It is intriguing, and perhaps telling, that various episodes in the Torah, all of which involve an important change or direction in terms of future Judaism and Jewish life, are acted out by Egyptian women. There are three Egyptian women of prominence, all of whom are royal, all of whom interact with members of the chosen people, and all of whom effect changes that play with the very fabric of our destiny.
These three women are Hagar, Zelicha (Potiphar’s wife) and Bithia (Pharoah’s daughter.)
These women are fascinating in their roles in the Torah, their similarities and their differences. Hagar is the Rival, set up as Sarah the Matriarch’s rival and nemesis. Zelicha is the Temptress, the Seductress, the woman who uses charm and beauty to attain her ends, or if she fails, to have her revenge. And Bithia is the Savior, the one who saves Moses from the Nile, taking him (after the first two years) to adopt and rear as her own son.
From the text, these women appear to have very great differences in their personalities. Hagar is proud, and cannot bear harsh treatment. However, instead of acting in a manipulative fashion, she removes herself from the source of this treatment, Sarah, and flees the house. Of course, she also has the status of a handmaiden, a servant, and hence such manipulations may not have been available to her. Zelicha, on the other hand, makes fantastic use of her royal position to slander Joseph, and place her husband in a situation where, even though he may realize Joseph is falsely accused, he must still punish him. Bithia is interesting in that her role has nothing to do with sexual wiles or coupling (neither in an approved fashion, such as Hagar with Abraham, or in a wild, desirous fashion, such as Zelicha’s attempted seduction of Joseph) but rather with a virtuous act- the saving of an infant, and her immediate love and tender feelings toward that infant. Bithia is presented as someone more refined, someone in whom the passions do not reign, someone less dynamic and more static, the good character, the kind one. However, we notice a streak in her that does not suit this sweet personality- that of her rebellion against her father, the incredible irony that is apparent in her raising his future deposer as her son.
I believe the very introductions in the Torah serve to acquaint us with these womens’ personalities as Rival, Temptress and Savior.
From Genesis 16: 1
Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. She had an Egyptian maidservant whose name was Hagar.
The immediate effect of this information is to inform us of Hagar’s status and place- she is Egyptian and a maidservant to Sarai. We can even infer what is to follow due to the fact that the first verse clarifies that Sarai has no children.
From Genesis 39: 7
After these things, his master’s wife cast her eyes upon Joseph and she said, “Lie with me.”
Our first actual introduction (as opposed to the oblique reference to her as “bread” in the previous verses) to Potiphar’s wife exhibits her sexual nature and her role as Temptress. She is extremely frank and direct, stating, “Lie with me,” as opposed to using any euphemism or shading her words.
Bithia, in Exodus 2: 5, is introduced with the words, “Pharoah’s daughter went down to bathe by the River and her maidens walked along the river.”
The very action Bithia is caught in, bathing, connotes purity and cleanliness. As many commentaries suggest, Bithia is actually in the act of becoming a convert and is therefore immersing herself in the Nile. Others state that she was washing off her father’s regime and his laws by this symbolic dip in the Nile. If that is the case, the verse is read with the words “lirchotz al ha’yor” or “to bathe on the Nile” meaning that “al hayor” or “on the Nile” refers to Pharoah, who proclaimed himself as god over (or on, as it were) the Nile. Hence Bitiah descended to wash herself off from the vestiges of Al-Hayor (the title), referring to her father. (Consider, by the way, the other woman we see with regard to bathing- Bath-Sheba, by David. She, too, is a pure and righteous woman, although David's methods of acquiring her are seen as questionable.)
Let us go back to Hagar. Who was Hagar? Where did she come from?
According to Midrash Rabbah, we learn that Hagar was actually Phaorah’s daughter. R. Simeon b. Yochai explains that, “when Pharoah saw what was done on Sarah’s behalf in his own house, he took his daughter and gave her to Sarah, saying, Better let my daughter be a handmaid in this house than a mistress in another house.” Her very name, Hagar, is associated with this idea, for Pharoah meant to suggest “Here is thy reward (agar).” (All quotes are from the Soncino Midrash Rabbah by Rabbi Freedman)
Hagar’s being a princess places her and Sarai on equal footing. As we often learn, the literal translation of “Sarai” is princess whereas Sarah means “mother of nations.” At the beginning, however, both Hagar and Sarai were royalty.
