(A chapter from Come Down, Zacchaeus: Adventures in Scripture, by Solange Hertz)
“You have to treat a woman like the devil,” remarks my husband. As my brows rise, he adds, “St. Ignatius Loyola said so.”
“St. Ignatius could never have said a thing like that,” I rejoin — ”and still have been canonized!” I try to remain calm.
“He did, though. You can look it up.”
You can be sure I do, and I find the passage. It’s in the saint’s “Rules for the Discernment of Spirits.” Here it is:
“The enemy [the devil] conducts himself as a woman.” It is only fair, I think, to interject at this point that Iberians have on occasion suggested that the devil is a woman — but to continue,
“There!” I say. “What he really says is that you have to treat the devil like a woman. You put the cart a mite before the horse.”
“A woman like the devil, or the devil like a woman, what’s the difference? The point is, you have to treat them the same. You have to stand your ground.” My husband doesn’t give up easily. “You have to face them boldly,” he quotes, doing so.
So goes the battle of the sexes at our house, and a more fascinating game God never invented. Any number can play, anytime, anywhere. It’s hilarious, exasperating, educational, and of course, sanctifying. Naturally, the Bible is full of it.
For novices seeking a good grasp of the fundamentals, an excellent starting place is the famous short story in Genesis about Joseph and Phutiphar’s wife, which puts before our narrowing eyes a man-woman situation lively enough to elicit first-class interest. The plot is triangular, timeless, and simple. It involves (1) a blameless and handsome hero, (2) a shameless vamp, and (3) her unsuspecting (?) husband. In a frugal twenty verses, the story practically reads itself, so familiar are we with its inevitable course:
As we know, Joseph’s brothers sold him to the Ismaelites, and later a high-ranking Egyptian army officer called Phutiphar bought him and took him home with him. Scripture relates,
The Lord was with Joseph so that he was successful. He lived in the house of his master, the Egyptian. When his master saw that the Lord was with him and prospered all his undertakings, Joseph found favor with him and became his attendant. He placed him in charge of his household and entrusted all his property to him. From the time he placed him in charge of his household and all his property, the Lord blessed the Egyptian’s house on account of Joseph. The Lord’s blessing rested on everything that was his, in house and field. He left everything he had in Joseph’s charge, and having him, was concerned about nothing except the food he ate (Gen. 39:2-6).
So far so good. Apparently things couldn’t have been better. Phutiphar was only too happy to find a steward as competent and honest as Joseph, but the idyllic ménage à trois couldn’t last long. Scripture sets the action bubbling almost immediately by adding gently, “Now Joseph was well-formed and handsome.”
We soon discover that Mrs. Phutiphar is hopelessly taken with him, and what seems to be a happy, placid household is actually seething drama about to boil over. She used every wile to seduce Joseph, only to find him hopelessly virtuous. Being a man, and logical, he took the trouble to explain his reasons for resistance. Not one of them had anything to do with her as a person:
He refused, saying, “Because of me, my master is not concerned about anything in the house, but has put all he owns in my care. He exercises no greater authority in this house than I, nor has he withheld a single thing from me, except yourself, because you are his wife. How then can I commit this great crime, and sin against God?”
He was facing her boldly. He opposed passion with bare unadorned logic, stating his reasons one, two, three, without any softening appeal to Mrs. Phutiphar’s quivering heart. Then, insult of insults, he mentioned her in the same breath with his master’s other property —the one item to which Joseph felt he had no right.
The reasons he gave are in themselves excellent and holy. His sense of gratitude, his respect for the married state, and his love of God are indisputable; but women readers sense immediately that he might have softened the blow, perhaps with “I am well aware that you are charming, and I know you must have a pretty dull time of it here,” and then have gone on to enlist her sympathy with his own terrible situation, appealing to the mother in her and leading her on from there to respect his ideals. As it is, he sounds a mite priggish, and he succeeded royally in getting her dander up. Joseph was young and inexperienced.
One can, after all, stand one’s ground and still be tactful. We know that Joseph’s brothers had already found this I-am-better-than-you side of his nature trying beyond endurance and had sold him off. Good people must be especially careful with sinners. When we consider how he flaunted so openly before them his dreams and his coat of many colors, we may wonder whether his sale into slavery wasn’t as much a punishment for spiritual pride as a stepping stone to grandeur. Whom God loves, He chastises.
