Joseph, Potiphar’s Wife, and Rape Culture in Our Sunday Schools

Joseph, Potiphar’s Wife, and Rape Culture in Our Sunday Schools September 28, 2013

Content Note: Rape

I recently read a post by Emily Wierenga entitled, “What I Want My Son to Know About Sex.” There was a lot in the post that I disagree with, which isn’t surprising. I’m not really on the same page as most evangelical Christians when it comes to sexual ethics. One line in this piece made me think, though. I wanted to talk about that line.

Toward the end of her piece, Wierenga tells her son,

I pray for you, that you will shine, that you will be a man among men, a leader for others to follow, a Joseph who stands up to Potipher’s wife. The world needs more Josephs, son. It needs a few good men.

I’m going to respond to this line, not to pick on Wierenga, but because I think this is something every Christian–and especially every Christian who teaches Bible stories to children–needs to think about.

We Christians love our Bible stories and our Bible “heroes,” and we love oversimplifying these stories, white-washing all the characters, and putting them in picture books to read to children. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with teaching Bible stories to children. I think it’s good to treat children as if they are a part of the faith community that they are being raised in, and to let them know and share in the stories that the faith community sees as important. But sometimes, I wonder about the ways we present some of our favorite stories and heroes to children (and even to adults for that matter).

I wonder what underlying messages we are teaching by simplifying these stories to fit in a picture book, and by making “heroes” out of characters that often acted in ways that were anything but heroic. 

I written before about the story of David and Bathsheba, which is quite possibly a story of a king using his power to rape someone. This is one example of a story that children hear in Sunday School, probably before they have any idea what rape or sex is. Hell, there’s a Veggie Tales version of this story in which Bathsheba is portrayed as a RUBBER DUCK.

I love these veggies, y’all, but I can’t even with this.

Many of us were raised with this story, which often has the effect that we take what happens in it for granted and don’t think about it too deeply.

Well, we need to.

Our churches are deeply saturated in rape culture. If we’re going to challenge that fact we need to rethink our telling children a story about rape in such a way that the rapist is an imperfect hero while the victim is so unimportant that we might as well replace her with a rubber duck.

Back to the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife–another one I started hearing in Sunday School at a young age. A nameless, horny woman wants to sleep with Joseph but he’s so full of integrity that he runs away. Nameless woman is pissed and wants vengeance so she tells everyone, “Joseph raped me!” and poor, poor Joseph goes to prison so God can test him.

What do we learn from this?

Women are sin? They are out to get men? When caught or rejected, they will lie and accuse men of rape? Geez, this sounds like an MRA fairy tale!

Emily Wierenga isn’t the only Christian telling her son to be a Joseph. In fact, I remember having a Patch the Pirate tape (any fellow ex-IFB folks in the house?) that taught children to be like Joseph and “put on your running shoes” when “sin comes knocking at your door.” I used to sing it, not realizing that was the sin the song was talking about.

When I was raped at 16 and considered telling someone, I remember specifically thinking of this story. I remember thinking to myself, “No, I’m not going to be a Potiphar’s wife. I’m going to take responsibility for my own sin.” 

I doubt I’m the only one. How many women who were raised on this story grew up and bought into this stereotype of the temptress who lies about rape when she doesn’t get her way?

And how many Christian leaders buy into that same stereotype? Sheldon and Parent did a study in which, the majority of clergy members they interviewed blamed victims who had been raped. I’m sure the story of Potiphar’s wife isn’t the sole factor contributing to these results, but it isn’t going to challenge any clergy member’s tendency to not believe rape survivors, that’s for sure.

I’m not saying we necessarily should stop teaching these Bible stories to children. In fact, we need to talk to children about rape and sexual assault because children often have to deal with those things in this fucked up world.

But we need to seriously rethink the messages we send as we tell these stories.

Who are the heroes and who are the villains? Whose narrative do we treat as important and who do we treat as mere props? Are the ways we tell these stories challenging or reinforcing rape culture? Are we doing justice to victims and survivors? Are we setting up children (and adults) for shame and self-blame if they ever become survivors? 

 We need to be asking these questions long before we start setting up flannelgraph boards.

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  • pibaba

    GREAT post! I remember also feeling odd about these stories from a young age and not sure ‘why.’

    My mom teaches Sunday School and is the Children’s Director at our church. I remember looking at her materials for the ten plagues in Egypt lesson and listening to a song that went with it. I asked my mom, ‘The kids know that this song, with its upbeat rhythm and fun lyrics, is about people dying, right?’

    My mom thought I was knit-picking and missing the point— but it rushed into clarity for me that day how some Bible stories are taught to children are, like you said, very white-washed. I think there’s harm in that.

