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Loving YusufConceptual Travels from Present to Past$

Mieke Bal

Print publication date: 2008

Print ISBN-13: 9780226035864

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: March 2013

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226035888.001.0001

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Falling in Love: Stumbling Words

Falling in Love: Stumbling Words

(p.23) 2 Falling in Love: Stumbling Words
Loving Yusuf
University of Chicago Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter explores the relationship between art and love in more ways than one. The primary form this relationship takes is the seriousness, yet elusiveness, of words. The chapter suggests that the success of Roland Barthes' Fragments d'un discours amoureux was due to the banality of its insights, combined with their almost shocking clarity. Barthes has no entry on falling in love, because his book begins when that fall has already taken place. The chapter, by contrast, reverts to that early moment when the subject loses power over his or her self because he or she falls. It finds the verb “falling” relevant for the encounter with the woman who suffered such an accident. It most certainly relates to what has become known as the story of the Fall, the first transgression that cost humanity its unrealistic dreams of grandeur, immortality, and celestial bliss.

Keywords:   art, love, Roland Barthes, Fall, transgression, humanity, immortality, falling in love, falling

Le discours amoureux est aujourd'hui d'une extrême solitude. Ce discours est peut-être parlé par des milliers de sujets … mais il n'est soutenu par personne.


Love, it is said, is a kind of falling. How did sex enter the story for that girl ignorant of such matters? What turns the story of lying and wicked trapping into a story of sex is that strange sensation on which it is based that today we call “falling in love.” The notion, apparent at my first rereading of the story, that the woman known as Potiphar's wife falls in love with Joseph makes her acts sexual in nature. The metaphor demands a literal reading. Didier Maleuvre writes: “To fall is to experience the pull of physical reality—the law of gravity, matter, weight, bodily existence. A person who falls is caught in the thingness of her body and surroundings” (2005, 82).

The phrase “falling in love” occurs in many Western languages, yet it is by no means universal. It does not occur in any of my sources. Nor, I hasten to add, did I know it when the story came my way in school. The phrase is romantic, (p.24) representing love—also, but not exclusively, another word for sexual attraction—as something sudden, an event beyond the control of the lover. It is also contemporary, Western, anchored in a long tradition, ranging at the very least from antisex courtly love through romantic idealization of passion to contemporary media imagery. It is also, in some ways, gendered. Even though the suddenness implied is not gender specific, and while both men and women use the phrase and experience what it purports to describe, the suggested weakness, dependency, and powerlessness link up with ideas about femininity as weakness and women as the weaker sex.

Falling in love, being in love, is easier to describe, or at least invoke, than falling out of love. The verb falling is more suitable to express the former event than the latter, which is most frequently not an event but a long process of wear and tear. Falling in love, by contrast, happens all of a sudden. And when knees feel like jelly and throats run dry, the accident-prone human individual can easily experience that sensation as “falling.” The phrase makes sense, and this reinforces its use as if it were an ordinary, some would say literal, word. “Where do we fall when we fall in love?” asks psychoanalyst Elisabeth Young-Bruehl (2003). That is the question, at least for this chapter. At stake is the use of words. Focusing on what I call here “stumbling words” in analogy to the etymological sense of scandal as stumbling block or stone, I begin to stage words and metaphors that must be neither neglected nor turned into laws of meaning making.

“Love” is not only a key issue in interhuman, intersubjective relationships. It is also at the heart of what such cultural dwelling places as “art” have to offer. Maleuvre has tersely formulated the function of art in an article the title of which, “Art and the Teaching of Love,” despite its Platonic overtones, suggests a fitting epigraph to the present essay:

Art is primarily, not a subjectivity giving shape to a private vision, but a form of sanctifying the human conversation, that is, the encounter between subjectivities. (2005, 77)

The relationship between art and love underlies the story I am considering in more ways than one. The primary form this relationship (p.25) takes, however, is the seriousness, yet elusiveness, of words. I have often thought that the success of Roland Barthes' Fragments d'un discours amoureux (1977) was due to the banality of its insights, combined with their almost shocking clarity. The breathtaking sight of the person, the slightly depressing but also exciting waiting for the telephone that fails to ring, the endless pondering over what to do, wear, or say, it is all so utterly familiar. That the author who, in his seminal book S/Z (1974), renewed our awareness of cultural clichés and their narrative structure should go on to refresh our somewhat worn knowledge of the beginning of erotic interest—to use yet another phrase for it—does seem appropriate.

Barthes began his book with the statement that the discourse of love, or sexual passion, is not “supported” (soutenu). Instead it is mocked, depreciated, or ignored. The memory of the story I have been invoking proves him right. Without even knowing it was “about” sex—hence ignoring it—I knew it had to be depreciated and mocked. Thus Barthes' book is both banal—addressing a discourse spoken by thousands (I'd say by millions) and yet not taken seriously—and exceptional, to the extent that he does justice to that discourse. In so doing he unwittingly vindicates the main character of the Joseph story. He also integrates the point of seeing-with-surprise and being embedded in cultural memory when he writes a book on the most banal discourse around and makes it strange, surprising, and exciting. Moreover, his book is called Fragments. This title, unfortunately not retained in the English translation, suits me as a model. What I like to think about the present essay is that it consists, also, of fragments. Combining insights and associations borne by surprise with recollections borne by cultural memory, I collect fragments of different “versions” without pretending to make them cohere. I bring concepts from cultural analysis to bear on those fragments. In this chapter, the question of “love,” straddling the personal and the cultural, the private and the political, will be the starting point for a reflection on issues of text, image, signs, and meaning developed in the later chapters.

Barthes has no entry on falling in love, because his book begins when that fall has already taken place. This chapter, by contrast, reverts to that early moment when the subject loses power over (p.26) his or her self because he or she falls. I find the verb falling relevant for our encounter with the woman who suffered such an accident. Not that the word occurs there, but perhaps “preposterously,” I contend that it should have. It most certainly relates to what has become known as the story of the Fall, the first transgression that cost humanity its unrealistic dreams of grandeur, immortality, and celestial bliss.

Many interpretations of this most commonplace or, in relation to dogma, most “doxic” story of all blame the fall on the woman who could not refrain from “eating” (say, consuming) the fruit (say, enjoyment) offered by the phallic serpent (say, sex). I see both the act and its consequences in more positive terms, as a canny endorsement of the inevitable human condition, with ineluctable death and the potential for pleasure and procreation as a consolation (Bal 1987). I will not reiterate that argument here. What is relevant, though, is that the story that goes by this title and by this doxic negative interpretation is always already present in people's memories when “falling in love” is mentioned or takes place. In other words, a negative connotation lurks even in the most blissful accounts. And that negativity, I contend, is connected to the gendered aspect of the weakness the verb intimates.

