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Joseph and His Women

There have been many who have noticed that Joseph has much in common with women. He is beautiful, like all the women in his family (great grandma Sarah, grandma Rivka, mommy Rachel). His beauty seems to get him into trouble on a regular basis. He prances around in a special garment tailor made for him, an ornamented tunic (ketonet passim), which may also be a garment worn by high born virgin women as evidenced by Tamar (David’s daughter and rape victim in 2 Samuel 13:18). His beauty is so renown that the wife of a chief commander in Egypt stalks him because she is fatally attracted to him.

JOSEPH’S MOTHER

The first woman in his life, was of course his beautiful mother Rachel, who died in childbirth when Benjamin was born. No doubt, this loss influenced him and his upbringing—and he may have looked like his mother. Of both Joseph and Rachel it is said “yefat toar, ve-yefeh mar-ah” (Genesis 39:6). If so, everyone who saw him, especially his father would have seen his beloved Rachel in him. And Leah’s children, the one whose mother was not loved, would have even more reason to resent him.

BILHAH AND ZILPAH

The next women in his lives were those with whom he hung out (perhaps as mother substitutes), namely his father’s secondary wives, the concubines, who no doubt indulged him and encouraged him to gossip and tell tales. It is said that “he was a lad (na-ar) with (et) the sons of Bilhah and with (et) the sons of Zilpah his father’s wives” (Genesis 37:2). The word na’ar has also been translated as helper, or assistant.  Rashi quoting the midrash comments on “he was a lad” that he would do things having to do with na’arut, such as dressing his hair, touching up his eyes, so that he would look pretty (Genesis Rabbah 84:7). What are things having to do with na’arut?  It could mean child-like things. It could be things having to do with young men or since the Hebrew does not have vowels, it could be understood as na’arot (having to do with young women). So, it could mean that he was behaving like a woman! Moreover, the two words na-ar et are ambiguous. Was he servicing his brothers, acting as if he were a woman with them?  This is implied in a 14th century midrash which adds that the sons of the secondary wives would kiss him and embrace him (Midrash ha-gadol).  As part of his childishness (or woman-like nature) he gossiped and told tales about his brothers. His brothers we are told, “hated him so that they could not speak a friendly word to him” (vs. 4). They hated him for at least three reasons: he told tales, his father loved him more than he loved them and perhaps they were confused by his feminine airs. Were they homophobic?

POTIPHAR’S WIFE

The next woman is Potiphar’s wife. Joseph as we know ends up in Egypt:

Potiphar, a courtier (seris) of Pharaoh and his chief steward, bought him from the Ishmaelites who had brought him there. The Lord was with Joseph, and he was a successful man; and he stayed in the house of his Egyptian master. And when his master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord lent success to everything he undertook, he took a liking to Joseph. He made him his personal attendant and put him in charge of his household, placing in his hands all that he owned. And from the time that the Egyptian put him in charge of his household and of all that he owned, the Lord blessed his house for Joseph’s sake, so that the blessing of the Lord was upon everything that he owned, in the house and outside. He left all that he had in Joseph’s hands and, with him there, he paid attention to nothing save the food that he ate. Now Joseph was well built and handsome (Genesis 39: 1-6).

As the first “butler” in the palace, the majordomo, Joseph has access to every nook and cranny of the palace. Potiphar trusted Joseph and left everything in his hands; the same hands that will later touch his wife. All he cared about was his food—and food can be a euphemism for sexual intercourse, as Rashi does, referring to a midrash (Genesis Rabbah 86:6).  No doubt Potiphar, when he was in the slave market, deliberately chose Joseph for his looks and build.  For what purpose? According to Rashi, who quotes the Talmud, Potiphar and Poti-phera are one and the same. The Greek translation, the Septuagint, also has them sharing the same name. It’s not clear to me what’s gained by this. But it is a titillating story:

And Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh’s bought him, Rab said: He bought him for himself [For an immoral purpose, being inflamed by Joseph’s beauty]. But Gabriel came and castrated him [The word Hebrew for seris means eunuch]. And then Gabriel came and mutilated him [phera] for originally his name is written Potiphar but afterwards became Poti-phera (BT Sotah 13b).

 If Rashi is right and Potiphar (newly named Poti-phera) was a eunuch (seris), it seems logical that Joseph was purchased as a sex toy not only for himself, but perhaps also for his sex-starved wife (who is after all married to a eunuch).

