In Egypt a long time ago lived a woman named Aseneth. She was a strong, independent, man-hating woman. But she wasn’t ugly and old. She was “about eighteen years of age, tall and beautiful and graceful, more beautiful than any other virgin in the land.” All the young noblemen across Egypt, or “across the whole world,” wanted to marry her. The men fought with each other for her favor. But Aseneth “despised all men and regarded them with contempt.” She refused to meet with any of them.
Aseneth was very rich and very privileged. She lived in a top-floor palace penthouse with ten rooms. She had seven maids, all of her own age, all very beautiful, and all subservient to her. They had their own rooms, one for each of the seven maids and three rooms for Aseneth. One of Aseneth’s rooms held her fine clothes, expensive jewelry, and treasures. Another held good things for her to eat and drink and share with her maids. The largest room was Aseneth’s bedroom.
Aseneth’s bedroom was lavish. It had three large windows looking to the east, to the north, and to the south. Aseneth’s bed faced the east, the direction from which godly salvation was thought to come. Her bed was made of gold. It had a “coverlet of purple woven with gold, embroidered with blue, and fine linen.” Aseneth didn’t allow anyone to sit on her bed. It was hers alone. She spent most of her time in her room with all her fine things.
Surrounding the palatial building in which Aseneth and her maids lived was a large, walled court. Inside the wall were many beautiful trees that produced fruit. An ever-bubbling spring supplied a stream that kept the trees watered. The wall surrounding the court was high and strong. The court had four iron gates, at each of which stood guard “eighteen strong young men-at-arms.” That made a total of seventy-two men ready to fight and die to protect Aseneth from harm. But sometimes she still felt afraid. More needs to be done to help women feel safe.
One day Aseneth went to join her parents for a feast. Aseneth put on a “golden girdle,” “golden trousers,” and “a fine linen robe of blue woven with gold.” To accent her golden clothes, she added precious-stone jewelry: bracelets on her hands and feet, and a necklace. She wore a tiara on her head and a diadem around her temples. She also covered her head with a veil. Wearing a veil indicates that she was oppressed as a woman.
Like Perpetua, Aseneth refused to do what her father wanted her to do. Aseneth’s parents returned from their county estate to arrange a welcome for Joseph, the Pharaoh’s hard-working vizier who was on a business trip in the area. Her parents brought delightful treats for Aseneth — grapes, dates, figs, pomegranates, and doves. Then her father and mother asked her to sit down between them. She did. Her father held her right hand in his right hand.
He said: “My child.”
Aseneth responded: “What is it, father?”
He said: “See, Joseph, the mighty man of God, is coming to us to-day, and he is ruler of all the land of Egypt, for Pharaoh has appointed him ruler of all our land; and he is the distributor of corn throughout the country and is to save it from the famine that is come upon it. And Joseph is a man that worships God: he is discriminating, and a virgin (as you are to-day), and a man of great wisdom and knowledge, and the spirit of God is upon him, and the grace of the Lord is with him. So come, my child, and I will give you to him as his wife: you shall be his bride, and he shall be your bridegroom for ever.”
Aseneth’s face turned red. She was furious at her father. She looked sideways at him and said: “Why should my lord and my father speak like this and talk as if he would hand me over like a prisoner to a man of another race, a man who was a fugitive and was sold as a slave? Is this not the shepherd’s son from the land of Canaan, and he was abandoned by him? Is not this the man who had intercourse with his mistress, and his master threw him into prison where he lay in darkness, and Pharaoh brought him out of prison, because he interpreted his dream? No! I will marry the eldest son of the king, for he is king of all the earth.”
Patriarchy is a myth. Many daughters throughout history have been strong, independent women. Aseneth’s father knew that it would be wise for him to accede to Aseneth’s wishes.
News came that Joseph was at their gate. Aseneth ran up to her room to avoid Joseph. She looked out her window to see his arrival. Joseph arrived in the chariot of the Pharaoh’s second-in-command. The chariot was golden. Four white horses pulled it via golden reins. Joseph was wearing a fabulous white tunic and purple robe made of linen woven with gold. On his head he had a golden crown set with twelve precious stones and golden rays. He held a royal sceptre in his right hand. Aseneth’s parents and all her relatives bowed their faces to the ground before Joseph. Joseph was an alpha male of alpha males.
Aseneth immediately fell in love with Joseph. Her heart was deeply distressed, her stomach churned, her knees became weak, and her whole body trembled. She felt wretched and ashamed. She was so wrong to hate all men. She was so wrong in what she had said about Joseph. How could she be forgiven for all her hate and lies? She hoped that her father would give her to Joseph as a slave to serve him — to make his bed and wash his feet — for the rest of her life.