When we fall in love, we fall into dependency, narrow-minded obsession, and the bleak feeling of insufficiency, of falling short (to use another fall-phrase) of the standard of our love object. This has been explored in a rich field in psychology (see Young-Bruehl 2003; Doi 1973; Fisher 1992). Psychology, just like falling in love as a concept, is a historically specific domain. I will refrain from invoking it to understand the feelings of an ancient character. Nevertheless, this field, and the contemporary conceptions it works with and takes for granted, casts its shadow on our readings of the stories in which such characters act and appear to “feel.” I will, therefore, resist it. Instead I first focus on words and the way these linguistic, semiotic units work to bridge the gap the time of history has dug between these characters and “us.”

For words work. Taking words seriously is the primary task of literary criticism. French novelist Marguerite Duras tends to take words at their word, so to speak (Biezenbos 1995). A man who comes to cut off water supplies to people who have outstanding bills is held to the verb-derived noun that indicates his profession, (p.27) coupeur-d'eau. In the story of that title in La vie matérielle, Duras makes the most of the idea that metaphors and the literal use of words cannot be distinguished (1987). Indeed, she uses the exceedingly literal sense of the word that indicates the man's profession when the woman, no longer able to drink after the water has been cut off in her flat, exposes herself to having her throat cut by a train. The verb couper, this episode tells us, indicates a measure of violence. Cutting off comes close to cutting, for example someone's throat, when this woman the coupeur visits does end up dead by suicide. Duras also elaborates the metaphorical verb falling and takes it literally. In Le vice-consul she uses it in connection with a tragic pregnancy. The young girl who ends up a mad beggar had “tombée enceinte, d'un arbre, très haut, sans se faire du mal, tombée enceinte” (fallen pregnant, from a tree, very tall, without hurting herself, fallen pregnant; Duras 1965, 20).

The “literalization” of the metaphor is foregrounded here. Accumulated exaggeration draws attention to it. To “fall pregnant” is just a French phrase, but “from a tree” makes it literal. The height of the tree and the notion that the girl didn't hurt herself add couleur littérale—literalizing flavor. In this tendency, Duras has inherited the classical French tradition led by Jean Racine, who explored in great detail the implications of the clichéd metaphor feu, fire, for love. In his masterpiece PJzèclre from 1677, the passion for her stepson “really” consumes the main character, as a real fire would do. These metaphorical words are important instances of dead metaphors' second lives, a renewed chance at literary striking force with which their literal use infuses them. I find attention to such words a good guide to the contestation that defines live culture, or cultural life. Taking words seriously is the only way to counter a rather general tendency of ideological manipulation or, more innocently, “linguaphobic” haste to lump together different stories as “versions” of the same one. Such a reading attitude, I will argue below, is also the best antidote to fundamentalist readings. In the kind of literalism I am seeking to advocate, the signifier is taken seriously, not only for the nuances or shades it puts forward, and to which I recommend remaining attentive across cultural time and place, but also as mobile, shifting and slipping along, yet stable in its “letter.” In contrast, (p.28) “fundamentalism” neglects the signifier's primacy and takes an arbitrarily fixed signified as law.1

The example of Phèdre can demonstrate the importance of literalism. This woman's unfortunate adventure appears to be one “version” of our story, at least if we are to believe scholars of folklore who usefully open our eyes to affiliated stories with (vaguely) similar plots, connecting fairy tales of wicked stepmothers with stories from religious and literary canons about women in parental positions. In spite of the obvious differences between stepmothers and adoptive mothers, the similarity is assumed, fixed, and considered primary.

In themselves, such generalizations are useful for two reasons. First, they remind us of those dormant memories that have set us up to become who we are—see the preceding chapter. Second, seeing Phèdre as a version of the Joseph story is useful because it demonstrates the cultural importance of such memories across two classical dividing lines. Such memories work between religious traditions as well as between religious and secular ones, or high-cultural and popular-cultural ones.

Yet this thinking in versions is also problematic if the acts performed to do these things remain unexamined. For our case, the generalization must be examined when it moves a little too easily from the master/mistress love relationship, as in Potiphar's case, to family relationships, as in Phèdre's case. After all, a slave or servant is not identical in structural function to a stepson. To remedy this problem while taking advantage of the useful aspects of such folklore studies, taking words “literally,” even without believing that the opposition between literal and metaphorical holds, engages that thinking in versions critically. That is, in the context of thinking in versions I will think of words as “literally” motivated metaphors.

(p.29) One example out of a flurry makes this clear: “The universal story of the Chaste Youth and the Lustful Stepmother is best known to Western readers in the biblical account of Joseph's temptation by the wife of Potiphar and in the Greek myth (later embodied in drama) about Hyppolytus and Phaedra” (Yohannan 1982). The universality of the story is declared not argued. And once this declaration has passed, it seems obvious that Euripides, Racine, and our texts and images are “really” talking about the same story. Surely Racine's Phèdre's famous confession, first to her attendant Oenone, then to Hyppolite himself, would even justify the sense of falling. Phèdre's fantasized sojourn in the labyrinth infuses the story of her love's beginning with an underworld, perhaps to be read as an underbelly. But the verb falling does not occur. Nor does it in our three textual “versions.”

The naming of the stories together, as a set, is further substantiated performatively in the writing of the critic, who capitalizes roles and thus turns them into proper names: Chaste Youth, Lustful Stepmother. The tender age of the man earlier said to be seventeen years when his adventure started, is not really mentioned, and given his long and intricate previous adventures, it is not so obvious either. Chaste, well, yes, that's the point. Sometimes, though, the chastity is simply interest in another woman, as in Racine's tragedy, where Phèdre's fury is unleashed by jealousy when it turns out Hyppolite is himself also in love, forbidden as it is by his father. From this I learn one important thing: the culture of chastity is not universal.

The stepmother element, inevitably roaming around somewhere in the afterlife of the story, is hardly appropriate for the story of a mistress putting upon a slave. Except, of course, when we consider the sense in which domesticity is the backdrop of the drama. The young man was a house slave. He not only had access to the privacy of the woman but could also be put in danger in that private realm. The house, not the kinship relation—the second sense of the noun house—will have to be retained for further literalizing scrutiny. The insistence on the house as the site of the power structure in which the adventure is set throws a thin thread to what later histories of imperialism have taught us. It is in the domestic sphere that slavery and colonial subjection produced the contradictions of relationship. It is the site of intimacy in inequality (Stoler 2002).

(p.30) With these thoughts in mind, let me look at the words of the story that initiate the woman's love. Both to do justice to these words and to suggest why certain wordings have caused translators as well as exegetes to fill in what they considered ambiguous or elliptic, I translate as literally as I possibly can, with the help of my friends. Please bear with me when translations are awkward; I attempt to literalize in order to denaturalize smooth translation, and thus defundamentalize the text.

