Joseph’s Egyptian Attorney
“Execute the slave,” Pharaoh intoned, while sipping delicately from his wine, “why need we be troubled by such a common case?”
“It is Potiphar’s slave,” the High Priest responded, “he himself requested the audience.”
“Curious,” Pharaoh replied, raising his eyes from his silver goblet, “let him in then.”
A royal guard solemnly announced:
“The Grand Chamberlain, Potiphar.”
Two other guards opened the tall, gold-encrusted doors to Pharaoh’s public audience room.
Potiphar, who had been waiting in the antechamber, walked in slower than usual. He was often summoned to the hall for Pharaoh’s business. This was the first time he approached Pharaoh with such a sensitive personal issue. Potiphar noticed the rows of attendant priests sitting on either side of the hall. He saw the eunuchs standing at either end of the long marble encased hall, with large palm branches. They fanned constantly, making the spacious room significantly cooler than the sun-baked outside. Potiphar walked past columns with statues of previous Pharaohs and other figures from Egyptian history.
Potiphar approached the throne. At three paces distance he lowered himself to his knees and performed the customary obeisance. “Hail, Pharaoh! King and Lord.”
“Hail, Pharaoh!” the priests rejoined, “King and Lord.”
“Potiphar,” Pharaoh motioned for him to rise, “why do you bother us with such a petty crime. Kill the slave and be done with it.”
“It is not so simple, O Pharaoh,” Potiphar cleared his throat, “I am not sure that the slave is guilty.”
“We do not understand the problem,” Pharaoh said in a perturbed tone, “your wife, The Grand Chamberlain’s wife, accuses a lowly slave of accosting her and we are sitting here debating his innocence? Have him killed and get yourself a new slave.”
“Will the Master of Justice,” interrupted a priest from the side, “not seek out justice?”
“Who is this insolent dog?” Pharaoh asked the High Priest, “can you not rein in your own priests?”
“I am but a humble servant,” the daring priest continued with a perfect bow, “ready to serve Pharaoh in this case, that he may arrive at a wise and true resolution. Thus, all the subjects of his Kingdom will know yet again the divinity of his wisdom and power.”
“Continue, priest,” Pharaoh sat back, somewhat appeased.
“Potiphar’s wife, Zelichah, has accused their household slave of accosting her. Potiphar himself seems unsure. It may be worthwhile to examine the claims further, to arrive at a deeper understanding of the truth.”
“Potiphar,” the priest asked, “were there any witnesses to this supposed attack.”
“So it is his wife’s word against the slave’s,” Pharaoh interjected, “it is clear we listen to the wife.”
“That is unless, O Pharaoh” the priest continued, “there is reason to believe Zelichah is not telling the truth.”
“Why should she lie about such a matter?” Pharaoh asked.
“O Son of Heaven,” the priest waved dramatically, “Pharaoh, of all people knows that all is not as it seems. Pharaoh can already sense that there is a mystery in this case, that only the brilliant mind of Pharaoh can uncover.”
“Yes,” Pharaoh cheered up, “you speak the truth priest. We shall bring light to the mystery, where no mortal can. We must determine what truly happened. It may not be as she claims.”
“By making the correct inquiries,” the priest continued, “by thinking as no mere mortal can, Pharaoh will reveal the truth.”
“When did this theoretical attack occur?” Pharaoh asked Potiphar.
“Yesterday was the Overflowing of the Nile,” Pharaoh thought out loud. “The entire kingdom was at the celebration at the river banks. That would explain why there were no witnesses. A convenient day for mischief.”
“Does your wife bring any evidence of this attack?” Pharaoh pushed further.
“Yes,” Potiphar answered. “She has the slaves’ garment that she claims he took off before his attack.”
“That is a poor omen for him,” Pharaoh stated, looking at the priest for guidance. “Why would the slave disrobe in her presence unless it was for dishonorable intentions?”
“We should examine his garment,” the priest suggested.
“Yes. Excellent idea,” Pharaoh exclaimed, “fetch the slave’s garment.”
“And hers also,” added the priest.
“Hers also?” Pharaoh was confused. “Why do we require her garment?”
“Much may be learned from the fabrics that witnessed the true events,” the priest explained.
