Potifar’s Wife

(Genesis 39:1-20)

Part 1:  Text Genesis 39:1-13

Background:  Joseph, 17 years old, finds himself taken to Egypt (see Gen 37 and decide for yourself what role his brothers played in the event) and sold as a slave.


  1. What is the source of Joseph’s success?  Who comes to realize that this is the source of success, and what might be the ramifications for Joseph?
  2. How do you understand the limitation on Joseph’s authority stated in v.6?
    • Restrictions surrounding food are among the most efficient ways of avoiding mingling with people who do not share your set of beliefs.  Observing the laws of Kashruth certainly limits the food and social circle of its adherents. Did the Egyptians have any such laws?  Please read Gen. 43:31-32.  What, if anything, does this do for the understanding of 39:6?
  3. Why does the narrator tell us about Joseph’s good looks?
    • And where did he get them from…? (29:17)
  4. What does Potifar’s wife ask of Joseph?
    • Look at the Hebrew (last 2 words) in v.7.  Remember the difference between לשכב עם (to lay with) and לשכב את (to lay and object.)  How do you understand the situation?
  5. How does Joseph respond to her request?  Could he have acted/answered differently?
    • How many reasons does he give for refusing?
    • Is his refusal based on a technical or ethical reason?  What is the difference in the short and long run?
  6. In v.11, did Joseph know, or was he completely surprised, that there were no other workers in the house?
    • How does each reading affect our understanding of Joseph and of this ongoing situation?

Part 2:  Close reading of vv.14-20.

The biblical narrative is brief in words, but rich in content.  To direct our understanding of the views of the participants, the narrator uses titles to describe the role a character is playing at that moment.  Pay attention to those titles.

The video section for this session is on part 2.  Work on this section by yourself before viewing it.

Read vv.14-15Why does she call all her servants?  How does she address them?  What does she call Joseph?  Why?

V.16Who does Potifar’s wife address concerning Joseph’s misdeed?
Think of all the options the narrator had to describe this person.  Why did he choose this?

Vv.17-18: Carefully compare the 2 accounts of Potifar’s wife of what took place. What do the changes add to the story?Why did she change the description?

You might find the following set-up of vv. 14-15 parallel to vv.16-18 helpful. (An English version appears on the next page.)

She speaks to his master

She speaks to her servants

טז וַתַּנַּח בִּגְדוֹ אֶצְלָהּ עַד-בּוֹא אֲדֹנָיו אֶל-בֵּיתוֹ.

יז וַתְּדַבֵּר אֵלָיו כַּדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה לֵאמֹר

בָּא-אֵלַי הָעֶבֶד הָעִבְרִי אֲשֶׁר-הֵבֵאתָ לָּנוּ לְצַחֶק בִּי.

 יח וַיְהִי כַּהֲרִימִי קוֹלִי וָאֶקְרָא וַיַּעֲזֹב בִּגְדוֹ אֶצְלִי וַיָּנָס הַחוּצָה

יד וַתִּקְרָא לְאַנְשֵׁי בֵיתָהּ וַתֹּאמֶר לָהֶם לֵאמֹר

רְאוּ הֵבִיא לָנוּ אִישׁ עִבְרִי לְצַחֶק בָּנוּ בָּא אֵלַי לִשְׁכַּב עִמִּי

וָאֶקְרָא בְּקוֹל גָּדוֹל.

טו וַיְהִי כְשָׁמְעוֹ כִּי-הֲרִימֹתִי קוֹלִי וָאֶקְרָא

וַיַּעֲזֹב בִּגְדוֹ אֶצְלִי וַיָּנָס וַיֵּצֵא הַחוּצָה.


She speaks to her servants She speaks to his master
14 She called to the people of her house, and said to them, saying:
‘See, he has brought us a Hebrew man to play around with us; [he] came to me to lie with me, and I called with a loud voice.15 And it came to pass, when he heard that I lifted up my voice and called, that he left his garment by me, and fled, and got out.’
16 And she laid up his garment by her, until his master came home.17 And she spoke to him according to these words, saying:
‘[He] came to me, the Hebrew servant whom you brought us, to play around with me. 18 And it came to pass, as I lifted up my voice and called, that he left his garment by me, and fled out.’


