DID JOSEPH MARRY A “SHIKSA?” – “Miketz” Gen. 41:1 – 44:17 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon
The Story of Joseph continues in this week’s reading through his sudden rise from prison to be Viceroy of Egypt. Along the way it raises interesting religious questions.
Last week we saw his brothers sell him to the caravan of Ishmaelites who proceeded to resell him into slavery in Egypt. There he works for a “sarees” named Potiphar. Frequently translated “courtier,” the word “sarees” literally means a eunuch, as indeed Pharaoh’s courtiers generally were emasculated to safeguard the women in the royal harem. Officially, however, Potiphar has a wife. She takes a good look at the handsome 17-year-old Hebrew slave, and sets out to seduce him. He refuses her once, but she tries again, grabbing his cloak, which he leaves in her hand and runs out. Furious, she calls out to other servants and accuses Joseph of trying to rape her. So her official husband has Joseph thrown in prison.
Immediately preceding this dramatic event, came the story of Judah and Tamar. Apparently unrelated to the Joseph story, it recounts Judah’s dallying with his daughter-in-law, who was widowed young and whose brothers-in-law were not claiming her in the customary levirate marriage, for the purpose of raising a child to carry on the dead brother’s name – a custom which later became Torah law. In despair, Tamar dresses as a harlot and traps Judah, becoming pregnant. She bears him twin sons who are named in the Torah. The Midrash adds a third child, a girl named Osnat whose name will come up in this week’s reading.
While in prison, Joseph the dreamer interprets dreams for two of his fellow prisoners. Both of his predictions are fulfilled, as three days later one of the prisoners is executed and the other one is returned to service as wine steward — read “bartender” — in Pharaoh’s palace. Joseph urges him to “remember me, for I did nothing to deserve prison.” But he forgets.
Our reading opens two years later. Now it is Pharaoh who has two disturbing dreams that all his palace magicians cannot interpret. Up steps the bartender and confesses his failing. He tells the king about Joseph. So Pharaoh has Joseph released from the dungeon, cleaned up and brought to the throne room, where Joseph proceeds to astound Pharaoh by not only interpreting the dreams but suggesting a plan to take advantage of the warning that these dreams contain – a warning of impending famine. “Let Pharaoh take a man who is discreet and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt…” to gather the food of the good years and store it for the lean years that will follow. Totally impressed, Pharaoh gives Joseph the position he has just described. To go with his new job, Joseph gets Pharaoh’s signet ring, a fine suit of clothes, a gold chain and a festive chariot ride through the city with everyone bowing to him. He also gets a new name. And a wife. Her name is – guess what? — Osnat, and she is listed as the daughter of Poti Phera. The commentaries identify Poti Phera as none other than Potiphar, Joseph’s former owner. So she is an Egyptian girl, not an Israelite, right?
Now hold on. If Poti Phera is Potiphar, he was a eunuch. He couldn’t be a father to Osnat or anyone else. Just ask his wife. And this is where the Midrash supplies a definitely plausible answer: Judah and Tamar’s daughter Osnat was miraculously transported to Egypt to marry her uncle Joseph. A perfectly kosher wedding, made even more practical by the fact that Judah and Joseph were only half-brothers. Both being Jacob’s sons, Judah’s mother was Leah and Joseph’s was Rachel. Of course, what the Midrash is doing here is totally academic, since the Israelites will not receive the Torah for a couple of centuries. But in the mean time it removes any doubt of the purity of our lineage. Mazal Tov!