I found her sitting in the shadow of the city wall, on the dusty ground in front of the gate. Old, very old. A wrinkled face darkened and beaten by Egypt's sun, a body bent under the rags that covered it. But then she spoke to me, and she never lowered her eyes the way beggars do, but looked straight into mine, a fierce, defiant look. It was easy to believe that she used to be a great lady, as the guards had told me.
"Blame it on me" she said. "All those calamities--frogs, locusts, hail, dead animals, Pharaoh's defeat and what not. Were it not for me, none would have happened."
"Yet, what would you have done?"
"They told you that I used to be a great lady, and that is true. Noble-born, well-placed, the mistress of a great household. Slaves prepared and cooked my meals, my furnishings were the best, and I was welcome in the greatest houses of the land. Even Pharaoh--and Pharaoh then was a much greater man than your Ramses ever was, a true ruler, not a captive of diviners--Pharaoh himself knew me. I was asked to dance before him, and he rewarded me with a wonderful silk scarf, a soft rare fabric from afar.
What more can a woman want, you ask? I will tell you. I had wealth beyond anything you people can even imagine, yet a poor peasant girl stooped in the fields had the one thing that I lacked: a husband. Oh sure, I had a man, the source of all my wealth and power. Some man--chief eunuch to Pharaoh. What does a eunuch want a wife for? Why, to keep his house, to entertain friends, and at night, in bed, to be fondled and played with--to get as close to those things no eunuch may do or indeed is able to do.
You have probably seen your fill of eunuchs--fat, content, glittering, fixtures of the harems of rich folks, crafty or pleasant, as they choose to be. I would say that much for mine: he was a person, not just a fixture, an intelligent and thoughtful person. But he craved love, craved attention. A poor peasant girl will give all that to her man--but then, her man would give her love in return, would give her pleasure, would give her children to enjoy as they grew up and support her in old age. I had none of those. Rich food, fancy clothing--but in bed, always, unfulfilled desire, always "hug me, kiss me, play with me," while my soul burned in a fire which he never saw.
Of course, I kept up appearances. I was brought up to do so, and appreciated my privileges. When I visited my mother, she would console me--except for this one thing, didn't I have all I ever needed? I should look at my two sisters, whose life did not begin to compare to mine. One was married to a miserly old nobleman, and got just as little satisfaction as I got. We hugged each other every time we parted, and then I returned to my golden cage.
Oh, you probably know the story of young Joseph. Stolen from the land of the Hebrews--that's what he told us--he was bought by my man and gradually rose to head our household. Young, talented, charming--coal-black curly hair and powerful arms, all a woman could ever desire. Do you blame me? For now I am sure you know who I am. Can you blame me? A neglected young wife left at home with a handsome young tempter--can anyone fault her for what happens next?
I will say that for Joseph: he was a straight arrow if there ever was one. As all Egypt knows now, he later rose to become viceroy, and let me tell you right away, those talents were evident even then. He shied away from me, using all his tact--not easy for a slave to refuse a mistress, but he did it very well. He knew I wasn't playing a game, but was desperate for real affection, not the fake hugs of a fat eunuch. Still, he looked in my eyes with perhaps a touch of contempt, and then just said:"No." Maybe he could see further ahead, to the greatness he would ultimately attain. I still wonder.
As long as I live, I will never regret wanting to take Joseph in my arms. No, my mistake was the malicious lie I made up afterwards. I felt insulted, my emotions were boiling inside me: a slave resisting his mistress, even looking down on her! Not even a free man had ever dared offend me thus. So I told Potiphar that handsome Joseph had made advances on me, and he, poor sap, believed every word. You can guess the rest: Joseph cast into the pit, me praised and rewarded with a fine gown, and the next head of the household chosen, a much older man, a Nubian with a big scar across his face.
Oh, I paid dearly for that lie. A few years later Potiphar got a second wife, younger and more vivacious. Maybe he saw through my bedtime fakery to the cold hate in my heart--I can only guess. For a while I remained powerful wife-number-one. But then Joseph rose to power, and Potiphar became a good friend of his--after all, he had been the first one in Egypt to appreciate Joseph's talents. That was how he heard the other side of my story, and how I lost my lofty position. No words passed between us, but Potiphar moved me to an isolated house at the edge of the estate, gave orders that I was to be adequately fed, and never looked at me again. And when he died, all he had passed to Pharaoh and to the family of that other wife, and I was left out in the cold.
So blame me, if you wish. Were it not for my spiteful lie, Joseph would have stayed where he was, and the house of Jacob would have have starved in Canaan.
And you would not have to contend with frogs and locusts and skin diseases, with Pharaoh's drowning and with the plague of the first-born. I'll say that much--that was the one time when my affliction was an advantage, at least I had no firstborn to grieve for. As far as I am concerned, the Hebrews can go wherever they want to, I have my own problems.
And by the way, if I could have the smallest among those loaves of bread you are carrying--that one, it looks too small to be sold, anyway--I would be most grateful."
Author and Curator: Dr. David P. Stern
Mail to Dr.Stern: david ("at" symbol) phy6.org .
Written 1998, posted passover eve 6 April 2012.