I don't recall the words of my teacher but it is safe to assume none of these explicitly referred to love. The Genesis text uses words that might also contain a stock phrase, but it goes in the opposite direction:

And it came to pass after these things/words and lifted the woman of his master her eyes upon Joseph and she said, lie with me. And he refused himself and said to the woman of his master … (39:7–8)

To lift up one's eyes upon: this appears to be what Western modern culture would call falling in love. I wish to literalize the phrase. Taken at face value, the phrase suggests three important ideas. First, it suggests seriously looking someone in the face, becoming aware of what someone looks like, and liking, feeling attracted to, what one sees. Instead of falling into endless moral misery, the expression simply states that looking takes this risk of attraction. Moreover, and second, the phrase implies that the sense of sight entails distance, but it may also solicit a touch that nullifies these distances. Hence, a look can generate adventures and narratives of adventures. It can also generate emotions followed by actions. Third, the phrase presents falling in love as an act of elevation—of the eyes—that may also imply elevation of the one looking, who through this act becomes a subject, or reconfirms her subjectivity. Hence looking can make art, and thus inflect or even create reality; as Maleuvre puts it, “The aim of art is not art. Its destination is elsewhere; its aim is reality encountered and lived with” (2005, 77).

Refraining as much as I can from filling in what is not made explicit, I keep the word woman and do not use the more common wife. Not to put too fine a point on it, I do wish to keep in (p.31) mind anthropological variation and consider what kinds of relationships go by the marital term wife—a special word not extant in the Hebrew.

For today's readers, the word wife conjures up marriage in the sense in which contemporary Western habits of living have set up the socioeconomic organization of procreation. This sense of marriage, with its romantic justification, cannot be simply adopted for our story. The possessive adjective his indicates property, and soon Joseph will speak to the issue of property in justifying his refusal. But mainly, the indication of sex in woman is relevant here, whatever the structures of affiliation and property might have been, or might have been seen as valid. It is in her capacity of woman belonging to Joseph's master that she braves her condition and lifts her eyes upon him. It is as this woman that he turns her down.2

Seeing, in the Hebrew Bible, is a strong and frequent verb. See or behold (hinneh) is often used to introduce a new fact. It has epistemological meaning. To see is to know—and we all know what knowing can amount to in biblical parlance. I like to think of the phrase used here as an elevation, not only of the woman's eyes to Joseph's face but also of her as a subject to a status not reducible to being someone's property. Whatever her domestic status and life, and whatever else the phrase implies, she is able to see. And seeing, although it is not equivalent to a (forbidden) biblical knowing, attributes to this woman a status of full subjectivity, capable of knowing. The speech act of the command—“lie with me”—fits this status.

This moment of recognition of the woman's subjectivity, then, must be the moment of naming. Indeed, in the older versions she remains nameless, Potiphar's property. Like many others, Kugel calls her, without a trace of irony at this anachronism, Mrs. Potiphar, with a frequency that suggests insistence. I remember I also called her by that name when feminist friends and I discussed this text. But for us it was a nickname, tongue in cheek, meant to foreground rather than naturalize the projections we tend to put onto the story from this side of the Romantic period. In an account of a class taught about the story, Athalya Brenner and (p.32) Jan-Willem van Henten call her “Madame Potiphar” and discuss the name issue explicitly (1998). Brenner goes even further in a witty book that tells stories of biblical women in the first person, simply speaking with the woman's “I” (2005). Alice Bach adopts Mann's name Mut-em-enet (1997). All these texts perform the act of naming in acknowledgment of the woman's love.

Since she acts here as “woman”—with the word for “wife,” as in “wife of,” being the same as “woman,” as in human person of the female sex/gender, no matter the relationship—I too must name her. Elsewhere I have named nameless biblical women in the book of Judges with nouns that characterize their stories. One of them I named Beth, since her house was the place that trapped her. This makes that obvious name unavailable for our woman. In addition, such a name would be unfitting, since it is a Hebrew word and the woman, as far as we know, is Egyptian. This also makes the name by which she goes in some later versions, Zuleikha, less appropriate. Moreover, that name is too much filled with negative connotations poured in by these traditions. And it is an Arabic name, which makes it anachronistic as well. Instead I go for the name that is both an attempt at adapting the name to the Sitz im Leben and a blatantly preposterous one: Mut-em-enet, the name given her by Thomas Mann.

This name sounds Egyptian in a way tourists would imagine it, it sounds ancient in a way viewers of Hollywood movies about pharaohs and pyramids have come to expect it, and it can be shortened to Mut, as Mann does. Mut is close to the word for death in Hebrew, mot (Koelb 1978). Mann never said he meant the name to allude to its Hebrew meaning (Kenney 1983). Nor is there any reason to project this association into the biblical story, where death is not an issue.

Instead, expressing sexual attraction to men, declaring love, requires courage. For such frankness does not become women, I learned while growing up between my two memories of the story. I have transgressed that rule, but always in keen awareness that it was a transgression. And I vividly remember the fear—of rejection, of ridicule—and then the courage it took to proposition nevertheless. In German, Mut means courage, and it resonates with Mutti, the familiar term for mother. Not only was Thomas Mann German but he also wrote his long cycle on Joseph, the (p.33) Hebrew hero of turbulence, foreignness, and unsettlement in German, for a German audience, at a historical moment of great precariousness, when courage could and often did entail death. I adopt the short version of the name he chose to honor his dare. So from now on, and in full acknowledgment of the preposterousness of such a speech act, I will refer to this woman as Mut.

The second phrase that is somewhat ambiguous in the story is the one denoting Joseph's response, “he refused himself.” Many interpretations easily shift from the meaning that he simply refused to “give himself” to the notion that he was tempted. To be sure, if he is to be a model of chastity, the embodiment of the seventh commandment, he needs to have at least a challenge, a test to pass. This is plausible only if a lesser mortal would have fallen for the temptation. Hence it is easy to see why refusing his body, his person, shifts to refusing his inclination, seduction, temptation. This is one of those instances in which sexual feelings just slip in.

Like many others, my compagnon de route Kugel finds the notion that Joseph is tempted so natural that he doesn't stop to consider how it got there. And the same holds for many of the exegetes he cites. So many assume this, in fact, that it would sound pedantic to question it. I don't wish to question it; I find it plausible enough. I just wish to denaturalize a seeming self-evidence from logical deduction to readerly import. Instead of taking the mutuality of the attraction for granted, I consider this “natural” fact instructive for the view of sexual attraction put forward in the story. Such an assumption inevitably colors the story in various ways. To put it simply, it makes the woman less guilty as well as less alone.

Preposterously speaking, if we consider that Joseph was indeed attracted, the story can be seen as one of a mutual attraction that, for reasons external to the emotional interaction between the two figures, is prohibited. The woman has the Mut to take the initiative. She can do this because she has higher status (although she is of a lesser sex), and the man, for reasons that he is about to disclose but that say nothing about his feelings, turns her down. Nothing, here, of the horror and repulsion conveyed by Hyppolite's rejection speeches in Phèdre. This is the reverse of a marriage of convenience; it is a refusal of convenience.