Though we can’t deny Joseph’s righteousness, it was so righteously righteous! It fell short of that comradely compassion for the difficulties and weaknesses of others which comes with the perfection of holiness. Though quite properly resolved never to temporize with sin, he was still incapable, we suspect, of discerning disfigured goodness in the fallen. Had Mary Magdalene tried to wipe his feet with her hair, would he have kicked her? Well, Joseph lived under the old dispensation. As for Mrs. Phutiphar, she was a scarlet woman, not a bit like his mother Rachel. She was just plain bad, and she horrified him.
“Who is weak, and I am not weak?” is a question posed by high sanctity under the new law of love (2 Cor. 11:29).
“Neither will I condemn thee,” is the pronouncement of Divinity, whose justice and mercy are one On. 8:11).
Besides, Joseph was a mere man, and a young man at that. Even old men are not noted for their insight into women. Only very spiritual men really understand women, if only because, whether men like it or not, women are “the spiritual sex.” Joseph’s predicament is actually far from uncommon. Surprisingly enough, it seems to be rather the lot of holy men.
It happened to St. Bernard in his youth, and the great mystical doctor St. John of the Cross was plagued in a similar manner on at least one occasion. In fact, St. John’s close companion Fray Juan Evangelista related the following incident in a deposition for the saint’s beatification:
[The saint] was at one time the confessor of some nuns in a certain place and lived in a little house near their convent. A very handsome girl became attached to him, and in order to attain her end, she made use of all possible means [!], none of which was of any avail. She therefore resolved upon a bold attempt against his honor and profession. One night she climbed over the fence into the little courtyard belonging to this house, and thence entered the holy Father’s room, where he was alone at supper.
When he saw her, he was astonished, and said that he supposed it to be the devil. [What did we say about Iberians? Devil or woman, what’s the difference?] Then with his customary patience, he spoke to her about these things and made her realize her wickedness; so that she left the room and went back to her house. This witness heard this story from the mouth of the holy Father himself, who was accustomed to speak of it with great frankness.
So we trust he won’t mind our mentioning the incident here. Speaking of it elsewhere, Fray Juan says the saint “often told me he had never found himself in a more pressing situation, for she was a girl of good appearance and many good qualities, which made matters worse.” And I’ll bet she was angry, too.
St. John was a very spiritual man indeed, and understood women so well he had been able to make this one “realize her wickedness.” This means he must have been compassionate, but he must have faced her boldly too. Echoing St. Ignatius, St. John is credited with advising confessors that “they should be somewhat stern with (women), for to treat them gently only affected their feelings and they failed to profit thereby.”
Anyhow, getting back to the greenhorn Joseph, he continued defending himself against Mrs. Phutiphar as well as inexperience would allow, making it a point never to be caught alone with her. But of course one fine day it happened, and he was doomed. After all, it’s almost impossible to face a woman boldly when she is the mistress of the house and you are a slave. Finding him alone and unprotected, she “got physical,” as the saying goes.
This is a vulgar expression, and I want to make it plain that it didn’t just slip out. I looked for it and used it on purpose. When one wants to get very, very close to truth, to say it as nakedly as possible, it’s disconcerting to discover that there is a choice of only two media: a “dead” language which has become stabilized and sacred so that its meanings don’t constantly slip out of place—or slang. Anything in between has a habit of falling between the traces.
Because spoken language is a living organism, it grows like all living organisms, from the bottom and inside out, not from the top and outside in—although anything outside may nourish it. As they leave the depths, words lose more and more of their punch until finally they evaporate into bloodless platitudes. To express truth in current coinage, one is constantly chasing words down, not up. When dealing with spiritual topics especially, it’s almost impossible not to fall into slang, if not right into the gutter. Doesn’t Proverbs tell us “Wisdom uttereth her voice in the streets” (1:20)?
