The Virgin and the Whore: Thinking Beyond Dinah and Potiphar’s Wife

Bored in Vernal adultery, Bible, feminism, LDS lessons, Mormon, righteousness, scripture, sexuality, women 26 Comments

Avatar-BiVOT SS Lesson #11

Lesson 11 in the Old Testament manual employs several stories from Genesis 34-39 to develop the theme of sexual morality. Joseph’s actions embody the “Lord’s standards” for morality and are contrasted with the actions of Shechem, Reuben, and Judah. You may notice that the featured characters in the lesson are all male. What shall a woman do with a lesson like this? I think the idea is for women to identify with Joseph — to be virtuous when facing temptation. But Joseph is a man, his responses are male-oriented, and intentionally or not this approach will tend to render the women in your Sunday School classroom invisible.  Consideration of the female archetypes found within these chapters may yield some surprising insights.

As feminists might point out, a patriarchal “virgin/whore” stereotype divides and traps women on one side or the other.  Yet this is how our lesson is developed with regard to the female characters.  Joseph’s encounter with the wife of Potiphar introduces us to “The Whore.”  This nameless woman casts her eyes upon Joseph, and day after day entreats him to lie with her.  In a final, dramatic scene, she grabs his clothing and tears it from his body as he pulls away from her and runs off.  Then she lies and accuses him of trying to rape her.

In the next scriptural passage the lesson covers, we meet Dinah, “The Virgin.”  As with most archetypal women figures, Dinah is shadowed and one-dimensional.  She is described as a daughter and a sister to be protected and avenged by her father and brothers. She is “defiled” by Shechem, a young man of highborn status from a neighboring town.  We are not told how she feels about this lover, whose “soul clave unto [her]” and who desired to marry her.  The lesson material tells us that Shechem did not truly love Dinah, or else he would not have defiled her.  However, Genesis 34 describes his offer to pay any amount for a dowry, and his willingness to join with her people, submit to circumcision, and convince all of the men in his town to do the same. In my eyes he is a tragic and romantic figure.  I wish there was more information available about Dinah’s response to this man. But the lack of detail is necessary to preserve the asexual, archetypal element of the deflowered virgin in the story.

Perhaps it is an unconscious arrangement for the writers of this lesson to have placed these two bilateral female archetypes side by side in the lesson material, but if so, it is all the more significant.  Archetypes are elementary ideas stemming from the unconscious.  The danger in including only these two women in the lesson is that they are both powerless.  Dinah the virgin is a victim of a powerful male, and Mrs. Potiphar the whore is also rendered powerless by the virtuous Joseph who rejects her advances.  Males in the stories are shown as individuals with the ability and strength to choose and control their sexual and moral options.

One might feel constrained by the material on women available in the scriptures, however, there exists within these passages a third woman who might prove to be a foil to our figurative virgin and whore.  Let us examine the lessons taught by the actions of Tamar in Genesis 38.  Tamar is conspicuously left out of the lesson manual, though this chapter is included as part of the scripture block. Judah’s actions are briefly contrasted with the faithfulness of Joseph.  Going back to the scripture passage, we read that Judah chose Tamar to be the wife of his eldest son, Er.  When Er died, custom dictated that the next son, Onan would marry her and provide her with children.  Onan’s refusal to properly execute his responsibility resulted in his death, and the next son, Shelah, was not old enough to marry.  Judah told Tamar to go and live with her parents until Shelah was grown, and then promptly forgot or ignored the family’s responsibilities to the widow.  Several years later, Tamar conceived a plan to remind Judah of these things.

