Zuleika (Potiphar’s wife) and Joseph #MormonMeToo
In Jewish and Muslim traditions, we are told that the wife of Potiphar was named Zuleika. The name Zuleika is of Pashtun origin, and it’s meaning is “Radiant One” and “Brilliant and Lovely.” Thus, we know that Zuleika was radiantly beautiful to look upon.
We don’t know what Joseph thought of Zuleika, if he thought she was attractive or otherwise. We only know that she is said to have falsely accused Joseph of trying to seduce her—ripping his clothes as he escaped (Genesis 39:12). But what if Zuleika was telling the truth?
In many ways, Joseph’s story sounds similar to that of a developing predator, who has become repentant. What if this is an accurate, or at least an addition interpretation of the story of Joseph and his coat?
Consider this: We know more about Joseph than we do of Zuleika, which is typical given the patriarchy of scriptural writings. In this, we know that Joseph’s was a complicated household. His father Jacob showed much patience, working for seven years to “earn” his eventual wife, Rachel whom he desperately loved. At the last moment, Rachel’s sister Leah was clandestinely and deceitfully given in marriage to Jacob. Jacob complained, and in an agreement with Rachel and Leah’s father, he worked for another seven years to obtain marriage rights for Rachel.
After this, he married Rachel, but Rachel was unable to bear him a son. Leah, Leah’s maid and Rachel’s maid all bore sons (on behalf of Leah and Rachel) to Jacob, before Rachel finally gave birth to Joseph. Joseph was a manifestation of Jacob’s hopes and dreams, and thus became his favourite son.
Joseph – and his brothers—all knew that he was his father’s favourite. His brother Reuben even saw this favouritism as the only redeeming thing in which he might gain a shadow of esteem from his father by pretending to rescue Joseph from a well. (Genesis 37: 21-22). The older brothers saw this as a worthless scheme, and sold Joseph for twenty pieces of silver—(Genesis 37:28). This is a pithy amount of money, especially when we read in Exodus that thirty pieces of silver was used to compensate the death of a slave ). (Symbolically speaking, thirty pieces of silver was also the price paid to Judas for betraying Christ- also manifesting how very little the brothers thought of Joseph.)
This background is important in telling Zuleika’s story. Her record in the bible is because of Joseph, so in learning about Joseph, we glean information about Zuleika. Joseph was a favourite and he knew it; his aunt and mother competed to give his father sons, so Jacob was also a symbol of power between the women. Because he was his mother’s favourite, as well as his father’s favourite, and because his mother was his father’s favourite wife, she was in position to give Joseph any feminine authority she could claim. Mostly we know that because his brothers sold him for so little that he likely had not sought to balance his favouritism among his brothers: he was happy to be the favourite: he bragged about it.
Joseph was given the gift of visions. In one of these visions, he saw the sun, stars and the moon bow to him (Genesis 37:9). He immediately told his brothers. They were bothered, but there is no sense of surprise. They get back to work. Joseph then goes and tells his father. Jacob is not impressed. “Shall I and thy mother and thy brethren indeed come to bow down ourselves to thee to the earth?” (Genesis 37:10) It seems that even Jacob had grown weary of Joseph reminding everyone that he was the favourite. Thus, Jacob rebukes Joseph sends him to join his brothers in working.
The brothers move from where they had taken the flocks to feed, possibly trying to avoid Joseph, or possibly because the fields were better. Regardless, “a certain man found [Joseph], and, behold, he was wandering in the field.” In this, Joseph sounds like more of a dreamer than a worker—something that would have been frustrating his family. Perhaps this was the real reason his brothers were unhappy with him—favouritism aside, Joseph does not sound like a team player. Hence, when he announced all should bow to him, disbelief in addition to resentment, may better reflect the position of his brothers. It also explains why they sold him for so little.