“Of course,” Pharaoh agreed. “Bring the garment she wore at the time of the reported attack,” Pharaoh commanded a nearby guard. “Make sure you receive verification from someone else of the household, that they are indeed the correct garments. And be quick about it,” Pharaoh added excitedly, “we gods do not have forever.”
The guard rushed out of the hall.
“In the meantime, what else can we discover about the case?” Pharaoh asked eager to make progress. “Where are your wife and the slave now?”
“In the antechamber.”
“Wonderful!” Pharaoh was gleeful. “Who should we start with?”
“The slave,” volunteered the priest.
“Why the slave?” Pharaoh eyed the priest suspiciously.
“Pharaoh already knows what Zelichah claims, but he has yet to hear the slave,” the priest calmly explained. “Perhaps the slave will admit his sin, which will bring the case to a quick solution.”
Pharaoh seemed mildly dejected by the thought.
“Or perhaps he will reveal some new information that only the insightful mind of Pharaoh will perceive. Pharaoh will then have opportunity to test his suspicions and recheck Zelichah’s claims against Pharaoh’s new elucidations.”
Pharaoh nodded in agreement. “Call in the slave,” he commanded.
Joseph walked into the hall wearing a simple slaves’ tunic. He looked curiously at the statues, and paused briefly by one as if in recognition. He continued to make his way towards the throne. All eyes looked impassively at Joseph. Most of all Pharaoh’s.
“We requested the slave.” Pharaoh asked in confusion, “who is this handsome princeling?” For Joseph indeed seemed handsome to Pharaoh, perhaps the most beautiful man he had ever encountered. And he seemed to Pharaoh hauntingly familiar.
“I am Joseph. Slave to Potiphar. I am a Hebrew, unrightfully brought from Canaan.”
A murmur of incredulity stirred from within the attendant priests.
“A Hebrew!” Pharaoh asked with a mix of repulsion and curiosity. “But so handsome? You look more like a man of royal descent than a slave.”
“I am the great-grandson of Abraham, whom you may recall visited your ancestor more than a century ago.”
“Abraham! Can it be?
To everyone’s surprise Pharaoh jumped out of his throne and ran to Joseph. He took Joseph by the arm, and forcefully dragged him back down the hall, towards the entrance.
The surrounding guards quickly followed their liege. The priests got out of their chairs and followed the strange procession. The High Priest and Potiphar caught up and stayed close to Pharaoh. The eunuchs stayed in their places, mechanically fanning the room.
Pharaoh stopped next to one of the female statues and placed Joseph next to it.
“It is true! He is the spitting image of her!”
“Who is she?” Potiphar asked.
“That is the statue of Sarah. The legend is told that she was the consort of our predecessor, for a short while. She was considered the most beautiful woman in the world. It was our great-great grandfather that commissioned this statue of her as a reminder of her extreme beauty.”
The assembled crowd kept looking at Joseph and back at the statue of Sarah. They were clearly related. They were too much alike to be coincidental. The fine shape of the nose. The clear brow. The high cheekbones. The almond-shaped eyes. The firm lips. Even the curl of the hair was identical.
“What a mystery indeed,” Pharaoh exclaimed, “your accused slave is none other than Sarah incarnate! Why is everyone standing around? Back to your posts!”
“What was your name again?” Pharaoh turned to Joseph as the priests and guards skittered back to their places.
“I am Joseph, O Pharaoh.”
“Yes, yes. Joseph. Let us continue with this investigation.” Pharaoh strode back to his throne with Joseph, Potiphar and the High Priest close behind. Pharaoh sat again with a regal flourish.
“Slave,” Pharaoh addressed Joseph, “did you or did you not accost Potiphar’s wife?”
“I did not accost my master’s wife, O Pharaoh.”
“Why does she claim otherwise?”
“I cannot say, O Pharaoh,” Joseph glanced meaningfully at Potiphar.
“You know that the penalty for a slave attacking a master is death,” Pharaoh explained. “If you do not produce a viable explanation, we shall have no choice but to execute you, as pretty as you might be, or as illustrious an ancestry as you may have.”
