Potiphar and His Wife Desire Joseph
Potiphar, the Eunuch
After being sold into slavery by his brothers, Joseph is purchased by Potiphar:
בראשׁית לט:א וְיוֹסֵף הוּרַד מִצְרָיְמָה וַיִּקְנֵהוּ פּוֹטִיפַר סְרִיס פַּרְעֹה שַׂר הַטַּבָּחִים אִישׁ מִצְרִי מִיַּד הַיִּשְׁמְעֵאלִים אֲשֶׁר הוֹרִדֻהוּ שָׁמָּה.
Gen 39:1 When Joseph was taken down to Egypt, Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard, bought him from the Ishmaelites who had brought him there.
Potiphar’s title,סָרִיס (saris, from the Akkadian, ša reši, “the one at the head”), denotes a chief courtier in the royal palace, just as the chief cupbearer and chief baker are identified as sarisim in Pharaoh’s palace (Gen 40:2, 7). The 3rd century B.C.E. LXX Greek translation, however, interprets saris according to a later meaning of the term, as a castrated man, and thus identifies Potiphar as a eunuch.
Later rabbinic midrash explains why and how Potiphar was neutered:
בראשית רבה פו (תיאודור-אלבק) סריס פרעה שנסתרס בגופו מלמד שלא לקחו אלא לתשמיש וסירסו הקדוש ברוך הוא בגופו....
Gen Rab 86:3 “Pharaoh’s saris”—he was physically castrated, for he had only taken [Joseph as a houseslave] in order to have intercourse with him, so the Holy One, blessed be He, castrated him….
The Talmud goes further and claims that Potiphar was both castrated and then mutilated. Reading Potiphar, the courtier who bought Joseph, and Poti-phera, the father of Asenath, Joseph’s wife, as the same person, the Talmud explains the name change:
בבלי סוטה יג ויקנהו פוטיפר [סְרִיס פַּרְעֹה] א[מר] רב: "שקנאו לעצמו, בא מיכאל וסרסו, בא גבריאל ופרעו, כת[יב] 'פוטיפר' וכת[יב] 'פוטיפרע'."
b. Sotah 13b “And Potiphar [the eunuch of Pharaoh] bought him…” (Gen 39:1). He (Potiphar) was jealous for him, so Michael came and castrated him. Then Gabriel came and emasculated him (i.e. mutilated his penis), [which is why] at the beginning it is written “Potiphar” (Gen 39:1), and at the end “Poti-phera” (Gen 41:45).
Playing on the Hebrew term to purchase or buy (ק.נ.ה/י) and to act jealousy or passionately (ק.נ.א), the aggadic tradition suggests that Potiphar, the master, purchased Joseph as a slave to use him homo-erotically—a common practice in Rome in Late Antiquity. To protect Joseph, the angel Michael is sent down to castrate Potiphar. The angel Gabriel follows and mutilates him, which accounts for his change of name to Poti-phera (פּוֹטִי פֶרַע)—a play on the root פ.ר.ע, which in rabbinic literature can mean (in the piel) to disarrange, i.e. mutilate, or exact retribution.
According to Michael Satlow, the midrash exemplifies “the rabbinic principle of ‘measure for measure’; because Potiphar desired to commit a sexual offense, he was punished by loss of his sexual organ. His homoerotic desire led to his pre-emptive emasculation.” Being the object of another’s sexual desire—either male or female—“feminizes” Joseph and casts him as the potential victim of sexual assault.
Whereas God intervenes to protect Joseph and thwart Potiphar’s designs, when it is the mistress who sexually harasses him, a different standard applies.
Joseph’s Beauty, Mrs. Potiphar’s Desire
The Torah now, as if to alert us to what is about to come, comments on Joseph’s beauty for the first time: וַיְהִי יוֹסֵף יְפֵה תֹאַר וִיפֵה מַרְאֶה, “Now Joseph was well-built and handsome” (v. 6). Potiphar’s wife appears in the very next verse. We are auspiciously told that it was “after these things” that she makes advances on Joseph:
בראשׁית לט:ז וַיְהִי אַחַר הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה וַתִּשָּׂא אֵשֶׁת אֲדֹנָיו אֶת עֵינֶיהָ אֶל יוֹסֵף וַתֹּאמֶר שִׁכְבָה עִמִּי.
