Joseph’s Surrounding People: (1) Potiphar and a Chief Jailer

Joseph’s story starts at Gen 37, but the story of Judah and Tamar abruptly intervenes in Gen 38. So Joseph’s story resumes in ch. 39, where Potiphar purchases Joseph. According to Gen 39:1, Potiphar bought Joseph from Ishmaelites, but Gen 37:36 tells us a different story: it was Midianites who sold Joseph to Potiphar. There can be various ways to explain the discrepancy; traditionally, scholars understand the contradiction based on the documentary hypothesis (search “Joseph’s Story or “documentary hypothesis” in this blog). However, explaining the contradiction is not the concern here; the purpose of the post is, as the title suggests, simply to introduce the people Joseph met in Egypt, first of all, Potiphar and the chief jailer. 

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Potiphar, the Buyer of Joseph

Potiphar is Pharaoh’s officer, the captain of the guard(Gen 37:36; 39:1). In Hebrew, “officer” is סריס(saris), the captain of the guard is שר טבח(sar tabbach). 

According to HALOT (The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament), saris means ① high official ② eunuch. In 2Kg 20:18 and Is 38:7, the word is translated as “eunuch”; and it was eunuch(saris) who taught Daniel and his three friends to introduce them to the Babylonian king. But this saris in Gen 39 is probably not eunuch as this person is also introduced as sar tabbachSo Potiphar is introduced merely as “officer.”

The lexicon mentioned above explains sar as ① representative of the king; official; ② person of note, commander; ③ the leader of a group or a district. The word basically means “the leader,” and you can come up with different expressions according to the immediate context where sar is used. For example, in Ex 1:11, sar is combined with the word mas(מס), that is “forced labour.” So here, the word sar means the master of the laborer or taskmaster. By the same token, in Gen 39:1, sar is combined with tabbach, which means “guard.” So here we can think of Potiphar as the captain of the guard.

What is strange about Potiphar is that he is also introduced as a priest of On. When Pharaoh elevated Joseph to a ruler position, Pharaoh gave Asenath, daughter of Potiphera, to Joseph as his wife (Gen 41:45). Surprisingly, HALOT says Potiphar is a shortened form of Potiphera, meaning Potiphar is the priest of On. Potiphar or Potiphera once accused Joseph of sexual harassment of his wife but ironically had to give his daughter to Joseph. 

Chief Jailer, who put everything in Joseph’s care

It is strange that Joseph was imprisoned in the king’s prison, though he was not the king’s prisoner (Gen 39:20). Anyways, there, he met the chief jailer. In Hebrew, “the chief jailer” is ‘שׂר בית־הסהר'(sar bet-hassohar). Here, bet means house (as in Bet-lehem or Bethlehem, house of bread); hassohar means “the prison” (ha is the definite article; sohar means “prison”); and sar is the “leader” as already mentioned; hence “the chief prisoner. After meeting Joseph as his prisoner, the chief prisoner started experiencing something very strange: he could see that god is always with Joseph even though Joseph was in prison. (*I think the chief jailer’s understanding of the deity who was with Joseph should be differentiated from the God of Israel. That is why I did not capitalize “g”)

But the LORD was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love; he gave him favor in the sight of the chief jailer.

Gen 39:21 (NRSV)

Since he realized god is always with Joseph, he could not treat Joseph as any other prisoner. So the chief jailer put Joseph in charge of all other prisoners as well as all the works done in prison. This story corresponds to the plot, where Potiphar and Pharaoh also entrusted Joseph with everything.

But there is another contradiction regarding Joseph’s status in prison. When Pharaoh’s cupbearer and baker were put in the king’s prison, ‘sar tabbach‘ (who is probably Potiphar) had Joseph waited on them (Gen 40:4). As mentioned, however, the chief jailer already put him in charge of all other prisoners. Then how could the captain of the guard make Joseph serve the cupbearer and the baker whose crimes could even result in execution? The captain of the guard’s control over the jail matters seems to imply that Gen 40 does not presuppose the existence of the chief jailer.

At the outset, I already mentioned that scholars traditionally explained this kind of narrative discrepancy using the documentary hypothesis; that is, if the text is the result of the combination of two or more source documents, there was no way that the redactor could avoid contradiction in the process of making a unified document.

Photo by MEAX PROD on Unsplash

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