The word convenience puts a bit of a gloss on Joseph's uncontested virtue. He does not allege his chastity at all, nor is there any (p.34) indication that he is bound by a vow of chastity of any sort. He “refused himself.” Instead of putting chastity forward as a value or a promise, he alleges his loyalty to his master, a loyalty that in this version remains unrequited. But “loyalty” substitutes one sentiment to another. The words he says do not translate easily into such virtuous notions. He begins his explanation, his reasoning, with that word see. Again, my translation sacrifices poetry for a literalism that will turn out to offer a poetry of its own.

See, my master knows not with me what [is] in the house and all that [is] onto him he gave into my hand.

No one [is] greater in this house than me and not kept he back from me anything except you and you [are] his woman and how shall I do this great wickedness and sin against God? (8–9)

The reason for my somewhat awkward translation is to bring to the fore the paratactic structure of sentences stringing together clauses connected through and. This structure leaves it to the reader to fill in logical connections. Usually, this fragment runs as follows:

See, my master knows not with me what [is] in the house because all that [is] onto him he gave into my hand.

No one [is] greater in this house than me and not kept he back from me anything except you because you [are] his woman, and how shall I do this great wickedness and sin against God? (8–9)

This filling in of the causal conjunction because turns parataxis into syntax. This change is the translator's implicit response to the implicit “why?” question. It leads to the logic that the woman is the possession of the master; hence sleeping with her would be a great sin against property. The idea that giving in would be a sin comes last, following up, and thus explaining, the consequence of the primary reason: Joseph's lofty position bestowed on him by his master. The total confidence he enjoys as first steward of the house is limited only by forbidding of one item of property. This is the logic of the Fall: the fruit from all trees in the garden—another (p.35) enclosed space—may be eaten except for one. The logic entails monogamy for the possessed.

But nothing prevents us from reading it slightly differently, merging the two translations:

See, my master knows not with me what [is] in the house because all that [is] onto him he gave into my hand.

No one [is] greater in this house than me because not kept he back from me anything except you and you [are] his woman, so how shall I do this great wickedness and sin against God? (39:8–9)

Now Joseph warns her that he, not the master, knows what's going on in the house. He is boasting about his power. This is reiterated when he boasts about his superiority. Only then does a new idea come in: she is Potiphar's woman, in the sense of “married,” not necessarily belonging to him as a possession, and thus his sin would be not against the master but against the law of God that regulates the marriage bond.

The nuances are small, but the point is, the reader must perform the logic and is thus responsible for the nuances selected. The mere act of filling in the blanks, of turning the free-floating prose of parataxis into a structured syntax, is a crucial act of reading, a performance of reading as inflection. It is where the reader can and must claim her freedom.

It is easy to explain this by way of traditional notions of (unilateral) monogamy. Again, I would not wish to be pedantic and deny this explanation. But something lingers in the echo of these words with the previous ones. Woman is a word that indicates a human subject, however appropriated by patriarchal power relations. It is the only part of the explanation that has the causal conjunction in all standard translations. Potiphar did draw the line at giving his woman to Joseph. He did so but, I speculate, not, or not only, because doing so would nullify his marriage to her. After all, what does such a noun, marriage, mean in the context? Rather, although she is “his,” being a woman she is not his to give. Not that he would refrain from such a gift—many figures from antique literature do so without qualms when it suits them—but because she is not “givable.” Here I use literalism to (p.36) explore possible meanings on the fringes of the canonical. This is my speculation concerning the specification brought in through the word see: this word performs the woman's status as subject. Against the backdrop of Joseph's refusal of himself, there is a possible parallel at stake. This involves Potiphar as the third party in this harrowing tale.

As we will see later, the question of Potiphar's role, Mut's relative solitude, and the function of the house recur in fascinating ways in some of the other versions. In the tissue of words of Genesis, the house is surely a motif of great importance. The plot needs the house in many more ways than as just a location. It is inside the house that the event occurs, that Mut “knows” because she “sees” Joseph's beauty. It is in the house that, in our preposterous terms, she falls in love with him, propositions him, tries to seduce him, slanders him, and then traps him. I consider the house a motivator, a near-actant. It is in the house that the two of them are alone one day, a circumstance that moves the plot along. It is also in the house that Mut enacts one other nasty thing by means of words that has received precious little attention and to which I will attend in a moment. But the word house duplicates itself when we keep in mind that the invisible parallel is with prison—that is, closed-house or guarded-house.

It has been frequently noted that verse 14 is a bit surprising, as it is for me, but for different reasons. Kugel traces many versions that have taken exception to the unexpected plural pronoun:

And she called unto the men of the house and said to them saying: see he made come to us a Hebrew man to mock us, he has come to me to lie with me and I called out in a loud voice. (Gen. 39:13–14)

After this follows the account of the alleged attempt at rape. The text shifts to a masculine plural here. In Kugel's account, the shift to a plural signifies the appeal to the other women of the household and their jealous husbands to also accuse Joseph (28–65, esp.48–49). Otherwise, some versions explain, her husband would not believe her. This interpretation requires a specification of the “men of the house” to consist almost exclusively of women, which begs the question of the generic masculine term. What might motivate such an unnecessary filling-in?

(p.37) In some later versions a story has been inserted, a story not mentioned in Genesis at all. I will revert to this episode, which is developed in the Qur'an, some exegetical texts, and Mann's novel. It has traditionally been referred to as “the ladies of the city” or, in attempts such as Kugel's to claim its “origin” in Genesis, as, according to a section title of his, “The Assembly of Ladies” (1990, 28–65). This claim needs to obscure the city in favor of the house—a distortion I will show to obscure an extremely relevant intertext. But in Genesis no trace of it can be detected; there is a shift to Plural, but in the masculine form. Unless, of course, one is all set to claim temporal priority of all elements in later versions for the canonical Hebrew text. Kugel performs some gender bending in his interpretation of what the Genesis text names “the men of the house” as the “ladies” of later versions. Such figures of “ladies” are absent from the Genesis text but not from the Qur'an; the Qur'an text, however, explicitly calls them “ladies of the city.”

Kugel's interpretation that turns men into women seems farfetched on three counts. It is an instance of an unwittingly preposterous interpretation, informed by the later version that the critic needs to attach to an earlier one. He needs to perform this reversal because, I speculate, he has already decided to give priority to the earlier version, the one that for him is the canonical source text. But to suggest foundational or qualitative primacy as a feature of temporal priority is a second, equally unwarranted step. This logic is emphatically not in accordance with biblical logic. I have argued against this conflation of temporal priority with qualitative primacy in my interpretation of the creation of woman in Genesis 1–3, an argument I will not reiterate here (1987, 104–30).

