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Gen 41:45 says:

And Pharaoh called Joseph's name Zaphenath-paneah; and he gave him to wife Asenath the daughter of Poti-phera priest of On. [...]

Rashi, citing Sotah 13b, says that Poti-phera is Potiphar. But this verse tells us that Poti-phera was a priest, while in 39:1 Potiphar was the captain of the guard.

If Potiphar and Poti-phera were the same person, then either (a) the same man was both captain of the guard for Paro and a priest, or (b) he was one and then became the other later. Was either of these plausible in Egypt at that time? Or are these two different, similarly-named people, despite Rashi's comment?

I noticed that the Chabad site that has Rashi online says Poti-phera was governor of On, not priest. I don't understand how they get that when the word is כֹּהֵן, but perhaps whatever they base that on is relevant to answering this question.

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Well, Yitro is described as Kohein Midyan, but Midyan sounds like a place not a god. (It still could mean 'the god of Midyan' or something.) –  Double AA Feb 10 '13 at 2:04
I have the impression that Yitro was a priest of some god of Midyan, yes. I don't know what On is (god or location). –  Monica Cellio Feb 10 '13 at 2:11

2 Answers 2

up vote 6 down vote accepted

See Onkelos who translates the word kohen as rabba. Thus, governor, as you write.

וִיהַב לֵיהּ יָת אָסְנַת בַּת פּוֹטִי פֶרַע רַבָּא דְּאוֹן

Jastrow gives the meaning of kohen as officer, especially priest.

See also II Shmuel 20:23: וְגַם, עִירָא הַיָּאִרִי, הָיָה כֹהֵן, לְדָוִד. and Ira also the Jairite was chief minister unto David.

Even so, the equation of Potiphar and Poti-fera is midrashic, and an instance of the midrashic closed-canon approach, also known as the Law of Conservation of Biblical Personalities.

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+1 I had been thinking of the same Law :) Any idea as to the provenance of its name? –  Double AA Feb 10 '13 at 2:12
@DoubleAA: From here - ottmall.com/mj_ht_arch/v46/mj_v46i55.html - : The "Rule of conservation of biblical personalities" as formulated by R' Seth Faber... –  Menachem Feb 10 '13 at 22:02
+1 great law. Any insights as to why the midrashim do this would be appreciated. –  user6591 Dec 8 '14 at 13:27

The sefer אוצר השמות חלק ח here in his discussion of the name Potiphera says that there is a dispute amongst the Rabbis whether Potiphar and Potiphera are the same person or not.

According to the opinion that they are the same person, he explains that there is no contradiction between the two titles that the Torah gives him, because it was normal in previous times that a senior priest would be present at the judgement of one who was sentenced to death.

And the reason why he was first described as being the chief executioner was because in connection with his purchase of Yosef the Torah emphasizes his judicial position in order to understand the events that follow - his putting Yosef in prison. But in connection with Yosef marrying his daughter the Torah emphasizes his being the priest of On, to teach that Pharaoh elevated Yosef so much that he was able to marry a daughter of one of the priests of Egypt, someone who very great in wealth and honor.

An additional explanation that he brings is that since it is difficult to believe that Yosef would marry into a family where the father was a priest of idol worship, Chazal interpreted the word כהן as a description of greatness, and he brings several posukim in the Tanach where this word means that. Hence, Potiphera the Great One of On does not contradict his being called the chief executioner, and the reason for describing him differently from one place to another is similar to what was explained in the previous paragraph.

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