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Joseph and Potiphar: The Named, the Neutered, and the Neutralized

  • Joseph and Potiphar: The Named, the Neutered, and the Neutralized

    Mikeitz, Genesis 41:1−44:17
D'var Torah By: 

When we last encountered our hero Joseph, he had been sold to traders from the pit his brothers threw him in, had been brought to Egypt as a slave, and had suffered greatly due to his supposedly salacious interactions with Potiphar's wife, all to end up moldering in an Egyptian jail. Not the best moment in his life, one must imagine. But if Joseph's story teaches us anything, it is the beauty of resilience and the way life turns unexpectedly. After successfully interpreting the dreams of two fellow prisoners and humbly declaring his interpretive powers as entirely derived from God, Joseph finds himself suddenly called to Pharaoh's palace to help the master of all Egypt with two problematic dreams of his own. Once he accurately interprets these dreams he is well on the road to prosperity and self-sufficiency, as Pharaoh places him in charge of all of Egypt for the coming feast/famine cycle. Things are certainly starting to look up.

With the Torah's focus on family dynamics, it is rather odd that we learn, then, of Joseph's marriage in one short and strange verse (Genesis 41:45):

Pharaoh called Joseph Zaphenath-paneah and gave him Asenath daughter of Potiphera priest of On, as a wife; thus Joseph came to be in charge of the land of Egypt.

There are several remarkable features to this verse, creating a veritable field day for commentators and authors willing to take up the cudgel. First, we can grapple with a few potential readings of Joseph's newly bestowed Egyptian name, Zaphenath-paneah. Rashi, along the lines of earlier translators and commentators, draws on the Hebrew root tzadi-fei-nun, meaning "hidden," to explain that Joseph's Egyptian name means "one who explains the hidden," but he also readily admits that there is "nothing similar to 'paneah' in the Bible." It is certainly a functional name that does describe well a key role Joseph fulfills. But Radak (Rabbi David Kimchi, Narbonne, France, ca. 1160-1235) rejects such a reading in no uncertain terms:

This is the Egyptian language, just as Nebuchadnezzar called Daniel and his associates by a name in the Aramaic language. And the commentators who interpreted that this is the sacred tongue [Hebrew], it is a wonder how Pharaoh could have called [him] by a name in the sacred tongue!

Radak's point is quite valid, for it is hard to imagine any impetus for Pharaoh to have learned or utilized Hebrew pre-Joseph. Modern scholars have searched, without substantial agreement, for Egyptian words that would shed light on this name, the closest one thus far being the tongue-twister Djed-pa-netjer-iw-f-ankh, or "The God speaks and he [the bearer of the name] lives," (see "Zaphenath-Paneah" in the Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 6[Doubleday: New York, 1992]). While this follows some early Egyptian birth naming customs, it is far from certain to be correct, and does little to clarify the biblical author's viewpoint of Joseph.

A second issue in our verse is the role of matchmaker the Torah assigns to Pharaoh. One can almost imagine Pharaoh seeing Joseph as a critical economic minister he needs to keep happy to ensure his country's continuity. What better way then to marry him into a family of aristocrats to ensure he stays in Egypt for the long run? And so, Pharaoh selects the daughter of the Priest of On, a man named Potiphera. But who, exactly, is this Potiphera Priest of On? By now, you have no doubt thought to yourself that Potiphera sounds a lot like Potiphar. The commentators run wild with this possibility, but there is little ultimate agreement. Among many others, two mainstream commentators, Rashi and his grandson Rashbam (Rabbi Samuel ben Meir, France, 1080-1160) duke it out thus:

Rashbam: Potiphera - According to the straightforward meaning, this is not Potiphar.
Rashi: Potiphera - This is Potiphar, and he is called Potiphera because he was castrated, since he bought Joseph to sleep with him.

Such a fantastic accusation on Rashi's part is surely surprising, but he comes by it honestly. This precise situation is described by the Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 13b:

And Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh's, bought him [Joseph]. Rav said: He bought him for himself [that is, for his own sexual purposes], but [the angel] Gabriel came and castrated him and then Gabriel came and mutilated him (ufeir'o), for originally his name is written Potiphar but afterwards Potiphera.