Hagar being Sarai’s handmaiden, it appears that Sarai could do what she would with her. Sarai desired to give Abraham children, and hence famously offers Hagar to him, claming that Hagar will “bear upon my knees so that I too may be built up [through her, i.e. in having a son.]” Hagar’s child is to be Sarai’s child. Why would Hagar agree to this? Here we are given the answer- Sarai persuades her, claiming that it is an honor for Hagar to be married to such a man.
Hagar becomes pregnant and speaks proudly and thoughtlessly, claiming that Sarai cannot possibly be righteous- if she were, would she not have conceived? Sarai, upset, begins to regret her magnanimous gesture and implies that Abram should administer punishment. Abram refuses, explaining that he cannot do so, but the maid is in thy hand…Sarai can administer punishment. And she does. According to Midrash Rabbah, Sarai-
1. Restrained Hagar from cohabiting with Abram
2. Slapped Hagar’s face with a slipper
3. Forced her to carry water buckets and bath towels to the baths
Hagar, unhappy, ran away (some suggest that she was trying to return to her royal family.) However, either four or five angels came to meet her and stopped her flight.
Stop a moment. FOUR OR FIVE angels came to meet Hagar. Many cite this as proof of the grandeur of Abram’s household- that Hagar saw five angels and did not bat an eyelash (while in later times Manoach, upon seeing an angel, believed he would die, as did Gideon the Judge.) However, I think it is worth mentioning that I do not believe any other woman in all Tanakh is gifted with the sight of four or five angels at once. Hagar, an Egyptian woman, is the only one given that honor. I would like to suggest that perhaps Hagar merited this reward in her own honor (as opposed to that of Abram’s household.) If you consider the trials and tribulations heaped upon her when all she had done was simply follow Sarai’s initial command and wish- to cohabit with Abram- you may see that her lot seems truly unfair. Worse yet that the royal princess is the one forced into this position.
Notice also Hagar’s astounding statement- she acknowledges Sarai as her mistress when asked why she has run away. She does not lie. She does not give a long list of complaints. She tells the truth in an absolute fashion.
Now the introduction of Ishmael. One of the fascinating things about Ishmael is how different his personality appears from his mother’s. Ishmael is going to be strong. He is the type of man who can protect his mother- a man who will be reared in the wilderness, a “wild ass of a man.” This is not the man who will bow subserviently to Sarai or to anyone; this is the man who has the capability and capacity to fend for himself.
Hagar’s statement that God is a God of Seeing, refers to the fact that God is able to See her suffering and pain.
Notice that our next mention of Hagar and Ishmael is with Hagar cast as the role of mother, Ishmael being her son. Notice also that Ishmael does not flee from Sarai, even though one could suggest he was aware of her lack of love for him. Rather, he and his mother are “cast out” of Abraham’s house with a pitcher of water and some bread. Sarai gives Ishmael the evil eye, which cause him great pain and fever.
Hagar lay Ishmael down and removed herself so that she would not see him die. Many commentaries chastise her for this, stating, “What kind of mother abandons her son so as not to see him die?” To counter this rather uncharitable approach, I want to draw a comparison to Jochebed and Moses. Jochebed does not know what will happen to her son; it may be that he will die. She hides him as best she can in a little ark, sets him amidst the bulrushes, and leaves. Jochebed is not even the one who commands Miriam to stand guard and observe her brother- indeed, this seems to be Miriam’s own initiative, the Torah states that “his sister stood far off- to know what would be done from him.” From the portrayal in the Midrash Rabbah, which states that Jochebed struck Miriam on the head and said, “My daughter, what of your prophecy?” we see that Jochebed was not entirely assured that the outcome would be all right. One commentary even states that Jochebed made a little bridal canopy and adorned the little ark with it, saying, “Perhaps I shall not see him wed (because he will die.)” And yet nobody appears to find fault with Jochebed. I find that rather odd. She, too, abandons her son- one might suggest, because she does not want to see her die. We know that she is not there because Miriam has to run and fetch her for the daughter of Pharoah. Especially considering the approaches that suggest that many people were bathing at the Nile (and they all left when the princess came down), why couldn’t Jochebed at least have stayed and pretended to be one of those bathers? It therefore appears to me unjust to state that Hagar ought to have done something differently as opposed to Jochebed.
