Potiphar and his wife

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Joseph and Potiphar's Wife, by Guido Reni 1630
Joseph Accused by Potiphar's Wife, by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1655.
Joseph and Potiphar's Wife, Joseph leaving by Orazio Gentileschi

Potiphar (/ˈpɒtɪfər/)[1] is a person known only from the Book of Genesis' account of Joseph. Potiphar is said to be the captain of the palace guard. In the Quran he is referred to by his title, Aziz.[2] 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, who is not named in the Bible or in Christian tradition, is furious at Joseph for resisting her attempts to seduce him, and falsely accuses him of attempted rape. Potiphar casts Joseph into prison, from where he later comes to the notice of Pharaoh through his ability to interpret the dreams of other prisoners. (Genesis 39-40)

After Joseph's interpretation of Pharaoh's dreams and his subsequent appointment as overlord of Egypt, Joseph (renamed Zaphnath-Paaneah) married Asenath, the daughter of Poti-Pherah priest of On. Poti-Pherah may have been the same person as Potiphar,[3] in which case Joseph would likely have been married to the daughter of the woman responsible for his false imprisonment.

The medieval Sefer HaYashar, a commentary on the Torah, gives Potiphar's wife's name 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 writing also a more recent echo of the very old Egyptian fable of the two brothers Bata and Anpu.[4][5][failed verification]

The story became very common in Western art in the Renaissance and Baroque periods, usually showing the moment when Joseph tears himself away from the bed containing a more or less naked figure of Potiphar's wife. Persian miniatures often illustrate Yusuf and Zulaikha in Jami's Haft Awrang ("Seven thrones").


in hieroglyphs

Potiphar (Hebrew: פוטיפר‎) is the shortened form of פוטיפרע "Potiphera" from Late Egyptian pꜣ-dj-pꜣ-rꜥ "he whom Ra has given."[6] This is analogous to the name "Theodore"="God's gift" in the Western world.[7]

Religious References[edit]

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 Quran) 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.

The Book of Abraham, included in the Pearl of Great Price, one of the standard works of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and by churches of the Latter Day Saint movement, refers to a "Potiphar`s Hill" in Egypt (Abraham 1:10, 20).

Cultural references[edit]

  • In art the subject is one of the most commonly shown in the Power of Women topos.
  • There is a Persian poem called Yusuf and Zulaikha in Jami's Haft Awrang ("Seven thrones")
  • 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 orders Joseph to be executed for the attempted rape of his wife, but when she asks him to stop, Potiphar realizes Joseph was telling the truth of his innocence and instead has him jailed to save face, though he shows great disgust at his wife. Potiphar 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."
  • Thomas Mann in Joseph and his Brothers suggests that her sexual frustration is partly because Potiphar is a eunuch.


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Hebrew: פּוֹטִיפַר / פּוֹטִיפָר, Modern Potifar Tiberian Pôṭîp̄ar / Pôṭîp̄ār; Arabic: بوتيفار ; Egyptian origin: pꜣ-dj-pꜣ-rꜥ "he whom Ra gave"
  2. ^ The Encyclopaedia of Islam. Brill Archive. 1954. ISBN 9004060561. Retrieved 2 October 2017.
  3. ^ "POTIPHAR - JewishEncyclopedia.com". www.jewishencyclopedia.com.
  4. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica, Joseph (biblical figure)
  5. ^ "Anpu and Bata". www.reshafim.org.il.
  6. ^ Ulmer, Rivka (2009-12-15). Egyptian Cultural Icons in Midrash. Walter de Gruyter. ISBN 9783110223934. [1]
  7. ^ Asimov, Isaac (1967). Guide to the Bible - Old Testament. p. 106.


  • Osman, A. (1987) The Hebrew Pharaohs of Egypt, Bear & Co.: Rochester, Vermont. ISBN 9781591430223.