Gen 39:7 And it was after these things that his master’s wife cast her eyes on Joseph and said, “Lie with me.”
The attempted seduction of Joseph plays on three critical markers of identity—ethnicity, gender, and class. The one who embodies power is female and upper class and Egyptian; the powerless one, male and enslaved and ethnically “other,” repeatedly identified as “Hebrew” (39:14, 17). But precisely because of his gender, Joseph is empowered with agency and the physical strength to resist.
Potiphar’s status as a eunuch would certainly explain his wife’s sexual frustration and the intensity of temptation that Joseph, as a beautiful Hebrew slave, posed! But the midrash blames Joseph. According to Genesis Rabbah, as a result of his meteoric rise to power in his master’s house, Joseph becomes smug and vainglorious; he begins to curl his hair and make up his eyes, acting the dandy:
בראשית רבה פז (תיאודור-אלבק) מה כת' למעלה מן הענין ויהי יוסף יפה תאר ויפה מראה ותשא אשת אדניו, לגבור שהיה יושב בשוק ומשמשם בעיניו ומתקן בשערו ומתלה בעקיבו, אמר אנא גבר.
Gen Rab 87:3 What is written just before this? “Now Joseph was well built and handsome” (39:6). “And his master’s wife cast her eyes upon Joseph” (39:7) [This is] like a man/hero [gever/gibbor], who would sit in the market, making up (or fluttering) his eyes, fixing his hair, and lifting up his heel, saying: “Such a man/hero I am!”
אמ' ליה אי גבר את הא דובא קומיך קופצה.
They said to him: “If you’re such a ‘man,’ and [also] so pleasing, here is the bear (i.e., Potiphar’s wife) standing before you, [ready to] pounce!”
Implicating Joseph for the unsolicited attention of Potiphar’s wife, “the bear,” is a familiar misogynist trope: the victim of non-consensual sexual advances or assault must have been “asking for it”—an allegation often directed at women, rarely at men. Yet, as a man, the presumption is that Joseph can physically resist.
The midrash further highlights the dissonance between Joseph’s feminine posturing and his boast—“What a man!” He is tested precisely on that demarcation between man/woman and masculine/feminine through his sexuality:
אבות ד:א בֶּן זוֹמָא אוֹמֵר...אֵיזֶהוּ גִבּוֹר, הַכּוֹבֵשׁ אֶת יִצְרוֹ....
m. Avot 4:1 As Ben Zoma would say…Who is a hero? One who conquers his desire….
According to the Rabbis, it is only by virtue of sexual restraint, refraining from adultery with the Egyptian mistress, that Joseph would distance himself from the feminized object of unwanted sexual attention and prove himself the masculine “Jewish” hero; that is, he’d only become a gibbor by fighting off “the bear.”
Potipher’s Wife Is Not Joseph’s Master
Potiphar’s wife is never named in the biblical passage—merely referred to as אֵשֶׁת אֲדֹנָיו, “wife of his [Joseph’s] master” (vv. 7, 8), or אִשְׁתּוֹ, “his wife” (v. 19). She is deemed an extension of her husband’s property and is thus subservient to “the master,” just as Joseph is. Euphemistically, she is like Potiphar’s bread, which he eats and to which he has exclusive access, the only thing from which Joseph is excluded:
בראשׁית לט:ו וַיַּעֲזֹב כָּל אֲשֶׁר לוֹ בְּיַד יוֹסֵף וְלֹא יָדַע אִתּוֹ מְאוּמָה כִּי אִם הַלֶּחֶם אֲשֶׁר הוּא אוֹכֵל וַיְהִי יוֹסֵף יְפֵה תֹאַר וִיפֵה מַרְאֶה.
Gen 39:6 He (Potiphar) left all that he had in Joseph’s hands, and he (Potiphar) gave no thought to anything with him (Joseph) there except the food that he (Potiphar) ate. Now Joseph was beautiful in form and appearance.
