Poor Mrs Potiphar. She gets a bad rap, doesn’t she? The story so far, Joseph annoys his brothers by being a tattletale, egocentric and earning undeserved praise and glory from his father. So his brothers sell him off to be a slave. There he is appointed to chief of the household for Potiphar. He is beset upon by the rapacious and lascivious character of Mrs Potiphar who tries to have her wicked way with him while everyone else is out of the house. When he rebuffs her advances, she turns the table and accuses HIM of trying to violate her honor.
As far as it goes, this is a fairly accurate reading of the text, but it misses a few textual details that imply different motives for her and less honor for Joseph. Potiphar is listed as the captain of the guard, but the word saris can mean either high official or eunuch. The words overlap because many ancient royals demand that sacrifice to ensure absolute loyalty – they wouldn’t be looking out for their own kids’ futures. Mrs Potiphar may have been quite rightly frustrated. Under Jewish law she would have been able to force her husband to grant a divorce and remarry someone able to be with her physically. Egyptian practice would not allow this. So she snapped when a handsome, available and seemingly safe young man came her way.
And did he resist her so easily? Certainly the midrash states that he was not so stalwart in his fidelity to God and Potiphar. This has been captured by the trope Shalshelet, which is a rising and falling melody. It appears only 4 times in the entire Torah. Every time, it marks hesitancy or uncertainty. Here it is over the word, and he refused.
The stories we tell about our ancestors, our history, our own personal experiences often read best when cast in black and white. But our traditions and the wisdom of our sages remind us that simple characters, heroes and villains, are not the stuff of real life. Real accomplishments are often made greater by our doubts and hesitancies. Real crimes are often mitigated, sometimes just slightly, by their circumstances.