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Bible Women: Asenath of Egypt

Jan9462 Jan 3, 2015

  1. Jan9462

    Jan9462 Staff Elite Member

    The Egyptian Asenath & Joseph

    Names in the Bible

    Asenath means 'gift of the sun' or 'gift of the sun-god'
    Joseph means 'God increases or adds to'
    Manasseh means 'God has made me forget all my hardships'; he became patriarch of one of the Israelite tribes
    Ephraim 'God has made me fruitful in the land of my misfortunes'; he also became a patriarch of an Israelite tribe

    Main themes of the story

    Accepting God's plan for us. Asenath must have had considerable reservations about her future husband. He had been accused of rape and thrown into gaol. Moreover, he was a foreigner whose people were nomadic herders - not the sort of man she might have hoped to marry. Mural with a man and woman expressing affection, a rare image in ancient Egyptian art But through her marriage with Joseph she became the fore-mother of two important Israelite tribes who later settled in the heart of Canaan and adjacent Transjordan.

    God's providence: what looks like a disaster may turn into an advantage. If Joseph had never been thrown into gaol, he would never have developed his talent for interpreting dreams, and never come to Pharaoh's attention. He certainly would never have married a high-born, cultivated woman like Asenath.


    The story seems to be set during the Middle Kingdom, somewhere between 2030BC to 1640BC. It's not impossible that Asenath, as a daughter of a priest of the sun-god Ra, may have played some part in the development of the Israelite concept of Yahweh, the single all-powerful God.

    The story has three episodes:

    1 Joseph escapes his prison sentence. Wrongly convicted of a crime he did not commit, Joseph lies rotting in prison. But his gift for interpreting dreams stands him in good stead, and he is released so that he can interpret a frightening dream the Pharaoh has had.

    Over-flowing bag of grain

    2 Joseph and Asenath marry. Pharaoh is so impressed by Joseph's shrewd intelligence that he employs him to re-organize grain supplies for Egypt. Joseph is so successful that, among other favours, Pharaoh arranges that Joseph marry a high-born Egyptian woman called Asenath.
    3 Asenath has two sons who will be essential to the Israelites' later history: Manasseh and Ephraim, who will be the forefathers of two of the twelve tribes of Israel.

    Joseph escapes his prison sentence

    When this story begins, Joseph son of Jacob was in a dangerous situation. He was in Egypt and had been falsely accused of adultery and thrown into prison, where he was left to rot. His future was bleak. He was in a foreign country, without contacts, friends or influence. But he had two valuable resources:

    his brains

    and his faith in God.

    Pharaoh listens to Joseph's interpretation of his dream

    He used these to leverage himself out of what seemed a hopeless situation.

    Joseph was innately sensitive to the minds of other people, and this made him good at interpreting dreams. He would use what he knew of their hopes and fears to explain the dream to them. This Joseph did when he was in prison, so successfully that people began to talk about him and seek out his advice.

    Eventually his skill was mentioned in high places, and he was brought before Pharaoh in the hope that he might be able to interpret a rather obscure and worrying dream that was plaguing Pharaoh's mind. Joseph brought a fresh perspective. He was able to interpret the dream so successfully that Pharaoh entrusted him with much more than merely interpreting an occasional dream.

    His former troubles forgotten, Joseph was taken into Pharaoh's service, where he became increasingly trusted with running the country.

    Right from the start, Joseph did all he could to integrate himself into Egyptian culture (though he drew the line at having sexual intercourse with Potiphar's wife). When he was released from prison, the Bible notes that he was shaved and given a change of clothes before he appeared before Pharaoh.

    Joseph, overseer of Pharaoh's graneries, Alma Tadema

    Hebrews were not clean-shaven; Egyptians shaved their head and face

    Hebrews wore home-spun woollen cloth; Egyptians wore linen or cotton wrap-around 'skirts'

    This seemingly unimportant detail contained a message for Diaspora Jews (which is what Joseph was): integrate as far as you can into your host community if you want to succeed.

    Joseph and Asenath marry

    It was important that Joseph be seen as 'one of us'. Giving him an Egyptian wife was another a way of de-Semitizing Joseph, and Pharaoh arranged for this to happen.

    Statue of a beautiful woman from ancient Egypt

    The young woman chosen was Asenath, a high-born, aristocratic Egyptian woman, the daughter of Potiphera, a priest of On. 'On' was another name for Heliopolis, which was the religious centre of Ra, the god representing the sun. So Asenath was

    brought up in the super-respectable atmosphere of a priest's household

    probably literate and well-educated

    socially aware and wise enough to agree to an advantageous if somewhat unexpected marriage.

    Joseph was given a new name, Zaphenath-paneah. This and his marriage to a priest's daughter made him outwardly Egyptian, but it was not a religious capitulation. He made this clear by unambiguously naming God as the source of his interpretation: 'It is not I; God will give Pharaoh a favourable answer' (Genesis 41:16) and 'God as revealed to Pharaoh what he is about to do.' (Genesis 41:25)

    All together, these changes wrought by Pharaoh were a message to others that Joseph, though a Hebrew, was fully accepted at the Egyptian court and integrated into the Egyptian way of life. In particular, Joseph's Egyptian wife was a visible sign that he was 'one of us'.

    Asenath has two important sons

    Naturally, this important family lived at the centre of things. They prospered. During the course of her marriage Asenath had at least two children, sons called Manasseh 'God has made me forget all my hardship and all my father's house', and Ephraim 'God has made me fruitful in the land of my misfortunes'. Notice that both these names are Joseph's point of view, not Asenath's. There can be little doubt of who the dominant partner was in this marriage.

    The midwife presents the second of two sons to Joseph. Basilica of San Marco

    Asenath had both of these sons during the time when the Egyptian economy was booming: it was 'a land of plenty'. But when Manasseh and Ephraim were still quite young, things changed. The Nile floods were meagre. Less land was covered with the life-giving silt. Crops were poor.

    It was then that Asenath saw the true measure of her husband. He had been right in his prediction of famine, and wise to store up the country's resources against future trouble. Because of Joseph's foresight, the people did not starve, and her position in society was even stronger than before.

    Eventually Joseph was joined in Egypt by the whole of his extended family 'Jacob and all his offspring with him, his sons, and his son's sons with him, his daughters, and his sons' daughters; all his offspring he brought with him into Egypt'.

    Asenath's reaction to this invasion by her husband's very large family is not recorded.

    Note: Some Jewish commentators have been unhappy with the idea that two Israelite tribes, Manasseh's and Ephraim's, were descendants of a non-Israelite mother. They have suggested that Asenath was a convert to Judaism before she married Joseph, or that she was another woman altogether: Joseph's sister Dinah who was raped by Shechem.