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?

Spunky lives in Queensland, Australia. She loves travel and aims to visit as many church branches and wards in the world as possible.


  1. Dear Spunky, I hope you will not feel in any way put down if I disagree with you. You have writen an interesting article, but I feel I really would like to speak up for Joseph here. There is not enough to be gleaned from the scriptures to support the assumption that Joseph tried to rape Zuleika. According to Genesis, I’m not sure we could say Joseph was in a position of power over Zuleika. He had power over everything except Potiphar’s wife. “…and he hath committed all that he hath to my hand…neither hath he kept anything from me but thee, because thou art his wife”. Having landed on his feet with such a good master even when sold as a slave and having Potiphars household prosper “because the Lord was with him”, and being given charge of all of Potiphar’s household and business, except Zuleika, I can’t see that he would be so utterly foolish to jeopardize his position. I do understand that power can corrupt, but it all makes little sense to me that Joseph would have tried to rape Zuleika. When it says Joseph was “goodly and well favoured”, we must consider what this was originally meant to convey. The King James translation is a few hundred years old now, and occasionally the words used may not convey today what they once did. According to the translation I grew up with (a Swedish translation), Joseph was “well-built and handsome”, (which is also the translation which shows up in many other english language translations). His beauty is given as the explanation for why in the next verse Zuleika “cast[s] her eyes upon Joseph”. (BTW, if anyone is interested in comparing bible translations, I highly recommend

    I do however think that yout point about Joseph being sold as a slave being part of the bigger plan is excellent. It was him having become a powerful man in Egypt when the terrible drought struck the area that ultimately saved the entire household of Jacob. Joseph was then in a position to give them grain for their survival. There seems to be a Messianic type in Joseph’s fate. He was ‘sacrificed’ by his own people, yet being sacrificed enabled him to act as the saviour in their time of need.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful response! Yet I ask you to still consider– what if this was a case of acquaintance rape? This story could be one of many that lay the foundation for rape culture– telling women to dress “more modestly”, to not act in certain ways, etc. You are right that all of the patriarchal translations found to date blame Zuleika. But what would a matriarchal translation say? What do you think a matriarchal translation would say?

      • Is the bases of this story? Just for us to believe Zuleika? Then am still am for the original as I know off.

    • Great interpretation. I agree with you. When the hand of God is upon you, its very difficult to go wayward. I like the fact that there seems to be a messianic nature in Joseph. Joseph’s account is what I believe is the truth. He couldn’t have abused the grace and honor done him.

  2. While an interesting read, I have to also disagree. Primarily because the Bible actually doesn’t seem to shy away from pointing out, and condemning, men’s sexual sin. Think Judah and Tamar, Shechem and Dinah, David and Bathsheba, Amnon and Tamar. In each case, men abuse the women and are clearly condemned for it. I just don’t see why the author of this story would suddenly feel the need to shift the blame. That, and recalling that none of these stories are simply history (that then needs white washing to protect reputations), but crafted tales, and written from an “omniscient position”. So it’s not a question of choosing to believe her or not – her words are not ones that need to be explained, but included to make the story make sense.

    • “her words are not ones that need to be explained, but included to make the story make sense”

      Um…..her words solidify the fact that she was not raped? Is this what you are saying?

      In the end, as there are so many stories in the bible, and we are told there are many translations and interpretations, why not consider that this story has a different lesson to be learned in modern context?

  3. Leonard, I can see your point, but disagree that the Bible does not shift blame from men and put it not women. Consider Lot. He was alone with his daughters, which is one circumstance that ten leads to incest, not perpetrated by the children, but by the father. The story as the Bible tells it is ridiculous as far as blaming the daughters. If Lot was so drunk that he couldn’t tell his daughters from his “pillar of salt” dead wife, then it is fact that he was too drunk to get an erection. Men who rape their daughters frequently use alcohol as an excuse, just like Lot did. Men who rape their daughters frequently blame it on the daughters. I used to be therapist in a group of incest offenders, and the men blamed their wives (she refused me) or they blamed their daughters! (She seduced me! When she was only four)

    I could give you other examples of the Bible shifting the blame to women, but rape culture still does that and many men buy into rape culture.

