Who is Asenath?

Regardless of our past life-circumstances, God has a plan for us. The only question is: Will we be ready?

‘Israel blesses Ephraim with birthright’_521 (photo credit: Keith Larson/ids.org)
‘Israel blesses Ephraim with birthright’_521
(photo credit: Keith Larson/ids.org)
Sold into slavery, accused of attempted rape and having spent years in the Egyptian prison system, Joseph, the son of Jacob, is suddenly snatched from obscurity and granted the viceroy crown of Egypt. Pharaoh decides to give Joseph a wife – “Asenath, the daughter of Poti-phera” (Genesis 41:45).
Asenath is mentioned two other times in the Bible: as she gives birth to Manasseh and Ephraim (ibid. 41:50-52) and before Jacob blesses the grandchildren (ibid. 46:20).
Biblically, how could Joseph continue his marriage with the daughter of a pagan priest? Even though Abraham converted many to believe in God, he made Eliezer his servant swear to find a wife for Isaac from within his family (ibid. 24:4). Rebecca instructs Jacob not to intermarry with the locals but to find his life-partner from among her relatives (ibid. 27:46 – 28:1-2). In fact, when Esau marries Judith and Basemath, it is considered a “spiritual rebellion” against the family (ibid. 26:34-35).
To have a family with a woman whose values and traditions go against the very backbone of the Abrahamic faith system seems out of character for a biblical forefather who knows very well the consequences of such a choice.
In addition, if you believe in the tradition that our biblical heroes mentioned in Genesis “spiritually downloaded” the Word of God prior to the Sinaitic revelation and kept its laws, then it is inconceivable that Joseph would marry a pagan.
Some Jewish commentators believe that Asenath converted to the Abrahamic faith. This is deduced from the seemingly superfluous words in Genesis 41:50 – “bore unto him.”
Why does Scripture emphasize that the sons were born unto Joseph? To teach us that Asenath ensured that the children would be reared in the tradition of Joseph’s God.
Other commentators identify Asenath as the child of Dinah born to her following her rape by Shechem. How, then, did Asenath end up in the household of an Egyptian priest? A tradition says that Dinah’s brothers wished to kill Asenath, to preserve the family reputation. However, the decision was made to sell the child.
Asenath ended up being bought by Potiphar, the same person who later bought Joseph in Genesis 39. When Potiphar’s wife tempted Joseph, it was Asenath who witnessed the whole scandal and was the one to testify on Joseph’s behalf, which led to exonerating him from the death penalty. By the time Joseph was crowned viceroy of Egypt, Potiphar had risen in the royal ranks, eventually becoming the leader of On and changing his name to Potiphera.
According to this interpretation, Joseph ended up marrying within the Abrahamic family.
What is truly amazing about this commentary is that both Joseph and Asenath have similar life experiences: their family plots to kill them, yet they end up as slaves in Egypt. In the end, they become the royal couple that leads the way to the redemptive process of the Egyptian exile promised by God to Abraham in Genesis 15.
The story also demonstrates that regardless of one’s background, one can become an agent of God to fulfill the Divine plan. Asenath – a child of violent rape and reared in a pagan household – becomes the mother of sons whose blessing serves as the model for the blessing of all the nation’s sons: “He blessed them that day, saying: ‘By thee shall Israel bless, saying: God make thee as Ephraim and as Manasseh’” (ibid. 48:20).
Asenath serves as an example for us, showing that no matter our past life-circumstances, God has a plan for us. The only question is: Will we be ready?
 David Nekrutman is the executive director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation in Efrat. Comments should be directed to info@cjcuc.com