A third reason Kugel's interpretation seems far-fetched and even damaging to the richness of the text is the double meaning of the key word house. All through biblical narrative the word house resonates with the meaning we would now, anachronistically, call “family” or “ancestry.” The most important house in this sense is the House of David. The genealogical lists of Genesis in particular are at pains to tie this house backward to the earliest names, while Christianity tries to link it forward to the birth of Jesus. A house is not only a building and a household but also a lineage. In the case of Potiphar's house, we are clearly dealing with a house of some importance. “The men of the house,” then, (p.38) can certainly refer, at least as an additional, overdetermined allusion, to the men of the house of Potiphar, who wield the power over the women and servants alike. To call out to those men is also to call out to the men who can judge the woman, the men who have the legal power to confirm or inform her claim of assault—with all the consequences such a judgment would entail, for her as much as for Joseph.

As a result of his eagerness to assign priority to Genesis for the inventive addition of the “ladies of the city” episode, Kugel ignores a key element through which the Bible asserts both its coherence and its importance—an element on which this scholar has even based the title of his book. Instead, inclined to take the text at its words, as I have argued we should, I see no contradiction in this plural at all. Nor do I see a possibility of ignoring the words “the men of the house” by turning them into “ladies.” This shift neglects the strong sense of house as a key word. All these accumulative interventions are the result of a projected contradiction where there is none “anchored in” the text. This, on the condition, of course, of taking the rest of the verse literally—hence seriously—as well. And that remainder is what disturbs me more. The play of pronouns is not really strange and certainly does not solicit the kind of projection Kugel performs. I quote the passage again, now specifying the pronouns and verb forms according to number and gender. If we refrain from getting excited about the possibility of recuperating this passage for a “why?” question—the “why were the men in the house while Joseph was supposed to be alone with the woman?” question—we might avoid getting as distracted as practically all exegetes have been from a matter that, for me, lies at the heart of the story of Mut and Joseph:

Then she called [singular, feminine] unto the men of her house, and spoke [singular, feminine] unto them, saying, See [plural, masculine], he hath brought [singular, masculine] in an Hebrew unto us [plural, no gender] to mock us [plural, no gender]; he came in [singular, masculine] unto me [singular, no gender] to lie with me [singular, no gender], and I cried [singular, no gender] with a loud voice.

The first word of Mat's direct speech is, again, see.

(p.39) And again, this imperative form of the verb of visual perception indicates that Mut arrogates to herself epistemic authority: “see he made come to us a Hebrew man to mock us.” She has the power to use the imperative and the capacity to see, which she shares with the men on whom she bestows this power by means of her order to see. The power she claims through her use of words has different possible meanings. The imperative see is a strong word. It is frequently used in this imperative form to make claims, including truth claims and political claims.

The imperative or exclamatory of to see can be related to power, as in Deuteronomy 1:8, where it bluntly turns seeing into colonization: “See, I am granting you the land; go in and take possession.” The French verb pouvoir that doubles as a noun to mean “power” and as copula to mean “being able to” is best retained here in all its ambiguity. For, in the same vein, the biblical act of seeing is not necessarily bound up with a physical act of visual perception. In the case of Deuteronomy 1:8, it is doubtful that the land is visible when God utters this order, but it can be known, since there has been a promise and a lot of talk about it.3

Physical seeing would be the case when the epistemic meaning goes hand in hand with the kind of words linguists have termed deixis. Deixis, in reference to the here-and-now of speaking, is a spatial pointer that physically binds seeing to the subject in spatial proximity, as in “look here.” At this point in the plot, this could well be the meaning in Genesis 39:14. Mut is holding, after all, the physical trace of her encounter with Joseph. This, then, is a vividly theatrical scene, an image. It is worth considering how deixis makes images more memorable—in both personal and cultural memory.

In her theory of the formation of subjectivity and the place of the body therein, Kaja Silverman argues that “one's apprehension of self is keyed both to a visual image or constellation of visual images, and to certain bodily feelings, whose determinant is less physiological than social” (1996, 14, emphasis added). This (p.40) statement explains how the relationship between the individual subject and the culturally normative images is bodily without being “innate” or anatomically determined. Its insistent interrogation of the indexical relationship between image and viewer has a basis in a cultural myth of which this instance provides an indication. It is an instance of such bodily interaction “from within” subjectivity with the outside culture; of the inextricable conflation of the speaker and addressee in deictic binding.

In this statement by Silverman that I just quoted, the issue is feeling: how the subject feels his or her position in space. What we call “feeling” is the threshold of body and subjectivity. It is around such feeling that “falling in love” can happen and can take the form of lifting one's eyes up to become a subject in relation to the other seen. The external images are “attached” to the subject's existence, which is experienced as bodily, locked together; the subject is “locked up” in the external world. In the musical sense of the word key, the external images and the body are adapted, harmonized; the one is “set into” the tonality of the other. But the term to key to can also be understood through the notion of code, the key to understanding, comprehending, communicating between individual subjects and a culture, a communication in which “abstract space” is practiced.

In a spatiotemporal flow, which temporarily and provisionally conflates the subject's body to the space it occupies, this event of falling in love can occur. The usefulness of this “carrying along” or this connotative use of a key concept from semiotics becomes obvious when Silverman, a short time later and while still writing about the bodily basis of the ego, writes about proprioceptivity (the sensation of the self from within the body) that it is the “egoic component to which concepts like ‘here,’ ‘there,’ and ‘my’ are keyed” (1996, 16). She reuses the linguistic concept of deixis in the way it was given currency by Emile Benveniste, to theorize the construction of subjectivity in language (Benveniste 1971). Strictly speaking, by placing deixis “within” or “on” or “at” the body, she decisively extends into materiality and physicality the meaning and importance of Benveniste's thought that deixis, not reference, is the “essence” of language.

Hence language is unthinkable without bodily involvement. One can even go on to argue that words can cause pain or harm (p.41) and arouse sexual and other excitement and that bodily effects thus form an integral part of linguistics. Conversely, this proprioceptive basis for deixis comprises more than just words. It includes the muscular system as well as the space around the body, the space within which it “fits” as within a skin. Abstract space becomes a concrete place within which the subject, delimited by its skin, is keyed in, into the space she perceives and of which she is irrevocably a part. Silverman uses the felicitous term “postural function” to refer to this place of the “keyed” subject. This interpretation of deixis opens up a space for a bodily and spatially grounded semiotics. Deixis can become a key term for a semiotic analysis of the visual and the literary domains without the detour via language. No longer restricted to the domain of language, deixis is a form of indexicality, one that is locked into (keyed to) the subject. This bodily-spatial form of deixis—this orientational form of the index—provides greater insight into those forms of indexicality in which the postural function of the subject—its shaping “from within”—sends back, so to speak, the images that enter it from without, but this time accompanied by affective “commentary” or “feeling.”