Biblical language, for this reason, is notoriously vulgar in places, though never indecent. So is the language of some of the greatest saints. St. Chrysostom said that the praise of God relieves the heart of man as vomiting relieves an upset stomach. He was very spiritual and obsessed with speaking truly. He could have put it another way, but he wasn’t concerned with the genteelness which is only a form of worldliness. Whoever is sick of finicky, pious phrases, turn to the Fathers of the Church, to whom all things are pure!
With their example before me, I now repeat that Mrs. Phutiphar got physical. When a woman gets physical, that means just what the words say: she descends entirely into her instinctual, animal nature. She can be hell on wheels. Ignoring her superior spiritual attributes, she willfully tries to put herself on a man’s level. Unfortunately, she can’t. Her emotions are much richer than his, but she isn’t equipped with the intellectual ballast which gives his sensual nature balance; therefore she can’t “get physical” without falling far beneath him. She disintegrates.
Mrs. Phutiphar did that. Burning with what St. Augustine wasn’t too prim to call “the itch of lust,” she grabbed poor Joseph. Doing the ignominious best he could under the circumstances, Joseph ran. He wasn’t the first man to do this, and certainly not the last. Leaving “his garment in her hand, he fled outdoors.”
This was simply too much for the lady, who now became the most formidable opponent a man can have—a woman scorned. In St. Ignatius’ words, “if the man loses courage and begins to flee, the anger, the vindictiveness, and rage of the woman surge up and know no bounds.” Seething with unrequited affection and smarting from insult,
She summoned the servants of her house and said to them, “Look! My husband has brought in a Hebrew to insult us. He came in to lie with me but I screamed. When he heard me raise my voice and call out, he left his garment beside me, and fled outdoors.”
When Captain Phutiphar returned home, she gave him the same story, which he accepted at face value. With much show of righteous anger, he had Joseph tossed into prison.
Always one to land on his feet, Joseph soon “found favor with the warden,” and in no time was running the prison. As he eventually ended up running Egypt for Pharaoh, we begin to guess that being the head of a household can lead to very great things. Joseph was not the only famous executive trained in this lowly manner. His glorious namesake St. Joseph, whom he prefigured, and who is now Householder of the Universal Church, was prepared in the same way for his supernal office.
“A faithful and prudent servant, whom the Lord has set over his household,” sings the Church at Matins on his feast. “Amen I say to you, he will set him over all his goods.” So we implore you, husbands, take heart. Your struggles with check stubs and window screens have mystical significance you don’t realize.
We can now dismiss Joseph of Egypt from the triangle. Already well on his way to his high destiny, we know he suffered, learned tact and humility, and forgave everybody. He presents no problem to us.
As for the Phutiphars, well, let’s have another look at them. Reading between the lines, the kind of reading women do best, is invaluable here. We note at the outset of this tale that the text runs quite blandly along until we get to the verse about Captain Phutiphar which lets slip the information that he was concerned about nothing except the food he ate. Hm-m-m, Moralists, Renaissance painters, Hollywood — in fact, practically everybody — have unanimously agreed that Phutiphar’s wife was a shameless hussy, a venomous liar and the obvious villain of the piece.
I’m not so sure. That she is a figure of evil is obvious. I’ll grant that. Nor do I want to trample on the beautiful mystical figure Joseph cuts as the faithful steward in the house of a generous God, Mrs. Phutiphar perhaps playing the part of faithless Israel. But Scripture bestows wisdom at every conceivable level. God’s Word isn’t spoken exclusively to theologians and exegetes; it’s spoken to anyone who hears it, even to housewives like me.
Sticking to what I understand about soap opera situations like this one, I must admit I think the villain is Phutiphar. He’s as plain as pudding, as I hope to show in a few masterly strokes of character analysis. Don’t try to enlist my sympathy for him. You can tell me he was a pretty good fellow, trusting, good-natured unless seriously riled, a trifle stupid, no more socially obtuse than most men, hopelessly yoked to a nymphomaniacal shrew and duped by circumstantial evidence—in short, a classical cuckold right out of Moliere or Wycherly. I might go along with you but for one thing—that stubborn little phrase: “was concerned about nothing except the food he ate.”