    Great post, again!

    • Alice

      Especially since young children don’t really understand death and have trouble separating fiction from reality. Even though I was taught that the Bible stories were real, I still put them in the same mental box as Disney movies and other stories, so they didn’t bother me. I think it’s interesting that the terminology “Bible stories” and “Bible characters” is almost always used despite those people’s professed beliefs.

  • Lana

    dang, good post. The story always changes when we write about it from a different perspective.

  • StaciaR

    I don’t know that we’ll ever go back to church, and one of the biggest reasons why is Sunday School and the way stories are watered down, dumbed down, and white-washed. My husband and I both grew up in church (non-denominational, but it was pretty Evangelical and partly Fundy) and I can’t tell you how many times we’ve felt utterly LIED to when we’ve discovered what the Bible really says and how the stories really go. People don’t understand how much children absorb those Sunday School lessons and how jarring it can be when you “re-learn” them as you get older.

  • debhurn

    Re the rubber duck, how else to convey to children the issues of taking something that is not theirs to take? Remember the Veggie Tales are only loosely based on bible stories. There is no cosmic obligation on the Veggie creators to represent a *rape* tale to little children. Would you even want them to?! Their version is about the ethics of abusing power, selfishness, envy, and consequences. I think they have done a good job with very tricky material.

    • sarahoverthemoon

      If you can’t talk about a story to children without turning the women in the story into objects, don’t tell the story to children.

      • Alice

        Agreed. Also, even before I realized the female objectification problem, I thought the Veggie Tales version was creepy as hell because the king was on the rooftop watching a little kid taking a bath. Yes, he’s coveting the duck, not the kid, but ewwwww!

        Edit: okay, I guess the kid couldn’t have been too young since he went off to fight in the battle, but the part is played by Junior Asparagus who is clearly portrayed as a young kid in all the other Veggie Tales.

      • debhurn

        Sarah, there are some mixed points in your post and comments. “There’s not necessarily anything wrong with teaching Bible stories to children” seems cancelled out by accounts of re-tellings that do not meet with your (and others’) approval. I think your (and others’) problem is not with well-meaning Christians’ attempts to sanitize bible stories for children, but with the bible itself. If you refuse to re-tell (re-frame/adapt/sanitize) any bible stories that objectify people (through patriarchy, rape, polygamy, monarchy, slavery, war, genocide, corporal and capital punishment, incest, mutilation, murder, invasion, occupation, racism, prostitution etc) then you will have to omit the entire biblical narrative. And that’s fine if that works for you (and others). But those who adapt these stories for children (often by changing them a lot) are doing the best they can with what they have. They are not obliged to *either* represent every offensive element of the original stories *or* omit the stories altogether. There is a third way, and the Veggie Tales creators attempt to navigate it.

        • sarahoverthemoon

          “I think your (and others’) problem is not with well-meaning Christians’ attempts to sanitize bible stories for children, but with the bible itself.”

          How dismissive is this line? Especially since I stated that children do need to learn about rape and sexual assault. They face it, often more than older adults do. It does them no good to sanitize these stories when they are facing the issues in these stories. There are age-appropriate ways to tell these stories to children that don’t erase survivors/victims

          • deemetch

            I could imagine talking about incidents of rape in the Bible to a child that I knew was sexually abused, but individually, not in a church-wide or Sunday School setting. I worked in a residence program with kids, the majority of whom had been sexually abused, and bringing up the topic would have put everyone into an uproar, and nothing productive or healing would have happened, when healing might be able to happen in a private counseling session. With kids who have NOT faced this tragedy, I see no reason to expose them to it at a young age… stripping away their innocence like that would seem like an emotional rape to me.

    • Conuly

      A woman is not another person’s property.

      • debhurn

        I understand these points. But a child watching this Veggie Tale wouldn’t even think about women. Marriage, adultery, rape and murder have been written out of the story. The creators have adapted the story to address the issue of envy and theft. We cannot hold them accountable for elements they left out of the story in their effort to represent only the issues that are age-appropriate.

        • Alix

          I don’t see why, if you can’t tell the story without erasing the victim in it, you need to tell the story at all. There are plenty of Bible stories that can be told to children; this one – well. Watering it down for kids is half the problem, because it helps bury the problematic undercurrents even for adults. The other part of the problem is the literal objectification and erasure of the woman in the story.

          I find it a little sickening, honestly, that anyone thinks it’s actually okay to erase people from stories and replace them with objects just so you can tell a rape story to kids in an age-appropriate manner.