In the verse just quoted, the first “he” is clearly Potiphar, who has brought the slave into the house who is the object of the verb make come. The second “he” is Joseph. The woman is the center of deixis. There is one way to read this that leaves the words intact. This will clarify why I advocate literalist reading. The woman appeals to the (other) men in the house, presumably Egyptian, to share her indignation that he, Potiphar, has brought a Hebrew slave into the household and put him in a position where he can “mock” or “laugh at” them all. Why would the plural here be so “anomalous” (Kugel 1990, 58) as to require linguistic and literary as well as fantasized amorous gymnastics to turn the men mentioned into “ladies”? Because, I presume, standard translations render the verb as “to sport with us,” and that, of course, is unthinkable for men. Well, in my book it is not so, but then why do we need a dirty mind to make sense of this verse?

Perhaps—and this is just as purely speculative as Kugel's interpretation, mine based on literalism, his on an unacknowledged “why?”—the critic cannot “see,” in the sense of understand, and face, the nasty implications of the word Hebrew. For clearly, in (p.42) the mouth of the Egyptian first lady of the house, Hebrewness makes the mocking even more humiliating. In other words, the Hebrew text puts a racial slur into the mouth of the Egyptian woman, triply abject for being foreign, female, and full of deceit. The text thus imputes a form of what later came to be called anti-Semitism to a woman driven to incriminating, indeed criminal, lies by what now becomes interracial passion. “Loving Yusuf”—to reverse the ethnic differentiation—is the greatest transgression, sin, or crime, imaginable. The horror, the horror.4

For me, this verse is the key to the Genesis version of the story and, I speculate, its aftermath, all the way up (albeit not consistently) to that winter afternoon in the 1950s when I was turned into a reluctant witness to what I did not understand. Why is intercultural love such a problem that its occurrence turns critics against words and, in the same move, women into monsters?

Timothy Beal writes about monsters in the context of religion, in terms that suggest an affinity between ambiguous words and “monsters”: “Monsters are in the world but not of the world. They are paradoxical personifications of otherness within sameness. That is, they are threatening figures of anomaly within the well-established and accepted order of things. They represent the outside that has gotten inside, the beyond-the-pale that, much to our horror, has gotten into the pale” (2002, 4). This is, I submit, the core of Mut's monstrosity, the thing that makes her alien: she loves “the other.” This indeed is a crime. When I say “crime” in my characterization of interethnic, intergenerational, and interclass passion, I am anticipating what follows. For Mut's portrayal of Joseph's rejection as assault is construing it as a crime. And as a crime shall it be punished.

The men of the house are called upon as witnesses. This in spite of, or thanks to, the fact that at the key moment they were not there. Verse 11 intimates this: “and it came to pass on such a day and he went to the house to do his work and no man of the men of the house [was] there in the house.” This has led to mighty speculations about where everyone was, and many versions allege (p.43) a religious festival. The tendency to fill in what is considered lacking information—the phenomenological term gaps, or Leerstelle, comes to mind—goes against the grain of my desire to convey some of the surprises in my first rereadings of the words, neither more nor less. That pernicious question “why?” says more about the exegete posing the question than about the text's allegedly omitting information. It is primarily a psychological question, derived from the habit of reading realistic novels à la Dickens, Balzac, and beyond. It is a profoundly preposterous question, which I can accept only if it is reflected upon, not if it is passed off as “natural.”

The primary anachronism, or what narrative rhetoric calls retroversion, a figure that is time and again applied to ancient texts without critical examination, is the assumption of psychological motivation. But neither the Bible nor any of the objects at stake here is a Dickens novel. Instead of asking for a psychological motivation for figures to say or do what they do, I think this kind of literature is better served when estranged a bit from our habits inspired by romanticism and its aftermath. Here, there are the words. There, there is the story. The former create the latter, the latter needs the former to exist as a story, not some doxa floating around without the material support that specifies it. Some narrative elements are necessary not to explain the figures' motivation but to meet the story's narrative needs. This, as I will argue several times in the course of this inquiry, is where we must first look to understand sometimes strange events and situations.

The men have to be absent, I submit, because only then can the woman be exonerated from collusion in adulterous sex. This is the meaning of what Mut says in verse l4: “I called in a loud voice.” Deuteronomy 22, stipulating the Jewish law on sex, frames these rules in terms of property among brothers. It begins with the obligation to rescue the cattle of your brother if you see it go astray. This is followed by food laws, then by the issue of virginity, climaxing with the penalty for premarital defloration—stoning to death (Deut. 22:13–21). The rest of the chapter concerns (alleged) rape. This passage is a case for literalism as an antidote to fundamentalism. The former is about life, the life of the text, the German meaning of Mut; the latter is about death, killing in the name of a rigid signified, the Hebrew meaning of Mot.

(p.44) The last verse of the chapter in Deuteronomy shifts from brother to father and, amazingly, mentions the interdiction against uncovering the father's shirt. This can only be a reference to Noah's drunkenness and its aftermath. This story is worth rereading for its literal casting out of the act of seeing the father's less than satisfactory genitals. Ernst van Alphen wrote an exceedingly amusing commentary on this story (1992). For my purposes here, it is more relevant that the story also implies the exile of the brother who transgressed the taboo on looking at the father's nakedness. This was Cham, who, as a consequence of his exile, became the father of the black race. Just as in the comparable case of Ishmael, and here Joseph, the shirt cannot but resonate with Joseph's plight in Genesis 39. In addition to the precariousness of the father's fatherly powers, the father line in Genesis definitely harbors an element of ethnic strife folded into a potential shaming of the father. As early as this text, “patriarchy”—the unquestioned authority of the father—was not exempt from doubt. And given the narrative place of shame, this ethnic strife among brothers is not without sexual overtones. This brings us back to the story of Mut and Joseph.

In the context of Mut's alleged cries, an intertextual detour is in order. The following verses regulate rape, phrasing it in ways rather similar as what Mut says here, and explaining her need to do so. In view of the commentary by Tony Tanner which I will discuss shortly, I quote the translation Tanner uses of the relevant section of Deuteronomy 22:

  1. 22 If a man be found lying with a woman married to an husband, then they shall both of them die, both the man that lay with the woman, and the woman;

  2. 23 so shalt thou put evil away from Israel. If a damsel that is a virgin be betrothed unto an husband, and a man find her in the city, and lie with her;

  3. 24 Then ye shall bring them both out unto the gate of that city, and ye shall stone them with stones that they die; the damsel, because she cried not, being in the city; and the man, because he hath humbled his neighbor's wife; so thou shalt put away evil from among you.

  4. (p.45) 25 But if a man find a betrothed damsel in the field, and the man force her, and lie with her; then the man only that lay with her shall die;

  5. 26 But unto the damsel thou shalt do nothing; there is in the damsel no sin worthy of death; for as when a man riseth against his neighbor, and slayeth him, even so is this matter;

  6. 27 for he found her in the field, and the betrothed damsel cried, and there was none to save her….

  7. 30 A man shall not take his father's wife, nor discover his father's shirt.