V.19:  Who is Potifar’s master angry at in this verse?

There are 2 possibilities.  One might seem more obvious than the other, but try to consider the merit of each possibility in light of the work that you have done.

V.20:  This verse might help you decide about your previous answer.  What is unexpected about Joseph’s master’s behavior? 

Do not think in modern term, remember that the story takes place in ancient Egypt, with all that that implies.

Now you can view the video for this lesson here:

Part 3:  Outside Sources, both Rabbinic and Biblical

(One) rabbinic view of Potifar’s wife:

Midrash Bereshit (Genesis) Rabba 85:2

1)  בראשית רבה (וילנא) פרשה פה

ב ויהי בעת ההיא, ולא היה צריך קרייה למימר אלא “ויוסף הורד מצרימה.” ומפני מה הסמיך פרשה זו לזו? ר’ שמואל בר נחמן אמר: כדי לסמוך מעשה תמר למעשה אשתו של פוטיפר. מה זו לשם שמים, אף זו לשם שמים. דאמר ר’ יהושע בן לוי: רואה היתה באסטרולוגין שלה שהיא עתידה להעמיד ממנו בן, ולא היתה יודעת אם ממנה – אם מבתה.

And it was at that time” (Genesis 38:1) – The text did not need to say anything [any other story following Gen 37] but “and Joseph was taken down to Egypt” (Genesis 39:1). So, why where these two narrative placed next to each other?  R. Shmuel b. Nahman said:  In order to put the deed of Tamar next to the deed of Potifar’s wife.  For just as she [Tamar, intended her actions] for the sake of Heaven, so she [Potifar’s wife, intended her actions] for the sake of Heaven.  As R. Joshua b. Levi said:  She would see in her astrology that she will have a child by him, but she did not know if it would be from her or from her daughter.

Q) How does R. Shmuel b. Nahman understand the actions of Potifar’s wife?

Note the positive language he employs to describe it.  It might be helpful to know that Joseph married Asenat the daughter of Poti Fera the priest of On when he became second to the king in Egypt, many years later.

Q) What might have pushed the midrash to this kind of a reading?

It’s not easy being Joseph…

Rashi 39:11

2)  רש”י בראשית לט,יא 

לעשות מלאכתו – רב ושמואל, חד אמר מלאכתו ממש, וחד אמר לעשות צרכיו עמה, אלא שנראית לו דמות דיוקנו של אביו וכו’, כדאיתא במסכת סוטה (דף לו ב):

To do his work – Rav and Shmuel:  One said his work, literally, and one said to fulfill his needs with her.  But then he saw an image of his father etc., as we learnt in [Talmud] Sota 36b.

Q) What tension did Rashi detect in the narrative that made him bring this midrash?

Rashi usually shies away from midrash that does not enhance our understanding of the narrative, sometimes on deeper human levels.

Q) On a human level, what tensions might a person in Joseph’s position find himself in, and what might help him cope with these tensions?

Think of his age and looks, of his success, of the great distance from home, of the position he was used to occupying before being sold into slavery.  This midrash does not claim to be historically true, but it offers and honest and deep look at the difficulties and temptations that Joseph faced, as well as the power of the values that he had been taught at home.

Of Interest:  At an early stage the cantilation signs (te’amim) were added to the text.  In

addition to their function as punctuation, stress markers and musical notes, they are a form of early commentary on the text.  On the word “וימאן” (he refused) in v.8 (the first word) appears a shalshelet, a rare sign that looks like a zigzag line.  When read out loud, the word sounds prolonged and wavering.  How does this work with the midrash above?