          • Alice

            Yes, I think if you have to change major details to the point that the story is barely recognizable anymore, you might as well tell a different one (or just make your own story up) instead of pretending you’re teaching Bible facts.

        • Conuly

          And when they are older and connect the story they hear then with the one they heard in childhood, what is the message they will receive?

          If you can’t present the story in an age-appropriate way, why not wait until the kid is older?

        • sarahoverthemoon

          “A child watching this Veggie Tale wouldn’t even think about women” >>This is the problem! It’s a story about a woman who was victimized and Veggie Tales takes her out of the story. It’s erasing victims/survivors and saying that they aren’t important to the story, just props for the development of the abusers.

  • I grew up Mormon, and it was much the same way. Even in like 8 year old Sunday school, the boys were taught to run away from sin, and girls were taught they should not be like Potipher’s wife, because look at how much unhappiness she brought into Joseph’s life.
    No commentary at all about how because of Potipher’s wife, Joseph went to prison, explained some dreams, and became uber-rich and famous…Nope. She was a “bad woman” that only brought misery, and why would we girls want to become that?

    • Alice

      I remember this story in VBS. The room was all fifth-graders, and we were all laughing at the teacher as she scrambled to come up with a G-rated version. “She said…uh…how do I say this…um…uh…Oh! I know, she said, ‘Joseph, come be my boyfriend!'” I thought it was ridiculous since we obviously all knew about sex already.

  • Alice

    Sunday school material is shamelessly “creative” sometimes. I helped my mom teach toddlers many years ago. One lesson was on families, and we were supposed to teach that Adam, Eve, Cain, and Abel were a happy family! Good luck finding a memory verse for that.

  • Ellen

    Another Bible story that I’ve really thought about, wondering about the REAL story, is the story about Lot’s daughters. We need to remember that this story was written by MEN, totally from the male and partriachal perspective.

    • Alix

      That, and it’s worth remembering that even if the daughters did seduce Lot, they had damn good reason to believe the three of them were the only people alive on the planet.

  • Focusing on this story in this way ignores the fact that the story IS about rape… not a false rape accusation, but actual attempted rape. Potiphar’s wife was attempting to coerce Joseph into having sex with her… and when she is the wife of his master (remember, even though he’s a favored slave, he’s still a SLAVE), when she has the power to have him thrown into jail should he refuse, as is what ultimately happened, I don’t think you can even say that should he have “consented” to sleep with her, it was truly consent. Men can get raped too.

    The story is not about fleeing “temptation” the story is about a man fleeing a woman who is sexually harassing and attempting to rape him. This story is about a man stripped of agency and put in a situation where he is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. Calling that “temptation” and equating that to sin is unfair to both boys and girls and flies in the face of the idea of consent.

    • sarahoverthemoon

      This is another good way to look at this story. Making this about fleeing temptation helps no one.

      • deemetch

        How can you say it “helps no one”? (As in, how can you speak for everyone and be able to determine what is helpful or not?) I agree, that the more you get into the story, the more different elements come out, and you realize, with adult eyes and understanding, that your Sunday School teachers don’t tell five year olds everything (parents don’t either, in regard to the Bible, as well as any number of other adult topics!). Re-reading the Bible SEVERAL times during a lifetime is very helpful; for me, your post highlights the importance of not clinging to Elementary Sunday School concepts of the Bible, but to keep going back to the original source!

  • Alice

    I heard terms like “prostitute,” “eunuch,” “circumcision,” and “virgin” growing up, but the details were really foggy except the first two = bad and the last two = good.

  • deemetch

    I am a Christian because I turned to God when my college roommate got raped. Best decision ever! Yes, Sunday School for children is sanitized from all kinds of things that they wouldn’t understand or be able to process very well anyway. As I said in another comment, it just highlights how important it is to stay in touch with the original source documents (the actual Bible) rather than depending on your memory of stories told when you were a kid. Or reading the Bible for yourself instead of looking to VeggieTales to explain theological concepts to adults. I find the Bible to be quite unflinching when it tells of (or hints at) sin and sex, even though it is largely written about patriarchal societies with a mostly skewed view of the value of women.

    So what do you think of the reaction of Dinah’s brothers when she got raped? (Genesis 34) I think it is interesting you don’t mention her. Dinah’s opinion about the whole thing is sadly absent (another sad/evil result of patriarchy), but rape is certainly not trivialized when all the men in town are killed because one raped their sister. But again, that is not a story generally picked out to be the subject of the Children’s Sermon…..

    • NeaDods

      As far as I can tell from your opening sentences, your conversion is based on something horrible happening to someone else and this… gives insight to tell a third party how they should talk about stories about something horrible happening to yet someone else?

