Pharaoh’s Wisdom


Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim


In Genesis 41:45, we find that after Pharaoh sees the undeniable brilliance of Joseph to interpret his dreams, Pharaoh selects Joseph to be his second in command over Egypt. The passage states three ideas, 1) Pharaoh changes Joseph’s name to Zaphnas Paneach, 2) he gave Asnas, the daughter of Poti-Phera (now subtly referred to as “Priest” of Ohn) to Joseph as his wife, and 3) Joseph goes out on Egypt (to rule).  

We have a mesora—tradition—that when one pasuk (passage) contains many points, they must all be related, as God determined all ideas be placed in a single verse.


We then have the following questions:

1) What is the connection between all the points in this passage?

2) Why give Joseph the daughter of Poti-Phera? His wife accused Joseph of attempted rape! Wasn’t there a better choice of a mate, if he must have a wife?

3) Why is Poti-Phera suddenly referred to as a “priest”?

4) What does Joseph “going out on Egypt” have to do with anything?

5) Why does Pharaoh change Joseph’s name to Zaphnas Paneach?


With a little consideration, the answers leap from this passage.  

Pharaoh was in his position, and not without intelligence. Upon summoning Joseph from prison to interpret his dreams, Pharaoh was cognizant of the future political problems faced with elevating an imprisoned Jew to viceroy status. More to the point, Pharaoh was appointing one accused of rape. This would not wash well with his subjects, or his country. How would Pharaoh deal with this? I believe with the following answer, we unveil insight into Pharaoh’s wisdom.  

Pharaoh attempted to dispel any rumors of Joseph’s ill repute by giving him this specific woman for a wife. Who in their right minds would believe that Joseph attempted rape of a woman—the wife of Poti-Phera—and then marries her very daughter? Pharaoh caused Egypt to believe that the rape accusation was false. Further, Poti-Phera’s wife would no longer accuse Joseph, as any accusation would bring shame to her daughter, and to herself. 

In addition to silencing the wife of Poti-Phera, Pharaoh sought to silence Poti-Phera himself about Joseph’s alleged rape attempt. What do people desire more than anything else? More than money? Power. Pharaoh again displayed his cunning by granting a status of priest to Poti-Phera, in exchange for his silence. At first, Poti-Phera was not referred to as a “priest.” This is changed afterwards to silence him. Finally, Pharaoh’s changing Joseph’s name was an attempt to cloak Joseph’s Hebrew slave reputation with an Egyptian veneer. One’s name creates a perceived status.  

We now see how these many ideas are connected, and why God joined them in one passage. All of the elements in this passage aim towards Pharaoh’s one goal of denying Joseph’s alleged wrongdoings. But what about “Joseph going out on Egypt?” What is the Torah’s lesson of placing it here? I believe it is to show that regardless of Pharaoh’s success in rendering Joseph into a leader acceptable by the Egyptians, Joseph never shed his personal identity as “Joseph the Righteous.” It was still “Joseph” who went out upon Egypt, and not the fabricated, Egyptian veneer “Zaphnas Paneach” created by Pharaoh.  

It is enlightening to see the precision of the Torah. Just enough information is revealed to suggest the problem, and just enough for the answer. It is brilliant that those very statements, which cause the problem, are in fact, clues to the answer.