"Joseph in Prison" by Rev. Jillian Hankamer, October 2, 2022
When he was killed on August 28, 1955, Emmett Till was 14 years old. He’d been 14 for less than a month when he was accused of sexually harassing Carolyn Bryant in a grocery store. As you know the important detail here is that Carolyn was white, and Emmett was black.
After Emmett’s death the two white men accused of his murder were found “not guilty” by an all-white, all-male jury. Four months later those same men admitted to kidnapping and murdering Till in an interview with Look magazine. But as they’d already been acquitted, they couldn’t be tried again and never served time for Till’s death.
Sixty years later Carolyn Bryant admitted she lied about her interaction with
Emmett. Till never grabbed her, never made physical advances. Despite this, she never faced any consequences for her dishonesty.
If you’re familiar with Emmett’s story it’s because his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, refused to let him be forgotten or ignored. After her son’s body was found in the Tallahatchie River, unrecognizable but for his father’s ring on his finger, Mamie insisted on an open casket saying, “Let the people see what they did to my boy.”
According to the NAACP “more than 4,700 people were lynched in the United States between 1882 and 1968… The vast majority were Black, while many of the white victims of lynching were killed for helping Black people, advocating for their rights, or for speaking up against the lynching of Black people.”
In the late 1800s claims that Black men had assaulted or made sexual advances on white women were frequent justifications for lynchings.
“Historians say that in reality many [assault] accusation claims were false and were often used as cover for consensual relationships that were, at the time, extremely taboo. And racist beliefs were so deep-seated among white communities, that ‘Whites could not countenance the idea of a white woman desiring [intimacy] with a [Black person], thus any physical relationship between a white woman and a [B]lack man had, by definition, to be an unwanted assault,’ writes historian Philip Dray.”
The perception of Black men as a danger to white women contributing to false accusations like the ones that cost Emmett Till his life is, of course, rooted in slavery. For example, according to the American Bar Association, during slavery there were no laws in Louisiana to make “the [sexual assault] of a black woman, slave or free, a crime. [Sexual assault] was specifically limited to white women... However, Louisiana’s provisions mandated capital punishment for both the [sexual assault] and the attempted [assault] of a white female by a slave.”
Today, black men are twice as likely to be arrested for a sex offense and three times more likely to be accused of sexual assault than white men. This isn’t because black men are committing these crimes at higher rates, “but because they are more often suspected and accused of such crimes due to racial biases.” And to round out these shameful statistics, according to the National Registry of Exonerations,
“innocent Black people are seven times more likely to be wrongfully convicted of murder than innocent white people. And studies show that Black men are sentenced to death far more often when accused of committing a crime against a white person. Since 1976, nearly 300 Black people accused of murdering white people have been executed — about 14 times the number of white people executed for murdering white people…”
If you’re uncomfortable, good. Sit in that discomfort. That’s part of my reason for beginning this way. As a majority white congregation, we don’t have the luxury of not being aware of such realities. The other reason to begin this way is to connect this morning’s story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife with a more recent, more geographically understandable context because Potiphar’s wife identifies Joseph as a “Hebrew” twice in these verses. Both times occur when she’s accusing Joseph of assaulting her.
To back up a bit and refresh our collective memories of how we’ve gotten here keep in mind that Joseph is his father Jacob’s favorite, but not his only son. After being given a special coat by their father Joseph’s brothers have had enough of him and they sell him into slavery, telling their father Joseph has been killed by wild animals. Joseph ends up in Egypt and is eventually sold to Potiphar, working his way up to being Potiphar’s right-hand man.
Now, returning to this morning’s story did you notice that Joseph is only identified as a “Hebrew” in the story when Potiphar’s wife is accusing him? And did you notice her intentionally calling the rest of the household servants to her to make her first accusation? Then we’re told in verse 16 that she keeps Joseph’s clothes with her - the clothes Joseph runs out of to get away - to show her husband when he gets home. Now, I’ll admit this isn’t a perfect comparison. Potiphar’s wife is playing into ethnic biases whereas white women falsely accusing black men is based on race. Ethnicity and race are not the same thing, particularly because race is a societal construct and wasn’t used to categorize people until the late 16th century. And yet the comparison works.
What we continue to struggle with, however, is why. Beyond basic racism or belief in ethnic superiority, why does Potiphar’s wife behave this way? Is she vindictive due to the embarrassment of being turned down? Or is this perhaps another example of someone being jealous of Joseph like his brothers were?
After all it’s not like Potiphar catches his wife and Joseph in an elicit embrace. She could just let this go. But she doesn’t. Is it because she’s angry that her power as Joseph's owner isn’t absolute? Is she saddened by being refused attention and intimacy from another man? After all, we’re told that all Potiphar is paying attention to these days is what he’s eating. Or is this woman selfish and vindictive?