This reveals him as a man governed entirely by his appetites, sensual or whatever. His god is his belly. Our friends near the roots of vernacular might go so far as to call him a slob. Fastidious or gross, as his case may be, his only purpose in life is self-gratification, and his wife had long ago been tempted to the limit of her meager unenlightened moral strength just living with him. She’s a bad girl, no doubt about that, but how did she get that way? Just look at Phutiphar for a minute, ye marriage counselors. Attendite et videte where the real blame might lie.
Scripture makes no bones about the fact that Phutiphar eluded every possible responsibility as head of his house. We know, somehow, that he won’t end up running Egypt or the Universal Church. Once he found somebody to proxy for him, he placed him without hesitation “in charge of his household and over all his property,” including the management of the real estate. He wouldn’t even worry about the bills, and certainly he wasn’t personally interested in fixing things. Phutiphar didn’t face anything, boldly or otherwise, if he could possibly get somebody else to do it.
What he did in his spare time, of which he now had plenty, is left to our conjecture. It’s possible that he buried himself in his career as captain of Pharaoh’s bodyguard, bending his efforts to “getting ahead.” I don’t think so.
We sophomorons who know a few words of Hebrew can’t help noting that in the Hebrew text the word for “captain” is the same as the one used for “warden.” Phutiphar and the nameless warden of the prison may have been one and the same man. This makes good sense. Although Phutiphar imprisoned Joseph and removed him from his household, he had no intention of denying himself the services of anyone so valuable. The sequel would be patently in keeping with the Captain’s character. Soon mollified, he put Joseph “in charge of all prisoners: and everything that was done there was done under his management.” Characteristically, “The warden did not concern himself with anything in Joseph’s charge.” As we insist, Phutiphar was congenitally averse to any responsibility he could get out of. Far from being an injured innocent, he was devilishly clever about manipulating circumstances to his own ends.
Aha! Here is corroboration from a most unexpected quarter. My own husband, still facing me boldly, has just handed me a copy of the Koran—into whose pages Joseph and the Phutiphars eventually found their way—and points out the following passage:
The story in the Koran ends with: “Yet though they were convinced of his innocence, the Egyptians thought it right to imprison him for a time.”
Though necessarily non canonical, this amusing version nevertheless gives interesting sidelights which conflict in no way with Holy Scripture. Joseph’s righteous protestation of innocence rings especially true, considering what we know about him. As for our friend Phutiphar, he may not have been as obtuse as he liked to appear where his wife was concerned. Something of a Pontius Pilate, he simply habitually sidestepped troublesome issues. By publicly accepting his wife’s story, he was able to keep up appearances and also to secure Joseph’s services in the prison, all the while actually protecting Joseph from Mrs. Phutiphar’s vengeance. His reasoning may have been much like Pilate’s, who ordered our Lord scourged in a misguided attempt to save him from the wrath of the Jews.
Certainly Mrs. Phutiphar was despised by her husband. Irresponsible and selfish, he couldn’t have cared less about her as a person. Maybe in his new-found leisure he took up Egyptian golf, or went on hunting trips with one of those trained Egyptian cats on a leash, which we see pictured on the walls of tombs. Maybe he drank. Whatever he did, we know he didn’t spend any time on Mrs. Phutiphar, because the only thing he cared about at home was “the food he ate.” She’s not only a figure of evil, poor thing. She’s a neglected wife.
Captain Phutiphar was a hedonistic worldling, an archpagan. His very name means “dedicated to Ra,” the false god of the Egyptians. Certainly Mrs. Phutiphar could not have been unaware that he was cowardly, that he was nothing to look up to. She must also have realized that her only share in his life would be catering to his appetites. Deprived of all cherishing, all emotional support or intellectual companionship with her husband, she must have felt her gorge rise as she watched him pleasing his belly day after day like an animal. After Joseph appeared on the scene, maybe he rarely came home at all. Before she was scorned by Joseph, she had first been mortally scorned by her husband. No wonder her rage was so terrible.