3) Finally, internal Tanakh commentary:

Midrash reflects an oral transmission – tradition regarding the understanding of a certain text.  While most of the recorded account of this begins to show up (in written form) in the early centuries CE, early echoes of an oral tradition are detected already in the Tanakh itself.  Sections in the Tanakh (especially in post Torah material) reflect and comment on stories found elsewhere in the Tanakh.

The story of Potifar’s wife and Joseph is commented on in II Samuel 13:1-22, the rape of Tamar by her half brother Amnon.  Here is a chart that demonstrates the linguistic link between the narratives: (If the Hebrew is difficult, skip to below the chart.)

מקבילות בסיפור אמנון ותמר (שמ”א יג) יוסף ואשת פוטיפר

א וַיְהִי אַחֲרֵי-כֵן וּלְאַבְשָׁלוֹם בֶּן-דָּוִד אָחוֹת יָפָה וּשְׁמָהּ תָּמָר וַיֶּאֱהָבֶהָ אַמְנוֹן בֶּן-דָּוִד.  ב וַיֵּצֶר לְאַמְנוֹן לְהִתְחַלּוֹת בַּעֲבוּר תָּמָר אֲחֹתוֹ כִּי בְתוּלָה הִיא וַיִּפָּלֵא בְּעֵינֵי אַמְנוֹן לַעֲשׂוֹת לָהּ מְאוּמָה… וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ אַמְנוֹן אֶת-תָּמָר אֲחוֹת אַבְשָׁלֹם אָחִי אֲנִי אֹהֵב.  ה וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ יְהוֹנָדָב שְׁכַב עַל-מִשְׁכָּבְךָ וְהִתְחָל וּבָא אָבִיךָ לִרְאוֹתֶךָ וְאָמַרְתָּ אֵלָיו תָּבֹא נָא תָמָר אֲחוֹתִי וְתַבְרֵנִי לֶחֶם וְעָשְׂתָה לְעֵינַי אֶת-הַבִּרְיָה לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר אֶרְאֶה וְאָכַלְתִּי מִיָּדָהּ. …  ט וַתִּקַּח אֶת-הַמַּשְׂרֵת וַתִּצֹק לְפָנָיו וַיְמָאֵן לֶאֱכוֹל וַיֹּאמֶר אַמְנוֹן הוֹצִיאוּ כָל-אִישׁ מֵעָלַי וַיֵּצְאוּ כָל-אִישׁ מֵעָלָיו…  יא וַתַּגֵּשׁ אֵלָיו לֶאֱכֹל וַיַּחֲזֶק-בָּהּ וַיֹּאמֶר לָהּ בּוֹאִי שִׁכְבִי עִמִּי אֲחוֹתִי.  יביג וַאֲנִי אָנָה אוֹלִיךְ אֶת-חֶרְפָּתִי וְאַתָּה תִּהְיֶה כְּאַחַד הַנְּבָלִים בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל וְעַתָּה דַּבֶּר-נָא אֶל-הַמֶּלֶךְ כִּי לֹא יִמְנָעֵנִי מִמֶּךָּ.  יד וְלֹא אָבָה לִשְׁמֹעַ בְּקוֹלָהּ וַיֶּחֱזַק מִמֶּנָּה וַיְעַנֶּהָ וַיִּשְׁכַּב אֹתָהּ.  טו וַיִּשְׂנָאֶהָ אַמְנוֹן שִׂנְאָה גְּדוֹלָה מְאֹד כִּי גְדוֹלָה הַשִּׂנְאָה אֲשֶׁר שְׂנֵאָהּ מֵאַהֲבָה אֲשֶׁר אֲהֵבָהּ וַיֹּאמֶר-לָהּ אַמְנוֹן קוּמִי לֵכִי.  טז וַתֹּאמֶר לוֹ אַל-אוֹדֹת הָרָעָה הַגְּדוֹלָה הַזֹּאת מֵאַחֶרֶת אֲשֶׁר-עָשִׂיתָ עִמִּי לְשַׁלְּחֵנִי וְלֹא אָבָה לִשְׁמֹעַ לָהּ.  יז וַיִּקְרָא אֶת-נַעֲרוֹ מְשָׁרְתוֹ וַיֹּאמֶר שִׁלְחוּ-נָא אֶת-זֹאת מֵעָלַי הַחוּצָה וּנְעֹל הַדֶּלֶת אַחֲרֶיהָ.  יח וְעָלֶיהָ כְּתֹנֶת פַּסִּים כִּי כֵן תִּלְבַּשְׁןָ בְנוֹת-הַמֶּלֶךְ הַבְּתוּלֹת מְעִילִים וַיֹּצֵא אוֹתָהּ מְשָׁרְתוֹ הַחוּץ וְנָעַל הַדֶּלֶת אַחֲרֶיהָ.  יט וַתִּקַּח תָּמָר אֵפֶר עַל-רֹאשָׁהּ וּכְתֹנֶת הַפַּסִּים אֲשֶׁר עָלֶיהָ קָרָעָה וַתָּשֶׂם יָדָהּ עַל-רֹאשָׁהּ וַתֵּלֶךְ הָלוֹךְ וְזָעָקָה. …  כא וְהַמֶּלֶךְ דָּוִד שָׁמַע אֵת כָּל-הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה וַיִּחַר לוֹ מְאֹד.  כב וְלֹא-דִבֶּר אַבְשָׁלוֹם עִם-אַמְנוֹן לְמֵרָע וְעַד-טוֹב  כִּי-שָׂנֵא אַבְשָׁלוֹם אֶת-אַמְנוֹן עַל-דְּבַר אֲשֶׁר עִנָּה אֵת תָּמָר אֲחֹתוֹ.

