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A Comparison of Potiphar's Wife in the Bible and the Qur'an:

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Brett Bowman

on 28 April 2015

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Transcript of A Comparison of Potiphar's Wife in the Bible and the Qur'an:

The Story of Joseph
One of the most famous Bible and Qur'anic stories
Son of Jacob and Rachel
Even had a musical made about him!
Joseph in Genesis 39
Sold into slavery
Egyptian official Potiphar buys him
He gains favor in the household
Potiphar's wife tries to seduce him, he denies her out of respect for Potiphar
Genesis 39:11-12
"One day, however, when he went into the house to do his work, and while no one else was in the house, she caught hold of his garment, saying, "Lie with me!" But he left his garment in her hand, and fled and ran outside"
The Qur'an
Divided into chapters (surah), which are divided into verses (ayat)
Revealed to the prophet Muhammad in the 7th century
Arabic is the language of divine revelation; translations of the Qur'an are not technically the Qur'an
Shares narratives with the Bible - Abraham, Isaac, Ismael, Joseph, Lot, etc.
Surat Yusuf
12th Sura of the Qur'an
Revealed in a single sitting
Unique in the Qur'an as a true narrative
Bears many similarities with the biblical story
Joseph Imprisoned
After Joseph jilts Potiphar's wife, she accuses of attempting lie with her
Calls him a "Hebrew" (Gen 39:14)
Potiphar becomes enraged and throws Joseph in jail
End of the Biblical narrative of Potiphar
Joseph the Technicolor Dreamboat: A Comparison of Potiphar's Wife in the Bible and the Qur'an
Qur'anic Narrative
Joseph purchased by an official from Egypt, finds a good position in his home
The wife of the Egyptian tries to seduce Joseph
He would have acquiesced had God not appeared to him
He tries to leave, she rips his shirt, they find her husband at the door
She blames Joseph, he claims she tried to seduce him
A family member testifies - if the shirt is ripped from the front, he is guilty, and if from the back, she is guilty
Shirt ripped from back, El-Aziz reprimands his wife, forgives Joseph
The Story Diverges
After the women see Joseph, Al-Aziz's wife declares that if Joseph does not give her what she wants, then she will have him sent to prison
Joseph states that he would rather go to prison then fall to the plan of the women
But he admits that without God's help, he may not be able to resist all the women
He goes to prison and starts to interpret dreams
King wants to free him, but Joseph tells him he must ask the women with the cut hands about him
The King finds them, they prove his innocence, Joseph's name is cleared
Sold into slavery in Egypt
Rises through the ranks of his master's household
Is extremely handsome
Wife tries to seduce him
Clothes play an important role in determining innocence
Joseph is sent to prison
Joseph becomes Pharoah's right-hand man
Potiphar's name (Potiphar vs. El-Aziz)
The role that clothes play in determining innocence
Qur'an: Potiphar does not know who to believe,
Bible: Potiphar only listens to wife's accusations
There is no group of women in the Bible
In the Qur'an, Joseph willingly goes to prison
In the Qur'an, Joseph attempts to clear his name after being released from prison
Where Does Gender Fit In?
Both texts present " female sexuality as an uncontrollable threatening force that men have to be wary of, not seduced by"
In each story, Joseph invokes God in his refusal of Potiphar's wife
"How then could I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?" - Gen 39:9
Note: It is possible that in the biblical narrative, Joseph's succumbing to Potiphar's wife would have been so much a sexual sin, but rather a transgression against Potiphar's authority in the household
"Womanly Guile"
Both narratives imply a particularly female sexual cunningness
Joseph is also particularly handsome in both
In the Bible, Potiphar's wife doggedly pursues Joseph
In the Qur'an, "Kayd" used to refer to the women's sexual intentions with Joseph
"Kayd" used in regards to Al-Aziz's wife's plan to seduce Joseph as well as the intentions of the women who cut their hand at Joseph's attractiveness
"Kayd" roughly means "stratagem," or "ruse," but in this context, refers to sexual guile of women
Chance for Sympathy?
Literary standpoint: Why was the extra group of women included in the Qur'an?
Their reaction to Joseph's beauty helped justify Potiphar's wife's actions
On the one hand, the women's agreement with Potiphar's wife serves to redeem the character of Potiphar's wife by legitimizing her actions, creating empathy
On the other, demonizing female sexuality may be more the author's intention than precipitating empathy
A possible translation of Potiphar's name in the Septuagint is "Eunuch"
If Potiphar was a eunuch, the audience is then more inclined to sympathize with her sexual advances towards Joseph
Length: Qur'anic version much longer than Bible version
Ethnicity plays larger role in Biblical narrative
Religious readings of this story often focus on "resisting temptation"
Biblical and Qur'anic commentaries try to shed more light on story's meaning
Qur'anic commentary: "fundamentally negative characteristics of women," OR "ultimate expression of Islam's forgiveness," "tacit approval of female sexuality?"
Rabbinic commentary: Relationship between Joseph and Potiphar's wife revolves around "the other," sexual/cultural
Other Undercurrents
Aycock, Alan. "Potiphar's Wife: Prelude to a Structural Exegesis." Man 27.3 (1992): 479-94. JSTOR. Web. 28 Apr. 2015.
Exum, J. Cheryl., and Stephen D. Moore. "Madame Potiphar through a Culture Trip, Or, Which Side Are You On?" Biblical Studies-- Cultural Studies: The Third Sheffield Colloquium. Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic, 1998. N. pag. Print.
Genesis. Harper-Collins Study Bible. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.
Goldman, Shalom. The Wiles of Women: The Wiles of Men: Joseph and Potiphar's Wife in Ancient Near Eastern, Jewish, and Islamic Folklore. Albany, NY: State U of New York, 1995. Print.
Levinson, Joshua. "An-Other Woman: Joseph and Potiphar's Wife. Staging the Body Politic." The Jewish Quarterly Review 87.3/4 (1997): 269-301. JSTOR. Web. 28 Apr. 2015.
Merguerian, Gayane Karen, and Afsaneh Najmabadi. "Zulaykha and Yusuf: Whose “Best Story”?" International Journal of Middle East Studies 29.04 (1997): 485-508. Web.
"The Noble Qur'an - القرآن الكريم." The Noble Qur'an - القرآن الكريم. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Apr. 2015.
Although different readings (religious, transgression of authority) point to different places for immorality in the narrative
Both the Qur'anic and Biblical narrative construct Potiphar's wife as undeterred and uncontrollable in sexual pursuit
Imply this is a trait common of all women, especially in the Qur'an ("Kayd")
In both stories, Potiphar's wife is the irrational, sexual other, while Joseph is the protagonist of "moral fiber"
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