06 Villains: Potiphar’s wife, Delilah, Athaliah


Frymer-Kensky, Tikva   Reading the Women of the Bible: A new Interpretation of their Stories.  (Shocken Books, New York, 2002).


Potiphar’s Wife

A Woman Refused  Genesis 39:1-10

1 When Joseph was taken down to Egypt, an Egyptian, Potiphar, an official of Pharaoh and his chief steward, bought him from the Ishmaelites who had brought him there. 2  The LORD was with Joseph and he enjoyed great success and was assigned to the household of his Egyptian master. 3  When his master saw that the LORD was with him and brought him success in whatever he did, 4 he favored Joseph and made him his personal attendant; he put him in charge of his household and entrusted to him all his possessions.   5 From the moment that he put him in charge of his household and all his possessions, the LORD blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake; the LORD’s blessing was on everything he owned, both inside the house and out. 6 Having left everything he owned in Joseph’s charge, he gave no thought, with Joseph there, to anything but the food he ate.

                Now Joseph was well-built and handsome.

7 After a time, his master’s wife looked at him with longing and said, “Lie with me.” 8  But he refused and said to his master’s wife, “Look, as long as I am here, my master does not give a thought to anything in the house, but has entrusted to me all he owns. 9  He has no more authority in this house than I do. He has withheld from me nothing but you, since you are his wife. How, then, could I do this great wrong and sin against God?”  10 Although she spoke to him day after day, he would not agree to lie with her, or even be near her.


Refusal and Revenge  Genesis 39: 11-20

11 One such day, when Joseph came into the house to do his work, and none of the household servants were then in the house, 12 she laid hold of him by his cloak, saying, “Lie with me!” But leaving the cloak in her hand, he escaped and ran outside. 13 When she saw that he had left his cloak in her hand as he escaped outside, 14 she cried out to her household servants and told them, “Look! My husband has brought us a Hebrew man to mock us! He came in here to lie with me, but I cried out loudly. 15 When he heard me scream, he left his cloak beside me and escaped and ran outside.”

 16 She kept the cloak with her until his master came home. 17 Then she told him the same story: “The Hebrew slave whom you brought us came to me to amuse himself at my expense. 18 But when I screamed, he left his cloak beside me and escaped outside.” 19 When the master heard his wife’s story in which she reported, “Thus and so your servant did to me,” he became enraged. 20 Joseph’s master seized him and put him into the jail where the king’s prisoners were confined.  And there he sat, in jail.



A Woman Turned  Judges 16:4-5

4 After that he fell in love with a woman in the Wadi Sorek whose name was Delilah. 5  The lords of the Philistines came up to her and said, “Trick him and find out where he gets his great strength, and how we may overcome and bind him so as to make him helpless. Then for our part, we will each give you eleven hundred pieces of silver.”


A Failed Attempt  Judges 16:6-9

6 So Delilah said to Samson, “Tell me where you get your great strength and how you may be bound so as to be made helpless.” 7 “If they bind me with seven fresh bowstrings that have not dried,” Samson answered her, “I shall grow weaker and be like anyone else.” 8 So the lords of the Philistines brought her seven fresh bowstrings that had not dried, and she bound him with them. 9 She had men lying in wait in the room, and she said to him, “The Philistines are upon you, Samson!” But he snapped the bowstrings as a thread of tow is snapped by a whiff of flame; and his strength remained unexplained.


Again and Again  Judges 16:10-14

10 Delilah said to Samson, “You have mocked me and told me lies. Now tell me how you may be bound.” 11 “If they bind me tight with new ropes, with which no work has been done,” he answered her, “I shall grow weaker and be like anyone else.” 12 So Delilah took new ropes and bound him with them. Then she said to him, “The Philistines are upon you, Samson!” For there were men lying in wait in the room. But he snapped the ropes off his arms like thread.