One such day, he came into the house to do his work. None of the household being there inside, she caught hold of him by his garment and said, “Lie with me!” But he left his garment in her hand and got away and fled outside. When she saw that he had left it in her hand and had fled outside, she called out to her servants and said to them, “Look, he had to bring us a Hebrew to play with us (le-tzahek banu)! This one came to lie with me; but I screamed loud. And when he heard me screaming at the top of my voice, he left his garment with me and got away and fled outside.” She kept his garment beside her, until his master came home. Then she told him the same story, saying, “The Hebrew slave whom you brought into our house came to me to mock /play with me (le-tzahek bi); but when I screamed at the top of my voice, he left his garment with me and fled outside” (Genesis 39:11-18).

This wife stalked Joseph and as he did not keep, what she perceived to be, his half of the bargain, she accused him of playing (having sex) with her (metzahek). Because the root tzachok has many meanings, it seems likely that she blames her husband both for bringing him into the house as their sex toy (“to play with us”), and  by not living up to the bargain is now mocking her by not “playing “with her.

There are many stories about wife swapping, rape, incest, and worse in the book of Genesis. But this story stands out, because it is female predator to male—and Joseph is the victim, even though Potiphar’s wife casts herself as the victim.  Most sexual violence in the bible is from a male perpetrator to a female victim. True, Lot’s daughters seduce their father to get pregnant and in the immediate background of our story (Genesis 38) is the story of Judah and Tamar (who tricks him into sleeping with her). Despite this we could read this story as “she said/he said”. But this was before the days of #MeToo and the wife is believed in this case and so poor Joseph is cast again into another pit, this time Pharaoh’s jail.

ASENATH THE DAUGHTER OF POTI-PHERA

We now come to the next woman in Joseph’s life, his wife Asenath:

“And Pharaoh called Joseph’s name Zaphenath-paneah; and he gave him to wife Asenath the daughter of Poti-phera priest of On” (Genesis 41:45).

Like Jacob whose name was changed to Israel by God, Joseph is given an Egyptian name by Pharaoh (who is like a God, at least in Egypt). And as we have seen above, Asenath’s father was also given a name change by the midrash. Who is Asenath? The bible tells us nothing about her, but she has a rich life in the midrash and in biblical retellings. On the surface Asenath is the high-born daughter of an important person, who is given to Joseph to cement his new status of second to none but Pharaoh in Egypt. But there’s a little problem:  Our Joseph, the Tzadik, has married out of the faith to the daughter of an Egyptian priest.  In order to solve this conundrum, our rabbinical tradition really outdid itself.

First of all, the problem of “priest”

Rashbam (Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir c. 1085 – c. 1158) writes in his commentary, on the phrase “the priest of On” that he is the prince of the city On. He gives as his prooftext that David’s sons were priests as stated in 2 Samuel 8:18, which obviously they were not. He then juxtaposes a verse from 1 Chronicles 18:17 which says that David’s sons were the first in the land, i.e. rulers, or princes. So problem number one is solved by Rashbam. Despite changing Asenath’s father into a ruler or prince, he disagrees with his grandfather Rashi who identified Poti-phera as one and the same as Potiphar. Rashbam’s comments on the name “Poti-phera” is that this is not Potiphar according to the plain meaning (peshat) of the text (Rashbam Commentary on Genesis 41: 45).

Second of all, the problem of foreignness

If you remember our forefathers (at least Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all married women from their own family of origin).  There are two traditional explanations for Joseph’s marriage: one is that Asenath converted to the Israelite religion and thus she is like all the other good converts (Ruth, Zipporah, Rahab). The other explanation belongs in the land of fantasy. The first to come up with this fantasy is a 7th century C.E. source:

“And he gave him Asenath, whom Dinah had borne to Shechem, and the wife of Potiphera, the prince of Tanis, had brought up, to be his wife” (Targum Pseudo-Jonathan).

How does this happen? There must be a back story. This is elaborated on in a later 12th century midrash:

But wasn’t she Dinah’s daughter? We have heard that when Jacob our father came from Shechem, he wrote out on a golden amulet everything that happened to them with [Shechem the son of Hamor]. When Dinah gave birth to Asenath, he put the amulet on her neck and set her down by the wall of Egypt. That day, Potiphar went out for a stroll with his lads, and as they got to the wall, they heard the sound of a crying newborn. He said to his lads “Bring me the child.” He saw the amulet and the incidents [described upon it]. Potiphar said to his slaves: “This girl is the daughter of important people, bring her to my home and get a nurse.” And since he brought her up, she is referred to as his daughter (Midrash Aggadah Buber on Genesis 41:45).

And there are variations on the theme: some have it that Jacob’s sons wanted to kill the infant, lest it be said that there was harlotry in the tents of Jacob. So to save her, God sent an angel to bring her to the house of Poti-phera (see Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer for full details of this one).

