Egyptians: The Judean tale of Joseph and Aseneth on rejecting Egyptian gods and on intermarriage (ca. first century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Egyptians: The Judean tale of Joseph and Aseneth on rejecting Egyptian gods and on intermarriage (ca. first century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 4, 2023, http://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=15618.

Ancient authors: Anonymous (ca. first century CE), Joseph and Aseneth, excerpts (link; link to Greek text).

Comments: Intermarriage is among the more important and impactful forms of cultural contact between ethnic groups. While certain Judean traditions after the return from Babylonian exile put even more emphasis on Judean men staying away from foreign women (e.g. Ezra 9:14; Nehemiah 10:30, set in the fifth century BCE; reiterated in Jubilees in the second century BCE), there were nonetheless tales like this one involving the marriage of the Hebrew Joseph and the Egyptian woman Aseneth (on which also compare Moses’ marriage to an Ethiopian woman at this link).

The excerpts here provide insight into at least one Judean (Jewish) author’s handling of the issue of intermarriage and the dangers of foreign gods (perhaps writing in the first century CE). The character Joseph in this Judean novel repeatedly worries about the dangers of foreigners. Furthermore, Aseneth is clearly presented as an exceptional Egyptian woman both in her sexual restraint and in her active renunciation of the Egyptian gods that had previously been so important to her. Interestingly, the narrator even suggests that Aseneth’s physical appearance was more like that of a Hebrew than an Egyptian. Aseneth’s dramatic destruction of those Egyptian gods and repentance in a prayer to the Hebrew god are detailed in a way that helps to justify the exceptional marriage that follows. Although fictional, this story brims with concern over the relationship between Judeans and other peoples like the Egyptians and may well have been written in Egypt.

Source of the translation: E.W. Brooks, Joseph and Asenath (London: SPCK, 1918), public domain, adapted by Harland.

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[Introduction of the Egyptian Aseneth]

(1) On the fifth day of the second month in the first year of plentiful harvests [of the seven years mentioned in the biblical account], pharaoh sent Joseph to go around all the land of Egypt. Then on the eighteenth day of the fourth month in that first year, Joseph came to the borders of Heliopolis, and he was gathering the corn of that country as plentiful as the sand of the sea. And there was a certain man in that city by name Pentephres. Penetphres was a priest of Heliopolis, a satrap of pharaoh, and chief of all pharaoh’s satraps and princes. This man was also exceedingly rich and very wise and gentle. He was also a counsellor of pharaoh, because he was prudent beyond all pharaoh’s princes. And he had a virgin daughter, by name Aseneth who was eighteen years old, tall, youthful, and more beautiful to see than any other virgin on earth. Now Aseneth herself did not resemble the virgins among the daughters of the Egyptians, but was in every respect like the daughters of the Hebrews, being as tall as Sarah, as youthful as Rebecca, and as beautiful as Rachel. The fame of Aseneth’s beauty spread around throughout that land and to the boundaries of the world. For this reason, all the sons of the princes and the satraps desired to marry her. . . [omitted details of competition for Aseneth].

[Description of Aseneth’s living situation and worship of Egyptian gods]

(2) But Aseneth was contemptuous and scornful towards every man, and no man had ever seen her becase Pentephres had in his house a large and very high tower, and above the tower was a loft containing ten rooms. And the first room was great and very lovely and paved with purple stones, and the walls of it were faced with precious and many-coloured stones, and the roof of that room was of gold. Countless gods of the Egyptians made of gold and silver were placed in that room, and Aseneth worshipped them all, feared them, and performed sacrifices to them every day. . . [omitted further details about the elaborate luxury and protected living conditions of Aseneth, Joseph’s pending arrival, and Pentephres’ recommendation of the God-fearing Joseph to Aseneth].

[Joseph’s arrival and Aseneth’s response]

(6) When Aseneth saw Joseph, her soul was stricken, her heart was crushed, her knees were shakey, her whole body trembled, and she was extremely afraid. Then she groaned and said in her heart: “How miserable for me! Now where will I, a miserable one, go? Or where can I go to hide from Joseph’s face? How will Joseph the son of God view me now that I have spoken negative things about him? How miserable for me! . . . [omitted sentences]. Now, therefore, let my father give me to Joseph as a female servant and slave, and I will be in bondage to him forever.”