 13 Delilah said to Samson again, “Up to now you have mocked me and told me lies. Tell me how you may be bound.” He said to her, “If you weave the seven locks of my hair into the web and fasten them with the pin, I shall grow weaker and be like anyone else.” 14 So when he went to bed, Delilah took the seven locks of his hair and wove them into the web, and fastened them with the pin. Then she said, “The Philistines are upon you, Samson!” Awakening from his sleep, he pulled out both the loom and the web.






A Man Undone  Judges 16: 15-21

15  Then she said to him, “How can you say ‘I love you’ when your heart is not mine? Three times already you have mocked me, and not told me where you get your great strength!” 16 She pressed him continually and pestered him till he was deathly weary of it. 17 So he told her all that was in his heart and said, “No razor has touched my head, for I have been a nazirite for God from my mother’s womb.  If I am shaved, my strength will leave me, and I shall grow weaker and be like anyone else.” 18 When Delilah realized that he had told her all that was in his heart, she summoned the lords of the Philistines, saying, “Come up this time, for he has told me all that is in his heart.” So the lords of the Philistines came to her and brought the money with them.  19 She put him to sleep on her lap, and called for a man who shaved off the seven locks of his hair. He immediately became helpless, for his strength had left him. 20 When she said “The Philistines are upon you, Samson!” he woke from his sleep and thought, “I will go out as I have done time and again and shake myself free.” He did not realize that the LORD had left him. 21 But the Philistines seized him and gouged out his eyes. Then they brought him down to Gaza and bound him with bronze fetters, and he was put to grinding grain in the prison.



Slaughter of the Innocents  2 Kings 11:1-2

1 When Athaliah, the mother of Ahaziah, saw that her son was dead, she began to kill off the whole royal family. 2 But Jehosheba, daughter of King Joram and sister of Ahaziah, took Joash, Ahaziah’s son, and spirited him away, along with his nurse, from the bedroom where the princes were about to be slain. He was concealed from Athaliah, and so he did not die.


Revealing the Hidden Child  2 Kings 11:3-4

3 For six years he remained hidden with her in the house of the LORD, while Athaliah ruled as queen over the land.

4 But in the seventh year, Jehoiada summoned the captains of the Carians and of the guards. He had them come to him in the house of the LORD, made a covenant with them, exacted an oath from them in the house of the LORD, and then showed them the king’s son.


Coronation and Conspiracy  2 Kings 11: 9-16

9 The captains did just as Jehoiada the priest commanded. Each took his troops, both those going on duty for the week and those going off duty that week, and came to Jehoiada the priest. 10  He gave the captains King David’s spear and quivers, which were in the house of the LORD. 11 And the guards, with drawn weapons, lined up from the southern to the northern limit of the enclosure, surrounding the altar and the temple on the king’s behalf. 12 Then Jehoiada brought out the king’s son and put the crown and the testimony upon him. They proclaimed him king and anointed him, clapping their hands and shouting, “Long live the king!”

 13 When Athaliah heard the noise made by the people, she came before them in the house of the LORD. 14 When she saw the king standing by the column, as was the custom, and the captains and trumpeters near the king, and all the people of the land rejoicing and blowing trumpets, Athaliah tore her garments and cried out, “Treason, treason!” 15 Then Jehoiada the priest instructed the captains in command of the force: “Escort her with a guard detail.  If anyone follows her, let him die by the sword.” For the priest had said, “She must not die in the house of the LORD.” 16 So they seized her, and when she reached the Horse Gate of the king’s house, she was put to death.




Potiphar’s wife is a foreigner/ Egyptian.  Athaliah is an Israelite princess.  The text does not tell us about Delilah.  F-K p. 75 “But one factor unites them: they are allied with the other side in Israel’s national and cosmic battles.  For this reason, all of them represent the “Other”, the alternative to Israel’s destiny and way.”