Deuteronomy 25: 5-10 shows that the law was on her side, and Tamar could have reported Judah to the authorities, legally loosened Judah’s shoe, and spit in his face.  But she was smarter than that.  In contrast to the other women acknowledged in the lesson, Tamar deliberately used her sexuality to affect her destiny.  Despite the fact that she lived in a culture where women had little power or choice over their own circumstances, she seized her opportunities and was rewarded for so doing.  If we reduce this gospel lesson down to following or not following a strict standard of sexual morality, we miss the potent, powerful, and purposeful choice of Tamar to initiate sex with her father-in-law.  This choice is presented in the scriptures as a faithful action.  The nuance and meaning of the word “righteous” as Judah uses it to describe Tamar is very significant in understanding whether her actions were justified. The Hebrew word used is tsadaq, “to be just or righteous.” This word and its derivatives are used hundreds of times throughout the Old Testament. It is used to describe the righteousness of Noah (Gen. 7:1), the Law (Deu. 4:8), David (1 Sam. 24:17), and even Jehovah (2 Chr. 12:6). The meaning is thus: correct, right before God, or justified, in a very strong sense of the word righteous. Tamar was a woman of integrity who struck out in a creative though unorthodox way to fulfill her duty to herself and her family.  Her exploit resulted in twin sons, one of whom would continue the chosen lineage and become the progenitor of the Messiah.  Tamar is a complex human being and one of the few women in the scriptural record who is described in such a rich and nuanced manner.

What is more, the story of Tamar can be nicely dovetailed with a secondary message of Lesson 11, that class members “learn how to make all experiences and circumstances work together for their good.”  Surely Tamar deserves a prominent place in Lesson 11, wherever female members form part of the class population!  Don’t you agree?

Engraving by Hans Collaert, Antwerp, late 1500’s.
Tamar stands triumphant at the entrance of Enaim, on the road to Timanh. The staff and ring she holds signal that she has been successful in her mission to seduce Judah.  The man and woman (Tamar and Judah) in the background of the engraving suggest that coitus has already occurred — see also the neo-Latin inscription at the bottom of the image.  This engraving is unusual because it shows Tamar standing alone.  I like how it portrays her with power, a lack of regret or shame, and  a sense of mission completed!

Comments

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Comments 26

  1. “Males in the stories are shown as individuals with the ability and strength to choose and control their sexual and moral options.” Isn’t this a good step — at least for the men. Aren’t we always portrayed to young women as unable to control our sexual appetites? At least in these two stories, we aren’t bumbling horn-dogs

  2. As another quick thought, it might be possible to bring the Dinah story into focus in a different way (but again with the men) by emphasising on imprudent response to what was perceived as sinful. The quick-to-condem attitude was clearly not appropriate and is perhaps something worth considering.

    #1 – Well it is possible that in the first story he might have been.

    But, I think it is the more the moral response to such actions that makes these stories problematic. Men as ‘bumbling horn-dogs’ provides some sort of get-out clause while women are left with the stigma of being the ‘whore’. Even in this story Dinah is constrained to play the ‘whore’ (to be sexually active) to get her (righteous) way. Thus they are constrained to sexual passivity while men are free to choose righteousness or to choose sex. I am sure this was intentional on BiV’s part, but it is at least notable that Judah’s actions aren’t significantly condemned. Which raises other questions about how the same act was righteous for one and persumably unrighteous for the other. So Judah can choose sex and his sin is lightly glossed over while emphasising the righteous of this women. But I do not want to take the focus away from the women of this post because this is clearly where BiV wants the focus.

  3. I was surprised how the lesson manual chooses to condemn Shechem for lying with Dinah, but says nothing of her brothers tricking and killing every man in the town. Surely that is a more grievous sin.

  4. Anita Diamant’s novel, The Red Tent, provides an interesting point of view on Dinah.

    It’s surprising the lesson manual ignores the Tamar/Judah story. After all, they are the ancestors of Jesus.

  5. #1, #2, #3,
    all good points, but as Rico noted, not the focus of the post. I’m observing that the male commenters are not understanding how exercised I am about the “teaching to the men” stance taken by our lesson manuals. I’ve written about this before in my post Teaching to Women. I don’t think that even sympathetic men fully understand the toll it takes for women to constantly have to make the switch in their minds, while men have very little experience with this. How often are the males in the room asked to liken Eve’s actions to themselves, or Mary’s? Perhaps once in a while, but not EVERY lesson, several times over.

  6. I think to approach this issue from a Male perspective, using the female example is morally dangerous. Meaning that for a man to seduce a women to achieve a particular end would be considered immoral quite easily. That a woman can be considered righteous through such an act suggests that even Dinah is bound to her culture and was not able to transcend it, even today.

