Asenath Part 1
by John Thomas Lowe
Asenath Part 1
Asenath is a minor figure in the Book of Genesis. Asenath was a high-born, aristocratic Egyptian woman. She was the wife of Joseph and the mother of his sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. There are two Rabbinic approaches to Asenath: One holds that she was an ethnic Egyptian woman that converted to marry Joseph.
Children: Ephraim, Manasseh
Grandchildren: Sheerah, Machir, Asriel, Shuthelah, Elead, Beker, Jair, Tahan,
Asenath's story has three parts:
1. Joseph escapes his prison sentence. He was wrongly convicted of a crime he did not commit, Joseph lies rotting in prison. However, his clever mind and his gift for interpreting dreams stand him in good stead, and he is brought before Pharaoh to interpret a frightening dream.
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.
3. Joseph is successful, and, among other favors, Pharaoh arranges that Joseph marries a high-born Egyptian woman called Asenath.
Asenath has two sons who will be essential to the Israelites' later history: Manasseh and Ephraim, 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. He was in a foreign country, without contacts, friends, or influence. His future was bleak.
But he had two valuable resources:
• his brains
• and his faith in God.
Joseph & Asenath: Pharaoh listens to Joseph's interpretation of his dream; he uses these to leverage himself out of what seemed a hopeless situation.
Joseph was naturally sensitive to other people's minds, which 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. He was so good at it that people began to talk about him and seek out his advice.
Eventually, his skill was mentioned in high places. He was brought before Pharaoh, hoping that he might be able to interpret a relatively obscure and worrying dream plaguing Pharaoh's mind.
Joseph brought a fresh perspective. He could 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, becoming increasingly trusted with running the country.
Joseph, overseer of Pharaoh's granaries. 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 adulterous 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.
Why is this important? Because:
• Hebrews were not clean-shaven; Egyptians shaved their head and face
• Hebrews wore home-spun woolen 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.
Asenath marries Joseph
What else? Joseph needed to be seen as 'one of us.' So Pharaoh arranged for him to marry a high-born Egyptian woman – Asenath. This was another way of de-Semitizing Joseph, making him acceptable to courtiers and commoners alike.
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 center of Ra, the God representing the sun.
So Asenath was:
• brought up in the super-respectable atmosphere of a priest's household
• literate and well-educated
• astute enough to agree to an advantageous if somewhat unexpected marriage.
Joseph was given a new name, Zaphenath-paneah.
His marriage to a priest's daughter made him outwardly Egyptian, but it was not spiritual surrender. He made this clear by unambiguously naming God as the source of his interpretation: 'It is not I; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer' (Genesis 41:16) and 'God as revealed to Pharaoh what he is about to do.' (Genesis 41:25)
Altogether, these changes wrought by Pharaoh were a message to others that Joseph, though a Hebrew, was entirely 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. However, why is Asenath mentioned at all? Because during 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.
Asenath had both sons when the Egyptian economy was booming: it was a land of plenty. However, when Manasseh and Ephraim were still relatively young, things changed.
• The Nile floods were meager.
• Less land was covered with the life-giving silt.
• Crops were poor.
It was then that Asenath saw the accurate 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 the offspring he brought with him into Egypt.'
Asenath reaction to her husband's extensive family invasion is not recorded….
What do the names mean?
• Asenath means' 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 theme of Asenath's story
• Asenath must have had considerable reservations about her future husband. He had been accused of rape and thrown into prison. Moreover, he was a foreigner whose people were nomadic herders – not the sort of man a high-born woman might have hoped to marry. However, through her marriage with Joseph, she became the foremother of two important Israelite tribes who later settled in the heart of Canaan and adjacent Transjordan. She was accepting God's plan for us.
• God's providence: what looks like a disaster may turn into an advantage. If Joseph had never been thrown into jail, he would never have developed his talent for interpreting dreams and never come to Pharaoh's attention. He indeed 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 is not impossible that Asenath, as a daughter of a priest of the sun-god Ra, may have played some part in developing the Israelite concept of Yahweh, the single all-powerful God.