It’s Biblical! This week: Potiphar

It’s Biblical! This week: Potiphar

 Everything you wanted to know about your favourite Torah characters, and the ones you’ve never heard of...

We all know the story of Joseph and how he was sold down to Egypt. The story when told in English unfailingly brings to my mind the music of Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber and the words of Sir Tim Rice.

Joseph, sold into slavery by his brothers, is sold on by the traders to Potiphar, the Captain of the Guard (according to one translation).

The Hebrew is hat vachim shar, which could also mean the head of the butchers or cooks.

“Butchers” could also mean Royal Guards. It might also mean Lord High Executioner.

Potiphar is described as saris, which could mean a eunuch or a king’s minister. This is an explanation either of his wife’s need to proposition Joseph or, more likely, a way of saying that he was very important, a minister of state.

This latter translation also explains the presence of the chief butler and baker in the prison with Joseph. The later imprisonment seems to be within the same household establishment.

Potiphar seems to trust Joseph with his house and his family, and makes him the steward over all his affairs. He is rewarded by God for this.

Potiphar had an attractive wife, who attempted to seduce Joseph. The episode is the classic rabbinic illustration of how a man should never be alone in private with anyone except immediate family. Potiphar throws Joseph into prison for the alleged illicit liaison.

A little while later, free and now vizier to Pharaoh, Joseph married Asnat, “daughter of Poti-phera, the Priest of On”.

Was this the same chap? Did he marry the daughter of the woman who falsely accused him? Very possibly.  Poti-phera is possibly the long version of the name. The long name means “gift of Ra”, and being priest of On (Heliopolis) he may well have had a promotion.

This marriage holds out a very interesting thought. Joseph forgave Potiphar’s wife. His kind and forgiving nature is revealed in this marriage, as well as in his dealings with his brothers.

Zvi Solomons is rabbi of the Jewish Community of Berkshire (

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