How did Joseph Get His Wife? – Joseph and Aseneth 1-22

In the opening paragraph of the book we are introduced to Joseph and Pharaoh and the well-known situation of the famine. Pentaphres a priest in Hierapolis has a beautiful daughter named Asenath. She is described as tall like Sarah, handsome like Rebecca and beautiful like Rachel. The son of Pharaoh desires to marry her, but the king pushes him toward a royal marriage. We are told Asenath has scorned the attention of men and is “scornful and arrogant to everyone.

Image result for joseph and asenethIn chapter 3-6 Joseph visits the priest’s home to collect corn because of the famine. He stays until the afternoon and Asenath prepares herself to meet him. Before he arrives, her father proposes a marriage between Asenath and Joseph. She arrogantly refuses and becomes enraged at the suggestion. When Joseph arrives, however, she sees him dressed in this royal outfit she falls in love with him (she trembles and her knees are paralyzed). The description of Joseph is angelic, prompting David Aune to see a parallel to this passage in the description of Christ in Revelation 1 (See Aune, Revelation 1-5, 72), although the description in both Joseph and Asenath and Revelation is likely a development from Daniel 7 (as Aune himself notes). Expecting a shepherd from Canaan, she was not prepared for “such beauty.” She describes him as a “son of a god.”

Joseph, however, is not a hurry to meet Asenath (chapter 7-9). Only after he is convinced she will not “molest him” does he consent to meet her. Asenath expects him to kiss her, but he refuses since he worships God and she worships idols and eats the food offered to idols. This section is the main crux of interpretation for the study of the book since Joseph describes his worship as eating blessed bread of life and drinking the cup of immortality. This passage has been the subject of lengthy discussions concerning the possibility of finding the Lord’s Supper here as well as potential parallels to John 6 and 1 Cor. 10 (OTP 2:211 note i).

There are at least two possibilities. The most obvious (and easiest to handle) is that this is a Christian interpolation added at a much later date to make it appear as though the Communion was anticipated in the book of Genesis. The second possibility is that the reference to “true worship” as the eating of the bread of life and drinking the cup of immortality is a Jewish concept which may have had an influence on the book of John. This creates all sorts of issues when dealing with the book of John and the sources of imagery chosen in Chapter 6. This is a possibility because the text clearly contrasts the food of Joseph with the “bread of strangulation and the cup of insidiousness.” The reference in the book may be simply “true worship” versus “false worship.” How this influences John 6 (or is influenced by John 6) is a separate issue. Asenath is insulted and “distressed exceedingly” at Joseph’s rather final refusal of her. She resolves to repent, to pray to the God of Israel, and to ask him to “make her alive again” (8:11). Spurned, Asenath returns to her room and bitterly weeps in repentance. Joseph promises to return in a week’s time.

Chapters 10-13 describe Asenath as a model of repentance. She only eats bread and drinks water, she wears sackcloth put ashes on her head. She refuses to be comforted by her attendant virgins and she destroys her idols. Chapters 11-13 are “soliloquies” on repentance.

Asenath’s repentance is genuine and she is reward with a visit from an angelic figure (chapter 14-17). This sequence is the most mysterious in the book and may not be very well understood for as much has been written in it.  This angel calls to her (Asenath, Asenath) to which she responds “here I am,” just as Abraham did at critical points in Genesis (Gen 22, for example). She sees a man very much like Joseph except that he is shining like sunshine. He tells her to have courage and to dress. Her prayers have been heard and she has been accepted by God. He tells her she will be the bride of Joseph and that her name will be “city of refuge.” The heavenly man, who refuses to give his name, gives Asenath a honeycomb “which is the bread of life.” Asenath invites him to sit on her bed (which no one has been in other than herself), and she prepares a table for him.

Image result for joseph and aseneth honeycombHe asks for honeycomb, but Asenath tells him there is none in the store room. He tells her to go and check, and returns with a wonderful honeycomb. She knows the man “spoke, and it came into being,” a spiritual insight. The man blesses her (“happy are you” is the form a beatitude) and he tells her this honeycomb is the bread of life. He breaks off a piece and gives it to her, telling her that now she has eaten the bread of life and drank the cup of immortality. The man then touches the honeycomb, drawing his finger in the shape of a cross (or an X), and his finger became like blood. Innumerable bees began to rise from the comb and surround her mouth. They eat the honeycomb out of her mouth then ascend into heaven. He then blesses the seven virgins who attend Asenath – they will be the seven pillars in the “City of Refugee” (i.e., Asenath). The man disappears while she is putting the table away. She sees a chariot of fire with four horses traveling to the east, and then she realizes either a god or the God has been in her chamber.

