The Wiles of Women/The Wiles of Men: Joseph and Potiphar's Wife in Ancient Near Eastern, Jewish and Islamic Folklore, by Shalom Goldman. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995. xxxiii + 148 pages. Notes to p. 168. Bibl. to p. 177. Index to p. 189. $16.95.
Reviewed by Yedida K. Stillman
This charmingly written, learned book will interest and delight scholars and educated lay readers alike. It investigates the motif of what may be one of the most often repeated and embellished stories in Near Eastern lore, the tale of the handsome young hero who resists seduction by the older woman-Potiphar's wife-who is mistress of the household in which he lives. He then is falsely accused by the spurned temptress, suffers unjustly, and is ultimately vindicated, rising to power, glory, and in some versions even to godhood. This romantic tale is best known today as part of the Joseph story in the Bible and the Quran and their homiletic literatures; but, as the author demonstrates, it is a universal tale with parallels and counterparts in many cultures outside the Near East and the Mediterranean.
The author, Shalom Goldman, deftly wends his way through ancient Egyptian and Greek mythology, Biblical and Midrashic literature, the Quran, tafsir (exegesis of the Quran), and qisas alanbiya' (stories of the Prophets) literature. He applies the analytical methodologies not only of Biblical and Quranic studies, but of folklore, comparative literature and women's studies. While attempting to sort out the complex, intertwined relationships between variations of the Potiphar's wife motif in different civilizations and traditions, Goldman is careful to avoid the arid and futile task of trying to establish who borrowed what from whom and what is "original," "borrowed" or a "direct influence." Instead, he analyzes the principal narratives in their specific cultural context and demonstrates that they serve different functions for their respective audiences. For readers of the Bible, the Joseph story in Genesis is part, indeed a pivotal part, of the divinely planned historical epic of the Israelites. For readers of the Quran, on the other hand, Surat Yusuf (the chapter on Joseph) is an exemplum, a didactic narrative of example. For readers of the Iliad, the story of Bellerophon embodied Hellenic notions of honor, heroism and tragedy; while for readers of the Tale of Two Brothers,' the story reflected upon the Egyptian understanding of the interaction between the gods and men and the ultimate triumph of life over death and good over evil. Although these respective observations have been made by various scholars before (and in his detailed and informative notes Goldman proves his thorough familiarity with the secondary literature), it is to Goldman's credit that he has been able to expand upon them (at times, critique them) and integrate them into a broad and consistent overview. …