Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Online Book: Joseph and Aseneth

I'm continuing to gather materials for our Genesis: Joseph and His Brothers reading group (see the Joseph image widget, for example), and I was delighted to find David Cook's translation of Joseph and Aseneth online!

The text of Joseph and Aseneth probably dates back to around the first century A.D., and was probably composed in Greek for a Greek-speaking Jewish community, probably in Egypt. I say "probably" since, like so many ancient texts, there is nothing that can be said with absolute certainty about its provenance. Some scholars assert that it was composed much later, in the fifth or sixth century C.E. You can learn more about the book at the Aseneth Homepage.

The story of Joseph and Aseneth takes the few clues provided by the Biblical text and builds it into a dramatic romance in the Greek novel tradition.

The Biblical material is simply this: Genesis 41:45, "Pharaoh gave Joseph the name Zaphenath-Paneah and gave him Asenath daughter of Potiphera, priest of On, to be his wife," and Genesis 41:50, "Before the years of famine came, two sons were born to Joseph by Asenath daughter of Potiphera, priest of On."

Those Biblical clues are tantalizing, raising many more questions than they answer. How did Joseph feel about that, marrying this Egyptian woman? What did Aseneth feel? And what does this mixed marriage portend for their children? These are the questions that the story of Joseph and Aseneth sets out to answer.

Perhaps not surprisingly, this Jewish romance tells two stories: Aseneth's love for Joseph, and also her conversion to Judaism. At first, when Aseneth's father tells her that she will marry Joseph, she is outraged, having heard stories about this Joseph that did not make a positive impression on her. Yet when Joseph arrives, she falls in love at first sight, dazzled by his presence:
And Aseneth saw Joseph and she was cut to the quick, her stomach turned over, her knees became limp, and her whole body trembled. And she was much afraid and cried out and said, "Where shall I go, and where can I hide myself from him? And how will Joseph, the son of God, regard me, for I have spoken evil of him? Where can I flee and hide myself, for he sees everything, and no secret is safe with him, because of the great light that is in him?"
Joseph, however, rejects Aseneth at first. In fact, he is tired of all the women of Egypt throwing themselves at him, smitten as they are by his good looks:
Joseph was afraid she too might solicit him; for all the wives and daughters of the lords and satraps of all the land of Egypt use to solicit him to lie with him. And many of the wives and daughters of the Egyptians suffered much, after seeing Joseph, because he was so handsome; and they would send emissaries to him with gold and silver and valuable gifts. And Joseph would reject them out of hand, saying, I will not sin before the God of Israel.
Joseph is moved by Aseneth's virtues, however, and pronounces a blessing upon her. Aseneth is then moved to throw her idols out the window and to dress herself in sackcloth and ashes:
he took all her innumerable gold and silver gods and broke them up into little pieces, and threw them out of the window for the poor and needy. And Aseneth took her royal dinner, even the fatted beasts and the fish and the meat, and all the sacrifices of her gods, and the wine-vessels for their libations; and she threw them all out of the window as food for the dogs. And after this she took the ashes and poured them out on the floor. And she took sackcloth and wrapped it round her waist, and she removed the fillet from her hair and sprinkled herself with ashes; and she fell down upon the ashes. And she beat her breast repeatedly with her two hands and wept bitterly and groaned all night until the morning.
Aseneth then experiences mystical visions, and even receives a very mysterious honeycomb:
And bees came up from the cells of the comb, and they were white as snow, and their wings were irridescent -- purple and blue and gold; and they had golden diadems on their heads and sharp-pointed strings. And all the bees flew in circles round Aseneth, from her feet right up to her head; and yet more bees, as big as queens, settled on Aseneth's lips.
This conversion makes Aseneth a worthy wife to Joseph:
And Joseph stretched his hands out and embraced Aseneth, and Aseneth embraced Joseph, and they greeted each other for a long time and received new life in their spirit.
Pharaoh's son, however, is in love with Aseneth, and plots to take her away from Joseph, with the help of Joseph's brothers, Dan and Gad. Joseph's brother Benjamin comes to the rescue, though, and badly wounds Pharaoh's son. Aseneth then insists on mercy being shown to Dan and Gad, so that, through her intervention, they are spared. Pharaoh's son eventually dies of his wounds, the Pharaoh mourns him, and when the Pharaoh himself dies, he bequeaths the rule of Egypt to Joseph. Joseph, however, returns the rule to Pharaoh's grandson:
And Joseph was king of Egypt for forty-eight years. And after this Joseph gave the crown to Pharaoh's grandson; and Joseph was like a father to him in Egypt.
By returning the land of Egypt to Pharaoh's line, the way is then paved for the oppression of the people of Israel in Egypt and the story of the Exodus.

As you can see here, from just a few Biblical clues, an entire story evolved, very elaborate and yet fully compatible with the framework provided by the Biblical text. It's not just modern authors like Anita Diamant who build novels based on the Biblical clues... this was already a well-established practice two thousand years ago!

Meanwhile, here is Rembrandt's famous painting of "Jacob Blessing the Children of Joseph," where you can see Aseneth looking on:

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