Vayeishev–Joseph in the Koran, Part One

She [Potiphar’s wife] made for him [Joseph], and he would have succumbed to her if he had not seen evidence of his Lord.  Sura 12, Joseph, v. 24.

This week’s parsha begins the story of Joseph, which happens to be the biblical story that is told most thoroughly in the Koran.  While the Koran contains many references and statements about biblical figures, this chapter, Sura 12,  is the only time an entire story is told. There are many unusual details in the Koran’s version; most of these are paralleled in Jewish midrashim.

One motif paralleled  in some Jewish sources is that Joseph is sorely tempted by Mrs. P’s advances. In the Koran, unspecified divine “evidence” is provided to strengthen Joseph’s resolve, with the further explanation that “We did this in order to keep evil and indecency away from him, for he was truly one of Our chosen servants.”

In some early Jewish interpretations, Joseph is protected at this moment by Jacob’s teachings.  This would explain why Joseph describes adultery as “a sin against God,” and not merely a sin on the social level.  Ancient Jewish interpreters (who in general assumed that the patriarchs must have had full access to all of Torah) held that Joseph would have learned this “Ten Commandments” view of adultery from Jacob.  In  Joseph and Aseneth (a 1st century retelling of the Joseph story) we are told that Joseph “always had the face of his father Jacob before his eyes, and he remembered his father’s commandments.”

In the Midrash and Talmud, Jacob literally appears before Joseph’s eyes in a vision at the height of his temptation. “”He saw the image of his father and his desire departed.” (Genesis Rabbah) “At that moment the image of his father Jacob appeared to him in the window. He said to him: Joseph, your brothers are destined to have their names written on the priestly breastplate, and yours is amongst theirs. Do you want it to be erased?” (Sotah).

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