THE “LAD” WHO SAID NO

And now we come to the issue of Joseph’s femininity: One reason Joseph, who is known as the Tzadik (the righteous one) may have been able to succumb to the tempting allures of his mistress is that he was not tempted by her. It is not so much his being faithful to his principles, or loyal to his master, but the fact that he was not interested in women. The midrash hints at this.

What is written just before this? “Now Joseph was well built and handsome” (39:6). “And his master’s wife cast her eyes upon Joseph” (39:7) [This is] like a man/hero [gever/gibbor], who would sit in the market, making up (or fluttering) his eyes, fixing his hair, and lifting up his heel, saying: “Such a man/hero I am! (Genesis Rabbah 87:3).

NA’AR VS. NA’ARA

In discussing Joseph’s relationship with the sons of the secondary wives I pointed to the fact that depending on punctuation, you can understand that the word na-arut, can be read na-arot and thus he would be behaving like young maidens, not young lads when he was making up his eyes and fixing his hair (Genesis Rabbah 84:7). However, what is most interesting is that Joseph is very often referred to as a na’ar. This despite that he is definitely over the age of 13 when all of this takes place. There is a text where a woman is referred to as a na’ar (if we ignore the punctuation), namely the story of Rebekah. In Genesis 24 she is referred to in the written text five times as na’ar (without punctuation) and not na’arah (vss.14, 16, 28, 55, and 57). Of course, we read and pronounce it as na-arah and know that Rebekah is a woman/girl/virgin/maiden.  Is the written tradition (ketiv) suggesting that Rebekah (who is Joseph’s grandmother) is very much like the masculine Abraham in her activities. She runs, has great strength, she is assertive, adventurous. She is actor, rather than acted on. Joseph, in contrast, is acted upon. He will switch from passive victim to active ruler when he saves the Ancient Middle East from starvation. But until then he is the very opposite of Rebekah. She indeed acts the na-ar, he acts like a na-arah. Imagine a midrash that switches around the vocalization of the words here as well. We do have a switch, but not one of words!

A WOMAN IN A MAN’S BODY

The switch takes place in two poignant midrashim. The midrashim are about the kindness that the fertile Leah shows to her younger sister, who finally after many years is pregnant with Joseph. The two midrashim point indirectly to Joseph’s feminine character and physical traits.

The first one is suggestive:

And afterwards Leah bore a daughter and called her name Dinah [Genesis 30:21]. What does afterwards mean? After Leah judged a judgment against herself, and said: “Twelve tribes are destined to emerge from Jacob, six have already emerged from me, and four from the handmaidens; this makes ten. If this [pregnancy should result in a] male, my sister Rachel shall not [even] be like one of the handmaidens!” Immediately, she was switched into a daughter, as it is said, and she called her name Dinah (BT Berachot 61a).

The second midrash is more explicit:

Then after this she bore a daughter, and she called her name Dinah, because she said, “It is right from before the Lord that half of the tribes would be from me, but from Rachel, my sister, two tribes would come forth, just as came forth from each of the maidservants.” Then the prayer of Leah was heard from before the Lord, and the fetuses of their wombs were exchanged, and Joseph was given into the womb of Rachel, but Dinah into the womb of Leah (Targum Pseudo-Jonathan on Genesis 30:21).

We have come full circle to the women in Joseph’s life. This last midrash depicts him as having a sex change in the womb. Although this is starting to be possible with chickens (See article ) it is not yet possible with humans.  We have seen several women in Joseph’s life. There is actually another woman, but she appears after he is long dead and buried. Her name is Serach bat Asher and she according to the midrash is long lived and knows the secret of exactly where Joseph is buried. But this blog is long enough and perhaps she will be the topic of another blog.

Before ending I would like to point to the controversial Israeli satirical program The Jews are Coming (ha-yehudim baim) which depict Joseph as a transvestite, or homosexual in many of it’s sketches. He likes to dress up and wear makeup. He is also very full of himself. I like to think that the writers were both reading into the text and also are aware of the midrashim about Joseph. In the third season he literally comes out of the closet. See the following link (https://www.facebook.com/kanipbc/videos/%D7%94%D7%99%D7%94%D7%95%D7%93%D7%99%D7%9D-%D7%91%D7%90%D7%99%D7%9D-%D7%A8%D7%95%D7%97%D7%95-%D7%A9%D7%9C-%D7%99%D7%95%D7%A1%D7%A3/2092194121000103/

About the Author
Naomi Graetz taught English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev for 35 years. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God; The Rabbi’s Wife Plays at Murder ; S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories (Professional Press, 1993; second edition Gorgias Press, 2003), Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating and Forty Years of Being a Feminist Jew. Since Covid began, she has been teaching Bible from a feminist perspective on zoom.
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