Joseph arrives for his second visit in chapters 18-20. Asenath is instructed to prepare herself for his arrival, so she dresses beautifully. She is so striking her foster-father says “At last the Lord God of Heaven has chosen you as a bride for his firstborn son, Joseph.” When Joseph arrives he too is amazed at her beauty and asks her name. She explains to him her decision to no longer worship idols and of her vision of the man from heaven. They embrace for a long time and hold hands.

Pentephres proposes marriage and Joseph suggests the Pharaoh give the wedding banquet. We are told Joseph did not sleep with Asenath until after they were married, “It does not befit a man who worships God to sleep with his wife before the wedding” (20:1). This line is important for what it says about sexual morality in Judaism at the time of Christ, but also because Joseph refers to Asenath as wife before the wedding. This is helpful in sorting out the descriptions of Mary in Matthew and Luke. There Joseph can refer to his “wife Mary” and perhaps seek a divorce despite the fact they have not yet been married.

Pharaoh presides over the wedding of Joseph and Asenath (ch. 21) and holds a seven-day banquet for them. Asenath confesses her sin before the Lord in eleven stages (idol worship, trust in arrogance of beauty, etc.). Jacob and the rest of the family move from Canaan to Goshen (ch. 22. Asenath is astounded at his beauty even though he is an old man. She especially likes Levi because he has devoted himself to the service of the Lord.

Joseph and Aseneth

Joseph and Aseneth book is a “romance,” telling the story of Joseph’s marriage to Aseneth, the daughter of Potiphera (called Pentepheres in this book.)  Like the book of Jubilees, the book attempts to answer a question which many people have about the story of Joseph.  If Joseph was such a godly Jew, how could he marry an Egyptian, especially one whose father is a pagan priest?  The book was written in Greek and seems to have been a Jewish book, although there are Christian interpolations (possibly the honeycomb sequence, for example, which mentions the “bread of life.”) The book may have been known in the fourth century A.D. since it is mentioned in the Pilgrimage of Etheria. This book is a list of “holy sites” written about A.D. 382.  The reference to Asenath’s house is found in a fragment of the work in Peter the Deacon of Monte Cassino’s On the Holy Places, which is dated to about A.D. 1137.

Image result for Joseph and AsenethIt is probable that the book uses the LXX, making for a date of no earlier than 100 B.C. If the work is from Alexandria (again, the scholarly consensus), then it is unlikely to have been written much after the Jewish revolt under Trajan, A.D. 115-117. A major argument in favor of Egypt is that Asenath is the heroine, the only convert to Judaism from Egypt.  If it was from Palestine, then Ruth or Rahab might have been better examples of pagan conversions, see OTP 2:187-188.  This argument weakens if the book is an apologetic explaining why Joseph married an Egyptian, or an explanation of how Joseph married a gentile without punishment, aimed at Diaspora Jews tempted to marry gentiles.  Like Reuben or Judah in Jubilees, the story may be intended to explain that just because Joseph “got away with it” does not mean you can!

The book falls into two parts.  The first is the “romance” between Joseph and Asenath (chapters 1-21).  This romance is more about repentance and gentile conversion than romantic love.  From the perspective of the book, it is entirely possible for a gentile to truly convert to Judaism.  Asenath is so thorough a convert she receives a heavenly visit which confirms her resolve.  In order to convert she must completely reject her former idolatrous ways, a point made several times in the book, including the eating of food associated with these idols.  This may play into the background of the issue of eating meat sacrificed to idols which turns up at several points in the New Testament, especially in Pauline letters.

As Christianity spread into Gentile regions, the meal became a potential problem on two levels.  Some Jews appear to have been more than uncomfortable eating with Gentiles, especially those that were not of the “God-Fearers.” A second and related reason was the potential for non-kosher foods to be eaten, included meats that had been sacrificed to idols.  To the Gentile, this was not a problem, since they never cared about it before Christ, and it isn’t really a problem after becoming a Christian for them.  But to the Jew, this is a sin!  Such food is unclean so they could not eat it in good conscious.  The issue of table fellowship appears in Galatians 2:11-18.  Peter had shared the table with Gentiles, but after a visit from “certain people from James” he withdrew from eating with Gentiles.  Asenath indicates that, at least for some Jews, the food laws were of critical importance for true conversion. Circumcision may be the primary “boundary marker” but it is obviously not an issue for Asenath.

The second part of the book concerns a plot by the son of the Pharaoh to kill his father to revenge his losing Asenath to Joseph.  This plot goes wrong when Asenath is caught in the trap.  The son of the Pharaoh is injured in the attack and dies soon after.  This section has less to do with New Testament issues than the first, although there is a continuation of the theme that Asenath is more righteous than the (Jewish) sons of Bilah and Zilpah.