Another common misconception has to do with Ishmael’s age. Many picture him as a little boy, abandoned by his awful mother who didn’t want to watch him die. In truth, he was twenty-seven at the time, a grown man.
In point of fact, all works out well and Ishmael grows up…but not in his father’s household. Possibly his hate festers ( I would think against Sarah, being that it was her idea to remove him.) He grows up to be a fantastic archer (I think the mention of his weapon in the Torah is significant. It’s always interesting to associate personalities and weapons. For example, David is associated with the slingshot.) An archer cannot be a brute, who wins battles through force and sheer strength. He must be quick, agile, keen. These qualities, I would then suggest, also portray Ishmael.
Hagar choose an Egyptian wife for Ishmael (Egypt was her country, and hence it is fitting that his wife originates from there.)
Hagar’s story, when read, then, appears sad. A princess who is sent away by her father in the keeping of a woman who at first persuades Hagar to cohabit with her husband on her behalf, then becomes angry with her and turns the evil eye upon her (even causing her to lose her first child), is unhappy with her son- the son Sarah originally stated would be counted as hers- and eventually succeeds in removing both Hagar and her child from the house. From this reading, it would appear that Hagar ought to have been a bitter and angry woman. I find it to be a definite mark in Hagar’s favor that these ideas are not expressed on her part. We do not see definitive complaints. We do not see her fostering hatred in Ishmael. All we see are the two of them living in the desert, as they must, resigned, as it were. Hagar accepts her position as Rival, and accepts what seems to be the unjust punishment that comes along with it.
Zelicha, in contrast, does no such thing. She is a fiery woman, beautiful, charming, a seductress and temptress. She is royal and asserts her power in every capacity. Her word is law. It is for this reason that she is absolutely stymied by Joseph’s refusal to her overtures- even commands.
The first statement the Midrash Rabbah makes is to explain that certain verses from the book of Proverbs, 7:7, refer to Zelicha-
י וְהִנֵּה אִשָּׁה, לִקְרָאתוֹ; שִׁית זוֹנָה, וּנְצֻרַת לֵב. 10 And, behold, there met him a woman with the attire of a harlot, and wily of heart.
יא הֹמִיָּה הִיא וְסֹרָרֶת; בְּבֵיתָהּ, לֹא-יִשְׁכְּנוּ רַגְלֶיהָ. 11 She is riotous and rebellious, her feet abide not in her house;
יב פַּעַם, בַּחוּץ--פַּעַם בָּרְחֹבוֹת; וְאֵצֶל כָּל-פִּנָּה תֶאֱרֹב. 12 Now she is in the streets, now in the broad places, and lieth in wait at every corner.
יג וְהֶחֱזִיקָה בּוֹ, וְנָשְׁקָה לּוֹ; הֵעֵזָה פָנֶיהָ, וַתֹּאמַר לוֹ. 13 So she caught him, and kissed him, and with an impudent face she said unto him:
Zelicha wears the “attire of a harlot” to seduce Joseph, is “wily of heart” toward her husband, “riotous and rebellious” in that she “went about weeping,” and her catching him and kissing him refer to her catching Joseph by his garment.
An interesting characterization of Zelicha is reached by comparing her with Ruth. Ruth uses an apt and pretty turn of phrase to describe sexual relations, telling Boaz, “Spread therefore thy skirt over thy handmaid.” Zelicha, on the other hand, is bold and frank, (the Midrash terms her animalistic) in stating bluntly, “Lie with me.”
Zelicha utilized several different methods to tempt Joseph.
1. She changed her attire several times a day, each time donning more ravishing and appealing clothes
2. She stated that she would do away with whatever stopped Joseph from sinning with her- would kill his father, if need be
3. She threatened him and stated she would hurt him in various ways if he refused to comply
What’s most interesting about Zelicha and Joseph is that Joseph was tempted. The very word “Va’y’maen” meaning “And he refused,” shows the struggle that went into his decision. Joseph refused…but that does not mean he did not WANT to accept. Indeed, he very much wanted to sleep with her, and was even going to do so until he visualized his father’s face, at which point his ardor for her cooled.