“I could only guess at the motivations of my master’s wife in accusing me where I am blameless. However, were I to in turn cast aspersions upon her, it may dishonor my master who has been so good and kindly to me.”
“Handsome and honorable,” piped in the daring priest, coming back from the sidelines.
“True,” Pharaoh noted. “But it does not help his case or chances of survival. He may be dismissed. Bring in Potiphar’s wife!”
Joseph was unceremoniously escorted out of the chamber. A few moments later Zelichah walked in.
The royal guard formally announced, “Zelichah, wife of the Grand Chamberlain.”
Zelichah glided into the hall in a serious and demure ceremonial gown. She bowed down next to her husband.
“Zelichah,” Pharaoh motioned for her to rise, “why do you claim that your slave accosted you?”
“Because he did, O Pharaoh,” Zelichah responded with a mixture of pride and pain.
“We have reason to believe that he may be innocent.”
“Innocent? I have stated otherwise, O Pharaoh. That slave has been eyeing me since the day he arrived. He waited patiently until the house was empty, lured me alone with him into my bedroom and there attacked me. I have the evidence of his garment which I understand Pharaoh has so wisely summoned. I was his prey.”
“Perhaps the hunted was really the hunter,” the priest whispered to Pharaoh.
Pharaoh looked at the priest trying to understand his words.
“What woman could resist the extreme beauty we just witnessed?” the priest continued in an undertone. “Perchance there was truly an encounter yesterday between Zelichah and Joseph, but the roles were reversed.”
“Prove it!” Pharaoh banged on his throne. “It is well and good to play at finding this slave innocent, but to accuse an important noblewoman of adultery is a dangerous game.”
At that moment the dispatched guard returned with two garments in his hand. He approached Pharaoh with them.
“Divine timing,” the priest said to himself. “O Pharaoh, if we were to ask the lady and the slave to wear their garments of the period in question, we may gain greater insight into the events.”
“Make it so!” Pharaoh thundered, losing his patience.
The guard handed the dress to Zelichah who exited after him.
A few minutes later both Zelichah and Joseph entered the hall and walked towards the throne.
“Zelichah, if I may,” the priest inquired, “why did you not participate in the celebrations of the Overflowing of the Nile yesterday.”
“I was ill.”
“And is this your customary attire when you are ill? Your dress reveals more than it conceals. I believe that except for the eunuchs, no man here can help but be drawn by your obvious and overflowing beauty. O Pharaoh, this dress has one purpose only: seduction.”
“That is no proof.”
“True. But it is an indication. Let us examine further. You will also note that Zelichah’s garment is in excellent condition, one that does not even hint at any violence. The slaves’ garment however is torn.”
“You might argue that in his fit of passion, the slave tore his garment, but let us examine the tear carefully.”
“O Pharaoh, if Pharaoh will, please grab the slaves garment there right by the rip.”
Bemused, Pharaoh got off the throne, walked to Joseph and grabbed the garment at the tear.
“In the divine opinion of Pharaoh, could this tear have been self-inflicted.
“No. The tear is in the back. He could not have reached it himself.”
“That eliminates the possibility that the slave ripped his garment out of passion,” the priest deducted. “Perhaps it caught on something, he tripped and then it ripped.”
“That is not possible either,” Pharaoh noted, “This garment was ripped by a human hand.”
“Heavenly deduction, my dear Pharaoh! Then if he did not do it himself and it was not some accident, and there was no one else in the house at the time, there is only one person that could have ripped that garment. Zelichah! The question now however is why? Was she ripping the garment in an effort at self-defense?”
“No!” Pharaoh exclaimed excitedly. “The tear is away from the body of the garment. That means the slave was moving away from the woman when she tore it. The slave is clearly innocent!”
“And the woman therefore is an ad–“
“Enough!” Pharaoh stopped the priest. “It is enough that the slave is innocent. We do not need to besmirch her name, or that of her husband. Furthermore, this matter cannot be revealed, and the slave cannot go unpunished, lest others then understand the truth. What shall we do with him?”
“Let him sit in jail,” the High Priest offered.
“Yes,” agreed Pharaoh, “jail is certainly better than execution.”
“Perhaps the royal jail,” whispered the daring priest to Pharaoh, “this one bears watching and keeping nearby.”
