views updated May 29 2018


POTIPHAR (Heb. פּוֹטִיפַר), Egyptian royal official who purchased *Joseph (Gen. 37:36; 39:1). His wife attempted unsuccessfully to seduce Joseph and then brought false charges against him, as a result of which Potiphar had him incarcerated. The name reflects an underlying Egyptian prototype Pa-diu-pa-Re, "The one whom the sun god Re has given." The Egyptian name occurs on a stele from the Late period (c. 1087–664 b.c.e.), during which time the near variant pa-di followed by the name of a god is most commonly found. Potiphar's titles, "servant of Pharaoh" and "chief [or "master"] of the cooks," while not Egyptian in themselves, may well be Hebrew translations of two Egyptian titles. The former could have been a general term for almost any servant, official, or courtier, and the latter appears to be a translation of the Egyptian wpdw nsw or wb nsw ("butler/cook of the king"). In any event, the title did not imply that its bearer was a lowly servant, but rather a very high official. It first comes to prominence very late in the Twentieth Dynasty, and its bearers are attested as leading military expeditions, heading royal commissions, and exercising high administrative functions. Both Potiphar's name and his title strongly suggest that the writing down of the Joseph story should be dated no earlier than the later Twentieth Dynasty (and possibly even to the Twenty-First to Twenty-Second dynasties), a suggestion substantially supported by other Egyptian elements occurring in it, particularly the Egyptian names. Further support for this dating is given by the parallel between the attempted seduction of Joseph by Potiphar's wife and the opening portion of an Egyptian literary text, "The Tale of the Two Brothers," which is dated, on paleographic grounds, to about 1225 b.c.e.

[Alan Richard Schulman]

In the Aggadah

Potiphar is regarded as identical with *Poti-Phera (Gen. 41:45), indicating different aspects of his idolatrous behavior. "Potiphar" refers to his practice of rearing bullocks, mefattem parim, for idolatrous sacrifices; and "Poti-Phera" to his habit of indecently exposing himself (pore'a) in honor of his gods. He purchased Joseph in order to perform sodomy with him, but was castrated by God (or by the angel Gabriel; Sot. 13b.), in order to prevent him fulfilling his desire and for this reason is called the "eunuch of Pharaoh" (Gen. 37:36). From the fact that the light-skinned Joseph was offered for sale by the negroid Midianites, he realized that Joseph had been kidnapped. The conflicting scriptural account of the purchase indicates that Potiphar insisted that the Midianites prove prior purchase, in order that he should not be party to a theft (Gen. R. 86:3). Two of Potiphar's actions are favorably commented on. He saw that "the Lord was with [Joseph]" (Gen. 39:3), although he personally was a sun worshiper. Secondly, he was extremely skeptical of his wife's account of Joseph's attempted seduction; had he believed it he would have put Joseph to death instead of imprisoning him. He apologized to Joseph for his action, explaining that his purpose was to prevent a stigma upon his children (Gen. R. 87:9).

In Islam

Qiṭfīr (also Quṭayfar) of Muslim legend is the biblical Potiphar, who bought Joseph from the Midianites or the Ishmaelites (Gen. 37:36; 39:1). Although his name is not mentioned in the tale of Joseph in the *Koran, there is no doubt as to his identity, in spite of the error in the first letter of the source, which is due to the Arabic script. Ṭabarī calls him Aṭfīr. Thaʿlabī counts Qiṭfiī among the three valiant ("afras"): al-ʿAzīz, i.e., Qiṭfīr, for his defense of Joseph; the woman who brought Moses to her father; and the caliph Abū-Bakr, when he appointed 'Omar.

[Haïm Z'ew Hirschberg]


Janssen, in: Jaarbericht van het Vooraziatisch-Egyptisch Gezelschap "Ex Oriente Lux," 14 (1955–56), 67–68; J. Vergote, Joseph en Egypte (1959). in the aggadah: Ginzberg, Legends, 2 (1946), 13, 38, 56–58; 5 (1947), 338–39, 341, 369; I. Ḥasida, Ishei ha-Tanakh (1964), 360. in islam: Ta'rikh, 1 (1357 a.h.), 236–7; Thaʿlabī, Qiṣaṣ (1356 a.h.), 98–99 and passim in the story of Yūsuf; Kisā'ī, Qiṣaṣ (1356 a.h.), 161–2 (Quṭayfar).


views updated Jun 27 2018

Potiphar (in the Bible) an Egyptian officer whose wife tried to seduce Joseph and then falsely accused him of attempting to rape her (Genesis 39).