When he resists her, Joseph echoes the narrator’s comment about Potiphar’s bread, mentioning that only Potiphar’s wife, among all his possessions, has been withheld from Joseph:
בראשׁית לט:ח וַיְמָאֵן וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל אֵשֶׁת אֲדֹנָיו הֵן אֲדֹנִי לֹא יָדַע אִתִּי מַה בַּבָּיִת וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר יֶשׁ לוֹ נָתַן בְּיָדִי. לט:ט אֵינֶנּוּ גָדוֹל בַּבַּיִת הַזֶּה מִמֶּנִּי וְלֹא חָשַׂךְ מִמֶּנִּי מְאוּמָה כִּי אִם אוֹתָךְ בַּאֲשֶׁר אַתְּ אִשְׁתּוֹ....
Gen 39:8 But he refused. He said to his master’s wife, “Look, with me here, my master gives no thought to [lit. does not know] anything in this house, and all that he owns he has placed in my hands. 39:9 He is not greater in this house than I am, nor has he kept back anything from me but yourself, because you are his wife.
Potiphera’s wife is powerful in terms of class and ethnic status, less so as a married woman, but she is dependent on male complicity in the transgressive sex act. By way of the trope (or accent) in the Hebrew text (a shalshelet over the verb וַיְמָאֵ֓ן, “he refused”), the Masoretes indicate how very super-human Joseph’s resistance to her advances must have been.
He continues by invoking loyalty to his master and to God [ʾElohim], a universal appeal to moral principles:
בראשׁית לט:ט ...וְאֵיךְ אֶעֱשֶׂה הָרָעָה הַגְּדֹלָה הַזֹּאת וְחָטָאתִי לֵאלֹהִים.
Gen 39:9 …How then could I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?”
Yet Mrs. Potiphar persists, tempting him to lie with her day after day (v. 10). Finally, one day she sequesters him alone in the house:
בראשׁית לט:יא וַיְהִי כְּהַיּוֹם הַזֶּה וַיָּבֹא הַבַּיְתָה לַעֲשׂוֹת מְלַאכְתּוֹ וְאֵין אִישׁ מֵאַנְשֵׁי הַבַּיִת שָׁם בַּבָּיִת. לט:יב וַתִּתְפְּשֵׂהוּ בְּבִגְדוֹ לֵאמֹר שִׁכְבָה עִמִּי וַיַּעֲזֹב בִּגְדוֹ בְּיָדָהּ וַיָּנָס וַיֵּצֵא הַחוּצָה.
Gen 39:11 And it came to pass on this day, when he went into the house to do his work and none of the men of the house was there in the house, 39:12 she caught him by his garment, saying, “Lie with me.” But he left his garment in her hand and fled and got out of the house.
Auspiciously, the garment is here called a בֶּגֶד (beged); with this as her alibi, she can betray (a play on the root ב.ג.ד) him. Faced with his rejection, she accuses her would-be lover of attempted rape:
בראשׁית לט:יד וַתִּקְרָא לְאַנְשֵׁי בֵיתָהּ וַתֹּאמֶר לָהֶם לֵאמֹר רְאוּ הֵבִיא לָנוּ אִישׁ עִבְרִי לְצַחֶק בָּנוּ בָּא אֵלַי לִשְׁכַּב עִמִּי וָאֶקְרָא בְּקוֹל גָּדוֹל.
Gen 39:14 She called to the men of her household and said to them, “See, he has brought among us a Hebrew to mock us. He came in to me to lie with me, and I cried out with a loud voice.
After emphasizing that Joseph is a Hebrew, ʿivri (lit. “one who crosses over”)—the quintessential “other” in the Egyptian court—she deploys a rhetoric of alliance with the servants, a tactic that she does not repeat when she presents her accusation to her husband (vv. 17–18). She declares that they, meaning she and the servants, are all presumably “mocked” by Joseph or “dallied with” (tzacheq).