    Trying to do the difficult thing that you have asked (which you rightly point out we have failed at) leads me to think about issues of representation, hypocrisy and identity. In this story is an idea that there is an essense or deep identity that Dinah is! This allows her to play or pretend at another role in order to achieve righteous things. Although I am uncomfortable with the idea, it fits more generally with the notion that God will judge someone on their hearts rather than their actions per se. This story raises that question in a beautiful and challenging way. To what extent can our hearts purify our actions?

    On this ‘switch’. I think what makes this worse is that when this question is asked, men tend to pontificate from their abstract position on that experience rather than engage with directly. It is a hard pattern to break. Thank you for challenging us, BiV.

  7. Although Tamar dressed as a harlot, Judah appears to have initiated their sexual liaison. Upon seeing Tamar, Judah said, “Go to, I pray thee, let me come in unto thee.” This is in direct contrast to Potiphar’s wife, who attempted to seduce Joseph. These accounts reveal a great deal about the moral integrity of Joseph, who ran from temptation, and Judah, who succumbed. They also reveal that Jehovah himself came through a lineage of sinners and saints. This insight inspires me to be more merciful to myself and others, to try not to judge by outward appearances, and to remember that God is no respecter of persons.

  8. There’s one event in Genesis that I’m sure will never appear in any Sunday school lesson. Just look at what Lot’s daughters did to preserve his family line after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

  9. Can someone give me permission to stop reading the OT now, You just don’t realize how freaken crazy it is until someone points it out. There are parts of the OT that I absolutely love and it is powerful enough to save an entire Nephite race (from something bad), However…..

  10. While I read the “Red Tent” and agree it gave an interesting point of view… it greatly irritated me that all men were seen as “scum” by the author.

  11. Rico, you are mixing Dinah up with Tamar. Oops! But thank you for engaging with this exercise. I realize it’s difficult.

    I see the pivotal sentence in my post as this:
    “If we reduce this gospel lesson down to following or not following a strict standard of sexual morality, we miss the potent, powerful, and purposeful choice of Tamar…” and indeed of all the characters mentioned in Lesson 11. That is why we get a comment like #9 above. These lessons are not intended to induce wives and husbands not to have extramarital affairs, but to illustrate such things as the place of the House of Israel in the plan of salvation.

    I didn’t intend to get in to the Red Tent, but I did appreciate that it twisted the Biblical record around to show what it might look like from a completely female-centric, rather than male-centric paradigm. April, I think that uncomfortableness you felt was intended, in order to bring home the author’s message.

  12. BiV #11 I sense that you do not appreciate my comment in #9, I guess my point is this: The OT causes more issues than it solves similar to D&C 132 I would be happy erasing much of it, it is a tale of a historic society that has long since evolved and become something new for better or for worse, but if we are spending time trying to correlate the OT into modern time values, we are just attempting to “eat jello with chopsticks”.

  13. #5 BiV — Thanks for this additional comment which answers the question I had when I first read the post. I’m glad I waited to comment, rather than being another man who didn’t understand. I’ll now have to pay more attention, particularly when I’m teaching.

    I found your discussion of the virgin/whore type interesting in relation to Dinah / Mrs. Potiphar, and had not considered it in that way. I had always before thought that Mrs. Potiphar had power to make the choices she did, but I can see juxtaposing her story against the truly powerless victim Dinah does cause it to be seen in a different light.

    I suppose the OT’s having grown out of a patriarchal society, and being compiled by those who also held similar cultural views, it’s not a big surprise the text paints things with the same cultural brush. But you are right that a little (or a lot of) senstivity to that issue could help a modern audience in today’s classroom.

    Thanks.

  14. BiV, I love your stuff, but this one is a total miss for me.

    First off, your statement “The danger in including only these two women in the lesson is that they are both powerless. Dinah the virgin is a victim of a powerful male, and Mrs. Potiphar the whore is also rendered powerless by the virtuous Joseph who rejects her advances” makes no sense to me. Potiphar’s wife couldn’t rape Joseph, true, but she was hardly powerless. She certainly was more powerful than Tamar.

    I don’t get the Tamar story. If Judah recognized an obligation to provide seed to Tamar, then why wouldn’t he have done it when she was younger and presumably more attractive? The only thing I can figure is that there were cultural obligations among the Canaanites that the House of Israel might not have accepted. Judah was willing to have his half-Canaanite sons follow the Canaanite obligations, but wouldn’t do it himself. A harlot, though, nobody would know about, so he’d go for that.