Playing on the similarity between ufeir'o ("mutilated him") and the last two syllables of Potiphera, the Talmud crafts a bizarre tale that serves two narrative purposes: first, it portrays Potiphar as a sexual predator, thus recasting the entire interaction between Potiphar's wife and Joseph in Genesis 39. In this reading, Joseph is nothing but an object for whom Potiphar and his wife (now both predators) compete. Second, this reading explains the similarity between the names Potiphar and Potiphera, something the Torah never explicitly addresses. The Spanish authority Ramban (Nachmanides, 1194-1270), expands on Rashi and the Talmudic interpretation:

And I say that according to the words of our Rabbis, Potiphar was a minister to Pharaoh. When he was castrated in his body, and they recognized it, and they called him "Potiphera," he was ashamed about the matter and he left his ministry, and took himself to a house of idol worship, and he became a priest for idol worship, for thus was the custom of the honored ones [to be castrated].

As a result of Potiphar's inappropriate male actions toward Joseph, the angel Gabriel castrated him as an act of divine justice, rendering him unable to continue such predatory activities. When those around him see what has happened, they give him a mocking title with what sounds like a more feminine Hebrew ending, reflecting his newfound lack of male sexuality. While there is not much in the way of biblical evidence for such a reading, such fascinating and playful interpretation helps heighten Joseph's climb to fame, even as it further lowers the status of the evil Potiphar in response to his prior sin in mistreating Joseph.

A final question remains, however: why in the world, given their relationship thus far, would Pharaoh want Joseph to marry Potiphar's (if it is Potiphar!) daughter? The answer is actually quite logical. Potiphar is the only Egyptian of status who would harbor a grudge against Joseph, given their prior history. If Potiphar's daughter is now marrying Joseph, Potiphar will be forced to support him. Justice is achieved as the commentators name, neuter, and then neutralize Potiphar, bringing the entire sordid ordeal to an end, and ensuring that Joseph is set up for success in his career in Egyptian government.

Rabbi Aaron D. Panken, Ph.D., serves as president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York.

What's in a Name?
Davar Acher By: 
Joshua B. Lief

Dr. Panken's excellent commentary on the naming, neutering, and neutralizing of Joseph's father-in-law Potiphar opens the door for us to ask, what becomes of Joseph with his new name, family, and occupation? Joseph is not the only one of our ancestors to engage in an exogamous marriage; indeed, this kind of union can be a successful way to bring people into our group. What is notable is the degree to which Joseph becomes an assimilated Egyptian in the process. He names his firstborn son Manasseh (Genesis 41:51) to thank God for helping him forget the troubles of his past; he is physically unrecognizable to his brothers (42:8), perhaps because he may look like an Egyptian; and he swears by Pharaoh (42:15), who is not only his boss, but also an Egyptian deity.

Does Joseph do all of this for show, just on the outside, perhaps for political prudence? Maybe, but the rubber meets the road, literally, with the funeral procession for his father Jacob, which we'll read two weeks hence. The Egyptian-style embalming and mummification can be excused as a necessity for the trip back to Canaan, but the mourning rituals are so obviously Egyptian that the locals assume (50:11) an important Egyptian has died. Lastly, Joseph seems to have chosen an Egyptian funeral for himself, as he is embalmed (50:26) at the end of the story. So, "If it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck . . ."

Perhaps this is a cautionary tale for those of us whose names were shortened, whose appearance is adjusted, and whose lifestyles are tailored to fit into a perceived American ideal. We are blessed to live in a country that does not demand we change who we are and what we believe in order to fit in. This Hannukah, let's celebrate our freedom by recognizing that remaining true to ourselves and engaging in our communities doesn't have to be an either/or choice.

Rabbi Joshua B. Lief is the senior rabbi at Congregation Ahavath Chesed - The Temple in Jacksonville, Florida.

11/29/2010
Topics: 
Reference Materials: 

Mikeitz, Genesis 41:1-44:17
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 264–277; Revised Edition, pp. 267–283;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 233–258