Joseph was wary of women sexually harassing him. Women throughout Egypt offered him unwanted propositions for sex. Even long after he made it clear that he was in Egypt only to do the Pharaoh’s business, women sent him gold, silver, and other valuable gifts in hope of receiving sexual favors. The women of Egypt weren’t prosecuted for their blatant sexual harassment of the Pharaoh’s vizier. That’s probably because the Pharaoh at that time wasn’t employing enough U.S.-trained lawyers to prosecute all the women of Egypt for sexually harassing Joseph. Joseph dealt with the problem on his own as best as he could.
At the palace of Aseneth’s parents, Joseph noticed Aseneth visually stalking him from the upper-story window. Joseph felt afraid. He asked Aseneth’s parents to have the woman at the window go away. Her parents explained that the woman was Aseneth. They explained that Aseneth hated men. Joseph was relieved. He no longer feared he would be subject to more sexual harassment. Aseneth’s parents urged Joseph to welcome Aseneth as a sister. Joseph agreed to be a brother to her.
Joseph physically rejecting Aseneth converted her into a woman who lovingly cared for men. Aseneth’s father, who had wanted her to marry Joseph, brought his beautiful, young daughter to Joseph. Aseneth and Joseph greeted and blessed each other. Then Aseneth’s father urged her, “kiss your brother.” Joseph, who had endured much sexual harassment, was no fool. When Aseneth came near to kiss Joseph, he stretched out his right hand against her chest. He held her at a distance with his hand between her two breasts. Aseneth was already aroused and her breasts were “already standing upright like handsome apples.” Joseph declared that he would not kiss a woman who did not understand love as he did.
When Joseph rejected Aseneth’s attempt to kiss him, Aseneth became extremely distressed. She fixed her gaze on Joseph and started to cry. Joseph was tender-hearted and felt her distress. But Joseph didn’t disintegrated into irrational ooze like a college president sipping hot chocolate with a woman making outlandish rape claims and credulously and sympathetically discussing a hatefully fallacious rape story. Joseph lifted his right hand above Aseneth’s head and invoked the God who leads persons “from darkness into light, from error into truth, and from death into life.” Joseph implored God to renew and bless Aseneth.
Joseph’s prayer for Aseneth’s conversion caused her joy and fear. She rushed up to her room and collapsed on her bed. Aseneth wept bitterly about her former behavior. She ate nothing and drank nothing. She remained awake throughout the night. In the middle of the night she went downstairs, collected ashes, and carried them up to her room. Then she went into her dressing room and took off her sumptuous dress and put on black mourning clothes. She threw her best dress out the window. She broke up her gold and silver idols and threw them out the window. So too went “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.” Then she dumped ashes on her ornate-stone bedroom floor. She put on sackcloth, smeared herself with ashes, and fell into the ashes on the floor. There she wept, beating her breast and groaning, until the morning. She did the same for another day and another day and another day until seven days had passed.
With further prayer and the help of a heavenly man, Aseneth become a new woman. No longer was she a strong, independent, man-hating women. She had become a strong, independent woman dedicated to truth and love. Once arrogantly oblivious to her own privilege, she now sought to serve others. She became a man like men had aspired to be before they were taught not to aspire to be men. But she was also a beautiful woman. Her face was “like the sun, and her eyes like the rising morning star.” And after all her fasting, you can be sure she wasn’t fat.
Joseph now loved Aseneth. Being a new woman didn’t mean that Aseneth couldn’t get all dressed up for her wedding with Joseph. In preparation for joining hands with Joseph, Aseneth adorned herself with a dress that glittered with precious stones. She put on golden bracelets, golden boots, a precious necklace, and a golden crown. Their wedding featured a lavish banquet that went on for seven days. Yet even after that wedding, Aseneth still remembered the taste of ashes.
Of course Aseneth and Joseph had children. Men and women did that together until recent years. But the most wonderful sign of Aseneth’s salvation wasn’t childbearing. It was Aseneth being a shining City of Refuge for men who would otherwise have been added to the vastly gender disproportionate rolls of person punished for crimes.
With her strong and independent voice, Aseneth saved Dan and Gad from being killed for participating in an evil plot. The Pharaoh’s son, who lacked Joseph’s seductive allure, foolishly sought to gain Aseneth’s love by force. He plotted to kill his father and Joseph and to seize Aseneth. He enlisted Dan and Gad in this evil plot. The sons of Leah caught Dan and Gad red-handed and prepared to kill them. Aseneth, however, asked them to spare their brothers. The sons of Leah at first rejected Aseneth request. But she insisted that they not kill their brothers:
No brother, you must not repay evil for evil to your neighbour.