The house, here the stage of confinement, in a near-Aristotelian unity of place, requires the emptiness to become, potentially, both the city and the field. If the house was not empty of its inhabitants, Mut's alleged calling out would be implausible. They would have heard her. A full house would be like a city. An empty house would be like a field. Since everyone was gone, she might have called her heart out, but no one would have heard. This, not her propositioning in itself, requires the house to be empty.5

I have quoted the rather traditional translation above because Tony Tanner's seminal study Adultery in the Novel (1979) quotes it when he begins his book with a consideration of these verses from Deuteronomy. His book is on the novel, but instead of treating the Bible as a novel, he treats the novel as similar to the Bible. This refocuses the obsessive preoccupation with psychology in the novel to a more anthropological interest. He points out a few aspects that are crucial to our story.

Within the city the prescriptions of the law extend to both sexes because theoretically everyone can be heard…. Language has total authority, and within it individuals have total responsibility. The architecture of the city—which includes not only buildings but the related edifices of law, rule, and custom, all of them interrelated (p.46) by language—“architectures” the relationships between the sexes with complete explicitness and the wrongfully assaulted woman is obliged to “cry out” according to her categorization (damsel, virgin, betrothed unto a husband). (1979, 19)

I retain from this passage in particular the appeal to hearing, not seeing; the gender equity before the law; and the specific importance of the city, overdetermined as the site of regulation or, as Tanner will call it, civic contract.

In the Qur'an, rape likewise wavers between (potentially consensual) adultery and coerced intercourse. Here, too, witnessing is key to the legal status of the event (Norman 2005). Scholars such as Amira Sonbol (2000) and Asifa Qurashi (1997), each in terms of their own society (Pakistan and Egypt respectively), have researched an impressive number of Qur'anic verses that complicate the contemporary Western notion of rape. Still, the need for witnesses or other forms of incontestable evidence remains at the heart of the legal status of rape, including in the Montesquieu-based legal systems of Western Europe.6

Tanner focuses on the bond between witnessing and the city. I will return to the city in greater detail later. For now, I stress the performative activity of textual detail. In the opposition between city and field through the (im)possibility of hearing, contractual binding is established, not simply reported; this makes the words performative. And with this binding comes transgression. As Tanner has it, “Contracts create transgressions; the two are inseparable, and the one would have no meaning without the other” (1979, 11).

When, as I claim, something on the order of rape is at stake, there is an issue regarding the use of words over time and across cultures. When I first heard the Genesis 39 story, I hated the woman for the violence she did to the innocent man. Then and now, I see the story as having a “moral,” a lesson about decent conduct. Precisely for that reason, the resonance with “rape” (p.47) counts, albeit not at all in a simple way. False accusations of rape happen, they are culturally overdetermined, and in general their questioning supports men. Our story cannot but resonate with this problematic of, among other issues, “false memory syndrome” (Sturken 1999). The word rape does not occur in the texts of Deuteronomy or Genesis. We must not too quickly dismiss as a mystifying euphemism the phrase that is translated as “laughing at us,” “mocking us,” or “sporting with us,” for it suggests an act of contempt, here ethnically inflected before being folded into sexual innuendo. “Lying with” refers to sex, but the question of consent or violence is raised neither in Deuteronomy nor in our Yusuf story, other than by the reference to crying out loud.

Some scholars, sensitized to historical and cultural difference, have commented on the difficulty of pinpointing a phenomenon such as rape. This poses a dilemma we encounter all the time. It is important because, as will become clear in the next chapter, it is also potentially an argument against fundamentalism—the kind that kills, specifically, rape victims. Susanne Scholz's study on the rape story of Genesis 34 is an excellent case in point (2000). Careful to avoid anachronistic projections, Scholz lays out the cultural differences in the interpretation of sexual violence as rape and, conversely, of rape as not so violent. She opens her study with a consideration of the cultural specificity yet transcultural and transhistorical occurrence of this sexual form of violence.

In an earlier article in Semeia, Susan Niditch discusses this problem as well (1993). She struggles with the difficulty of ethical norms that vary according to time and place, whereas the language with which we write about cultures is also bound to time and place, but different ones. In that context she raises the question whether “just war,” called “holy war” in a biblical framework—and, I would add, in a Qur'anic one—is possible, and if so, whether in such a war the practice we call rape can have a place.

Thus she writes about the book of Numbers: “Of course, enslaving the enemy (20:11) and forcing its women into marriage are the terms of an oppressive regime and difficult to imagine under the heading of what is just” (1993, 42). The result of her reflection is not my point here. I am interested, first, in the notion of “oppressive regime.” The word oppressive is anachronistic in terms of the object under analysis (the book of Numbers), (p.48) and the stake of the struggle described is hostility over land, not disagreement over human rights within the United Nations. The context in which Niditch's words were written makes the notion very much to the point: I first read her paper during preparations for the first Gulf War and reread it during the escalating violent occupation of Iraq. Over the years since this article was published, the word had come to refer almost inevitably to Saddam Hussein. In other words, the description “oppressive regime” has moral echoes and an imaginative and imagelike resonance daily fed on television—like a dream image. The obscenely broadcast images of Saddam's execution are a case in point. Thus, without either author or readers' being aware of it, the words take on metaphorical garb. The phrase “oppressive regime” is at risk of becoming a metaphor by means of which the Western present collapses its own norms and values with the Middle Eastern past, and this happens in a paper, indeed, within a sentence, in which an explicit attempt is made to avoid such anachronisms.

Perhaps it is the attempt to avoid anachronism that most threatens to cause such distortion. In contrast, I claim that it can be positively useful to boldly endorse anachronistic terms. I would endorse such terms as conceptual metaphors that serve to analyze, rather than take in wholesale, the phenomenon one is at pains to understand both in its own right and for today. This is clear, for example, in Athalya Brenner's chapter on (and concept of) “pornoprophetics,” in which the modern concept of pornography is deployed to grasp the textual sexual violence of selections from prophetic discourse (1997). I submit that anachronism is actually useful, as some contemporary art historians argue, but on the condition that it be used as overt anachronism, as a kind of temporal metaphor (Wesseling and Zwijnenberg 2007). In the context of my inquiry here, what concerns me most in Niditch's somewhat tense avoidance attempt is that something in this attempt is carried over: a description, equally anachronistic, of rape.

The author wishes to avoid that term because of its anachronism, and the concessive clause in which the description “oppressive regime” occurred was meant to help that avoidance. “Forcing women into marriage” is Niditch's attempt to avoid the anachronism “rape.” She doesn't wish to call it rape because, she argues, in the culture under discussion it was not perceived as such. Even (p.49) if the war cannot be called just, the taking of women is culturally acceptable and therefore cannot be called rape. This is a relativist argument, the not-so-felicitous alternative to ethnocentrism. This dilemma has a precise parallel in the social and political dilemma of moralism versus relativism (or “tolerance”), the imposition of one's own norms versus the unquestioned acceptance of those of others, even if the latter are perceived as—or used as—“oppressive.” I would like to allege Mut to, at least, disturb that dilemma.

