Asenath – wife of Joseph

Most of the women, featured so far have had quite a bit (comparatively) written about them.  About Joseph’s wife Asenath however, we know hardly anything, although we are at least told her name.  It is safe to say that in the ongoing story of God’s people, her own role is not noted as particularly significant.

Joseph, the son of Rachel and Jacob, had arrived in Egypt as a slave, sold by his jealous brothers.  He eventually rose to become the Steward of Potiphar’s Household, an indication of how hard he worked and how trusted he was, although still a slave.  Unfortunately things went a bit wrong and he ended up in jail after refusing the advances of Potiphar’s wife.  After he began interpreting dreams and then enabling Egypt to withstand a famine, he rose high in the employ of and esteem of Pharoah.

One reward was that Pharoah found him a wife – Genesis 41v45 records:

“Pharoah gave him in marriage Asenath, the daughter of Potiphera, priest of On.”

This was very clearly an Egyptian wife who didn’t at the time of her marriage to Joseph worship the One God.  In fact she was the daughter of a Priest of On, otherwise known as Heliopolis and centre of the cult of the worship of the Egyptian sun-god Ra.

Asenath’s feelings in being married to a foreigner who didn’t follow the customs of her people are not recorded. We can note that Joseph was thirty, that he was efficient in the service of Pharaoh and that he was presumably not unattractive as Potiphar’s wife had already expressed an interest in him. 

The similarity of the name of Joseph’s father-in-law Potiphera and Potiphar – his erstwhile owner/employer seems to have suggested to some that they are the same person, but there is no evidence that they are and it would seem unlikely – not to say messy.  There are a couple of traditions found outside the Bible. One suggests that perhaps Asenath, was in fact the daughter of Dinah, abandoned and brought up by Potiphera (thus meaning that she had a common heritage with Joseph). It is perhaps a desire for tidiness in stories that has helped with this suggestion.  Similarly there are suggestions in legends that she “converted” to Judaism.  Again, there is no evidence to corroborate this.

We are back then to what we do know from Genesis.  They married and they had two children.  Joseph named them:

Manasseh – “God has made me forget all my hardship and all my father’s household”

Ephraim – “God has made me fruitful with children in the land of my sorrow.”

In the context of the narrative in Genesis 41, this seemed to be within the period of seven years of plenty, before the rest of Joseph’s family came to Egypt.

With the lack of information, it is not possible to know much more.  However, it is worthy of note that Joseph’s children by Asenath were blessed by Jacob as he was dying and they are thus named amongst the founders of the tribes of Israel.  Clearly, their mixed heritage did not preclude them from their place in the lists of descendants of Jacob.

As Jacob is dying he reminds Joseph that his burial place should be the cave in Canaan, which Abraham bought:

Genesis 49v31: “It was there that Abraham and his wife Sarah were buried.  There they buried Isaac and Rebekah and there too I buried Leah.” 

Sadly, Jacob’s beloved Rachel was not buried in the ancestral cave, as she died when they family were travelling and so was buried at a place on the way to Bethlehem.

Thus concludes Genesis and we have neatly recorded the burial places of  many of the women whose adventures we have narrated so far.

Next time we will begin following the stories of women, glimpsed in Exodus. We will thus be taken onto the next phase of the story of the Jewish people, who having settled in Egypt, are by the time of Exodus living under a hostile regime.

Pharoah gave Asenath to Joseph as his wife. Image copyright

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