Sunday, March 20, 2011

Potiphar's Wife's Lies

"Joseph Accused by Potiphar's Wife," Rembrandt



One of several compelling arguments against the death penalty is the number of people who have been proven innocent long after they were executed and the number of people who served hard time for a long time on death row and who were exonerated just before being legally put to death. Though our Wednesday evening discussion leader last week, the new president of the Delaware chapter of the ACLU, Kathleen MacRae, dealt with the status of the death penalty in several states in our country, she did not go into the statistics I want to share with you now. Our concern today is with false accusations.

For years, there were numerous cases of people being put to death on the basis of weak evidence and/or poor legal representation. Things changed to some degree with the development of tools to study DNA evidence.

Brothers Thomas and Meeks Griffin, African American farmers in South Carolina, were executed in 1915 for the murder of a man said to have been involved in an interracial affair two years earlier; they were pardoned 94 years after execution. Legal scholars now believe they were arrested and charged because they were not wealthy enough or informed enough to hire competent legal counsel and get an acquittal.

In Florida, Jesse Tafero was convicted as was an accomplice, Sonia Jacobs, of murdering two police officers in 1976. The accusation was that they killed the two officers who were trying to apprehend them while they were on the run because of drug charges. Both Tafero and Jacobs were sentenced to death based partially on the testimony of a third person, Walter Rhodes, a fellow prisoner of Tafero’s who happened to be an accessory to the crime testifying against the other two in exchange for a lighter sentence. Sonia Jacobs’s death sentence was commuted in 1981. In 1982, Rhodes recanted his testimony and claimed full responsibility for the crime. Despite Rhodes’s confession, Tafero was executed in 1990. In 1992 the conviction against Jacobs was ruled worthless, and Florida did not have enough evidence to retry her. She then entered a so called Alfred plea and was sentenced to time served. The same evidence was used against Tafero as against Jacobs, so Tafero would have also been released had he not already been executed.

Some say Wayne Felker was a convicted rapist; others say he was not a rapist at all, but was another innocent victim of execution. Felker was a suspect in the disappearance of a Georgia woman in 1981 and was under police surveillance for two weeks prior to the discovery of her body. An autopsy was conducted by an unqualified technician; how that could have happened I don’t know, but the results were presented in such a way as to show that the woman’s death occurred before the surveillance got underway. After Felker's conviction, his lawyers presented testimony by forensics experts that the body could not have been dead more than three days when found well into the two week surveillance period; a whole stack of evidence was found at that point, which had been intentionally hidden by the prosecution so as not to have been presented in court. Part of the hidden evidence was a DNA report that may very well have exonerated Felker or at least have cast doubt on his conviction. There was also a signed confession by another suspect in the paperwork. Despite all this, DNA and a signed confession notwithstanding, Felker was executed in 1996. Four years later, his case was reopened in an effort to make him the first executed person in the US to have DNA testing used to prove innocence after execution. The attempt failed, but only because the DNA report was ruled inconclusive as a factor in determining innocence or guilt.

Getting closer and closer to the present, Cameron Willingham was executed in Texas in 2004; he was charged with setting a 1991 fire that killed his three little girls. Since then, suspicions have been raised about the reliability of the forensic evidence that strongly supported his conviction.

After-the-fact DNA studies have allowed overturned sentences and the release of more than 15 death row inmates since 1992 in the United States. Unfortunately, DNA evidence has only been available for analysis in a small number of capital cases. The realities of false accusation and wrongful imprisonment have had opponents of the death penalty pushing for reevaluation of case after case. Of course, you don’t have to oppose the death penalty to oppose wrongful execution of innocent citizens. In any case, the stir has led to the release of other prisoners with DNA out of the picture because of very weak cases against them and prosecutorial misconduct; the results have ranged from acquittal at retrial to the formal dropping of charges to purely innocence-based pardons. The Death Penalty Information Center publishes a list of 8 inmates who have been executed though they probably were innocent. There’s another list of 39 executions carried out in the U.S., and all of my figures today are based on U.S. cases exclusively, in the face of serious doubt about guilt. If there is serious doubt about guilt, how can governors and the Supreme Court tell the executioners to get on with the job?

A man by the name of Kirk Bloodsworth was the first American to be freed from death row as a result of exoneration by DNA fingerprinting. Ray Krone is the 100th American to have been sentenced to death and later exonerated because of new evidence or a more thorough study of existing evidence.