Though Potiphar, as recounted by the narrator, is furious (v. 19), he does not sentence Joseph to death, perhaps because attempted rape is not a capital offense or the master may doubt his wife’s report. Instead, Potiphar casts Joseph, his Hebrew slave, into prison, מְקוֹם אֲשֶׁר אֲסִירֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ אֲסוּרִים, “the place where the king’s prisoners were bound” (v. 20). It is an elite cell, yet still below the surface of the earth, a pit where he is abandoned again (40:23), like the pit into which he was cast by his brothers (37:20). Despite his performance as hero, in order to emerge out of the feminized object-of-another’s-desire he must be reduced to being totally abject, forgotten, as if dead, in yet another pit/dungeon.
Joseph Intends to Sin
The Talmud expands upon the ethnic divide between the Egyptian woman and the Hebrew man, transforming the trial in the sexual arena into a contest of cultural values encoded in gender terms. It opens with the suggestion that when Joseph comes to Potiphar’s house to work on the day when the servants are away (v. 11), the word for work, מְלָאכָה (melʾakha), is a euphemism indicating that Joseph had intended to have intercourse with Potiphar’s wife:
בבלי סוטה לו יוסף מאי היא דכתיב ויהי כהיום הזה ויבא הביתה לעשות מלאכתו א״ר יוחנן מלמד ששניהם לדבר עבירה נתכוונו ויבא הביתה לעשות מלאכתו רב ושמואל חד אמר לעשות מלאכתו ממש וחד אמר לעשות צרכיו נכנס.
b. Sotah 36b “And it came to pass on this day, when he [Joseph] went into the house to do his work (malʾakhto)” (Gen 39:11). R. Yoḥanan said: this teaches that they both intended to sin. “When he [Joseph] went into the house to do his work” (ibid. v.11). Rav and Shmuel—One said: it means literally to do his work, the other said that he went to satisfy his desires.
In this expansion of the biblical story, all the servants have left for the idolatrous festivities, and Potiphar’s wife has remained behind by design:
בבלי סוטה לו ואין איש מאנשי הבית וגו׳ אפשר בית גדול כביתו של אותו רשע לא היה בו איש תנא דבי ר׳ ישמעאל אותו היום יום חגם היה והלכו כולן לבית עבודה זרה שלהם והיא אמרה להן חולה היא אמרה אין לי יום שניזקק לי יוסף כיום הזה.
b. Sotah 36b “And not one of the members of the household were present in the house” (ibid. v. 11). Is it possible that there was no man in the large house of this wicked man (Potiphar)? It was taught in the School of R. Ishmael: that particular day was their festival, and they had all gone to their idolatrous rites, and she (Potiphar’s wife) told everyone that she was ill, saying [to herself] she has no day to fornicate with Joseph like this day.
The festival accounts for how Joseph and Mrs. Potiphar find themselves alone in the house. Joshua Levinson, a scholar of midrashic literature, notes that the narrative conforms to the classic Hellenistic seduction/adultery plot: “The narrator is availing himself of the central opposition staged in the seduction plot of the romance and the mime, where women are associated with lack of control (especially sexual) and men with self-mastery.” But it also alerts us to a central theme: Egypt is steeped in idolatry. Thus, the trial is set against the background of “cultural continence” where the battle for ethnic and religious difference is intertwined with the struggle over gender and sexual restraint.
Jacob’s Image Appears
The lascivious wife with whom Joseph does intend to lie (according to this aggadah), is juxtaposed with his father, Jacob, his savior. Deus ex machina, the image of the patriarch appears to rescue his son from completing the sexual act.
בבלי סוטה לו ותתפשהו בבגדו לאמר וגו׳ תאנא: מלמד שעלו שניהם למטה ערומים. באותה שעה באתה דיוקנו של אביו ונראתה לו בחלון אמר לו יוסף עתידין אחיך שיכתבו על אבני אפוד ואתה ביניהם רצונך שימחה שמך מביניהם ותקרא רועה זונות דכתיב ורועה זונות יאבד הון.
b. Sotah 36b “And she seized him by his garment saying, ‘lie with me’” (v.12). This teaches that they both went to bed naked. At that moment the image of his father appeared to him in the window, and said, “Joseph, in the future your brothers will have their names written on the priestly breastplate, and yours amongst them. Do you want it effaced, and yourself called a shepherd of prostitutes?” as it says: “[A man who loves wisdom will please his father] but a shepherd of prostitutes loses his wealth” (Prov 29:3).
