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In Genesis, we read the infamous story of Joseph and Potiphar's wife. Potiphar's wife (who is named Zuleikha, at least according Sefer HaYashar) repeatedly makes sexual advances on Joseph, and as we know, Joseph consistently stays true to his morals (not to mention loyalty to Potiphar) and staunchly refuses (even resulting to running away)!

I've always wondered why Zuleikha would make more than one attempt after she is clearly rejected, and why she should would be so "desperate."

But it occurred to me, that possibly Potiphar was a eunuch. In ancient Egypt, court officials were often castrated so that the authoritative powers knew that their "second in commands" were not a threat to their women. Do you think this is a likely scenario for Potiphar? And Zuleikha wasn't being satisfied by her husband physically? (By no means, am I giving her an excuse for her lewd behavior, but it may help me better understand the historical context). Do you think this is a viable possibility?

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    It's funny, I had actually wondered this same thing before, but not arising from speculation about his wife's unmet sexual needs but rather because "eunuch" is the gloss I learned for that word. You seem to have come at the same question in a different way. The lexical issue has led to the question having been addressed directly and accessibly, at least. – Susan Aug 20 '16 at 5:49
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    And others have wondered as well, e.g. Voltaire in his spoof version of the story of Joseph. – fdb Aug 20 '16 at 13:41
  • Douay-Rheims English Catholic Bible (same era as King James) says that Putiphar is one of Pharaoh's eunuchs. As does the Geneva Bible, Young's Literal Translation, and representing 15 centuries of Biblical Tradition, and the Latin Vulgate both Clementina and Nova editions (Eunuch is a Latin stem word). AND the Septuagint, as translated by Brenton, he is a eunuch. That he was married likely means he was not "cut" but was a "born eunuch" -Mt19.12- he never manifested desires for females. The definition of eunuch has changed with time. whole "eunuchs" could marry and had full Civil Rights). – user12711 yesterday
  • ...also, historical references reveal that males in ancient time had intimate relations with eunuchs. only males not capable (or desiring - "born eunuchs") of being virile with females were considered eunuchs. But they had full civil rights in the Roman Empire up to the 4th Century, marrying (property contract) and inheriting land. Later, the punishment for homosexual acts was castration (Iran still does this, homosexuals routinely go through "sex reassignment" there). Gradually, eunuchs became known as castrates. but BC eunuchs, like Bagoas (Alexander, Darius) were 100% gay uncut males. – user12711 yesterday
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The word used to describe Potiphar's relationship with Pharaoh (37:36, 39:1) is sārı̂s, which is indeed commonly glossed "eunuch" (e.g. BDB; cf. LXX εὐνοῦχος). However, to my knowledge no major English translation, including the KJV, translates it thus in this pericope (rather "officer" or "official"). There are several reasons for this, but perhaps the most obvious: what is a eunuch doing with a wife?

Modern lexicons agree that the word sārı̂s has a two distinct meanings in Biblical Hebrew that reflect a diachronic shift in usage:

  1. court official, royal steward (preexilic);
  2. eunuch = royal steward, harem guard (exilic and post exilic).*

The use of sārı̂s in the Joseph story — which includes not only Potiphar but also the chief cupbearer and chief baker with whom Joseph is later imprisoned — falls into the first category. Gordon Johnston discusses the application of the term to Potiphar and points out:

research has failed to turn up any evidence for the use of eunuchs as officials in Egypt.*

He further notes:

Although later uses of סָרִיס designate eunuchs, neither the original [Akkadian] etymology nor the Egyptian usage of the term had any connotation of sexual impotence.

*Gordon H. Johnston, "סריס", New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, (Zondervan, 1997) 3:289-290.

  • What was a eunuch doing with a wife? An interesting question. Gen 2: “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” "But for Adam there was not found a companion that was suitable to help him." Perhaps man's greatest need is a suitable companion and helper...animals like the dog and the serpent are companions of man but they are not suitable companions. – Revelation Lad Nov 30 '16 at 16:27
  • See these English Translations saying that Putiphar was a eunuch: Douay-Rheims Catholic Bible, same era as KJV. Also, Young's Literal Translation. And the Geneva Bible. Plus the Latin Vulgate both Clementina and Nova. He was married (property contract), meaning that he was fully male, not castrated. In ancient times, males had sex with eunuchs. "eunuch" simply meant that the male was not virile with females. They had civil rights unless they were castrated conquered slaves. Bisexuality was the norm. potency with females proved manhood. eunuchs were 100%gay citizens or castrated slave. – user12711 yesterday
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I regret that I do not have access to the article by Johnston, but I understand his gist from Susan’s answer.

