Zuleikha: Potiphar’s Wife

After the brothers sell Joseph, he is taken to Egypt where he is sold to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh. Potiphar realizes that his house is blessed once Joseph begins to serve him, and he gives Joseph wide authority.

The bible says that Joseph was beautiful. Unsurprisingly, Potiphar’s wife is attracted to Joseph, and commands him to lie with her. The story of Potiphar’s wife is extraordinary in that it places a woman in a powerful position, who aggressively courts a man in a lower position, with no other reason other than satisfying her sexual desire.

The Sages use the story to glorify Joseph’s modesty and righteousness. In the interpretation that sees Potiphar’s wife in a positive light, she aims to bear Joseph’s sons. That is, a woman’s sexual desire is positive only if it is aimed at procreation:

Why proximate the story of Tamar to the story of Potiphar’s wife? [to tell you that] just as that one (the incident of Tamar) was for the sake of Heaven, so too this one (the incident of Potiphar’s wife) was meant for the sake of Heaven… [Potiphar’s wife] saw through her astrology that she was destined to raise a child from him (Yosef), but she did not know if [it would be] from her of from her daughter [Asenath] [Bereshit Rabba 85, 2]

Joseph’s refusal to comply aggravates Potiphar’s wife and she causes his incarceration. From a narrative perspective, Potiphar’s wife could be seen as the Protagonist, the character who moves the action forward, thus enabling Joseph to become the ruler of Egypt, second to Pharaoh.

Zuleikha and Yusuf in the Quran

The story of Yusuf appears in Surah 12 in the Quran. Potiphar’s wife has a name, Zuleikha. She tempts Yusuf, but quite differently from the Bible, Yusuf does not remain silent, but protests, an act which leads to Zuleikha’s trial:  

She in whose house he was living tried to seduce him… She desired him, and he desired her, had he not seen the proof of his Lord… As they raced towards the door, she tore his shirt from behind. At the door, they ran into her husband. She said, “What is the penalty for him who desired to dishonor your wife, except imprisonment or a painful punishment?”

He said, “It was she who tried to seduce me.” A witness from her household suggested: “If his shirt is torn from the front: then she has told the truth, and he is the liar. But if his shirt is torn from the back: then she has lied, and he is the truthful.”

And when he saw that his shirt was torn from the back, he said, “This is a woman’s scheme. Your scheming is serious indeed.”
“Joseph, turn away from this. And you, woman, ask forgiveness for your sin; you are indeed in the wrong.”

Some ladies in the city said, “The governor’s wife is trying to seduce her servant. She is deeply in love with him. We see she has gone astray.” And when she heard of their gossip, she invited them, and prepared for them a banquet, and she gave each one of them a knife. She said, “Come out before them.” And when they saw him, they marveled at him, and cut their hands. They said, “Good God, this is not a human, this must be a precious angel.”

In the Quran version, Zuleikha admits her sin and repents, as a good believer should. The addition to the story that describes the women of the city cutting their hands because they are distracted by Yusuf’s beauty, normalizes Zuleikha’s desire, turning her into a normal woman attracted to a beautiful young man, the same way as other women are attracted to Yusuf.

Zuleikha: The Believer who Yearns for God

The Sufi poet Jalal al-Din Rumi sees Zuleikha as the lover-believer who yearns for God. From this perspective her love for Yusuf is a metaphor for her love and yearning to be united with the Sublime:

Zuleikha let everything be the name of Joseph, from celery seed to aloes wood. She loved him so much she concealed his name in many phrases, the inner meanings known only to her.
When she said, The wax is softening near the fire, she meant, My love is wanting me.
If she said, Look, the moon is up, or The willow has new leaves, or The coriander seeds have caught fire, or The king is in a good mood today, or Isn’t that lucky, or The furniture needs dusting, or The water carrier is here, or This bread needs more salt, or The clouds seem to be moving against the wind, or My head hurts, or My headache’s better, anything she praises it’s Joseph’s touch she means. Any complaint, it’s his being away.
When she’s hungry, it’s for him. Thirsty, his name is a sherbet. Cold, he’s a fur. This is what the Friend can do when one is in such love.

The miracle… [of] being the name of God, Zuleikha felt in the name Joseph.
When one is united to the core of another, to speak of that is to breathe the name… empty of self and filled with love.

~Zuleikha, Jalal al-Din Rumi. Translated by Coleman Barks

Feature Photo: Racinet, Zuleikha and Yusuf (1876)


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