    So for Tamar to get what she wanted, she had to become “the whore”. By her principles she was justified, and by Judah’s he was not. Therefore, she’s more righteous than him. But the way she got what she wanted was by playing the whore. What if it was pecuniary inheritance she wanted (and by rights deserved) rather than a baby?

    Yeah, there’s a lot missing from the story, but it seems like Tamar is the same as Potiphar’s wife — the only difference being that Tamar played the whore to get something she felt she actually deserved.

  15. BIV, you are one of my favorite authors on MM. I have a serious question for you: Why on earth do you waste your time with the Old Testament? I respect your intellect and your common sense immensely, and I can’t, for the life of me, figure out how you could place any credence whatsoever in such a ridiculous farce of a book. That said, I think your concerns about the male/female dynamic are absolutely valid, and they far transcend the OT or even the bible. That issue permeates every facet of mormon dogma and culture. How many times in your life have you been told to emulate someone in mormon history or scripture or even broader christianity, or to apply their situation to yourself, when the subject was a woman? Do you even need two hands to count those instances?

  16. Kew, you don’t control people through focusing on antisocial behavior such as assault or murder. You do it through controlling people’s attitudes toward sexuality. There’s simply no upside in focusing on someone who had violent tendencies or behaviors. It’s all about sex. For example, no one really cares that David murdered Bathsheba’s husband. They only care that he did it so he could have sex with her.

  17. #11 – haha… thanks for correcting that. My point still stands though, of course making that you substitute Dinah for Tamar. Which only adds to mental flips required.

  18. Okay, I hadn’t read the Deuteronomy link you put up BiV — I’ll save you the effort of correcting my comment. However, the law gave Tamar no claim on Judah, just on Judah’s sons.

  19. Re: the Shechem/Dinah story, I love this scripture:

    And it came to pass on the third day, when they were sore, that two of the sons of Jacob, aSimeon and Levi, Dinah’s brethren, took each man his sword, and came upon the city boldly, and slew all the males.

    I see poor Shechem and his posse standing around camp holding their recently-modified groins, moaning “ow ow ow”, as Dinah’s brothers’ gang rolls up and does their honor killing.

  20. Martin, I know you can’t use the Bible as feminist literature, and I don’t expect to! I think what actually bothers me most is the way the lesson presents this scripture block, including both of the one-dimensional women characters and leaving out the one who actually chooses what she is doing. And it’s not that I don’t think Potiphar’s wife isn’t strong, it’s that I think she’s presented as flat. Women in the lesson are categorically listed as the evil-doers because we’ve boiled the entire 4 chapters into “be sexually virtuous.”

    Bro. Jones, I have long been fascinated by the OT. It’s full of complexity and darkness and I get frustrated by SS lessons that present these stories as such boring platitudes. There’s so much more in there. I’m blogging about it this year in part just to entertain myself.

  21. #20

    You’d get along very well with my ward’s executive secretary. He’s an Old Testament scholar and occasionally teaches Sunday School. The last time he did he lamented the fact that we only spend one year on the OT when every part of the standard works used to be done in 8-year cycles with 2 years reserved for each of the four standard works, and the class was able to really dig deep into more than just a vague presentation of a principle without understanding what’s really being taught. Even in daily study it takes longer than a year to read the OT, what makes people think that it can be properly studied in less than 50 blocks of at least 30 minutes if the class is lucky (don’t forget that it’s always Sunday School that gets the shaft if other meetings run long).

  22. #20 Love it! Totally agree with the frustration of flat, platitudunal(word ?) character presentations in SS material as well as in YW manuals. It’s equally interesting how *threatened* some of the women in the Ward seem to get (at least in my ward) when such a deeper examination of the character is brought up (by me…hehe).

  23. .

    BiV—-

    Your Teaching to Women post remains one of the most humbling things I’ve ever read. And I’m glad I decided to run down your post on this lesson because I’ve been at a loss with how to address it. realizing that Tamar was right there waiting for me was enlightening.

  24. .

    The more I prep this lesson, the less convinced I am that Dinah was stolen away and raped. It seems like she might’ve wanted to shack up just as much as the boy does. Any reason I can’t read the text that way?

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