    Personally, since we know that Potiphar believed his wife, and the story is told to us by Joseph, I think her story is the more likely to be true. You can’t marine how many rapists in prison are innocent.

  4. I don’t know that we need to turn her into a victim to gain her some sympathy or credibility. Women and men in ancient Egypt were actually relatively equal for the time, with property often inherited by women, so it doesn’t necessarily follow that a slave — even a high ranking one — would have a position higher than the wife. Or that the particular slave would have felt entitled to her. I think the opposite would have been true. The reason a man sinned by having sex with a woman in the Old Testament was because she was already married, effectively “owned,” by another. Unmarried women were free game, even if the man was already married. Why? Because of issue. A woman’s children belong to her husband, unless there is proof that she had sex with someone not her husband, an offense that was punishable by death. Having come from a patriarchal family structure, this would have been ingrained in Joseph. He could flirt with Zuleika, maybe mess around a bit. Maybe she was less than satisfied in her marriage, so maybe she was willing and wanting. But the cost for actually having sex with her was too high. (Unless maybe he left proof of it with her … hmmm). At any rate, a flawed and willing Zuleika would not change the inherent inequity in the sexual rules. The reason Joseph doesn’t want her (or at least his descendants don’t want to admit he wants her), is not because of some zealous adherence to chastity as we know it. It is because she is married and belongs to another. That is what makes it out of bounds. If it were the other way around — if he were the married one, or if they were both not married — we would have a totally different story.

    • “Having come from a patriarchal family structure, this would have been ingrained in Joseph.” — Ah, but it wasn’t! I think if Joseph respected patriarchy in the way you suggest, he would have listened to his father about helping his brothers rather than dreaming. You might then say he was not “called” to do this– but are not men in Mormon culture “called” to be fathers, providers, and church leaders?– certainly he could multi-task in the strength of the Lord.

      Your intro is quite interesting to me– perhaps re-read it like this?

      I don’t know that we need to turn her into a victim to gain her some sympathy or credibility. Women and men in [today’s society] are actually relatively equal for the time, with property often inherited by women, so it doesn’t necessarily follow that [an employee] — even a high ranking one — would have a position [in which to commit sexual sin].

      What do you think? That is all I am asking– think about this differently and through a modern lens– as we are regularly told in LDS theology that the scriptures were written for us, today.

      • I think it’s fascinating to look at this story through several different lenses. As with many portrayals of women in the scriptures, there are many details missing, which opens it up to many interpretations. From her perspective with a modern lens, we see the “me too” movement. We see a woman who said she was assaulted and whose alleged assaulter tried to shame and discredit her. I appreciate you bringing this perspective forward. From his perspective with a modern lens, though, there’s a tendency to paint him as someone noble and pure, withstanding worldly temptation and saving himself for marriage. This is where an historical reading has value, I think. Because marriage didn’t mean the same thing then. He could bed a woman and declare her his, and do this with multiple women, provided none were married. His denying her (assuming we take his word at face value) did not mean he was virginal or pure or faithful to one woman, like we expect righteous modern men to be. It doesn’t make him better than her, like we are taught in gospel doctrine.

  5. It’s an interesting way to read the story. You mention the Jewish and Muslim traditions—how do you (or do you?) incorporate the love story part of the tradition (e.g., Jami’s version of their story)?

  6. Not sure what side of the story to believe, but what is so vital is that we even consider another viewpoint. Thank you for opening dialogue on a different angle.
    This was one of the stories emphasized in seminary and it was always about how we could resist sexual sin. The historical context on sexual relations, ownership, power etc were never mentioned and for sure we weren’t considering how things might differ if written from a matriarchal stance. And that’s where I see a lot of parallels that you are drawing to the current climate- the tendency to view things from patriarchy, from a lens clouded with rape culture, the difficulty of women being believed. It’s interesting that Potiphar seems to be the only one to believe her since most readers seem to immediately believe that Joseph was falsely accused. Not being believed is a huge barrier for many women coming forward today.
    I also think it’s interesting to think about the reason given why Joseph resisted: “how then can I do this great wickedness and sin against god?” His righteousness contributes to why he is believed by many readers. In today’s #metoo movement (particularly within the church) it can be hard for people to imagine that someone righteous could do something so wrong, for example in high profile cases like Joseph Smith or Joseph Bishop, but hard also for a bishop to believe the wife is being raped by her husband when the bishop sees the “good guy” side at church.
    Thank you again for inviting us to consider other interpretations.