We’ll never know. We don’t even know this woman’s name so understanding her motivation in this story isn’t possible. What we do know is a negative, selfish understanding of Potiphar’s wife fits into broader biblical stereotypes about a woman wanting to take down a powerful, upstanding man. This happens often in the biblical text. And I’ll be honest, I want to give Potiphar’s wife the benefit of the doubt. As a feminist who reads the biblical text through a feminist lens it’s difficult for me not to wonder how and why Potiphar’s wife ended up making these choices.
But what if the roles were reversed? What if this story was about someone’s husband treating a female slave this way? That’s exactly what a project created by female Jewish scholars is working discover. Their work is called Beit Toratah and according to their website, Torahtah - the Rendengered Bible, “sheds a clear light on the deeply patriarchal framework we live in. Furthermore, Toratah codifies women’s experiences in the sacred and enables divine inspiration to express itself through mother-daughter lineages from within Biblical language.”
So honestly, painfully, when we reverse the roles in this story, we can’t deny that not only does Potiphar’s wife falsely accuse Joseph, she sexually assaults him. Which takes this already dark story and makes it predatory. It means these verses should come with a trigger warning. And it makes it difficult to see anything positive, anything worth taking away from this story.
But, let me offer you another interpretation that paints this story in, if not a better light, at least a more diverse one. There’s ancient Jewish scholarship that suggests Joseph is described as gender non-conforming, or gender-fluid. Yes, these are contemporary terms. Joseph wouldn’t have used either, but that terminology is a helpful way to sum up what’s happening in the Hebrew.
Let’s unpack this. First, Joseph is described as being well-built and good looking in this passage with the same words that are used to describe his mother Rachel in Genesis 29:17. It’s language that usually describes a woman’s shapely form. And do you remember the coat Joseph is given by his father? The Hebrew used to describe the coat’s long sleeves that go down to the hands is the same that’s used in 2 Samuel 13 to describe a coat worn by King David’s daughter, Tamar. In 2 Samuel this type of coat is called “what the virgin princesses wore as garments.”
As Dr. Amy Robertson, the Rabbi I listen to weekly explains, Joseph being gender non-conforming “fills out the…character in a way that makes things make sense” because LBGTQ+ folks are used to a life that hasn’t been easy. Being part of the Rainbow Mafia unfairly requires you to be courageous and have integrity in a way those of us in the white, straight, cis-gendered community rarely face. And more specifically reading Joseph through an LGBTQ+ lens, and specifically a gender non-conforming lens “crushes any assumption that of course Joseph wanted to sleep with this woman and fought the urge. Instead, she’s the one making assumptions based on her interpretation of how someone ‘should’ perform masculinity.”
In this reading Joseph is innocently trying to be himself. His rejection of Potiphar’s wife is less a rejection of her and more a rejection of the identity she has created for him that was never there to begin with. This is important because even if this reading is too much isogenies - reading into the text rather than out of it - this lens points to the vulnerability of trans people. This vulnerability comes in the form of so much suffering being heaped upon our trans siblings because of the assumptions, misinformation, and sheer refusal to be compassionate that forms in other people’s minds and hearts.
Now, I’m going to step down from my soapbox and attempt to bring all of this together. With these themes I’ve mentioned - racism, ethnocentrism, false accusations, sexual assault, how unfair and inaccurate assumptions effect trans folks - what can we possibly take away from this rather ugly story? Is there good news to be had this morning? Thankfully, the answer is yes.
First the takeaway that isn’t so much good news as a good reminder: we must constantly pay attention to power dynamics. Personally, professionally, for ourselves, our church, our country. Who are we putting in unwinnable situations? How can we better look out for vulnerable people in our communities?
Because, and this is our transition into this morning’s Good News, this story also reminds us that God is explicitly with the one who isn’t powerful in any other way. The only thing that’s constant in Joseph’s life at this point is God, and even the Eternal’s presence doesn’t keep bad things from happening to him.
And that’s the end of this morning’s Good News. While being in relationship with God doesn’t prevent bad things from happening in our lives, God’s presence can be felt when things are working for the good and when we’re in times of challenge. And I know, we’d rather be assured that having a relationship with God is a safeguard against bad things. I wish I could tell you that’s how things work or at least explain to you why bad things happen. Unfortunately, I can’t. But what I can tell you, what I can point you to, what I can remind you of, particularly if you’re hurting this morning, is to remember Joseph in this story. For if God is with Joseph in this dark, difficult moment in his life you can be assured God is with you no matter who or what you’re facing.