Phutiphar may have had other deficiencies. No children are mentioned in his household, and in fact the Koran expressly says Phutiphar thought of adopting Joseph “as our son.” This leads us to wonder whether Mrs. Phutiphar, a red-blooded female if ever there was one, may have been denied the normal fulfillment of progeny and all that goes with it. We might also note for what it’s worth that the Vulgate calls Phutiphar eunuchus Pharaonis, translating a Hebrew word which can mean either eunuch or simply “officer.” (This need not surprise us, as officials of oriental courts were often emasculates.) If this is to be taken literally in Phutiphar’s case, as the Vulgate may imply, we can see that Mrs. Phutiphar’s plight was pitiable indeed. If she was fructified neither spiritually not physically, Joseph’s fatal attraction for her is only too understandable. Phutiphar was a husband who took a great deal for granted.
Scripture tells us at the very outset of this domestic tragedy that he did in fact take a great deal for granted where his wife was concerned. It says Joseph “lived in the house of his master,” and was given the run of it. This was not common practice, and shows the unusual trust Phutiphar placed in his new slave. It also shows he neglected one of the most important duties of a husband: he provided his wife no protection at all against her womanly weaknesses.
Women are told constantly that rationality is not their strong point, that they are always letting themselves get carried away by their emotions, that they think with their hearts, etc., etc., etc. as if they were in some way to blame for being women. Actually, it is only when a woman is deprived of the loving protection and support of her husband that these wifely characteristics run loose and cause trouble. (We must assume a wife is obedient.) His love is her right, her bulwark.
How well does the Bride of the Canticle know her weaknesses! She begs the bridegroom to bring her more and more fully into his life, saying “Show me, O thou whom my soul loveth, where thou feedest, where thou liest in the midday, lest I begin to wander after the flocks of thy companions” (Cant. 1:6). And God Himself, the Husband of Israel, when speaking through Isaias about His chosen vineyard, stresses how first of all He “fenced it in” (Isa. 5:2). When the same God made Flesh repeats this parable of the vineyard, a symbol of the beloved, He marks again how the good householder dutifully “put a hedge about it” after planting it, not leaving it exposed and undefended (Mt. 21:33).
“Where there is no hedge,” affirms Ecclesiasticus, “the possession shall be spoiled: and where there is no wife, he mourneth that is in want” (36:27).
Often a husband has only himself to blame.
“I passed by the vineyard of the slothful man,” says the Holy Spirit, “and by the vineyard of the foolish man: and behold it was all filled with nettles, and thorns had covered the face thereof, and the stone wall was broken down” (Prov. 24:30-31). This could be a poem about Mrs. Phutiphar.
Like a vineyard, a woman is created to give of herself. She can complete herself only by so doing. She is not the vinedresser or the fence-builder, and she is harmed psychically, masculinized and degraded, when she is forced to perform these offices for herself. The Bride of the Canticle complains of this too: “They have made me the keeper in the vineyards,” adding sorrowfully, “my vineyard I have not kept” (Cant. 1:5).
A woman loves easily. Her love for man is a love of benevolence, which necessarily includes the gift of self. Man, whose love for woman is a love of concupiscence, must learn this trick of self-giving in the spiritual life. Women do it instinctively.
Women are forever falling in love with their doctors, their bosses, their spiritual directors. Fr. Desurmont, in an authoritative volume on the priestly life, warns priests whose fearsome duty it is to direct women:
They must not be made even to suspect that one is personally interested in them. Their mentality is so constituted that if they be led to think themselves the object of a particular regard or affection, almost without fail, they descend to a natural plane, be it through vanity or sentimentality.
I think the good Father is trying to say politely that they “get physical.” Sentimentality is after all a form of sensuality, and it is always open to “nice” women who are beyond the grosser forms.
There is another reason, too, I think. Women, so easily revolted by carnal men, are by the same token irresistibly attracted to spiritual men, or men they can in any way look up to. That’s the way God made women, so there’s no reason to be surprised when they act according to their nature. Should there be any doubt in our minds concerning the nature of the Magdalene’s first attraction to the Person of our Lord? Never underestimate the power of a man over a woman — especially a good man! Though it pains me to say so, a woman can only be described as a heart forever in search of a head. She yearns for her husband as the heart of the Church yearns for Christ, her Head. These verities can’t be sidestepped by irresponsible husbands without dire consequences.