Strong, independent women like Aseneth are desperately needed today. They are scarcely to be found among the mobs howling for vengeance against all those evil men, real and many more imagined.
As always, men are partly to blame. Many men lack the insight and courage of Joseph. Men pushing women away can bless them with the possibility of becoming new women.
* * * * *
- how Thecla was saved from her evil mother and terrifying death
- Heloise wholly innocent of disastrous marriage with Abelard
- Ancrene Wisse instructs anchoresses in hating men
The text above is an adaptation of Joseph and Aseneth, included among Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. Quotations and details are almost all from the short version of the work, from Greek translated Cook (1984). The short version is probably the earliest version of the text. Kraemer (1998) Ch. 3. The phrase “across the whole world” and the description of Aseneth’s breasts “already standing upright like handsome apples” are exclusively from the long version, established and translated by Burchard. See Burchard(1985), which also includes a good introductory description of Joseph and Aseneth. For an extensive list of Joseph and Aseneth manuscripts, translations, and studies, see Mark Goodacre’s bibliography.
The date, cultural context, and place in which Joseph and Aseneth was created has been a matter of considerable scholarly debate. Nir (2012) convincing places Joseph and Aseneth in the context of third and fourth century Syriac Christianity. In my view, more likely than not a woman authored Joseph and Aseneth. Women authors predominated among authors of early English novels. Joseph and Aseneth has “numerous points of contact with the Greek romances.” Whitmarsh (2013) p. 16. Both Charicleia in Heliodorus’s Aethiopica and Habrocomes in Xenophon’s Ephesian Tale initially reject all men.
The long version gives additional emphasis to the difference between the old and new Aseneth in Joseph’s response to her. While on their first meeting Joseph pushed Aseneth away, in their second meeting in the long version, Joseph eagerly greets Aseneth and kisses her repeatedly:
Joseph stretched out his hands and called Aseneth by a wink of his eyes. And Aseneth also stretched out her hands and ran up to Joseph and fell on his breast. And Joseph put his arms around her, and Aseneth (put hers) around Joseph, and they kissed each other for a long time and both come to life in their spirit. And Joseph kissed Aseneth and gave her spirit of life, and he kissed her the second time and gave her spirit of wisdom, and he kissed her the third time and gave her spirit of truth.
Ch. 19, long version, trans. Burchard (1985) p. 233.
Kraemer (1998), Ch. 7, discussing gender in Joseph and Aseneth, invokes comically absurd clichés of anti-men gender studies: “Aseneth as potential medium of exchange between men,” “Aseneth as the object of male gaze,” “female characters as ‘stand-ins’ for male readers engaged in debates about masculine identity,” and of course the social construction of everything but such silliness. Forbes (1999), documenting the mind-numbing effects of such teaching, concludes:
This has disturbing implications for women; that they are incapable of being saved as they are but have to rely upon a man for their salvation. This in turn implies that women are second class people and are somehow more sinful than men.
In Joseph and Aseneth the author ensures that the ideal man will always win, for no matter what she might gain a woman loses her independence, having to depend upon a man to become the ideal woman.
Such views would be inconceivable to all but thoroughly programmed persons.
[image] Jacob with Joseph and Aseneth, blessing their children Ephraim and Manasseh. Rembrandt, 1656. Held in Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Kassel, Germany. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.
Burchard, Christoph. 1985. “Joseph and Aseneth: A New Translation and Introduction.” (from Burchard’s own reconstruction of a long Greek version). Pp. 177-247 in James H. Charleworth, ed. The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. Vol. 2. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.
Cook, David, ed. and trans. 1984 “Joseph and Aseneth” (based on Greek text of Philonenko (1968). Pp. 473-503 in Sparks, H. F. D. The Apocryphal Old Testament. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Forbes, Moira. 1999. “Ideal Man versus Ideal Woman in Joseph and Aseneth.” Available online at Mark Goodacre’s The Aseneth Home Page.
Kraemer, Ross Shepard. 1998. When Aseneth met Joseph: a late antique tale of the biblical patriarch and his Egyptian wife, reconsidered. New York: Oxford University Press.
Philonenko, Marc. 1968. Joseph et Aséneth: Introduction, texte critique, traduction et notes par Marc Philonenko. Leiden: E.J. Brill.
Nir, Rivkah. 2012. Joseph and Aseneth: a Christian book. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press.
Whitmarsh, Tim. 2013. “The Romance between Greece and the East.” Ch. 1 (pp. 1-22) in Whitmarsh, Tim, and Stuart Thomson. 2013. The romance between Greece and the East. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.