WORD STUDY – ASENATH – אסנת
Genesis 41:45: “And Pharaoh called Joseph’s name Zaphnathpaaneah; and he gave him to wife Asenath the daughter of Potipherah priest of On. And Joseph went out over [all] the land of Egypt.”
Genesis 49:22: “Joseph [is] a fruitful bough, [even] a fruitful bough by a well; [whose] branches run over the wall:”
During the many years of research for my doctoral dissertation I found myself spending considerable time studying about ancient Egyptian history. I am convinced that the story of Joseph takes place during the fifthteenth dynasty of Egypt. This was a time when the Egyptian government was overthrown by the Hyksos people. The thirteenth and fourteenth dynasty fell into decline due to a great famine. The Hyksos people were a multi-ethnic group of people, who were not Egyptian but came from a group of Semitic speaking people from Syria and Canaan. They co-existed with the Egyptians in the Southern Delta region.
When a great famine came the Egyptian government was weakened due to the fact that the power of the Pharaoh laid in his ability to predict when the Nile would overflow and thus dictate the proper time to plant and harvest. The Nile River was considered a god and the man who knew how to predict the overflow of the Nile was obviously one who was in touch with this god and in fact he was considered a god in his own right. When he failed to properly predict the overflow of the Nile he faced an overthrow of his government as he was not considered so divine or at odds with the life giving god of the Nile. This may explain why the Pharaoh was so paranoid when Joseph predicted a famine.
Anyways, for a period of time the Egyptian government was not controlled by Egyptians but by Canaanite people or the Hyksos people who came from a region where Joseph happened to come from and probably why he was so welcomed by the Pharaoh who was not an Egyptian himself. This would also explain why the new Pharaoh who arose knew not Joseph. The new Pharaoh was likely so paranoid over a possible uprising that he enslaved the Hebrew people as well as the Hyksos people who were overthrown when the Egyptians returned to power. He feared another uprising of the Hyksos. It would also explain the foreign contingent that accompanied the Hebrews in the Exodus and would explain who the instigators were who established the gold calf as it was the symbol of the Hyksos god, the storm and desert god Set, who was married to Astarte and were the parents of Isis. Isis was the patroness of nature and magic and friend of slaves.
Another indication that Joseph came to Egypt during the Hyksos period was that the ancient Egyptian records said that no slave could be given a rulership position in Egypt and Joseph had been a slave. This, of course, would not be applicable to the Hyksos period. Another indication is the name the Pharaoh gave Joseph, Zaphnath- Paaneah which is said to mean one to whom mysteries are revealed. However that is only a guess at the meaning as there is no known Egyptian etymology for the word. Some feel paaneh seems to be related to the Egyptian p-onh (he lives) and hence conclude it means God speaks and he lives, but this has been highly debated. The simple fact is that Zaphnath- Paaneah may not really be an Egyptian name at all and could very well be a Canaanite name.
Here is the where it gets crazy. I was told in Sunday School and even Bible College that Joseph married an Egyptian woman named Asenath who gave birth to Ephraim and Manasseh who became the Patriarchs of the two Israelite tribes. This has always bothered me that two of the tribes of Israel were descended from an Egyptian pagan mother. Some say she converted to the Hebrew religion but still, just the idea that two of the tribes not having a mother related in blood to the Hebrews just never seemed right to me. Her name seems to be of Egyptian origin Ns-Nt which means she who belongs to the goddess Neith. Neith bore the red crown of Lower Egypt which is where the Hyksos hung out. She was the goddess of war and hunting. She is often pictured wearing the ankh or symbol of life. She is also known as the cow of heaven which might help to explain why Asenath’s descendants worshipped a gold calf.
So why did Joseph, a man who had the very name of God on his lips, a man who worshipped and loved God with all his heart, soul and might even agree to marry a pagan, foreign woman when it was clearly against Hebrew law? Once more why would Jacob even bless the children of a pagan woman? Perhaps, it was because she may not have been of Egyptian origin.
I ran across something very interesting when I was reading about Joseph’s dream interpretation in the Talmud Berachot 55a which indicated that until a dream is interpreted it will not come to pass. In other words one had to have a prophetic dream interpreted by one gifted with the ability to interpret a dream before that dream would come to pass. Well, that is beside the point because I found that this lead me to the Midrash which led me to Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezar which explained that in Genesis 49:22: “Joseph [is] a fruitful bough, [even] a fruitful bough by a well; [whose] branches run over the wall:” the words branches run over the wall could also be rendered, “the daughters walked among the ramparts.” As Joseph rode his chariots under the ramparts the daughters or those of nobility and seeking a suitable mate would golden throw golden rings or other pieces of jewelry down to him. It was a sort of mating ritual in Ancient Egypt. Joseph, of course, ignored all these attempts at flirtation because he knew he must marry a Hebrew woman. According to the Midrash, Asenath threw a golden amulet down to him which identified her as a granddaughter of his father Jacob.
According to the Midrash and other Jewish commentaries Asenath was really the daughter of Dinah who was the daughter of Jacob and Leah. Asenath was the result of the union between Dinah and Shechem and banished from Jacob’s house. She found her way into Egypt where she was adopted by Potipherah that many Jewish commentators believe was really Potiphar the master who own Joseph as a slave. It was Asenath’s step mother who tried to seduce Joseph. You want crazy I will give you crazy. Asenath and Joseph had eyes for each other making Potiphar’s wife jealous which was her real motivation to seduce Joseph. Had she succeeded Asenath might have scorned Joseph later and hence there would have been no Manasseh and Ephraim, at least no Manasseh and Ephraim who had Hebrew blood in them. For you see Asenath would have been Jacob’s granddaughter and Joseph’s niece.
Ok, this is not found in the Bible and my sources are not from any inspired text, just Jewish commentaries. Maybe it is all Jewish storytelling to maintain the purity of the Hebrew blood line, but then again, maybe not. At least I personally have an answer to my question as to why Joseph married a pagan Egyptian woman. A personal answer that at least satisfies me. God in His perfect timing provided a Hebrew bride for Joseph in the very house that he ended up in as a slave.
So for me, I can look at Joseph’s life and know that when the chips are down and things seem to be really bad against me, I can look at Joseph’s life and see how God was in control and had every little detail of his life planned out.
To the person seeking a Christian mate, I would like to suggest, look to story of Joseph and the convoluted route God took to bring to him his perfect bride. Just be patient like Joseph, faithful to God like Joseph and your day will come.