Sold by his brothers into slavery in Egypt, Joseph has risen in the ranks during his service in the house of Potiphar, a royal courtier. Joseph has gained the implicit trust of his master and been given the run of the house. Only Potiphar’s wife is off limits for Joseph. While his conduct is unimpeachable, the mistress of the house has other things in mind.
After a time, his master’s wife cast her eyes upon Joseph and she said, ‘Lie with me’. But he refused, and said to his master’s wife, ‘Look, with me here, my master gives no thought to anything in this house, and all that he owns he has placed in my hands. He wields no more authority in this house than I, and he has withheld nothing from me except yourself, since you are his wife. How then could I do this most wicked thing, and sin before God?’ (Genesis 39-7-9)
Rembrandt has chosen to illustrate two distinct moments in the Joseph and Potiphar’s wife narrative. In the etching, he portrays Joseph escaping the lecherous clutches of Potiphar’s wife. He forcefully pulls away from her grasp. The viewer is duly impressed that the innocent youth is capable of resisting temptation. The canvas painting captures the next scene in the drama when Mrs. Potiphar accuses Joseph of a crime he did not commit, venting her anger, frustration and desire for revenge.
She kept his garment beside her, until his master came home. Then she told him the same story saying, ‘The Hebrew slave whom you brought into our house came to me to dally with me; but when I screamed at the top of my voice, he left his garment with me and fled outside.’ (Genesis 39-16-18)
In the painting Joseph is enveloped in numinous light. Rembrandt has captured Joseph’s expression of humility and innocence. The disgruntled wife of Potiphar points accusingly at Joseph’s cloak. Potiphar is positioned parallel to Joseph and listens to her malicious harangue with an apathetic glance.
Dr. Bryna Jocheved Levy