Niditch replaces “rape” with “forcing into marriage”; elsewhere it is called wife-stealing. I can see how “rape” would obscure the action and fail to address the cultural status of the event. This includes, obviously, the notion of “marriage” that remains unquestioned. Also, it seems pointless to accuse a culture of thousands of years of violating human rights and thus to feel better about our own behavior. This dilemma colors my memory of the automatic condemnation of Mut. It also promotes a reading attitude that skirts fundamentalism, as the reading posture that rigidifies the word-meaning, or signifier-signified unity, but also, dangerously, fixes it to a prescriptive referent. Rather, in the awareness that the term is “ours” I would like to take a closer look at the contested term, rape.7

But rather than a semantic analysis, I wish to foreground the narratological issues involved in the notion of rape. And the first thing I notice about it is that it is a noun. Like many other nouns, it implies a story. As a noun, rape summarizes an event. The underlying story tells about that event's happening to someone, by the doing of an agent. Erasing that story posits precisely the dilemma that needs to be overcome. By alleging that she cried out, Mut at least puts it on the table. Its meaning depends on the status of men and women and their relationship within a culture.

Cultures different from “ours” tend to look more homogeneous and more coherent at a distance than they probably are for those who inhabit them. That deceptive vision is, precisely, the basis of ethnocentrism as well as of fundamentalism. Fundamentalism is the fixation of a signified, by definition slippery, from within the culture; ethnocentrism is something similar but done (p.50) from outside the culture, as in racist slurs. Fundamentalism is intolerant of differences-within; ethnocentrism cannot see those differences. Instead, within each community, ancient or recent, perception of differences-within increases as one's vision comes closer. Rape implies an event that happens within a culture, involving people who are likely to differ as much as they share, and this internal divisiveness matters.8

To forge a noun out of a verb—a noun of action—forfeits the active character. What is restored in the phrase “crying out loud” is all that remains. Of course, I am not suggesting that Mut was raped. Only, what she says resonates with a discourse that erases the violence of rape. A discourse that “sounds” different for men than for women. And so does the discourse of rape's opposite, “falling in love.” These two discourses are merged here, and I attempt to suggest their copresence in a cultural context where both implied actions tend to be experienced differently according to gender—it's the least we can say. The resonance of that difference, then, also inflects the sense of Mut's “lifting her eyes upon” this man called Joseph. To put it bluntly: if rape is different according to gender, so is falling in love. And for both, the house is the setting.

Empty and confining, field and city both, the house is also an echo of the closed-house or guarded-house to come. The needs of the story, what David Herman (2002) calls story logic, require it, not some woman's psyche. “And it came to pass on such a day”: a temporal marker, like “once upon a time,” or rather, a blander “and then” that indicates the story's passage to a following episode. It came to pass: and then this happened.

The near-chiastic contrast between Joseph's and the other men's movements—“he went to the house to do his work and no man of the men of the house [was] there in the house”—predicts, according to the same story logic, that Joseph is soon going to be on his own. The house, for him, is not a safe place. Let's not forget that he is there involuntarily; he was purchased as a slave, sold by his brothers. He, the lone Hebrew man, is not free to move where he wishes. Hence, the moment he is being pressed by the lovesick Mut almost reduces him to the object-status that so often is the lot (p.51) of slaves, and women. But like Mut, he saves his subjectivity. He flees—escaping the danger, or the temptation, or the one through the other—and leaves ambiguous evidence in her hands. Mut reiterates to Potiphar—his master—the racial slur used to mobilize the servants on the basis of what we would now call class identity. “The Hebrew slave which you made come to us to mock me.”

The house, place of confinement for so many women, dangerous for so many children, is a prison for the slave. No wonder he ends up in jail:

And Joseph's master took him and gave him in the closed house, a place where the bound ones of the king were bound and he was there in the closed house. (39:20)

In this allegedly original or oldest version, Potiphar accepts Mut's lies tragically easily. Why? Not because he is stupid, or has class and ethnic prejudice, or believes his beloved wife at her word. All these interpretations would be preposterous, informed by the tradition of the Western realist psychological novel. No, he does so because the story needs Joseph to end up in prison, so that he can rise from the basest position. This is story-logic.

But the life of stories cannot be reduced to their logic, even if it helps to start there. Of Mut we hear no more. She remains, presumably, in her closed house, a house I, from my own “why?” questions, imagine as cold and lonely. For now, I only wish to keep the words and their resonances in front of me, as well as the logic of the story qua narrative. In the story Mut is just an instrument to make “come to pass” what must happen for the greater glory of the grand narrative of patriarchy. In this sense she, too, is a slave of the story. If this is so, there is no need to judge, let alone prejudge, Mut for her desperate and failed attempt to consummate her passion. Yet I did, even without knowing she had fallen in love. And so did, and continue to do, all manner of exegetes, popular rewriters, painters, and filmmakers. Meanwhile, Mut fell in love, and out of the story. (p.52)


(1.) With the concepts of literalism and fundamentalism I am trying to respond to two problems in the interpretation of the kind of culturally remote artifacts under scrutiny here. One is the facile dismissal of textual detail with the argument of copyist errors (texts) or later additions (visual images). Literalism is meant to safeguard the integrity of the artifacts as they have survived their migration. The other, opposite problem is rigid adherence to allegedly original formulations and their equally rigidly preserved meanings, often even acted upon as if they were referents, so that art became law. This definition of fundamentalism is exceedingly succinct. I will have more to say on fundamentalism toward the end of chapter 3.

(2.) For a range of anthropological approaches to the Bible, see Lang 1985. I have contested the translation of isha as “wife” at length elsewhere (1988a).

(3.) This is a neat instance of power-knowledge à la Foucault. I write this concept with a hyphen instead of the slash that is more common in Anglo-Saxon criticism. In this I heed Gayatri Spivak's injunction to reconsider the French meanings of pouvoir (1993).

(4.) Esther Fuchs (2000) among others has picked up on this ethnic slur. Needless to say, today, the importance of paying attention to the different ethnicities involved in the different versions makes the slur quite relevant.

(5.) This metonymic extension of the house resonates with Edward Said's comments (2004, 47–48), based on Abu El-Haj 2002, on the overlap between archaelogy and biography—on the former as a spatial version of the latter. This connection raises a host of extremely important issues concerning the meanings of house evoked above.

(6.) The legal issues are never far when the ancient texts narrate such crimes as lying or lying-with. But with them emerges the fundamental uncertainty of the law itself, never unambiguous in its “causal” but deconstructible sequentiality of rule and interpretation. See Smith 2008.

(7.) Others have done this before me, among whom Sandie Gravett has offered an analysis that is nuanced and detailed (2004).

(8.) This is the main tenet of Said's inquiry into the “foreign” foundation of Jewish identity in Freud's Moses (2004, 54).