    • Right? And via this patriarchal lens, the rape report is false, the man is innocent and had no desire to hook up with the hot woman, and the woman was the sole instigator, seductress, and aggressor. The man was 100% innocent. Boy what I wouldn’t give for a woman’s POV in scripture!

    • Best comment ever! We don’t have to literally believe that Joseph lied to get a lot of insight from this matriarchal reinterpretation of the story.

  7. A basic rule of ALL literature is to consider reliable-vs-unreliable narrator. Considering that this is a he-said-she-said story and the narrator wasn’t in the room, it is entirely plausible to read the story in the way you have described. I don’t personally believe that the Bible is a history book, but let’s just say that this story actually happened, and let’s look at how the other characters react. The reaction of Potipher believing his wife over his dudebro second-in-command says a lot about the demonstrated trustworthiness of Zuleika. The reaction of Zuleika by taking the piece of coat to her husband and making an assault charge, rather than just covering up the fact that she had perpetrated an unsuccessful sexual assault, makes me think there was more to it than an unreliable narrator wants us to believe.

  8. I don’t think Poitier’s reaction necessarily shows his wife to be trustworthy. An attack on her was an attack on his manhood and if it looked like her had a wife who was fooling around, it would be humiliating for him. He had to take her side. Which would also make her unafraid to accuse Joseph.

  9. What a great post. Since the scriptures are written from a patriarchal perspective, there are so many ways that a woman’s side of the story could be lost. Even in modern society, women are often not believed when they tell others they have been raped, so it seems plausible to me that that could have been the case here, too.

  10. Really interesting stuff, Spunky. I think your take on this story makes more sense than the traditional reading of it. And I also really like Alys’s Wonderlandd’s point about reliable and unreliable narrators.

  11. Very thought-provoking. Especially when one considers the culture and household in which Joseph was raised–that is, under a patriarch with multiple wives and handmaidens with whom Jacob had carnal relations. I find it not hard to picture, then, how Joseph–the favored youngest child– might consider himself entitled to those same relations with the women in any household where he wielded authority.

  12. I think this post is a prime example of victim blaming, and also a certain strain of feminist culture that needs to see males as the aggressors and females as the victims. I don’t think it’s honest, I don’t think it comes from a good place, and I find it rather hateful and revealing of personal insecurity to need to create a narrative like this. It goes to show that it’s easy to twist a narrative to defame even the most decent among us

  13. Any alternative view of these events must also account for the fact that God continued to give powerful revelations to Joseph after this point. Either Joseph’s story is true, and he was falsely accused, or God chose a rapist (or attempted rapist) as the one person He would prophesy to of the coming famine.

    God will do what He will do, and if He can redeem and use any of us regardless of our sinful pasts, but of those two options I believe the former — Joseph was telling the truth and was falsely accused by Potiphar’s wife for cynical reasons — to be the more likely.

    • Note, however, that those revelations came to Joseph after he had the very humbling experience of languishing in prison (and hopefully repenting while there). In the sins of David, the Old Testament teaches us that God’s anointed are not immune to committing heinous sins when beautiful women are involved (ditto for Corianton in the Book of Mormon, several figures in church history–I could go on and on), so this scenario is plausible precisely because it is so very, very familiar

      • I agree with JNB. I also love to consider the argument of the atonement– that after Joseph “did his time” and truly repented, he was able to receive revelation. It makes for a powerful story of atonement– one that any sinner hopes to be their own.