Potiphar’s Wife

A Woman Refused  Genesis 39:1-10

F-K p. 74,75: “Joseph is beautiful, and she wants him.  Beauty in the Bible is sometimes a vulnerability, for powerful people go after beautiful objects.  Mrs. Potiphar’s desire for Joseph ay have another source.  Potiphar is called Pharaoh’s saris, a word that ultimately came to mean “officer” bur originally meant “eunuch.”  Ancient kings could demand that their closes officers be eunuchs, both as a foil to their ambitions and to lessen the chances that they would usurp the king’s prerogatives in the harem.  Is saris in this story literal?  Was Potiphar a eunuch?  If so, it certainly adds another dimension to his wife’s desire for Joseph.” … “Normally wives are in charge of their households.  But in Potiphar’s house, Joseph runs the show.  There is nothing for Potiphar’s wife to do but admire the beautiful young man.”

She can’t demand sex (as a male owner might of a female slave).  She can’t just sell him (without husband approval and decision).  She really can’t punish him at all.





Refusal and Revenge  Genesis 39: 11-20

She may not have had a specific plan that day to do Joseph in – his being outside without clothes forces the issue – someone may see him and conclude that they had just slept together.  Therefore she chooses to go on the offensive.

Male fear of a false charge of rape is ancient and there were stories in many cultures about it including in Egypt – Tale of Two Brothers, in which one is accused by the wife of the other.   F-K p. 76: “She plays on the emotion of her audience, and then of her husband, by subliminally building on the common fear that foreign men prey on a nation’s women.”

F-K p. 76: “Potiphar’s wife now disappears from the Bible.  Her motives have been selfish, her methods injurious, but ironically, she has been the instrument of Joseph’s destiny, removing him from his pleasant position to a place from which he can ultimately rise to a much greater one.”



Samson’s birth announcement promises greatness.  F-Kp.77: “This angel behaves like other angels, appearing suddenly and prophesying.  But he then gives the mother specific instructions.  She is to abstain from alcohol during her pregnancy, so that Samson will be consecrated as a Nazirite already in the womb.  The Nazirites were especially devoted to God; their status was marked by long hair and abstinence from alcohol.  It is not clear what Nazirites were expected to do, but the prophet Amos considers their importance to Israel on a par with that of prophets (Amos 2:11).  Samson was a very unusual Nazirite.  Other people took vows to become Nazirites and could undo those vows (Num. 6)  But Samson’s Nazirite state is promised to his mother before he is born, and she knows it is permanent, “from the womb until the day of his death” ((judges 13:7).  Her statement hints that breaking the Nazirite status will lead to Samson’s death.”

F-K p. 77: (some)”modern readers suspect that the angel also caused the pregnancy, either through sexual intercourse or through his speech.  The story itself never tells us that Samson had a divine father.  It does tell us that his Nazirite status conveyed upon him super-strength.  He was remembered as a superhero with a cluster of tales relating his exploits against Israel’s enemy, the Philistines.”


 A Woman Turned      Judges 16:4-5

Perhaps Delilah was a Philistine, perhaps not.  She lived ‘in the valley’ where there were lots of folks of all kinds.  F-K p. 79: “The promise of a fortune, not her parentage, is the source of her loyalty.”  Other biblical betrayals much cheaper – 20 or 30 shekels (Joseph by his brothers, Judas for 30 pieces of silver).  She is promised 5,500 shekels.  (our text has 1,100 pieces of silver per briber)

F-K p. 79: “There are no sexual connotations in these scenarios.  The biblical story of Samson and Delilah is also a lot less sexy than later retellings.”    Really?



A Failed Attempt     Judges 16:6-9

Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me.


Again and Again  Judges 16:10-14

Samson is a trickster / riddler along with his super-strength.  Is he playing with her as much as, or more, than she is playing with him?  Each of the 3 lies that Samson tells can be seen as a mocking of Philistine culture.

F-K p. 79: “The Samson stories show him in battle with those who represent the culture side of the nature / culture wars that the “wild man” wages, and one might conclude that “culture” is his enemy.  In an irony of language, the English word “philistine” evokes a barbaric lack of culture.  But the Israelites knew the Philistines as people with a monopoly over iron and could see them as archaeology is now revealing them, a people with a highly developed culture.”     David vs. Goliath precisely (their army appeared invincible, their only option was one against one.


