Who is Joseph’s Wife and Why Did He Marry Her?

In Parashat Miketz, the Torah states that after being elevated to high office, Pharaoh gives Joseph a wife, Asenat the daughter of Poti Phara.

The Rashbam (see Genesis 41:45 and Genesis 48:9) maintains that Asenat was given to Joseph in marriage as part of his elevation in status.  Joseph was given a whole slew of things when he became a dignitary in Egypt, including a wife. The Rashbam further posits that Asenat is not at all related to the Potiphar who we have previously met in the narrative.  Potiphar and Poti Phara are two different people with two different identities as described by the Torah. Potiphar is the officer in charge of the execution and prison (again following the opinion of the Rashbam, Genesis 39:1), and the one who originally purchased Joseph on his arrival to Egypt.  It was Potiphar’s wife who tried to seduce Joseph and who ultimately got Joseph thrown into jail. It would certainly make for some awkward family get togethers if Joseph married Potiphar’s daughter. But according to the Rashbam, he did not. Poti Phara is someone else. Poti Phara is an aristocrat from Ohn, no connection to Potiphar.  Why then such a similar name? The Rashbam is not bothered by this question. Maybe Poti is a common name like Dave or John in English.

The approach of the Rashbam is very reasonable.  Asanat is selected by Pharaoh to be the wife of Joseph, and her selection is based on her aristocratic pedigree.  She will make Joseph look good, and she has no connection to his former life. Pharoah is making Joseph more Egyptian by giving him formal Egyptian clothing, a new Egyptian name, and now even a proper Egyptian wife  (See however Rashi to Genesis 48:9 with regards to Joseph’s Jewish wedding to Asanat).

The Bechor Shor takes a very different approach.  The Bechor Shor suggests that Potiphar and Poti Phara are one in the same.  Most of the commentaries take this approach as well, based on Sotah 13b. The Gemara discusses the meaning behind the name change, but does not explain why, of all people, Potiphar’s daughter was selected as the bride for Joseph.  But the Bechor Shor has a fascinating suggestion.

Joseph has experienced the ups and downs of life.  In his father’s home he was elevated to a unique status.  Then he was sold into slavery. Then he was in charge of all of Potiphar’s assets.  Then he was thrown into jail. Joseph knows that success can be temporary and fleeting, and he therefore needs to take precautions should he or his children fall on hard times again.  If he and his children get removed from the aristocrat strata of Egypt, perhaps his former master, Potiphar, would lay claim to them. Potiphar may demand that Joseph and his children become his slaves once again since he is the one who paid for Joseph the first time around.

Joseph has a clever solution to prevent this from happening, he marries Potiphar’s daughter as an insurance policy of sorts.  As a result, Joseph’s children are Potiphar's grandchildren. Potiphar would never enslave his own grandchildren. Problem solved!  By marrying Potiphar’s daughter, Joseph ensured that he and his children would have a degree of protection from future misfortune and slavery.

For the Rashbam, Joseph seems to be passively agreeing to marry whomever Pharoah gives him, and as such he reads the words “va’yiten lo, and he gave him,” very literally.  Pharaoh gave Joseph a wife. For the Bechor Shor, “vayiten lo, and he gave him” means that once Joseph chose Asanat as his bride, for the aforementioned reason, Pharaoh approved of the marriage.

The message that emerges from this comment of the Bechor Shor is that one should never be overly confident with one’s position or status in life. Things can change in the blink of an eye. Joseph knew that better than anyone and therefore took appropriate precautions.