Poor Mrs. Phutiphar was no exception to all this. There is, furthermore, no reason to believe that she wasn’t young and beautiful. We may even affirm she was, so unbelievable does she find Joseph’s rejection. She was bored. She was utterly denied the stability we have been talking about. She was probably a woman of fire and sensibility, with yearnings for higher things of which her husband refused to take cognizance. Not one to do things by halves, yet frustrated and trammeled, she was burdened with an enormous and undirected power of loving, whose strength can be gauged by the magnitude of the hate it engendered. She was ruthless, of the stuff of saints … and devils. Had she been stupid or phlegmatic, her lot might have been bearable, but the forceful way in which she tried to settle Joseph’s hash proves otherwise.
When, one fine day, that male paragon walked into the vacuum of her life, we can’t wonder at the consequences. Here was everything Mrs. Phutiphar could possibly desire in a man; he took on responsibility, ran things for the benefit of those in his care, and was not concerned only for the food he ate. He was young and handsome, and he was man enough to resist her!
Without minimizing the gravity of Mrs. Phutiphar’s offense, we must allow the staggering force of her temptation. Phutiphar was cruel, and much to blame for her sin, as she herself seems to realize subliminally when she screams in frustration, “Look! My husband has brought in a Hebrew to us.” Here the awful thought occurs to us that Phutiphar may actually have put Joseph in his household to keep his unloved wife happy, never dreaming the young man would resist. Phutiphar may have been a real cold-blooded horror. Or then again, maybe he was just plain weak, and, as the Koran suggests, he had really hoped she would look upon Joseph as a son.
Whatever his design, Mrs. Phutiphar wasn’t satisfied. She wanted a husband’s love, a head for her heart, and suddenly she thought she saw it right there in her own home, where she had had every right to expect it since her wedding day. She set about ensnaring Joseph by the only means she thought men could be ensnared, knowing Phutiphar. That she herself was gross is doubtful. Few women are so by nature, though they can become so by training. Impurity among women is very much a vice of the unloved. Had she been really impure, she would hardly have appreciated Joseph’s superlative qualities. She looked up to him, loved him, and the gift of self followed automatically. “Woman is not independent of man” (1 Cor. 11:11), says St. Paul. Man must play God’s masculine role toward her by fructifying and protecting her and by providing for her. That’s the trouble with women!
Poor Mrs. Phutiphar! Only in the cross could she have found the stability she craved in her sad circumstances. As Fray Juan remarked in that other case, “She was a girl of good appearance and many good qualities, which made matters worse.” Corruptio optimi pessima. Not only that, but Mrs. Phutiphar was a pagan Egyptian. What inkling could she have had of the Christian marvel yet to be revealed, the Wood that sweetens the bitter waters? How could she have known that behind every husband stands Christ, our God made Flesh? How suspect that this Christ is the fructifier of the unloved, the childless and the barren? How could she have guessed that fidelity to her husband in the face of all his terrible shortcomings would have been simply and nakedly what all fidelity is — a fidelity to God the Husband of husbands?
Speaking to the Mrs. Phutiphars through His prophet Osee, God promises:
I will allure her and will lead her into the wilderness: and I will speak to her heart. And I will give her vinedressers out of the same place, and the valley of Achor [“misery”] for an opening of hope: and she shall sing there according to the days of her youth, and according to the days of her coming up out of the land of Egypt. And it shall be in that day, saith the Lord, that she shall call me: MY HUSBAND ... And I will sow her unto me in the earth and I will have mercy on her that was without mercy (2:14-16,23).
That this spiritual consummation, this sublimation of all her natural instincts, might be substituted for the gift of self she yearned to make on a lower level, was a concept utterly beyond our Egyptian wife. A renouncement of natural satisfactions in return for the supernatural favors of a Divine and Tremendous Lover! Incredible! Yet this is LOVE. This is the cross, the opening of hope in the miserable valley of Achor. It is the treasure of the unhappily married Christian wife, to whom God supplies in the order of grace all that may be lacking in the order of nature.
“Give praise, O thou barren, that bearest not: sing forth praise and make a joyful noise, thou that didst not travail with child: for many are the children of the desolate, more than of her that hath a husband, saith the Lord” (Isa. 54:1).
Mrs. Phutiphar had never heard anything like that!