First of all, the argument that “research has failed to turn up any evidence for the use of eunuchs as officials in Egypt” is likely to convince only those who believe that the story of Joseph is an authentic record of historic events. It will not have much weight with those who believe that the whole account of Israel’s captivity in Egypt and subsequent salvation by Moses is part of a national mythology, possibly a back-projection of the historic captivity in Babylon. But we need not linger with that.

To stick to the hard linguistic data: It is widely held, and probably correct, that Hebrew sārīs, Aramaic srīsā is a borrowing from the Akkadian ša rēši, literally “of the head”. This occurs frequently in Akkadian texts of all periods as the title of some court official, but it also occurs in at least two texts unambiguously in the meaning “eunuch”. (See the CAD, volume “R” pp. 292-296, especially at the very end of the entry). More precisely: the Hebrew and Aramaic words would seem to derive from Middle or New Assyrian, with the typical later Assyrian shift of /š/ to /s/. Johnston is thus not right to say that the Akkadian usage did not “any connotation of sexual impotence”.

But this is where I have difficulty with the “pre-exilic: court official, post-exilic: eunuch” part of the argument. Since the Akkadian ša rēši means both “court official” and “eunuch” the “diachronic shift in usage” would seem to imply that Hebrew borrowed the Assyrian word twice, first in the meaning “official”, and then again later in the meaning “eunuch”. That is not impossible, but it is not a very attractive proposal. Or else you could assume that Hebrew sārīs all along had both meanings and that it is mere coincidence that the second meaning does not show up unambiguously until the post-exilic period. But in that case the conclusion that in pre-exilic texts sārīs must mean “official” is not tenable.

I add that in the Aramaic languages srīsā clearly means “eunuch”, not “court official”.

This does not imply that it must have this meaning in the Potiphar story, but it does mean that you cannot rule out this interpretation.

By the way, high ranking married eunuchs are known from mediaeval Arabic texts. See Encyclopaedia of Islam (2nd ed.), article “khāṣī”, esp. p. 1090 col ii (excellent article by Charles Pellat). The Talmud (Yev. 8,4) also mentions the “wife” of a eunuch in the context of a Levirate marriage.

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    Redford has a couple comments on saris in his well-known study. FWIW. – Dɑvïd Aug 21 '16 at 13:16
  • This is fascinating, thanks (and +1). What is CAD? Johnston cites it too, so I'm obviously the one out in the dark, but I doubt I'm the only one around here. If you're interested: here's the beginning of that entry including his take on the etymology. Your point about the unlikelihood of "double borrowing" seems compelling to me. – Susan Aug 21 '16 at 13:51
  • CAD = Chicago Assyrian Dictionary. It is on line here: oi.uchicago.edu/research/publications/… – fdb Aug 21 '16 at 14:01
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The majority of times (28 out of 42 times) סְרִ֨יס shows up in the OT, it is translated as eunuch in the English translations (2 Ki 9:32; 2 Ki 20:18; Es 1:10; Es 1:12, etc.). In two Arabic translations of the Bible (NAV and AVD) Potiphar is described as a eunuch, if that helps.

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    Counting times a word is translated one way or another is not at all helpful in determining if some of the ways are right or wrong. I know lots of words that most of the time will mean one thing, then in some contexts mean something completely different. – Caleb Jul 21 '17 at 19:38
  • Caleb, that is very true. But in this current context, it seemed as a plausible translation, and citing how many times it was translated as eunuch shows that this meaning is not at all out of the semantic range for this word. Also, one of the comments mentioned that "eunuch" is not found in any of the English translations, hence mentioning the Arabic translations above that translated the word as such. Thanks for taking the time to read and respond. – R.Mittias Jul 22 '17 at 23:04
  • @Alisa B You placed the following as an edit, so I'm making it your comment: "After reading this... if officials under Pharaoh were eunuchs, then Joseph would also have been... However, as a court official, he has two children with his wife. Alisa B" – John Martin Apr 30 at 19:38

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