A Man Undone    Judges 16: 15-21

F-K p. 81: “There is irony in wordplays.  Delilah saw what was happening; Samson should have seen what was going on and his failure to see led to his loss of sight.  He who was blind to Delilah’s intent become literally blind.”    Similarly, but in reverse, Jesus and the Pharisees and the man born blind in the Gospel of John.

F-K p. 82: “Both of his women asked him, over and over.  And they accused him of not loving them.  Over and over.  Samson is susceptible to the combination of persistence and guilt.  It would not be fair to say that he had great brawn and little brain, but somehow he does not recognize the tactic and it works again.  It is afer all, a very good tactic.  According to Proverbs, it is better to live in the desert or a corner of a roof than with a contentious wife (Proverbs. 21:9, 19; 25:24).

Proverbs 21:9

It is better to dwell in a corner of the housetop than in a mansion with a quarrelsome woman.

Proverbs 21:19

It is better to dwell in a wilderness than with a quarrelsome wife and trouble.

Proverbs 25:24

It is better to dwell in a corner of the housetop than in a mansion with a quarrelsome wife.



F-K p. 82: “Delilah destroys that which made Samson different so that he has become like any man.  The contest between woman as civilizing agent and half-civilized man is a staple of American history, encoded in the iconic relationship of the schoolmarm and the cowboy on the American frontier.”

Mothers / toddlers through all of history.   How might the same events be described by the toddler?

F-K p. 83:

  • A Battle of the Sexes myth common in Greek mythology
  • The Samson stories are a literary creation with similarities to other Mediterranean myths
  • Riddle of bees / lion / honey (not read here) similar to others
  • Zeus parallels are behind her suggestion of a divine father
  • Another parallel – Herakles.  Long hair, strong, undone by another woman …

Moses / Samson set in contrast?   Moses humble and weak, Samson proud and strong.  Both set to “liberate” the people.  Moses’ women help him and assist the divine plan, Samson’s plot against him and lead to failure.

F-K p. 84: “Delilah is the ‘bizarro-universe’ image of Yael.  Yael uses her position as hostess to nurture Sisera into a sense of well-being and then kills him.  Delilah uses her presence in the house to deprive Samson of his liberty.  Neither man suspects, possibly because they assume that women are not dangerous.”  One is a savior, the other a villain.”



F-K p. 85: “… as daughter of Omri or Ahab, she certainly would have been considered an Israelite.  Even if she was the daughter of Jezebel – and the Bible never tells us that she was – as Ahab’s daughter (or sister), she would still be considered an Israelite woman.”   Omri was a northern kingdom king.

Slaughter of the Innocents  2 Kings 11:1-2

What did she have to gain by this?  Why not rule as “queen-regent” while the heir grows up?

P. 86 of F-K

  1. May have been infected by reformist zeal.  Some of the princes had taken some stuff of David’s to a temple of Baal.
  2. Fear of Jehu who was killing Omrides.
  3. Perhaps she was currying favor with Jehu by killing the princes.

Revealing the Hidden Child  2 Kings 11:3-4 & Coronation and Conspiracy  2 Kings 11: 9-16

It was not a religious revolt.  She was a follower of the LORD (-yah ending).  The child may, or may not have been an impostor.




F-K p. 88: “The villainesses of the Bible are strong, determined, and ferocious, not very different from the savior heroines. …  As they act as enemies of Israel’s institutions, their behavior puts them beyond the pale.”

F-K p. 88 “… the prophet Ezekiel attributes Jerusalem’s lack of faith to the city’s foreign origins.  The Deuteronomist declares that foreignness is villainy; later generations make all villainy foreign.  In post-biblical traditions up to and including much contemporary scholarship, villains are simply assumed to be foreigners.  In the Bible itself, it is the villainous behavior that makes an individual foreign, not the genes.”   Interesting point.  Application to today??????




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