Pharaoh nodded and signaled his secretary.
“We have decided that the slave known as Joseph shall be placed in our royal prison,” announced Pharaoh with some pomp. “Word of this case, as gratifying as it was for us to solve, shall not leave this hall, on pain of death. Thus, truth is revealed, justice is served and the kingdom flourishes.”
Pharaoh turned towards the priest, but he was no longer there.
“Where is that priest?” Pharaoh asked not seeing him anywhere in the hall. All heads in the room turned to look for him, but the daring priest was nowhere in sight.
“Who was he?” Pharaoh then asked the High Priest.
“I do not know your Majesty,” replied the High Priest nervously, “we have never seen him before.”
“That is a shame,” Pharaoh answered nonchalantly, sipping from his wine again, “he would have made a good advisor.”
* * * * * *
“Now Joseph was handsome of form and handsome of appearance. After these things, his master’s wife cast her eye upon Joseph and she said, “Lie with me.”
But he adamantly refused; he said to his master’s wife, “Look – with me here, my master concerns himself about nothing in the house, and whatever he has he placed in my custody. There is no one greater in this house than I, and he has denied me nothing but you, since you are his wife; how then can I perpetrate this great evil and have sinned against God.”
And so it was – just as she coaxed Joseph day after day, so he would not listen to her to lie beside her, to be with her. Then there was an opportune day when he entered the house to do his work – no man of the household staff being there in the house – that she caught hold of him by his garment, saying, “Lie with me!”
But he left his garment in her hand, and he fled, and went outside.
When she saw that he had left his garment in her hand and fled outside, she called out to the men of her household and spoke to them saying, “Look! He brought us a Hebrew man to sport with us! He came to lie with me but I called out with a loud scream. And when he heard that I raised my voice and screamed, he left his garment beside me, fled and went outside!”
She kept his garment beside her until his master came home. Then she told him a similar account saying, “The Hebrew slave whom you brought to us came to me to sport with me. But it happened when I raised my voice and screamed, he left his garment beside me, and ran outside.”
And it was, when his master heard his wife’s words which she spoke to him, saying, “Your slave did things like these to me,” his anger flared up. Then Joseph’s master took him and placed him in prison – the place where the king’s prisoners were confined – and he remained there in prison.” Genesis 39:6-20
The Egyptian women once gathered to behold Joseph’s beauty. What did Potiphar’s wife do? She gave them each an etrog and a knife with which to peel it. She then summoned Joseph. As they gazed at Joseph’s beauty, the knives slipped and they cut their hands. She said to them, “If this is how you are affected when you see him only for a moment, how much more so I, who see him all the time! Tanchuma Vayeshev 5
There was no man of the household staff in the house. Genesis 39:11. Rabbi Yishmael said: It was the Overflowing of the Nile, where everyone would go, from the King and the ministers they would go to see and celebrate at the river. Hizkuni
Joseph was brought to the king, and the angel Gabriel came in the guise of a man, and told the king to have the garments checked. If the woman’s garment were ripped, than clearly Joseph attacked her, but if Joseph’s garment were ripped, it was the woman who accosted him. It was checked, and because Joseph’s garment was ripped he was not sentenced to death. In any case, he was not released immediately in order not to embarrass Potiphar’s wife to say that she accosted Joseph. It was the priests of Egypt who judged this judgment, and therefore Joseph did not take over their lands in the years of famine. Hizkuni
Potiphar’s wife was named Zelichah. Sefer HaYashar, Vayeshev
Joseph said, “You deserve the death penalty for purchasing me, for slaves are only from Canaanites, whereas I am a descendant of Shem and a son of kings. King Pharaoh made an image of Sarah. If it does not resemble me, you are right.” They did so, and his face resembled Sarah’s image. Midrash Agaddah, Bereshit
He (Joseph’s master) said, “I know that you are not guilty, but I must imprison you lest a stigma fall on my children for the people will say she acted the same way with others, and that our children are not mine. Bereshit Rabbah 87:9
Most prisoners are handled by the judges and police and placed in common prisons. However Joseph was placed in the royal prison out of the love Joseph’s master had for him. Nachmanides