Zelicha involves her fellow ladies of court in her schemes. When asked why she was despondent, a famous Midrash details that she invited women of the court to her room, and handed them all citrus fruit and paring knives. While they cut the fruit, she summoned Joseph to appear before her. The women were so struck by his beauty that they cut their fingers, never noticing the blood until after he had departed. “You see him for only an instant,” Zelicha stated, “while I have him before my eyes always!” The women commiserated with her.
Zelicha was even wilier than most because she wanted Joseph to sleep with her, not only so she would have pleasure of him in this world, but so that she could catch him and he would remain with her in the next world.
The Yalkut Me’am Loez explains why this would be so. Even though the Jews had not been given the Torah at this point, the Noachide Laws included improper sexual relationships.
We have this recording of a conversation between Joseph and Zelicha-
Yosef: It is the custom in my family for one member to be appointed as the sacrifice, and what if God chooses me, for I am beloved of my brothers, and if I do this (sleep with Zelicha), then I will be pasul for the korban. God can come upon me/ choose me suddenly, and then I will be unable. And I have seen that Adam the First was expelled from the Garden simply for not keeping his one mitzvah, and all the more so me, for committing a sin such as this. And my father is a very zealous man- one small sin by brother Reuven committed, in switching the beds, and he lost the birthright because of this! And do not think that my father will not find out- he is a prophet, and he will know.
Zelicha: I will kill your father/ order him killed, and then you will do my will.
Yosef: Is it not enough that I should sin with you (in committing adultery); you now want me to be party to murder!?
(It is curious to consider how this conversation brings new meaning to Joseph’s questions about his father to his brothers. For all he knew, while he was in jail, Zelicha could have ordered Jacob killed in a fit of jealous anger.)
Indeed, according to the Me’am Loez, when Zelicha finally caught Yosef alone, she held his garment in one hand and a sword in the other, and stated that if he would not listen to her, she would kill him. And she had closed all the doors so that no man could surprise her (in the middle of relations and/or her killing him.)
So powerful are Zelicha’s charms, and so overriding her temptation, that we learn that Yosef could only overcome them through-
1. Seeing the image of his father, who informed him that his, Joseph’s, name would not be on the breastplate if he sinned in this fashion (the fact that Jacob’s visage was there is alluded to by the fact that “no man was in the house”- no man who was OF the house (servants of Pharoah or Egyptians) but another man was there, Jacob
2. Joseph saw an image of the Even Shisiya, and realized that if he slept with Zelicha he would cause the destruction of the world, bring a plague upon the world
Now, there are those who attribute powers of foresight to Zelicha- she was either an astronomer or astrologer, but either way could read the portents of the sky, and knew that she or a member of her family was to sleep with Joseph so that he might have children- she did not know this referred to Osnat rather than her.
So clever was Zelicha that she planted false evidence on Joseph- she took an egg white and smeared it on the bed to suggest semen, and brought others to exclaim over what the Hebrew slave had tried to do with her. (Me’am Loez)
Zelicha was also clever enough to scream and cry out (so that Joseph would not have time to inform upon her attempted seduction) and accuse him, although in truth she hugged his garments to herself, and kissed and fondled them because they were his.
Zelicha also used her charms and body upon Potiphar in order to force him to her will- at the time of cohabitation she told Potiphar what his servant had “done to her” in order to enflame him and arouse his anger.
Although some suggest that Potiphar was aware that Joseph was not truly guilty of any sin, and therefore he was placed in a better part of the dungeon (with the king’s own servants and courtiers for companions, rather than rough men), one has to wonder what the psychological effect of being lowered into this pit was, considering the last time he had been in a pit.
