In the town of Maghdouche overlooking Sidon in southern Lebanon, is where legend says the wife of Potiphar (circa 1500 BC) is buried, seductress of Joseph from the Bible, which does not name her. Jewish, Islamic, and Persian literature have her name Zulaikha. The story in the Bible is that after Joseph’s betrayal and sale into slavery by his kin (Genesis 39), he finds favor in the eyes of Potiphar, the captain of the Egyptian palace guard. In that household, Joseph rejects the advances and seduction of Zulaikha. In the event that led to his imprisonment, Zulaikha grabs the garment of Joseph but he escapes naked running out of the palace. She lies to Potiphar saying that he was the instigator and Joseph is sent to prison. There, Joseph finds new and greater favor and position with the Pharaoh, ultimately becoming a source of salvation and blessings for his kin, the very people who betrayed him.
This story reminds us two recurring themes of God’s grace and mercy:
1. In being wronged and betrayed, we can become a source of grace for people, many more people and much more grace than would have been available if the betrayal and evil had never been done. In receiving God’s grace and mercy we bring along other people too.
2. The continuum of grace always occurs through the fulcrum of chastity.
But this story is only an early chapter, with earlier, later, and other chapters to come.
The town of Magdouche is an ancient promontory and look-out post for Sidon. During Phoenician times (peak 1200-800 BC) the promontory had the shrine to Astarte, the pagan goddess of war and sexuality. The pagan legend has Astarte bearing two sons from her brother, Eros and Lust. Astarte is likely the same pagan goddess of Sidon, Ashtoreth, who captured the heart of Solomon, son of David (1 Kings 11:5).
The shrine was taken over by Christians after the Virgin Theotokos stayed in a cave there while waiting for her Son to return from preaching in Sidon. Jesus’ work in Sidon is referenced in many places in the new Testament (Matthew 11:21-22, Mark 3:8 and 7:31, and Luke 6:17) with even Matthew 15:21 referencing the city as a place of refuge for Jesus.
It took the convincing of St. Helena in the 4th Century by the devoted town folk for the empire to issue an icon of the Theotokos, reportedly painted by St. Luke, to the cave/Byzantine chapel: the Virgin of Mantara (the Waiting) or Virgin of Magdouche.
In the 8th Century, the cave was buried and hidden by locals to escape the detection of the local Moslem governors. Unlike the Caliph Omar who spared Jerusalem, they feared the cave would be destroyed by those leaders. Many of the region then dispersed into the higher mountains or converted to Islam. The Crusaders of the Latin Rite in Sidon of the 12th and 13th Centuries never suspected the chapel’s existence even with their own castle and chapel a stone’s throw from the hidden cave.
The cave’s legend lingered however.
Under the rule of the benevolent Druze Prince Fakhriddin II in the early 17th Century, peace and religious freedom was granted to the region. Byzantine Archbishop Euthymios Michael Saifi of Sidon (1682 – 1723) offered recognition of the primacy of the Bishop of Rome. Around that time, the grotto was rediscovered when a goat-herder boy went after a goat who had fallen into the cave. The boy, we can call him Indiana Jones Jr., noticed the icon as the goat ran back into his arms. He piled rocks to escape with his beloved goat, alerting the townsfolk of his accidental excavation. The pilgrimages restarted.
So the worship of Astarte was replaced with love and devotion, now restarted, to the chaste and virgin Mother of God, the Living Ark of the Covenant. Her chaste and virgin Son was also wronged and betrayed, becoming a source of grace offered for all people, infinitely more than would have been available if the betrayal and evil had never been done. Lest anyone think that this is not related to the Potiphar story or that God’s hand does not sign scripture, read the evangelist Mark’s stunning account of what happened immediately after Jesus was betrayed in the garden of Gethsemane:
Mark 14:51 A young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, was following Jesus. When they seized him, 52 he fled naked, leaving his garment behind.
The winter now is past, the rains have gone away. Arise my love, my bride from Lebanon and come. How you are beautiful my love, how you are fair. Among all women as a lily in the thorns.
Veni Sponsa Christi