While these chilling facts give us pause, our concern today is not with the death penalty per se--though that is something spirituality communities need to ponder with frequency; our focus today, again, is on the life-stealing power of false accusations, the life-stealing power of false accusations. Sometimes “life-stealing” means taking away someone’s ability to enjoy life; sometimes it means executing her or him. We’re supposed to operate in this country on a principle of “innocent until proven guilty,” and that may be accomplished to some degree most of the time or much of the time. We all know, though, that often the accusation alone is functionally a guilty verdict.

In my teen years, the comedy actor, Vickie Lawrence, then associated with the immensely famous Carol Burnett Show, released her one and only hit song. All kids in my age range knew the words and could sing them right along with Vickie any time the song was played. “That’s the Night that the Lights Went Out in Georgia.” Actually, I’m not sure that they’ve ever come back on in some places around that state, but that’s for another sermon. Some great Americans have been born and bred there nonetheless.

Back to Vickie Lawrence’s haunting song that caught the ears and the imaginations of kids who knew what life in a small Southern town was like:

He was on his way home from Candletop,

Been two weeks gone, and he'd thought he'd stop,

At Web's and have him a drink 'fore he went home to her.

Andy Warlord said: "Hello."

He said, "How. What's doin'?"

Wo said: "Sit down, I got some bad news and it's gonna hurt."

He said: "I'm your best friend, and you know that's right,

But your young bride ain't home tonight.

Since you been gone, she's been seeing that Amos boy, Seth."

Now he got mad, and he saw red.

Andy said: "Boy, don't you lose your head,

'Cos to tell you the truth, I've been with her myself."

Well Andy got scared, and left the bar,

Walkin' on home, 'cos he didn't live far.

You see, Andy didn't have many friends,

And he just lost him one.

Brother thought his wife musta left town,

So he went home and finally found,

The only thing Papa had left him and that was a gun.

He went off to Andy's house,

Slippin' through the back woods quiet as a mouse.

Came upon some tracks too small for Andy to make.

He looked through the screen at the back porch door,

And he saw Andy lyin on the floor,

In a puddle of blood, and he started to shake.

Georgia patrol was making their rounds,

So he fired a shot just to flag them down.

A big-bellied sherriff grabbed his gun and said, "Why'd you do it?"

Judge said guilty on a make-believe trial,

Slapped the sherriff on the back with a smile,

And said: "Supper's waitin' at home, and I gotta get to it."

Well, they hung my brother before I could say,

The tracks he saw while on his way,

To Andy's house and back that night were mine.

And his cheatin' wife had never left town,

That's one body that'll never be found.

You see, little sister don't miss when she aims her gun.

That's the night that the lights went out in Georgia.

That's the night that they hung an innocent man.

Well, don't trust your soul to no backwoods, southern lawyer.

'Cos the judge in the town's got blood stains on his hands.


When last we encountered Joseph, his brothers had sold him to some slavetraders, but led his father, Jacob, to believe that wild animals had killed him, ripping him to shreds in the process. The slavetraders did what slavetraders do; they sold Joseph as a slave in Egypt, and he ended up as a servant in the household of one of the higher-up Egyptian political officials named Potiphar. Potiphar had a very important job, as it turned out. He was the captain of the palace guard; in reality the Pharaoh’s life was in his hands. Naturally, the Pharaoh relied heavily on him and trusted Potiphar completely.

Back at home, Joseph was such the model servant; Potiphar promoted him all the way up to head of the household staff, and Potiphar’s instincts had been right on target. Never had his household functioned so well.

To his disadvantage in that context, Joseph was majorly good looking, a young hottie in the house day after day after day with Potiphar’s wife while Potiphar was working long hours over at the palace. Long hours went with the job; he knew it, and so did everyone else.

Potiphar’s wife was a Cougar, and Joseph was her intended prey. She was love starved. Potiphar had little time for her even when he was at home, and the physical part of their relationship had long since been less than ideal. He may well have had other wives and concubines to further complicate the life of his sex-starved wife.

The Hebrew Bible doesn’t give Mrs. Potiphar’s name, but a medieval Torah scholar gives her name as Zuleikha. A Persian poet, Jani, in his poem, “Yusuf and Zulaikha,” obviously knows her name but spells it slightly differently than did the Torah scholar I’ve just mentioned. In Andrew Lloyd Weber’s musical about Joseph, Potiphar’s wife isn’t named, but is called Mrs. Potiphar, and some of the singers happen to mention that she was a man eater!