According to the Midrash Rabbah, even then Potiphar’s wife was not content. This is what is said of her:
“She [Potiphar’s wife] would taunt him, ‘See how I have made you suffer! By your life, I will persecute you in other ways too.’ To which he would reply, ‘[The Lord] Executeth justice for the persecuted’ ‘I will have your food rations cut down’- “He giveth bread to the hungry” was his reply. “I will have you put in chains.” – “The Lord looseth those who are bound.” “I will make you bent and bowed-“ “The Lord raiseth up them that are bowed down”- “I will blind you-“ “The Lord openeth the eyes of the blind.” How far did she go? Said R. Huna in R. Aha’s name: She went so far as to place an iron fork under his neck so he should have to lift up his eyes and look at her. Yet in spite of that he would not look at her. Thus it is written, His feet they hurt with fetters, his person was laid in iron. “
Zelicha was therefore a strong, powerful, wily and manipulative lady. She played her husband (by causing him to put Joseph in jail), gained the commiseration of her ladies in waiting, made Joseph’s name “a byword” in the mouths of the people- gave him a reputation as a seducer, in other words, extricated herself from a sticky situation by claiming the man SHE had tried to seduce had seduced her, and was unafraid to use violence (killing Jacob, threatening Joseph with a sword, the iron fork…)
Zelicha’s personality is therefore wholly combatative. Her purpose as Seductress was fulfilled, and as Joseph passed the test, she is indirectly responsible for one of the great merits of the Jewish people. Her purpose was to tempt Joseph, she succeeded in doing that and he succeeded in overcoming temptation. Once again, she is fascinating.
Our final Egyptian woman is Bithia, daughter of Pharoah. Very different from the seemingly submissive Hagar, who flees and returns by an angel’s command, but rears a son to protect her, or the aggressive Zelicha, who uses charms and wiles to get her way, Bithia is pure, good, a compassionate person (or simply a woman very desirous of having a child.)
Why does Bithia go down to the Nile? One suggestion is that she had tzaraas, the awful skin disease, and hence she went down to bathe in order to rid herself of it (we see the same idea by Na’aman. It’s interesting to correlate her supposed tzaraas to Pharoah’s- there is a Midrash that suggests that Pharoah had tza’raas and his advisors bade him bathe in the blood of babies. It’s curious to think that Pharoah bathed in the BLOOD of babies to cure HIS tza’raas, while his daughter went down to the Nile and SAVED a baby because of her tza’raas.) In this case, we learn that when Bitiah touched the little ark that contained Moses, she was cured of her tza’raas (and that is how she was able to perceive the Shechinah.)
We have already mentioned the approach that Bithia went down to the Nile to convert and/or rid herself of any association with Pharoah’s regime.
Bithia either stretched out her hand (which elongated) or sent her servant to fetch her Moses’ cradle (according to one approach, she explicitly disobeyed her maidens, ignoring their scandalized cries; Gabriel then smote them into the ground, or killed them.) She loved Moses as soon as she saw him (because his cradle cured her of her skin disease.)
Bithia treated Moses with absolute love- she used to “kiss and hug him, loved him as if he were her own son and would not allow him out of the royal palace. Because he was so handsome, everyone was eager to see him, and whoever saw him could not tear himself away from him. Pharoah also used to kiss and hug him…”
We learn that the debt of gratitude runs so deep that the Torah refers to Moses as “Moshe,” the name that Bithia assigned him, even though his own parents called him Tuviah, and he could potentially have had a Hebrew or Jewish, as it were, name. Moses, therefore, was named by an Egyptian woman, and kept that name.
So, then, here are our women- Rival, Temptress and Savior. The Rival leads an unhappy life where she accepts her fate or lot in life, going where she is commanded by angels or Abraham, but producing the son who will be an important rival to Isaac. The Temptress is a strong woman whose sexual identity proves extremely important in testing Joseph. And Bithia is the savior, the one who saved Moses, disobeyed her father to do so, and raised him as her son. Hers is a quiet kind of heroism- one laced with subtlety, unlike Zelicha’s methods. Three women, all Egyptian, and all dissimilar…and all of them involved with the forging of the Jewish people.
Who would have thought these women, seeming outsiders, would be so important to our future and destiny? And yet they are. Egyptian royalty though they are, their personalities, actions and lots in life are different. They are extremely interesting characters and generally don’t receive much study, as we tend to focus on the Jewish heroines- the Matriarchs and the like. And yet- and yet- they have so much to do with us. In a way, we owe them a lot of who we as a nation are.
To the Egyptian women- for playing their roles, and helping to form the Children of Israel, whether they would or no.