Potiphar and His Wife

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Jacob, Men in the Old Testament

  • Potiphar is only mentioned in 2 chapters in Genesis.
  • His name in Hebrew is a shortened version of Potiphera, which means “he whom Ra gave.” A modern interpretation might say, “He is God’s gift.”
  • After Joseph’s brothers sell him to the Midianites, they take him down to Egypt.
  • Potiphar buys Joseph as a household slave.
  • He has a good job as the “captain of the palace guard” and can afford to buy a good slave.
  • Potiphar’s duties most likely include supervising the guards and leading them during the procession for an execution.
  • In order for him to do his work outside the home, he needs the services of a trustworthy slave to manage his household.
  • Clearly, Joseph supplies that need.
  • Potiphar sees “that the Lord is with him and that the Lord gives him success in everything he does.”
  • That success trickles down and the “blessing of the Lord is on all that Potiphar has, in house and field.”
  • Potiphar is blessed because of Joseph.
  • Potiphar soon makes Joseph head of his household.
  • Potiphar entrusts Joseph with everything.
  • His only concern is the food that he eats.
  • Unfortunately, Potiphar’s wife is also enamored with Joseph.
  • According to the Quran, her name is Zuleika.
  • It probably means something like “brilliant beauty or lovely.”
  • Joseph is also described as “handsome and good-looking,” and one day she asks him to go to bed with her.
  • Joseph refuses, using a word that suggests the decision is difficult.
  • He says, “Look, with me here, my master has no concern about anything in the house, and he has put everything that he has in my hand. He is not greater in this house than I am, nor has he kept back anything from me except yourself, because you are his wife. How then could I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?”
  • It suggests that his high regard for Potiphar is a big factor in his decision. Scholars have wondered if the outcome would have been different if he had less regard for Potiphar.
  • Potiphar’s wife, however, “speaks to Joseph every day” hoping to convince him otherwise.
  • One day he is alone with her in the house. She catches hold of his garment insisting that he “lie” with her.
  • Joseph gets away and leaves her holding his garment in her hands.
  • She then calls out to the members of the household and accuses Joseph of attacking her saying, “My husband has brought among us a Hebrew to insult us!”
  • Her use of the word “us” is an attempt to garner their support against Joseph.
  • She claims she started screaming, and that’s when Joseph fled outside.
  • When Potiphar hears her story, he becomes enraged.
  • Though many scholars think the punishment should have been immediate death, Potiphar takes Joseph and puts him in a prison for officials.
  • Some have suggested that perhaps Potiphar doubts his wife’s account.
  • Even in prison, the Lord is with Joseph, and the prison’s commander soon puts him in charge.
  • The incident with Potiphar’s wife sets up the rest of the Joseph story and leads to his encounter with Pharaoh.
  • Altogether, Joseph spends 13 years in Egypt before he is elevated to second-in-command by Pharaoh. During some of that time, he is imprisoned, but the rest of it is spent in Potiphar’s house.
  • After Pharaoh appoints him overlord of Egypt, Joseph marries Asenath, the daughter of Potiphera, priest of On. Some scholars think this could be the same person as Potiphar. If that is the case, then Joseph marries the daughter of the woman who has accused him.
  • While it would force Potiphar and his wife to embrace Joseph as a son-in-law, there is really nothing in other biblical writings to support this one way or the other.
  • There is no further information about Potiphar or his wife.

Bible Characters