally admitted, “She has been more righteous than I”) (Gen. 38:26, NKJV).
Even in Eden, Adam blamed a woman at the first sign of trouble. Eve may have committed the first sin, but Adam followed almost immediately with his own sin when he told God: “It wasn’t my fault. It was this woman.”
It seemed to be a biblical trend for the men to blame a woman when things went sideways in their lives. So why not Joseph—or whoever wrote his story?
The Bible’s Women
The life of a woman in Old Testament times was terrible. She was the property of a man, in no way his equal, and hardly even his companion. The tenth commandment, for example, forbade coveting another man’s wife in the same breath as coveting a man’s donkey or his cow, because she was hardly more valuable to him than a beast.
Another odd passage says that if a priest’s daughter married someone who is not a priest, she could no longer attend family religious events (Lev. 22:12-13). Like all women of her culture, she went directly from being her father’s property to her husband’s.
Then consider this charming law: “If a man happens to meet in a town a virgin pledged to be married and he sleeps with her, you shall take both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death—the young woman because she was in a town and did not scream for help, and the man because he violated another man’s wife. You must purge the evil from among you” (Deut. 22:23-24, NIV). Notice that there is no consideration for the woman. The man was being punished only because he devalued another man’s property.
Remember, too, that polygamy was common in the Bible. The number of wives a king had (hundreds, in Solomon’s case) was something his chroniclers would brag about! Polygamy was never renounced in the Old Testament or the New, with the single exception of church elders (1 Tim. 3:2, NIV). Nor did Scripture prohibit concubinage, which meant bringing a woman into the family as a non-wife sex partner. The assumption throughout was that a man could “own” as many women as he could get.
Jesus threw off some anti-female social norms by speaking with a Samaritan woman and by accepting a drink of water from her. He spent time with Mary and Martha, even teaching them from the Torah. In general, women were treated better in the New Testament than in the Old.
But were they treated well, as full human beings with full rights? It’s hard to make that case. Even though Paul at times complimented women who worked alongside him, he also wrote diatribes about women keeping their “place” that make me cringe every time I come across them.
Since the trend of the Bible was to treat women better as time progressed, we could make the argument that one purpose of Scripture was to help human beings mature from where their culture had stalled to a higher moral and ethical level. If we stop where the Bible stops, however, we stop the trajectory.
Sadly, many Christians have used the Bible as a tool to oppress women instead of continuing the Bible’s trend of lifting them to full equality.
Potiphar’s wife is the single exception that proves the rule—the one false accusation in the midst of thousands of cases of abuse that men drag up to justify their fear that even if they behave in a perfectly gentlemanly way, they risk being falsely accused as a result of associating with women. This is the kind of nonsense that leads to draconian measures such as the “Mike Pence rule,” by which the vice president refuses to be alone in a room with any woman except his wife.
Why are men so afraid of Potiphar’s wife? Her story keeps popping up because it is, among the many instances of rape described in the Bible, literally the only story that supports the false-accusation myth. Yet if we take the overall testimony of the Bible, rather than this one story in isolation, shouldn’t women be many more times more afraid of men than men are of women? In fact, if we’re basing our fear on stories from the Bible, shouldn’t men be more afraid of other men than they are of women?
The fact that there’s so much traction for men’s fear, given the extent of actual danger, shows that despite the push of the #MeToo movement, there’s pretty good evidence that patriarchy is barely diminished at all.
So do I blame Mrs. Potiphar for being the prime example of a false rape allegation that Christian men routinely quote? Not really. She is of so little importance to the person who wrote the account that she isn’t even given the dignity of a name. Whether her rape accusation was false or true, we may never know.
What we can know is that women deserve to be believed when they tell someone about an assault. In rare cases we will be proved wrong after giving the benefit of the doubt to a woman who reports a rape. But wouldn’t we rather be wrong 1 out of 100 times in order to be right the other 99?
The Crime That Isn’t Believed
Rape is the only crime where the victim isn’t immediately believed when the crime is reported. If someone calls 911 and says, “A man just broke into my house, held me at gunpoint, and stole my valuables!” the responder’s first reaction isn’t: “Well, I don’t know, that sounds rather dramatic. It could be that you misunderstood what was happening. Had the person you mentioned ever been to your house before? If so, maybe you somehow led him to believe he could take whatever he wanted.”
No. We begin by believing the victim. Of course, we then conduct an investigation. Believing the victim doesn’t mean that we don’t follow the law or that we convict an accused person without due process. What it means is that we start from a position of compassion and belief.
As for Brett Kavanaugh, his experience is more typical than most men would like to believe. I believe he did attempt to rape Christine Blasey in 1982, when they were both teenagers. The accusation became public. It was embarrassing to him, but he was not denied a seat on the Supreme Court. So who was really the loser? Was it Kavanaugh, who had to pay the “price” of being nationally embarrassed but was still granted advancement into a very successful lifetime career? Or was it Blasey Ford, who has had a lifetime of recovering from the trauma of a crime that was committed against her body?
If we’re going to talk about fairness, maybe we could start there.
- Lindsey Abston Painter, “Judge Kavanaugh in the #MeToo Era,” Adventist Today Online (Sept. 25, 2018). Online at atoday.org/ judge-kavanaugh-in-the-metoo-era/. ↑
- Jessica Contrera, “A Wrenching Dilemma,” The Washington Post, Feb. 20, 2018. ↑
- According to the Office on Violence Against Women, U.S. Department of Justice, the adjusted rate of false reporting is 2.1 percent. “Research shows that rates of false reporting are frequently inflated, in part because of inconsistent definitions and protocols, or a weak understanding of sexual assault.” The report also admits that an estimated 63 percent of assaults against women are never reported to police. Online at https://www.nsvrc.org/publications/false-reporting-overview. According to Joanne Belknap, a sociologist, criminologist, and professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, that 2.1-percent figure for false rape accusations should be about 0.05 percent. See www.thecut.com/article/false-rape-accusations.html. ↑
Lindsey Abston Painter is a writer, teacher, health and human services trainer, and mother of two. She enjoys reading, playing with her cat, writing about feminism, and strawberry pie. This essay was originally printed in the Spring 2019 Adventist Today magazine. To receive the magazine, click here and give us any donation.