Like the ghost of Hamlet’s father whose “visitation is but to whet [his] almost blunted purpose,” Jacob’s face hovers in the window, perhaps as a reflection of Joseph’s own idealized self. The patriarch threatens him with the loss of “wealth” if he were to succumb and become a “shepherd of prostitutes” (Prov 29:3). In turn, the father offers him a reward: to be etched on the stones of the priestly breastplate along with his brothers. This is the “rock of Israel,” the promised “wealth” alluded to in Jacob’s blessing to Joseph at the end of his life (Gen 49:24).
What paradoxically interrupts the sex act is the “stone” image of the father’s features and the reward of having his name engraved on one of the twelve stones of the ʾephod. This cools Joseph’s ardor and softens the phallus so that it “returns” to its former “natural state” [lit. his vigor, ʾeitano].
בבלי סוטה לו מיד ותשב באיתן קשתו א״ר יוחנן משום ר׳ מאיר ששבה קשתו לאיתנו ויפוזו זרועי ידיו נעץ ידיו בקרקע ויצאה שכבת זרעו מבין ציפורני ידיו.
b. Sotah 36b At once “his bow remained taut [va-teshev be-ʾeitan qashto]” (Gen 49:24). R. Yoḥanan in the name of R. Meir said: this teaches that his bow returned to its natural state [shavah qashto la-ʾeitano]. “And his arms were made firm” (ibid. v. 24). He thrust ten fingers into the ground and his seed was excreted from between his fingernails.
It is not firmness in body, but a resoluteness of mind—loyalty to the image of his father—that preserves Joseph’s integrity.
Implicit in the narrative is the substitution of Jacob for Potiphar’s wife as the object of Joseph’s focus. As Levinson points out: “Given the projection of the other as woman, Potiphar’s wife’s uncontrolled passion and its attendant loss of cultural identity is counterbalanced by Jacob’s offer of a spiritual fraternity.” Thus it is fealty to a “socially sanctioned homosocial community” (allied with father and brothers, all male) that displaces the power of the seductive foreign female.
Joseph’s Spiritual Descent in Egypt
In the biblical text, while he refrains from sexual relations with Potiphar’s wife, Joseph does not return to his “natural state” in alliance with his father and brothers. Rather, the converse happens. Joseph attempts to assimilate in Egypt and marries Asenath, the daughter of Poti-phera, priest of On (Gen 41:45). He also gives his first child a name that signifies alienation from his paternal home:
בראשׁית מא:נא וַיִּקְרָא יוֹסֵף אֶת שֵׁם הַבְּכוֹר מְנַשֶּׁה כִּי נַשַּׁנִי אֱלֹהִים אֶת כָּל עֲמָלִי וְאֵת כָּל בֵּית אָבִי.
Gen 41:51 Joseph named the first-born Menashe, “For God has made me forget (nashani) all my hardship and all my father’s house.”
Over the course of the more than twenty years that Joseph resides in Egypt, while his father grieves, Joseph never sends word home—not even when lifted out of prison and elevated to viceroy. The image of the father, in reality, is held aloof and fading. Only after he rises from the second pit (prison in Egypt) and sees his brothers face-to-face, while ensconced behind his Egyptian mask, can Joseph begin to make the slow journey homeward.
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Prof. Rabbi Rachel Adelman is Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at Boston’s Hebrew College, where she also received ordination. She holds a Ph.D. in Hebrew Literature from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and is the author of The Return of the Repressed: Pirqe de-Rabbi Eliezer and the Pseudepigrapha (Brill 2009), based on her dissertation, and The Female Ruse: Women's Deception and Divine Sanction in the Hebrew Bible (Sheffield Phoenix, 2015), written under the auspices of the Women's Studies in Religion Program (WSRP) at Harvard. Adelman is now working on a new book, Daughters in Danger from the Hebrew Bible to Modern Midrash (forthcoming, Sheffield Phoenix Press). When she is not writing books, papers, or divrei Torah, it is poetry that flows from her pen.
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