It’s interesting reading the exchanges between Joseph and Potiphar’s wife (why doesn’t she merit some long difficult-to-put-in-katakana name?) in Japanese, because of the verb forms they use. Potiphar’s wife is explicitly giving a command: “Come to my bed.” Joseph, meanwhile, not only refuses but does so in a very polite way. This accentuates the power difference between them. For all that Joseph has an overseer position among the other slaves, he’s still property, and she’s the owner.

What’s frustrating is that the authors are very easy able to recognize the imbalance here and the difficulty of Joseph’s position, but this kind of insight never gets applied to the many, many female slaves who have been used as surrogates either voluntarily or involuntarily up to this point.

That said, even the idea that men can be the recipients of unwanted female attention is a bit refreshing in an American culture that seems to assume men are always horny and can never be sexually harassed – unless, you know, she’s really ugly or something.

Why does it seem like no matter what, our ways of thinking about sex are messed up?

Another interesting language thing to note is that Potiphar’s wife calls Joseph “a Hebrew” (v 14) and “the Hebrew” (v 16), as though the word is an insult. This is maybe where people got the idea that “Hebrew” was related the Egyptian abiru or apiru, which was a derogatory term for nomadic peoples in the Levant. Linguists say that’s unlikely, and I take their word for it. Still, one wonders whether this, like many labels later accepted by a people, wasn’t initially meant as a slur of some kind. It isn’t the first use of the term, though, since it was first used in Genesis 14 in a non-insult context. Count it as another mystery.

Also, apparently jails worked differently back then, because prisoners could become wardens? Joseph rises to the position of being the jailer’s assistant. Maybe he wasn’t the first man to get chucked in there after refusing to sleep with Potiphar’s wife, and the jailer cut him some slack.

The Bible, of course, attributes his success to God’s blessing, though the translations render it very differently. In the NRSV, “the Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love; he gave him favor in the sight of the chief jailer.” (v 21) In Japanese, that same verse is “the Lord extended grace/mercy/blessings to him, and was led to suit the eyes of the chief jailer.” That’s a pretty big difference. I think the latter half can be attributed to different ways of expressing the same idea (from the viewpoint of the chief jailer, Joseph is a great guy), while the other is the NRSV choosing “steadfast love” to translate the Hebrew chesed, while the NCT is using megumi, a word with a number of meanings, like “blessing,” “grace,” “mercy,” “beneficence.”

Still, the Japanese gives a feeling of Joseph not being entirely deserving of how nice God is being to him. God is doing it for the sake of his family line, not because Joseph is such a swell person.

The Japanese: yudaneru “to entrust to” (v 4), kobamu“to refuse (formal)” (v 8), shuujin “prisoner” (v 20), hodokosu “to give,to extend to,” kanshuchou “chief jailer” (v 21), me wo kubaru “keep a close eye on” (v 23).