Potiphar or Potifar // is a person in the Book of Genesis's account of Joseph. Potiphar is said to be the captain of the palace guard and is referred to without name in the Quran. Joseph, sold into slavery by his brothers, is taken to Egypt where he is sold to Potiphar as a household slave. Potiphar makes Joseph the head of his household, but Potiphar's wife, furious at Joseph for resisting her attempts to seduce him, accuses him falsely of attempted rape. Potiphar casts Joseph into prison, to the notice of Pharaoh through his ability to interpret the dreams of other prisoners.
Potiphar's wife is not named in the Bible. The medieval Sefer HaYashar, a commentary on the Torah, gives it as Zuleikha, as do many Islamic traditions and thus the Persian poem called Yusuf and Zulaikha from Jami's Haft Awrang ("Seven thrones"). Because of the Egyptian location wherein the scene is staged, it is not impossible to detect in this biblical tale also a more recent echo of the very old Egyptian fable of the two brothers Bata and Anpu.
Potiphar is the shortened form of "Potiphera" meaning "he whom Ra gave." This is analogous to the name "Theodore" in our own Western world.
It is difficult to place Potiphar or Joseph accurately to a particular pharaoh or time period. On the Jewish calendar, Joseph was purchased in the year 2216, which is 1544 BC, at the end of the Second Intermediate Period or very beginning of the New Kingdom. The Torah in which the story appears (see also the Bible and the Koran) was the earliest written of the three: c. 600 BC during the Babylonian Exile. According to the documentary hypothesis, the story of Potiphar and his wife is credited to the Yahwist source, and stands in the same place that the stories of the butler and the baker and Pharaoh's dreams stand in the Elohist text.
According to Dr. G.J. Wenham (IVP New Bible Commentary) execution was normal for rape cases, and thus the story implies that Potiphar may have had doubts about his wife's account.
- In The Divine Comedy, Dante sees the shade of Potiphar's wife in the eighth circle of Hell. She does not speak, but Dante is told by another spirit that, along with other perjurers, she is condemned to suffer a burning fever for all eternity.
- In the John Sayles film Matewan, Will Oldham plays a young minister boy who preaches the story of Potiphar to his small town.
- In Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Potiphar is a tycoon of ancient Egypt who made his wealth through buying shares in pyramids, ("Potiphar had made a huge pile, owned a large percentage of the Nile"). His wife is a seductive man-eater. Both feature in the song "Potiphar".
- In John Keats' poem, "On Fame", Keats calls Fame "Sister-in-law to jealous Potiphar".
- In the animated film Joseph: King of Dreams, prior to having him jailed for allegedly assaulting his wife, Potiphar takes notice of Joseph's intelligence and makes him a chief slave in his household. He later brings Joseph to Pharaoh, who is plagued by inexplicable dreams, and expresses deep regret for having Joseph put in prison. He tells Pharaoh that he trusts Joseph "with [his] life."
Joseph and Potiphar's Wife by Ludovico Cigoli
Guercino, Joseph and Potiphar's Wife, 1649
Joseph and Potiphar's Wife by Bartolomé Esteban Perez Murillo
Hans Sebald Beham, Joseph and Potiphar's Wife, 1544
- The Hebrew Pharaohs of Egypt, Ahmed Osman, Bear & Co. 1987
- Hebrew: פּוֹטִיפַר / פּוֹטִיפָר, Modern Potifar Tiberian Pôṭîp̄ar / Pôṭîp̄ār; Arabic: بوتيفار ; Egyptian origin: p-di-p-rʿ "he whom Ra gave"
- Asimov, Isaac (1967). Guide to the Bible - Old Testament. p. 106.