However, being sold into Egypt was a good thing for Joseph, possibly it was God’s plan all along. As a slave, it is unlikely that he would have had time for “wandering in the field.” Instead, he would have learned hard work and been humbled in a way that he did not learn when he was a child in his father’s house. Yet– he had enough panache (possibly because he always knew himself to be his father’s favourite, plus he probably still had dreams of the sun, moon and stars bowing to him)- that he was employed in a prestigious household: Potiphar’s house. Also home to Zuleika, who was radiant and beautiful.
After a time … Joseph rose to become second in Potiphar’s house. Genesis 39:6 “And [Potipar] left all that he had in Joseph’s hand; and he knew not ought he had, save the bread which he did eat. And Joseph was a goodly person, and well favoured.”
The meaning of being “well favoured” is clear; once again, Joseph was the favourite in the house hold. But he was also “goodly.” The term “goodly” in the Book of Mormon has often been discussed in terms of being good, as a behaviour or manifestation of righteousness. However, academically speaking the term is more likely to be interpreted as meaning “affluent.” As for Joseph, we know that he became captain of the guard in Genesis 37:36 and Genesis 39: 1, and was only second to Potiphar in Potiphar’s house. In other words, he had more authority than Zuleika. Therefore, in the case of Joseph, the term goodly does not reflect righteousness. It reflects power: the power of fiscal and professional affluence.
Now, with all due respect to the centuries of male-editing of the bible, we read about Zuleika as a seductress who attacked Joseph, ripping his coat—much like his brothers also ripped his coat from him. Zuleika then claims that she was the victim—and Joseph is cast into prison in Genesis 39:7-15.
But what if Zuleika was telling the truth? Perhaps Joseph in his position of power and affluence wanted the one thing that he had yet to obtain—his master’s wife. We already know that Joseph was prideful, of not impatient for his brothers to bow to him, so much that as soon as this dream came to him, he told his brothers and his father. Patience is not a virtue reflected in Joseph, though the feature of patience was very much reflected in his father, Jacob, and his mother Rebecca.
The meaning of the name Joseph is “God will increase.” But perhaps Joseph was impatient for this increase, so he convinced himself that Zuleika’s form fitting dress, and her high heels, and her beauty bestowed by God are what took away his agency. Because she was radiantly beautiful, Joseph had no agency and he forced to fantasise about her.
This is, after all, the rape culture that I was taught as a Beehive in the Young Women organization: that men have lesser agency, and thus, if my skirt was too short and I was raped, then I would need to repent for forcing a Young Man to rape me.
Have we laid this same blame upon Zuleika in scripture?
The meaning of the name Potiphar is “Bull of Africa.” We know that a bull symbolises masculine strength, and that to be is a bull is to be uncastrated. The symbol in this is that Potiphar had power over Joseph as his master, but also as man—uncastrated, fertile power that Joseph was a still lacking in his affluence as Joseph was yet a slave. Attacking the master’s wife was a statement of power, something that is known in the scriptures:
Zachariah 14:2 “For I will gather all nations against Jerusalem to battle ; and the city shall be taken, and the houses rifled, and the women ravished.”
Isaiah 13:6 Their children also shall be dashed to pieces before their eyes; their houses shall be spoiled, and their wives ravished.
Rape is about power as well as being about sex. And Joseph loved power. He also loved God. But frankly, the story makes sense if we believe Zuleika. After all, Potiphar was not upset that his wife had been sexually assaulted, even though she ripped clothes from her attacker as evidence. Potiphar was upset that Joseph displayed dominance in his house as manifested in sexual/reproductive dominance. This is why Joseph was imprisoned instead of being castrated or killed: the sin against Potiphar was not punished as a sexual sin, but rather as a political act of betrayal.
When we read this story in this way, where a woman is telling the truth, we can yet derive lessons that are founded in humility, love of God, revelation that comes regardless of our wicked actions, and Atonement. We also further see the heavy hand of patriarchy and it’s manipulation of women.
So what do you think? Was Zuleika telling us the truth? Most importantly, are we ready to hear her?