Potiphar's wife

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Joseph and Potiphar's Wife, Filippo Falciatore
José y la mujer de Putifar, oil on canvas, by Antonio María Esquivel, 1854

Potiphar's wife is a figure in the Hebrew Bible. She was the wife of Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh's guard in the time of Jacob and his twelve sons. According to the Book of Genesis, she falsely accused Joseph of attempted rape after he rejected her sexual advances, resulting in his imprisonment.[1]

In Genesis she is given no name, but in later medieval Jewish sources and Islamic tradition, she is identified as Zuleikha (/zˈlkɑː/ zoo-LAY-kah; Hebrew: זוליכה; Arabic: زُلَيْخَا, romanizedzulayḵā).[2] The story of Yusuf and Zulaikha is a popular one in Islamic literature.

In Genesis[edit]

The Bible (Genesis 39:5-20) narrates her treatment of Joseph, slave to her husband Potiphar:

And he left all that he had in Joseph's hand; and, having him, he knew not aught save the bread which he did eat. And Joseph was of beautiful form, and fair to look upon. And it came to pass after these things, that his master's wife cast her eyes upon Joseph; and she said: 'Lie with me.' But he refused, and said unto his master's wife: 'Behold, my master, having me, knoweth not what is in the house, and he hath put all that he hath into my hand; he is not greater in this house than I; neither hath he kept back any thing from me but thee, because thou art his wife. How then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?' And it came to pass, as she spoke to Joseph day by day, that he hearkened not unto her, to lie by her, or to be with her. And it came to pass on a certain day, when he went into the house to do his work, and there was none of the men of the house there within, that she caught him by his garment, saying: 'Lie with me.' And he left his garment in her hand, and fled, and got him out. [...] And she laid up his garment by her, until his master came home. And she spoke unto him according to these words, saying: 'The Hebrew servant, whom thou hast brought unto us, came in unto me to mock me. And it came to pass, as I lifted up my voice and cried, that he left his garment by me, and fled out.' And it came to pass, when his master heard the words of his wife, which she spoke unto him, saying: 'After this manner did thy servant to me'; that his wrath was kindled. And Joseph's master took him, and put him into the prison, the place where the king's prisoners were bound; and he was there in the prison.

In Quran[edit]

The Quran narrates the wife of Aziz’s treatment of Yusuf as follows:

And when he reached maturity, We gave him judgement and knowledge. And thus We reward the doers of good. 23. And she, in whose house he was, sought to seduce him. She closed the doors and said, "Come, you." He said, "[I seek] the refuge of Allāh. Indeed, He is my master, who has made good my residence. Indeed, wrongdoers will not succeed." 24. And she certainly determined [to seduce] him, and he would have inclined to her had he not seen the proof of his Lord. And thus [it was] that We should avert from him evil and immorality. Indeed, he was of Our chosen servants. 25. And they both raced to the door, and she tore his shirt from the back, and they found her husband at the door. She said, "What is the recompense of one who intended evil for your wife but that he be imprisoned or a painful punishment?" 26. [Joseph] said, "It was she who sought to seduce me." And a witness from her family testified, "If his shirt is torn from the front, then she has told the truth, and he is of the liars. 27. But if his shirt is torn from the back, then she has lied, and he is of the truthful." 28. So when he [i.e., her husband] saw his shirt torn from the back, he said, "Indeed, it is of your [i.e., women's] plan. Indeed, your plan is great [i.e., vehement]. 29. Joseph, ignore this. And, [my wife], ask forgiveness for your sin. Indeed, you were of the sinful." 30. And women in the city said, "The wife of al-ʿAzeez is seeking to seduce her slave boy; he has impassioned her with love. Indeed, we see her [to be] in clear error." 31. So when she heard of their scheming, she sent for them and prepared for them a banquet and gave each one of them a knife and said [to Joseph], "Come out before them." And when they saw him, they greatly admired him and cut their hands and said, "Perfect is Allāh! This is not a man; this is none but a noble angel." 32. She said, "That is the one about whom you blamed me. And I certainly sought to seduce him, but he firmly refused; and if he will not do what I order him, he will surely be imprisoned and will be of those debased." 33. He said, "My Lord, prison is more to my liking than that to which they invite me. And if You do not avert from me their plan, I might incline toward them and [thus] be of the ignorant." 34. So his Lord responded to him and averted from him their plan. Indeed, He is the Hearing, the Knowing. 35. Then it appeared to them after they had seen the signs that he [i.e., al-ʿAzeez] should surely imprison him for a time.

— Al-Qur’an: Surah Yusuf: 22-35, Wife of Aziz, https://quran.com/yusuf?translations=20


In Jewish sources[edit]

Jewish commentators also see some good motives in her actions. A story about Zuleikha is told in Sefer haYashar, where she was mocked by other aristocratic Egyptian ladies, her circle of friends, for being infatuated with a Hebrew slave boy. Inviting her friends to her home, Zuleikha gave them all oranges and knives to slice them with. While they engaged in this task, Zuleikha had Joseph walk through the room. Distracted by his handsomeness, all the ladies accidentally cut themselves with the knives, drawing blood. Zuleikha then reminded her friends that she had to see Joseph every day. Following this incident, her contemporaries no longer mocked her.[3][4]

Rashi comments that the wife of Potiphar saw through astrology that she would have children through Joseph. The astrological calculations however were slightly off. Asenath, her daughter (by adoption, in some accounts) became the wife of Joseph and therefore the wife of Potiphar begot grandchildren (not children) through Joseph.[citation needed]

In Islamic sources[edit]

Zuleika Ceremony
Islamic art
painting on tiles of Mo'avin-Almamalik tekyeh, Kermanshah

Muslim scriptural commentators (Mufassirun) have regarded Zuleikha as a sinner and villainess with the exceptions of the great Muslim mystic poets Rumi, Hafiz and Jami. For Rumi, Zuleikha's obsession with Joseph is a symptom and manifestation of the soul's great deep longing for God. For this, he insists, it is true of any person's deep love for another.[citation needed]

Scholarly criticism[edit]

Scholars such as Meir Sternberg (1985) characterise the woman's repetitive behaviour towards Joseph as sexual assault.[5] McKinlay (1995) noted that Potiphar's wife is treated as an object in his master's possession (Gen 39:8–9), and the reason Joseph refuses is not because he does not want to have sex with her, but because it would violate his master's trust and be a sin against the God Yahweh.[5] It could be argued that the woman is trying to assert herself as a person who makes her own choices instead of remaining an object owned by her husband, and invites Joseph to join her in this action which the narrative frames as a 'sin'.[5] Simultaneously, however, she abuses her position of power as the slave master's wife to coerce Joseph into sex, and to punish him for refusal.[5] Susan Tower Hollis (1989) demonstrated that the narrative of Potiphar's wife 'is in line with certain ancient folk-tales, where a 'woman makes vain overtures to a man and then accuses him of attempting to force her', with the man 'unjustly punished for his alleged attempt to seduce the woman.'[5]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "The Story of Joseph in the Bible".
  2. ^ Zuleika, wife of Potiphar
  3. ^ Sefer Ha-Yashar, Vayeshev. Venice. 1625.
  4. ^ "Joseph". Jewish Encyclopedia. 1901. Retrieved 24 October 2018.
  5. ^ a b c d e McKinlay, Judith (1 September 1995). "Potiphar's Wife in Conversation". Feminist Theology. Sage Publishing. 4 (10): 69–80. doi:10.1177/096673509500001007. S2CID 144070141. Retrieved 26 May 2021.