[Emphasis on the danger of contact with foreign women like Aseneth]

(7) Joseph came into the house of Pentephres and sat on a chair. They washed his feet, and set a table before him separately, because Joseph did not eat with the Egyptians, since this was detestable to him. And Joseph looked up and saw Aseneth peeking out, and he said to Pentephres: “Who is that woman who is standing in the loft by the window? Let her go away from this house.” For Joseph feared, saying: “In case she annoys me as well.” For all the wives and daughters of the princes and the satraps of all the land of Egypt used to annoy him in order that they might sleep with him. But many wives and daughters of the Egyptians also, as many as viewed Joseph, were distressed on account of his beauty. Joseph sent back with threats and an insult any of the messengers sent by women with gold and silver and precious gifts, saying: “I will not sin in the sight of the Lord God and the face of my father Israel.” For Joseph had God always before his eyes and always remembered the injunctions of his father. Jacob often spoke and instructed his son Joseph and all his sons: “Children, keep yourselves safely away from a strange woman (allotria) so as not to have interaction with her, because relations with her will lead to ruin and destruction.” Therefore Joseph said: “Let that woman leave this house!”

[Meeting and shift in Joseph’s attitude to Aseneth]

And Pentephres said to Joseph: “My lord, that woman whom you have seen standing in the loft is not a stranger (allotria), but is our daughter, someone who hates every man. No other man has ever seen her except you only today. If you want, lord, she will come and speak to you, because our daughter is like your sister.” And Joseph was extremely happy because Pentephres said: “She is a virgin that hates every man.” And Joseph said to Pentephres and his wife: “If she is your daughter, and is a virgin, let her come, because she is my sister and I love her beginning today as my sister.”

(8) Then her mother went up into the loft and brought Aseneth to Joseph. Pentephres said to Aseneth: “Kiss your brother, because he is also a virgin even as you are today, and hates every strange woman (allotria) even as you hate every strange man.” And Aseneth said to Joseph: “Greetings, lord, blessed of God Most High.” And Joseph said to her: ”God who enlivens everything will bless you, young woman.” Then Pentephres said to his daughter Aseneth: “Come and kiss your brother.” When Aseneth then came up to kiss Joseph, Joseph stretched out his right hand, and laid it on her chest between her two breasts (for her breasts were already standing out like lovely apples). Joseph said: “It is not appropriate for a man who worships God, who blesses the living God with his mouth, eats the blessed bread of life, and drinks the blessed cup of immortality, and is anointed with the oil deathlessness, to kiss a strange woman, who blesses with her mouth dead and deaf idols, eats from their table the bread of strangling, drinks from their libation the cup of deceit, and is anointed with the oil of destruction. Rather, the God-fearing man will kiss his mother, his sister who is born of his mother, his sister who is born of his tribe (phylē), and his wife who shares his bed, in other words those who bless with their mouth the living God. Likewise, also it is not appropriate for a woman that worships God to kiss a strange man, because this is detestable in the sight of the Lord God.”

When Aseneth heard these words from Joseph, she was extremely distressed and groaned. As she was looking steadfastly at Joseph with her eyes open, they were filled with tears. And Joseph, when he saw her weeping, pitied her very much, because he was mild and merciful and one who feared the Lord. Then he lifted up his right hand above her head and said: “Lord God of my father Israel, the Most High and the powerful God, who enlivens all things and calls from the darkness to the light and from error to truth and from death to life, bless this virgin also, enliven her, and renew her with your holy spirit. Let her eat the bread of your life and drink the cup of your blessing. Number her among your people whom you chose before everything was made. Let her enter into your rest which you prepare for your elect. Let her live in your eternal life for ever.” (9) And Aseneth was very happy about Joseph’s blessing. . . [omitted sentences].

[Aseneth rejects her Egyptian gods and prays to the Hebrew God]

(10) When Joseph had left the house, Pentephres and all his relatives departed as well to their inheritance. Aseneth was left alone with the seven virgins, listless and weeping till the sun set. Aseneth neither ate bread nor drank water. Rather, while everyone else was sleeping, she herself alone was awake and weeping, frequently beating her chest with her hand. . . [omitted lengthy description of Aseneth’s mourning behaviours]. . . Then she took all her gods that were in her room, the countless gods of gold and silver, and broke them up into fragments and threw them through the window to poor men and beggars. Furthermore, Aseneth took her royal dinner, the sacrificial animals, the fish and heifer’s meat, and all the sacrifices of her gods, along with the libation vessels, and threw them all through the window that looked north as food for the dogs. And after these things she took the leather cover containing the cinders and poured them upon the floor. Then she took sackcloth and wrapped her loins. She also loosed the net of her hair and sprinkled ashes over her head. And she scattered cinders on the floor as well, and fell upon the cinders and kept beating her chest constantly with her hands and weeping all night long with groaning until the morning. . . So Aseneth did this for seven days, not eating anything at all. . . [omitted lengthy descriptions of Aseneth’s continued mourning for seven days].

