We need to respond with the values that we see in Jesus Christ’s life.
God wants us to tell him our desires and dialogue with us over them; but most of all he wants us to delight ourselves in him.
The theme of bored housewives seeking excitement in extra-marital sexual affairs is a familiar theme in today’s soap operas, plays and news reports. Indeed, a simple internet search will reveal sites inviting housewives to register and enjoy extra-marital affairs or cyber-affairs online.
However, this is far from being a new phenomenon. We find it in the Bible as long as 4,000 years ago, in the land of Egypt. As the writer of Ecclesiastes tells us, There is nothing new under the sun.
Potiphar’s wife – we do not even know her name – was a woman who had it all. She appears briefly in Genesis 39. Her husband had the prestigious position of captain of Pharaoh’s guard, and his remuneration enabled her to live a life of luxury, with servants meeting every one of her needs – except, it seems, her need for sexual fulfilment.
We are not told whether her husband was more interested in his job than in her (a complaint often heard today), whether he was a philanderer who paid attention to lots of other women, or whether she was simply bored or discontented. We can only conjecture.
What we do know is that when a new servant called Joseph rose to prominence in her household, she took notice that he was well-built and handsome and said, “Come to bed with me!” Joseph refused to dishonour his master and his God and so did his best to keep away from her.
But one day she caught up with him when there were no other servants in the house and again pleaded, “Come to bed with me!” Joseph ran away as fast as he could, but unfortunately for him, she caught hold of his cloak and it was left in her hands.
Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, said the 17th century playwright William Congreve (actually, I thought it was Shakespeare till I looked into it). That was certainly true of Potiphar’s wife. Having been repeatedly spurned by Joseph, she now accuses him to her husband of trying to rape her, the cloak in her hands being the evidence.
Naturally her husband was furious; but the fact that he only put Joseph in prison, rather than immediately putting him to death (as he would have been perfectly entitled to), suggests that he probably did not believe her story 100%, and this may well not have been the first incident involving her and another man.
Unchecked desire, like that of Potiphar’s wife, is dangerous. James tells us (1:14-15), Each person is tempted when by his own desire he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin.
That is exactly what happened with this woman. Her desire led her to the sin of falsely accusing and imprisoning an innocent man.
Peter very revealingly tells us (2 Peter 1:4) that God’s great and precious promises enable us to participate in the divine nature and so escape the corruption in the world caused by desire.
In some translations you will find the words ‘evil desire’, but the original Greek word epithumia refers to desire of any kind, good or bad; here the translators have unhelpfully added their own interpretation.
I have just come back from a business trip to Mexico which, many Mexicans told me, is the No. 2 country in the world for impunity: 93-98% of those who commit crimes of any kind go unpunished. The colleague of impunity is always corruption which, sadly, is in evidence everywhere in Mexico. Just as Peter said 2,000 years ago, that corruption is rooted in desire.
This may be base desires such as the desire to accumulate more and more wealth and power, the desire to eliminate anybody who stands in my way. Or it may be a perfectly legitimate desire, but where integrity is sacrificed to fit in with the corruptness of the system: the desire to keep my job, the desire to earn money to provide for my family, the desire to see other family members get jobs in my department.
So, are we to root all desire out of ourselves and reach that state of detachment which Buddhism teaches? That is not the Biblical perspective; for if we had no desire, we would be less than human.
King David discovered the key. He tells us, Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart (Psalm 37:4). Desiring is part of being human. God wants us to tell him our desires and dialogue with us over them; but most of all he wants us to delight ourselves in him.
As ever, Jesus is our example. King David prophesied about him in Psalm 40:7-8: It is written about me in the scroll, I desire to do your will, O my God. And this was borne out in his life. Jesus says of himself, My food is to do the will of him who sent me (John 3:34); the Son can only do what he sees his Father doing (John 5:19).
Desire was part of his being: even at the very end of his life on earth he told his disciples, I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer (Luke 22:15).
Potiphar’s wife made a choice to follow her unrestrained desires, and so she yielded to corruption and sin – and ultimately death, James tells us. We don't know how the story ended up for her – she only plays a bit part, for the story is really about Joseph. However, we can well imagine a few years later, when Joseph was proclaimed second ruler of Egypt, that she was seriously embarrassed, maybe even afraid for her life.
We too have a choice to make. Do we give way to our desires, independently of God? Or do we delight ourselves in the Lord, dialogue with him about our desires and allow him to shape and fulfil them?