Did the patriarch Joseph, son of Jacob, marry an Egyptian? Are two of the most prominent tribes of Israel, Ephraim and Manasseh, of Egyptian origin? (Gen. 41:50-52; 46:20) Bible reference books seem to be divided on this issue. We read this notation in the Believers Bible Commentary: "He also gave Asenath, a Gentile, to be Joseph's wife (Gen. 41:45)." In contrast, Matthew Poole's Commentary says, "it is not probable Joseph would have married the daughter of so unchaste a mother... he hated idolatry, and would never have married the daughter of an idolatrous priest."
The importance of this issue is not only because Egypt prophetically signifies evil (e.g. Rev. 11:8), but also the important fact that the Bible forbade the Israelites to intermarry with pagan nations. The Pulpit Commentary explains, "marriage with idolaters was expressly forbidden by patriarchal commandment, (Gen. 24:3; Gen. 28:1) and afterwards by Mosaic statute (Gen. 34:16; Deu. 7:3)." Would Joseph, a patriarch, emblematic father of the faithful and example of righteousness, have blatantly broken Biblical rules of conduct? Would the Bible have praised him as one of the splendid examples to follow if he did? (Heb. 11:22)
For example, we read regarding foreign pagan nations in Deuteronomy 7:2-3, "And when the LORD thy God shall deliver them before thee; thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor shew mercy unto them: Neither shalt thou make marriages with them; thy daughter thou shalt not give unto his son, nor his daughter shalt thou take unto thy son." This was patriarchal law.
Jewish scholarship through the ages has largely denied the Egyptian racial origin of Asenath, Joseph's wife. Professor V. Aptowitzer of Hebrew Union College stated, "The disturbing fact with regard to the wife of Joseph was her descent from Ham." He further summarized Jewish tradition as teaching that "Asenath, the wife of Joseph, was actually of the tribe and family of Jacob and was one of his descendants." (HUCA 1:241-242) This opposition to Asenath being of Egyptian origin is a racial animosity, not religious, because it could easily be assumed that Joseph's wife may have converted to his religion at the time of their marriage. The Biblical commands against intermarriage were thus taken as of a racial nature according to the rabbis.
The rabbinic opposition to intermarriage extended to Jacob's son, Judah, as well. Professor Aptowitzer explains, "Many [Jewish] teachers reproach Judah for having married a Canaanite woman, cf. [Haggadic passage] Gen. R.85.1...Jacob commands his sons as follows, 'None of your sons shall touch my bier, because you took wives from the daughters of Canaan'." (ibid.)
Jewish tradition and legends say that Asenath was the offspring of Jacob's daughter, Dinah, and resulted from Shechem's seduction related in Genesis chapter 34. This teaching is found in numerous early sources, including the Tractate Soferim, Pseudo-Jonathan, Midrash Abchir, Samritan Ibrahim, and others.
One early Jewish Haggadic passage, for example, reads, "...she [Asenath] did not resemble the daughters of the Egyptians in any respect whatever, but she was like the daughters of the Hebrews in all respects. She was tall like Sarah, charming like Rebeccah, and beautiful like Rachel." (ibid. p.264) The rabbis explained that this similarity to the Hebrews could only be explained if Asenath was herself of Hebrew descent.
Of course, we do not wish to imply that Jewish legends are necessarily accurate or on par with Sacred Scripture. However, it does show the belief and attitude of leading Jewish scholars over the centuries, and that there seems to be no question of their opposition to the idea that Joseph's wife was of the Egyptian race.
What do modern scholars have to say? The Israelites dwelled in Egypt in the region of Goshen, a 900 square mile fertile irrigated plain on the east bank of the Nile River, about 35 miles from north to south, which according to Bullinger includes "some of the best land in Egypt." He quotes an early 14th century, B.C. report that described it as "vineyards, and balsam plantations, and orchards, and tilled fields, and gardens." The Israelite sojourn dates to approximately 1700 to 1500 B.C. (Bishop Ussher dated the Exodus as 1491 B.C.) An excellent discussion of the dating of Israel in Egypt is found in "The Story Of Celto-Saxon Israel," available from CBIA. Interestingly, scholars date the Asiatic/Semitic conquest of Egypt by the Shepherd Kings to 1750-1550 B.C. (IVP Commentary), or approximately the same period, leading some to suggest that the Israelites were a part of the Semitic conquest of Egypt.