(11) On the eighth day, when the dawn came and the birds were already chirping and the dogs barking at those who passed by, Aseneth lifted up her head a little from the floor and from the cinders she was seated on, because she was extremely tired and had lost the power of her limbs from her great humiliation. . . [omitted two sentences]. And she said in her heart, not opening her mouth: “What will I do, I the lowly one, or where will I go? And with whom again will I find safety after this? To whom will I speak, the virgin that is an orphan and desolate and abandoned by all and hated? All now have come to hate me, and among these even my father and my mother, because I rejected the gods with hatred and took them and have given them to the poor to be destroyed by men. For my father and my mother said: ‘Aseneth is not our daughter.’” . . . [omitted sentences].

“But the Lord and God of the powerful Joseph hates all who worship the idols, because he is a jealous God and terrible, as I have heard, against all who worship strange (allotrios) gods. This is why God has hated me also, because I worshipped dead and deaf idols and blessed them. But now have I rejected sacrificing to those gods. My mouth has become estranged from their table, and I have no courage to call upon the Lord God of heaven, the Most High and powerful one of the powerful Joseph, because my mouth is polluted from the sacrifices of the idols. However, I have heard many saying that the God of the Hebrews is a true, living, and merciful God who takes pity, is persistent, is full of mercy and is gentle. He is one who does not focus on the sin of a man who is humble, and especially of one who sins in ignorance. He does not convict of lawlessness in the time of a person’s affliction. . . [omitted sentences].

Then Aseneth rose up from the wall where she was sitting, and raised herself upon her knees toward the east and directed her eyes toward heaven and opened her mouth and said to God: (12) “Lord God of the righteous, who creates the ages and gives life to all things. . . [omitted several sentences of the prayer].

My mouth Lord, has been polluted from the sacrifices of the idols of the Egyptians, and from the table of their gods: I sinned, Lord, I sinned in your sight, both in knowledge and in ignorance I did ungodliness in that I worshipped dead and deaf idols. I am not worthy to open my mouth to you, Lord, I the miserable Aseneth, daughter of Pentephres the priest, the virgin and queen, who was once proud and haughty and one that prospered in my father’s riches above all people, but now an orphan and desolate and abandoned by everyone. I flee to you, Lord, and I offer my petition to you, and I will cry to you. Deliver me from those who pursue me. . . [omitted sentences]. Look! The ancient, savage and cruel lion [i.e. the son of the devil] pursues me, because he is father of the gods of the Egyptians, and the gods of the idol-maniacs are his children, and I have come to hate them. I took them away because they are a lion’s children, and I threw all the gods of the Egyptians away from me and destroyed them. The lion, or their father the devil, in wrath against me is trying to swallow me up. But you, Lord, deliver me from his hands, and I will be rescued from his mouth. This will prevent me from being torn apart and cast into the flame of fire, with the fire casting me into the storm and the storm prevailing over me in darkness and casting me into the depth of the sea, and the everlasting great beast swallowing me up. And I would perish forever. Deliver me, Lord, before all these things happen to me. . . [omitted sections of the prayer]. (13) . . . Now all the gods whom I worshipped before in ignorance I have now known to have been deaf and dead idols, and I broke them in pieces and put them out to be trampled by everyone. The thieves took the gods, who were gold and silver. I sought safety from you, Lord God, the only compassionate one and friend of men. Forgive me, Lord, because I committed many sins against you in ignorance and have spoken slanderous words against my lord Joseph, and I did not know that he is your son, Lord. . .” [omitted lengthy interchange between the archangel Michael and Aseneth regarding her repentance, which is nonetheless summarized in the final scene below].

