Who Is Aseneth?
Meet Aseneth, Joseph’s Egyptian wife who inspired the story of Joseph and Aseneth
Daughter of the Egyptian priest Potiphera, Aseneth becomes the wife of Joseph and mother of Ephraim and Manasseh. She is an intriguing biblical figure. Although Aseneth appears only three times in the Bible, she left a lasting impression on later Jewish authors. During the Hellenistic or early Roman period, Jewish writers expanded on the Genesis narrative and wrote the story of Joseph and Aseneth, which explores the titular characters’ courtship and marriage. In the Summer 2022 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Patricia Ahearne-Kroll of the University of Minnesota analyzes this text in her column, “Aseneth of Egypt.” She delves into the development of Aseneth’s character from Egyptian daughter to Jewish matriarch.
Aseneth appears in three verses in the Bible: Genesis 41:45, 41:50, and 46:20. Genesis 41:45 reads, “Pharaoh gave Joseph the name Zaphenath-paneah; and he gave him Asenath daughter of Potiphera, priest of On, as his wife. Thus Joseph gained authority over the land of Egypt.”
Genesis 41:50 says, “Before the years of famine came, Joseph had two sons, whom Asenath daughter of Potiphera, priest of On, bore to him.”
Genesis 46:20 reads, “To Joseph in the land of Egypt were born Manasseh and Ephraim, whom Asenath daughter of Potiphera, priest of On, bore to him.” As the mother of Ephraim and Manasseh, Aseneth becomes a matriarch for two tribes of Israel.
From these references, we learn that Aseneth was the daughter of an Egyptian priest, who served foreign gods. This affiliation appears in all three references. A later Jewish audience may have questioned Aseneth’s character. Did someone of foreign faith truly belong in the bloodline of not one, but two, Israelite tribes? The story of Joseph and Aseneth, which adamantly defends Aseneth’s character and demonstrates her devotion to the Jewish faith, would have put such questions to rest.
According to the story of Joseph and Aseneth, Aseneth was a paradigm of virtue and grace. The following details from the story might have assured a Jewish audience of Aseneth’s good character.
5 Details About Aseneth in the Story of Joseph and Aseneth
1. Aseneth disdains marriage—until Joseph appears on the scene. No other suitor, not even Pharaoh’s son, catches her eye.
2. Aseneth converts to Joseph’s faith. Before meeting Joseph, Aseneth was devoted to the worship of her gods. Although her love of Joseph is what initially prompts her conversion, the text makes clear that Aseneth’s conversion was genuine. She disowns her former religion and repents—mourning in ashes for a full week.
3. Aseneth’s conversion is confirmed by an angelic visit. In the story of Joseph and Aseneth, an angel visits Aseneth on the eighth day of her mourning, says that God has heard her prayers, and gives her a new name. He also confirms that she will marry Joseph and lets her eat of heavenly honeycomb, which imparts heavenly knowledge to her.
4. Aseneth prays to God for deliverance. Later in the story, Pharaoh’s son devises a plot to kill Joseph and kidnap Aseneth. As his plan unfolds, Aseneth finds herself surrounded by enemies. She responds by praying to God, who miraculously intervenes. The swords of her enemies turn to ashes.
5. Aseneth protects Dan, Gad, Naphtali, and Asher—four of Joseph’s brothers—even after they conspire with Pharaoh’s son to kill Joseph and kidnap her. She shows mercy and forgiveness.
At the end of the story of Joseph and Aseneth, the Egyptian throne passes to Joseph, and he rules for 48 years. From devout wife to noble queen, Aseneth serves as an example of virtue.
The story of Aseneth continued to develop and expand in various circles over the millennia. Many were interested in this Egyptian daughter who became a Jewish monarch. Learn more about Aseneth in Patricia Ahearne-Kroll’s column “Aseneth of Egypt,” published in the Summer 2022 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, and her book Aseneth of Egypt: The Composition of a Jewish Narrative (2020).