Maclaren's Commentary says, "Joseph’s sudden promotion is made the more intelligible by the probability which the study of Egyptian history has given, that the Pharaoh who made him his second in command was one of the Hyksos conquerors who dominated Egypt for a long period. They would have no prejudices against Joseph on account of his being a foreigner." Furthermore, if the Israelites remained (and suffered persecution) after the Shepherd Kings were overthrown and forced to leave Egypt, it would explain the meaning of the Biblical passage which says, "Now there arose up a new king over Egypt, which knew not Joseph." (Ex. 1:8; Acts 7:18) The expulsion of the Hyksos was by native-Egyptian Pharaoh Ahmose, who had a detrimental attitude toward the Israelites, who were Semites from Asia like the Hyksos. (Hoffmeier, Israel In Egypt, p.65ff)
Also significant is the finding that the Egyptian capital of the Shepherd Kings, Avaris, was in the region of Goshen where the Israelites dwelled. Bullinger says that Goshen "stretches from Zoan to Bubastis (at both of which cities records of the Hyksos ruler Apepi have been found)." Nearby was Heliopolis, or On, the city of the Sun God, where Joseph's father-in-law, Potiphera, was priest. Were Potiphera and his daughter, Joseph's wife, members of the Semitic Shepherd Kings?
The Bible Knowledge Commentary tells us, "Pharaoh gave him [Joseph] a wife, Asenath, from the priestly family of On (a city which was a center of sun worship seven miles north of Cairo and also known as Heliopolis)."
Keil and Delitzsch adds, "On was the popular name for Heliopolis ...and according to Cyrill. Alex. and Hos. 5:8 signifies the sun ...From a very early date there was a celebrated temple of the sun here, with a learned priesthood, which held the first place among the priests' colleges of Egypt (Herod. 2, 3; Hengst. pp. 32ff.)."
John Gill's Commentary quotes the early geographer, Strabo, who says, "at Heliopolis we saw large houses, in which the priests dwelt; for here especially of old it was said, that this was the habitation of priests, of philosophers, and such as were given to astronomy."
Who were these Shepherd Kings? The sun god was central to their worship. Not only did the city name, On, mean "sun," but Potiphera's name meant, "House of the Sun." Samuel Lysons revealed that the sun was a mark of Semitic worship. He says, "Ur, in Chaldea, where Abraham was brought up, we are informed, was so called from the sun and fire, its representative, which was there worshipped." (Our British Ancestors, p.104) Lysons gives a list of place names devoted to the sun god in early Britain. The ancient writers Herodotus and Strabo spoke of sun-worshippers in early Europe. Strabo wrote, "They consider the sun to be the only god, and to him they sacrifice horses." (ibid. p.114)
"On" is also known as "Aven", and we see the Israelites in their disobedience worshipping the sun under this name in Hosea 10:8, "The high places also of Aven, the sin of Israel, shall be destroyed: the thorn and the thistle shall come up on their altars; and they shall say to the mountains, Cover us; and to the hills, Fall on us." Matthew Poole says, "On was a famous city of Egypt, called also Aven, (Eze. 30:17), and afterwards... Heliopolis, now Damiata."
The evidence indicates that Egyptian priest Potiphera and his daughter Asenath, Joseph's wife, were in fact Semitic, and either Hebrew or of a similar Asiatic-Semitic people known as the Shepherd Kings. It is instructive to note that the children of Joseph and Asenath were given Semitic names rather than Egyptian, as additional evidence of a Semitic relationship.
Finally, it is fascinating that the originally pagan nature of the Semitic sun god was transformed into a Messianic prophecy of the coming of Christ: "But unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings; and ye shall go forth, and grow up as calves of the stall." (Mal. 4:2) Keil and Delitzsch comment, "By the sun of righteousness the fathers, from Justin downwards, and nearly all the earlier commentators understand Christ, who is supposed to be described as the rising sun, like Jehovah in Psa. 84:12 and Isa. 60:19; and this view is founded upon a truth, viz., that the coming of Christ brings justice and salvation." Amen!
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