בראשית לז

ג וְיִשְׂרָאֵל אָהַב אֶת-יוֹסֵף מִכָּל-בָּנָיו כִּי-בֶן-זְקֻנִים הוּא לוֹ וְעָשָׂה לוֹ כְּתֹנֶת פַּסִּים.  ד וַיִּרְאוּ אֶחָיו כִּי-אֹתוֹ אָהַב אֲבִיהֶם מִכָּל-אֶחָיו וַיִּשְׂנְאוּ אֹתוֹ וְלֹא יָכְלוּ דַּבְּרוֹ לְשָׁלֹם.

יג וַיֹּאמֶר יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל-יוֹסֵף הֲלוֹא אַחֶיךָ רֹעִים בִּשְׁכֶם לְכָה וְאֶשְׁלָחֲךָ אֲלֵיהֶם וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ הִנֵּנִי.

בראשית לט

ו וַיַּעֲזֹב כָּל-אֲשֶׁר-לוֹ בְּיַד-יוֹסֵף וְלֹא-יָדַע אִתּוֹ מְאוּמָה כִּי אִם-הַלֶּחֶם אֲשֶׁר-הוּא אוֹכֵל וַיְהִי יוֹסֵף יְפֵה-תֹאַר וִיפֵה מַרְאֶה.  ז וַיְהִי אַחַר הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה וַתִּשָּׂא אֵשֶׁת-אֲדֹנָיו אֶת-עֵינֶיהָ אֶל-יוֹסֵף וַתֹּאמֶר שִׁכְבָה עִמִּי.  ח וַיְמָאֵן וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל-אֵשֶׁת אֲדֹנָיו הֵן אֲדֹנִי לֹא-יָדַע אִתִּי מַה-בַּבָּיִת וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר-יֶשׁ-לוֹ נָתַן בְּיָדִי.  ט אֵינֶנּוּ גָדוֹל בַּבַּיִת הַזֶּה מִמֶּנִּי וְלֹא-חָשַׂךְ מִמֶּנִּי מְאוּמָה כִּי אִם-אוֹתָךְ בַּאֲשֶׁר אַתְּ-אִשְׁתּוֹ וְאֵיךְ אֶעֱשֶׂה הָרָעָה הַגְּדֹלָה הַזֹּאת וְחָטָאתִי לֵאלֹהִים.  י וַיְהִי כְּדַבְּרָהּ אֶל-יוֹסֵף יוֹם יוֹם וְלֹא-שָׁמַע אֵלֶיהָ לִשְׁכַּב אֶצְלָהּ לִהְיוֹת עִמָּהּ.  יא וַיְהִי כְּהַיּוֹם הַזֶּה וַיָּבֹא הַבַּיְתָה לַעֲשׂוֹת מְלַאכְתּוֹ וְאֵין אִישׁ מֵאַנְשֵׁי הַבַּיִת שָׁם בַּבָּיִת.  יב וַתִּתְפְּשֵׂהוּ בְּבִגְדוֹ לֵאמֹר שִׁכְבָה עִמִּי וַיַּעֲזֹב בִּגְדוֹ בְּיָדָהּ וַיָּנָס וַיֵּצֵא הַחוּצָה.  יג וַיְהִי כִּרְאוֹתָהּ כִּי-עָזַב בִּגְדוֹ בְּיָדָהּ וַיָּנָס הַחוּצָה.  יד וַתִּקְרָא לְאַנְשֵׁי בֵיתָהּ וַתֹּאמֶר לָהֶם לֵאמֹר רְאוּ הֵבִיא לָנוּ אִישׁ עִבְרִי לְצַחֶק בָּנוּ  בָּא אֵלַי לִשְׁכַּב עִמִּי וָאֶקְרָא בְּקוֹל גָּדוֹל.  טו וַיְהִי כְשָׁמְעוֹ כִּי-הֲרִימֹתִי קוֹלִי וָאֶקְרָא וַיַּעֲזֹב בִּגְדוֹ אֶצְלִי וַיָּנָס וַיֵּצֵא הַחוּצָה.  