  14. I think, in general, people get from the Bible what they seek to get from it. A true believer sees beauty, love, and grace. A non-believer sees fanatical delusions. If you listen to Bill Maher’s and Richard Dawkin’s take on the Bible you will see god as a sexist, racist, genocidal, megalomaniacal sadist. Actually, upon reading the Bible that doesn’t seem too far off (at least the Old Testament). But even in the New Testament we somehow glorify the torture and murder of God’s son. Pretty twisted. But again, a true believer sees beauty, and God’s love and grace. You get what you look for. Feminists see a corrupt patriarchy – it stares you in the face, and they wonder why everyone else doesn’t see it. Could the slave Hagar really consent to sex with Abraham? But what is even the point of that story? Why would Lot’s daughters get him drunk and have sex with him? Was that consensual? Did they rape him? Is Lot a victim? Some people respect and honor the patriarchy, others despise it. Depending on your personal experiences and biases you can read about Joseph as ah honorable and virtuous innocent victim, or a conniving perpetrator. Similarly we could dissect the narrative on Laman and Lemuel and rationally come to their defense. It is too easy to reduce all scriptural characters into caricatures. Remember, the stories are incomplete – limited snapshots intended to deliver a message. Too often the message is lost on us, or perhaps twisted and confusing to begin with. I question reading any of the scriptures as accurate historical documents. Perhaps they are more like a mirror, reflecting back on the reader, through our interpretations, our biases, values, and beliefs. However we look at Joseph, what does it really reveal about ourselves?

    • Because I am a believer, I don’t think the psychological interpretations apply as strongly as the philosophical and spiritual interpretations. For example, I am a believer and see some pretty fanatical delusions in the bible.

      I understand your point. However, the bible is written for our time as much as any other piece of scripture. Yes, as Mormons we asterisk that point and add, “so long as it is interpreted correctly.” And then we add that there are multiple interpretations. So- with this in mind, why can’t this story be a story about oppression in the traditional form, as well as a story about rape and repentance?

  15. Thank you for your thoughtful & intriguing post! I appreciate you presenting this interpretation-one pertinent to our time. I’ve read each comment and the defensiveness in some certainly shuts down what could become a mutually beneficial discussion. The missed opportunity saddens me. The way you pose questions in response to some of these comments is another generous invitation to discuss and learn from each other. Thanks again!

  16. I appreciated both Spunky and Ann’s responses to my comment. I’ll use the Lot story to try and clarify.

    I don’t view the Lot story as trying to shift the blame to Lot – though if I looked at it as primarily history I would agree we should seriously look at that. I think both stories are explanations of origins (it is ‘Genesis’, after all).

    The Lot and his daughters story is not about the event itself, or assigning blame. It is to explain the origin of two of Israel’s neighbors, and specifically to show Israel’s relative ‘goodness’, by carrying it’s neighbors as the product of incest. Certainly it does blame the daughters, I think it is primarily for literary purpose. It adds an extra insult – as in saying to your neighbors not only are you the product of incest, but of naively ignorant girls who, believing the rest of humanity was destroyed, for their father drunk and had sex with him.

    Likewise, what I mean by we don’t have to account for her words is I don’t view it as “we had here testimony, but we believe Joseph”. I view it as an author telling a tale. In each set back Joseph faces, he is not at fault (kind of like Job). It’s integral to the story that Joseph faithfully endures the set backs in his life, and God uses those setbacks to bring about a good end.

    Now I guess I should/could add that I can believe that there may have been real people that these stories were modeled on. But these are written hundreds of years after the events portrayed, and I should have been clearer that my rejection of the “what about her perspective” is that I don’t view it as history in anything like we would recognize as such. There’s not a court transcript being explained, so to speak. Hope that makes sense…

    • Leonard, of course the bible is a collection of literary tales, some of which are fictional– or at least exaggerated, or have lost their original teachings through time. But, as a believer, I still think that God protected a portion of the stories as is– to be told for our time. Thus, I think it important to consider the story of Joseph in as many ways as possible without assigning blame, That is why I posed the original question– what if Zuleika was telling the truth? What lesson can we learn from this? Do we go to the “She should have been modest and never been alone in that situation,” or do we go to the “We need to do better to teach our sons to respect women” place?

      These are hard questions for our time, so I thank you for engaging.

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