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by Rabbi Avi Billet
Shortly after Yosef is given his new title, he is introduced to his new wife – Asenath bat Poti Phera, the priest of On. Paroh, King of Egypt was the shadchan.
As Yosef was not really given a chance to polish up his own shidduch resume (though "Viceroy" is pretty good "yichus"), or to check out his bride's before they wed, we may wonder what brought these two people together, other than their illustrious matchmaker? And who is this two-named individual (Poti Phera – see Sofrim 5:12, Yerushalmi Megillah Chapter 1, 1:9) who now becomes the father-in-law of the new viceroy of Egypt?
The classic interpretation is that Poti Phera is Potiphar, Yosef's former master. Midrash Rabba (86:3) says the word "Phera" means he pulled himself towards pagan idolatry. The gemara (Sotah 13b) says Potiphar's name was changed because he had become emasculated ("Phera" means his masculinity had been "removed," a divine punishment he received for having eyes for Yosef). Most commentaries follow the latter interpretation, quoting Rashi who takes the lead in this direction.
But Rashbam, Rashi's grandson, says that the simple understanding of the verse is that Poti Phera is a different person. Potiphar (former master) was the officer of the butchers (37:36). Poti Phera was the Priest of On, which Targum Yonatan identifies as the area of Tanis, which is also known as Zoan, an area in Southern Egypt. In this sense, perhaps Paroh thought this marriage was an important political move.
If they are the same man, why would he have changed his profession – from butcher to Priest? Some say the word "Kohen" could mean "officer" instead of "Priest." (Rashbam, Ramban). Ramban also suggests that the word "On" refers to a kind of idolatry, instead of a geographical location. But he also raises the possibility that Potiphar was embarrassed by the whole ordeal of his wife with Yosef and he chose a life of celibacy in the priesthood as an asylum from the ridicule he would otherwise suffer were he to remain with his wife. (See the Ta"z as well) [The Midrash also suggests he chose this route for political asylum, assuming Yosef would take revenge and throw him in prison to get him back for sending Yosef to prison for twelve years.]
If Poti Phera equals an emasculated Potiphar, some have questions on calling him a eunuch. After all, Potiphar's wife demonstrated for him that which she accused Yosef of doing (Bartenura). Also, Poti Phera is identified as the father of Asenath, which would presumably be impossible were he truly emasculated (Tosfot, Chizkuni). Rashi in 39:1 indicates that Potiphar's wife saw through astrology that Yosef was to have children through her family – she merely did not know if it would be through her or her daughter.
The Midrash plays out a different approach to Asenath's natural parentage, saying she was the daughter of Dinah and Shechem. She was brought to and left in Egypt, with an amulet on her neck, to be a foundling. Potiphar found her and raised her (Sanhedrin 19b equates raising a child to birthing the child). The amulet was discovered by Yosef, and he chose to marry her due to her lineage from his family.
Other possibilities to derive from the union of Yosef and Asenath include: to save face - Meshekh Hokhmah says it was done to silence those who could have embarrassed Yosef as once their daughter marries royalty, they have no reason to expose his "criminal" past (Daat Zekeinim suggest this may have even been Yosef's idea); to clear Yosef of all charges - Chizkuni says such a union would clearly indicate that nothing really happened between Yosef and the wife of Potiphar; a fulfillment of God's will - God ordained that she marry him on account of her telling Potiphar the truth of what transpired between Yosef and Mrs. Potiphar (Yalkut Shimoni 146) [I quoted this midrash last week]
Maskil L'David points to Paroh giving away the bride (as opposed to her father), saying this is proof that Poti Phera and Potiphar are the same man. Why would he not want his daughter to marry the second in command to the king – unless he hated Yosef on account of the incident with his wife?
There are all kinds of motivations for why people marry. From dating through high school to shotgun weddings, from being lantzmen to believing its "bashert." Sometimes kids get along with their parents, sometimes it is hard to believe children came from these parents (in either direction). Sometimes the shadchan is the most random person, and sometimes God Himself guides you to your intended.
May all marriages be filled with bliss. And may all in-laws know, as did Poti Phera, whose last appearance is when Asenath gives birth to Menashe and Ephraim (46:20), that the best role to play in the life of your married children (unless they seek otherwise), is "grandparent to their children."