[Joseph and Aseneth meet and marry, with a convenient summary of previous discussion between the archangel Michael and Aseneth]

(19) . . . Then Aseneth hurried and went down the stairs from her loft with the seven virgins to meet Joseph and stood in the porch of her house. After Joseph came into the court, the gates were shut and all strangers remained outside. Aseneth came out from the porch to meet Joseph and, when he saw her, he marvelled at her beauty, and said to her: “Who are you, girl? Quickly tell me.” And she said to him: “I, lord, am your female servant Aseneth. I have thrown away all of my idols and they were destroyed. A man [i.e. archangel Michael] came to me today from heaven and has given me bread of life and I ate, and I drank a blessed cup, and he said to me: ‘I have given you to Joseph as a bride, and he himself will be your bridegroom forever. Your name will not be called Aseneth, but it will be called “City of Refuge,” and the Lord God will reign over many peoples (ethnē), and through you will those peoples seek refuge with God Most High.’ And the man [Michael] said:’’I will go also to Joseph that I may speak into his ears these words concerning you.’ Now you know, lord, if that man has come to you and if he has spoken to you concerning me.”

Then Joseph said to Aseneth: ”You are blessed by God Most High, woman, and blessed is your name forever, because the Lord God has laid the foundations of your walls, and the sons of the living God will dwell in your city of refuge, and the Lord God will reign over them forever. For that man came from heaven to me today and said these words to me concerning you. Now come here to me, you pure virgin. Why do you stand so far away?”

Then Joseph stretched out his hands and embraced Aseneth, and Aseneth embraced Joseph. They kissed one another for a long time, and both of their spirits were enlivened. Joseph kissed Aseneth and gave her the spirit of life, then the second time he gave her the spirit of wisdom, and the third time he kissed her tenderly and gave her the spirit of truth.

(20) When they had hugged one another for a long time and intertwined the chains of their hands, Aseneth said to Joseph: “Come here, lord, and enter our house, because I have prepared our house and a great dinner.” And she took hold of his right hand and led him into her house and seated him on the chair of Pentephres her father. She brought water to wash Joseph’s feet. And Joseph said: “Let one of the virgins come and wash my feet.” And Aseneth said to him: “No, lord, because from now on you are my lord and I am your female servant. And why do you look for another virgin to wash your feet? For your feet are my feet, and your hands are my hands, and your soul is my soul, and no one else will wash your feet.” And she constrained him and washed his feet.

Then Joseph took hold of her right hand and kissed her tenderly and Aseneth kissed his head tenderly, and then he seated her at his right hand. Her father and mother and all her relatives then came from their inherited property, and they saw her sitting with Joseph and dressed in a wedding garment. They were amazed at her beauty and rejoiced and glorified God who gives life to the dead.

After these things they ate and drank. After everyone was cheerful, Pentephres said to Joseph: “Tomorrow I will call all the princes and satraps of all the land of Egypt, and will make a wedding for you, and you will take my daughter Aseneth as a wife.” But Joseph said: “I go tomorrow to pharaoh the king, because he himself is my father and appointed me ruler over all this land, and I will speak to him concerning Aseneth, and he will give her to me as a wife.” And Pentephres said to him: “Go in peace.”

(21) Joseph stayed that day with Pentephres, and he did not sleep with Aseneth because he was used to saying “It is not appropriate for a man who worships God to sleep with his wife before his marriage.” And Joseph rose early and departed to pharaoh and said to him: “Give me Aseneth, daughter of Pentephres, priest of Heliopolis, as a wife.” And pharaoh rejoiced with great joy. Pharaoh said to Joseph: “Hasn’t this one been promised to you as a wife from eternity? Accordingly let her be your wife from now on forever.” Then pharaoh sent and called Pentephres, and Pentephres brought Aseneth and set her before pharaoh. When pharoah saw her, he was amazed at her beauty and said: ”The Lord God of Joseph will bless you, child, and your beauty will remain into eternity, because the Lord God of Joseph chose you as bride for him. Joseph is like the son of the Most High, and you will be called his bride from now on forever.”

After this, pharaoh took Joseph and Aseneth and placed golden wreaths on their heads, which were in his house from ancient times. Pharaoh set Aseneth at Joseph’s right hand. And pharaoh put his hands upon their heads and said: “The Lord God Most High will bless you, multiply you, and magnify and glorify you forever.” Then pharaoh turned them around to face one another and brought them mouth to mouth, and they kissed one another.

And pharaoh made a wedding for Joseph and a great dinner and much drinking during seven days, and he called together all the rulers of Egypt and all the kings of the peoples, having made proclamation in the land of Egypt, saying: “Anyone who engages in work during the seven days of the wedding of Joseph and Aseneth will surely die.” While the wedding was going on and when the dinner was ended, Joseph slept with Aseneth and Aseneth conceived by Joseph and had the brothers Manasses and Ephraim in Joseph’s house. . . [omitted lengthy retelling of the seven years of famine based loosely on the Genesis narrative, with Joseph becoming the pharaoh for 48 years].

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