Well, you see and sense the situation we’re in here. We only know bits and pieces of what was obviously a very complex story. For example, was Joseph always 100% professional in his dealings with Zuleikha, or did he enjoy the attention and carry on some flirtation? Did he lead the Cougar on?

I’ve been slow to understand what a Cougar is. I know there is or was a television show that had something to do with Cougars, and I’m not talking about Mutual of Omaha’s “Wild Kingdom.” Beyond that, I was rather oblivious to the increasing interest in our culture of middle aged and older women with younger men and visa versa. I got it more clearly when Carson, my younger son, and I met for dinner at Kid Shaleen’s. Carson interrupted one part of our conversation and said, “Excuse me for interrupting, Dad, but I forgot to tell you that Thursday nights at Kid’s is unofficially Cougar Night so if you see lots of middle aged and older women and a smattering of young guys, mostly gigolos, you’ll understand what’s going on.” Well, sure enough, by the time we left, I was the only male patron over the age of 30 dining or drinking there, and some of the clients kept looking at me with disdain, as if they were waiting for me to get out of the way so they could try their luck with Carson. Many of you know about his struggles to find employment in this economy and his recent decision to try his luck in Baltimore where he is moving, now, in less than two weeks. Anyway, I told him long ago that the solution to his financial problems was a wealthy middle aged woman. Of course, any of you who know me know that I’m joking; if you don’t realize immediately that I’m joking about that, we need to have coffee right away, but not at Kid Shaleen’s on a Thursday night.

OK, so Joseph had been brought up to follow the rules, and he had delighted his father in doing so. Though we have to leave the door open to some possible flirtation on his part, chances are he didn’t flirt with his boss’s wife though he certainly would have been courteous and attentive to her. Given her emotionally and physically deprived state of being, she may well have taken that to be flirtation.

One day, she tells Joseph outright that it’s time to stop playing games and time to get down to serious business; the time for sweaty sex is long overdue, she said. Several artists paint Zuleikha in various stages of disrobing; many of them have her bare breasted by the time she get real. One Dutch artist who didn’t think as highly of Joseph’s virtue as I do, has sketched Zuleikha bare breasted and Joseph naked but on the run away from her. In other words, according to the perspective of that art piece, Joseph gave her every reason to think he was just as interested as she was.

Joseph tells her he will not be able to participate. She doesn’t take no for an answer; she tries to lure Joseph into a sexual encounter day after day. One day when she really turns up the heat, he runs away from her, and she grabs at him to slow him down; he gets away, but she did have a piece of his clothing in her hand. A woman scorned.

Well, she wasn’t going to take that rejection lying down, no pun intended; she screamed out for help from other members of the household staff. They ran to her side, and she told them what had happened, her false accusation; she held Joseph’s garment or part of his garment in her hand--whatever she’d been able to grab hold of--which gave credence to her tale. The minute her husband came home from a hard day’s work at Pharaoh’s palace, she told him Joseph tried to rape her; she had resisted him, she said, and he had run away. This is just what one would expect from a Hebrew she told Potiphar, more or less laying the blame for the incident on him.

He had Joseph found and immediately cast into the palace prison were the pharaoh’s most serious enemies were kept. One New Testament scholar points out that the prevailing law would have called for the death penalty as the proper punishment for attempted rape. This scholar suspects that Potiphar couldn’t swallow his wife’s tale hook, line, and sinker so he imprisoned the man he had trusted with his life and his wife, but he didn’t have him put to death. He had to allow his wife to save face. Her lies easily could have gotten Joseph killed; that was of no concern to her. Only her wounded pride and her unattended sexual desires mattered to her. What’s the value of a Hebrew slave’s life anyway?

If you’ve read Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” which isn’t funny at all, when the fictional Dante takes his tour of hell he sees Potiphar’s wife. She is given no opportunity to speak by the writer, but another resident of hell tells Dante that with all other perjurers, she has been condemned to suffer a burning fever for all of eternity. Remember, Dante was writing fiction, not a theological treatise. He is not encouraging his readers to believe in a literal hell. He is with symbols slamming all of those in history who have told lies, especially false accusations about innocent others--costing these innocents embarrassment, humiliation, job losses, and, yes, costing many of them their lives. Lies can kill.

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