טז וַתַּנַּח בִּגְדוֹ אֶצְלָהּ עַד-בּוֹא אֲדֹנָיו אֶל-בֵּיתוֹ.  יז וַתְּדַבֵּר אֵלָיו כַּדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה לֵאמֹר  בָּא-אֵלַי הָעֶבֶד הָעִבְרִי אֲשֶׁר-הֵבֵאתָ לָּנוּ לְצַחֶק בִּי.  יח וַיְהִי כַּהֲרִימִי קוֹלִי וָאֶקְרָא וַיַּעֲזֹב בִּגְדוֹ אֶצְלִי וַיָּנָס הַחוּצָה.  יט וַיְהִי כִשְׁמֹעַ אֲדֹנָיו אֶת-דִּבְרֵי אִשְׁתּוֹ אֲשֶׁר דִּבְּרָה אֵלָיו לֵאמֹר כַּדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה עָשָׂה לִי עַבְדֶּךָ וַיִּחַר אַפּוֹ.

In translation: These are the highlighted parallel words and phrases (some appear more than once):

Israel (=Jacob), loved/lusted, An Ornamented Coat (multi-colored coat?  Striped coat?), brothers, father, hate, unable to speak to, go – let me send you, anything, bread/food, eating, beautiful [looks], And it was after…, lie with me, refused, this great evil, did not listen, these things/words, he was angry.

For those of you comfortable with the Hebrew, try to match up the language in two narratives. (I included a few verses from Genesis 37 regarding the family relations that led to Joseph’s sale to Egypt.)  In either case, read II Samuel 13:1-22. Please contemplate the following points:

Q) Who, in our narrative, is Tamar parallel to?  How do you know?

   And what is the narrator saying about our story by this new casting?

Q) Why did the narrator of the story of Tamar choose to bring the listener (most people probably did not own a written copy) back to the story of Joseph?

It is not only the story of Potifar’s wife.  If you are interested in Joseph’s story, the story of Tamar comments on the entire narrative from Genesis 37-45.

Q) Our story is missing an evaluation (this is a biblical story, but the Tanakh does not declare Potifar’s wife a villain.)  What role does the story of Tamar fill for us?

View a summation video here:

Go to Next Class – Datan and Aviram