      What, pray tell, was the religious reaction of the woman who was actually raped, and her feelings about that decision?

      • deemetch

        Something horrible happened to someone else THAT I COULD EASILY IDENTIFY WITH–and while I am glad it did not happen to me, it served to put me deeply in touch with my vulnerability, which served to turn me to God (that was my good decision, in case that wasn’t clear in my earlier post). In my vulnerable state, I was comforted by a real sense of God’s presence, began reading the Bible, and my understanding of the things I read in Scripture has grown as I have matured. I mention it because rape has a significance to me that it would not have had otherwise, even though I didn’t have to experience it myself to feel the weightiness of it.

        My roommate also became religious and was baptized later that year. She also became somewhat of a mess in regard to her relationships, breaking up with her high school boyfriend (unclear whether they became sexually involved), becoming sexually involved with a drug abuser… and then we didn’t keep in contact. She was on a destructive path, and I hope she was able to work through it. She was supposed to receive counseling through the University… we were only 18… with my “adult eyes” I think the University totally mishandled it, and all 3 of us (roommates) should have had at least a couple individual and group counseling sessions. But God helped me through things even when the University dropped the ball. And when I read Scripture, even when I see that many of the authors and major players are men immersed in a patriarchal society, I still read it as a document from a God who loves, cares, and values women… and does not blame rape on the woman.

        As far as “tell[ing] a third party how they should talk about stories”–to me, that is what Sarah seems to be doing, and the point of my post. She is the one saying that people aren’t telling the Bible story right, that keeping out sexual details from children is the same as promoting rape culture, that the Bible promotes rapists as heroes, and the Church(and its rape culture)-and therefore the Bible implies that women who are raped are at fault. It is not true!!! And that is why I say we need to keep reading the Bible, at every stage of life, because the Bible stories that are appropriate for kids do not include details that are present in the actual Biblical account.

  • Eric

    Forgive me in advance for all of the ignorant things I’m about to say…

    I’ll agree with all of the comments about Bathsheba; she was a victim, absolutely. I didn’t become a Christian until I was 20 so I never encountered those watered-down versions. However the story isn’t about her, is it? Like, I know ‘Should it have been about it?’ is probably another debate but it just wasn’t. David is the central character of the story, so it focuses more on him. Simply from a literary standpoint, it wouldn’t make sense so build up a huge story about David, then introduce a new character and focus on her simply because the circumstances change. David, as evil and wicked of a man as he became, was still the main character.

    So maybe there is a better way to teach these stories. No woman should have to feel like being raped was there fault and if the church made you or anyone else feel that way, the church (I have to include myself in this category) needs to repent and fix their lives.

    However, to me, the story with Potiphar’s wife seems to be pretty clear in indicating that Joseph was the one being raped. Maybe I’m wrong, I’m willing to open myself up to that. But men get raped. And women can be rapists. If we’re taking a feminist mindset that both sexes are equal, then this has to be a possibility. And especially when a woman of considerable power has the opporunity and perchance the desire to sleep with an immigrant slave, why is it impossible to believe she wouldn’t use her given power to her advantage?

    This article seems to take the viewpoint that ‘Women must be the victim’. They often are and it’s often because of bigoted, evil men like David. But it is not the case every single time.

    • sarahoverthemoon

      No, I agree. Someone pointed this out earlier too. I think the story can definitely be read as a case of a woman trying to sexually assault a man. In that case, the danger in the common telling of the story is the idea that “Joseph was fleeing from sin,” since being a victim of attempted rape is not a sin. Thanks for pointing this out.

      • Kristen Rosser

        Right– the problem is not so much with the Potiphar’s-wife story; the problem is with the stories and messages people are erroneously deriving from it. The message of the story is not “Women, don’t claim to have been raped.” The message is, “People, don’t attempt rape and then claim the victim tried to rape you.”

  • Caroline Moreschi

    I know this is old, but I just love that you referenced flannelgraph. That’s something only a real survivor would know 🙂

  • deemetch

    I can’t speak for the stories you have heard about David & Bathsheba, but I have (that I recall) NEVER heard Bathsheba cast as one of those “seductive women”–I’ve always heard it as David abusing his power in lust…and then compounding it by killing a soldier loyal to him (B’s husband Uriah). That WOULD make me mad if Bathsheba is blamed for David’s actions, especially because it is not biblical (nor does it make logical sense). But I think Potiphar’s wife was in the wrong & Joseph was the victimized one–victimization can go both ways, and I like it that the Bible points that out. You didn’t mention Tamar & Judah–but I would contend that Tamar was the victimized one (the Bible clearly supports that)–although I could imagine SOME churches going crazy about Tamar’s role in that story!