ASENATH (in Greek 'Ασενέθ), LIFE AND CONFESSION OR PRAYER OF:
By: Kaufmann Kohler
A Greek Apocrypha of pronounced Jewish character, with only one small Christian interpolation. It contains a Midrashic story of the conversion of Asenath, the wife of Joseph, and of her magnanimity toward her enemies. For a long time known only through anabridged Latin translation embodied in Vincent of Beauvais' "Speculum Historiale," ch. cxviii.-cxxiv., it was first published in full by P. Batiffol, after four manuscripts, in his "Studia Patristica," Paris, 1889-90, with a valuable introduction. A fragment had previously appeared in Fabricius, "Codex Pseudepigraphicus Veteris Testamenti," ii. 85-102. A Syriac translation of the sixth century, discovered by Assemani (see Wright, "Syriac Literature," in "Encyc. Brit." xxii. 855 et seq)., is published in Land's "Anecdota Syriaca," iii. 18-46, and rendered into Latin by Oppenheim, "Fabula Josephi et Asenathæ Apocrypha," Berlin, 1886. An Armenian translation appeared in "Revue Polyhistoire," 1885, 200-206, and 1886, pp. 25-34, and in the "Armenian Collection of Apocrypha of the Old Testament," Venice, 1896. On the Slavonic version, see Bonwetsch, in Harnack, "Gesch. d. Altchristl. Literatur, " i. 915; on the Ethiopic version, Dillman, in Herzog-Plitt, "Real-Encyklopädie," 2d ed., xii. 366. Neither the rabbinical nor the patristic literature has preserved any trace of the story.Model of a Proselyte.
The book consists of two parts. The first, which is the larger, and which has given it the name of "Prayer or Confession of Asenath," presents Asenath as a model of a Jewish proselyte in the light of Hellenistic propaganda. Asenath, the daughter of Potiphar (Pentephres), priest of Heliopolis (On), a rich man and chief counselor of Pharaoh, far surpassed the Egyptian maidens in beauty; for she was "tall like Sarah, handsome like Rebekah, and fair like Rachel," and the fame of her beauty filled the land. Reared in great luxury but in entire seclusion, a worshiper of idols, she thinks only of marrying Pharaoh's son; and when her father proposes to her that she become the wife of Joseph, " the mighty man of God," who honored him with a visit, she proudly refuses because he has been a slave and owes his release from prison only to his skill in interpreting dreams. But on seeing Joseph's beauty when sitting alone at table (compare Gen. xliii. 32, reversed in the spirit of Dan. i. 5), she falls in love with him, as do all the Egyptian women (compare Yalḳ. and Targ. Yer. on Gen. xlix. 22; Koran, sura xii. 30).
Joseph, on learning from Asenath's father that she is a pure-minded woman who has never seen a man before, gladly receives her like a sister, but refuses to kiss her, saying:
"It is not befitting a pious man who blesses the living God with his lips, who eats the blessed bread of life, drinks of the blessed cup of immortality, and anoints himself with the oil of incorruption, to kiss a foreign woman who blesses dead and dumb idols with her lips, eating the bread of death from their table, drinking of their libations from the cup of treachery, and anointing herself with the ointment of perdition. In fact, a pious man kisses besides his mother and his sister only his own wife: nor does a pious woman kiss a strange man; for this is an abomination before the Lord God."
When Asenath bursts into tears, Joseph compassionately lays his hand upon her head, praying that the God of his father Israel, the Creator of the Universe, who calleth men from darkness to light, from error to truth, and from death to life (compare Philo, "De Pœnitentia," i. and ii.; "De Nobilitate," vi.), may renew her with His holy spirit that she may eat of the bread of His life, drink of the cup of His blessing, and join her to the number of His people He had chosen before the Creation of the universe, so that she may partake of the bliss prepared for His chosen ones in the life everlasting. Asenath returns to her rooms, and with bitter tears, repenting of her idolatrous practises, spends eight days in fasting and penance; putting on sackcloth, strewing ashes upon her head, lying on the floor strewn with ashes, and foregoing sleep at night. She takes her costly robes and jewelry and throws them down on the street, in order that the poor may sell them for their needs; destroys all her idols of silver, gold, and precious stones in accordance with rabbinical law (see 'Abodah Zarah 43b-44), and casts them to the needy for their use; while all the edible things prepared for her gods she throws to the dogs. Being well-nigh exhausted from fasting and weeping, she at first feels utterly forsaken, having brought the hatred of her parents and kinsmen upon herself by despising their gods; yet she lacks the courage to pray with polluted lips to "the jealous God of Joseph, the God who hates idolaters." Finally, the thought that He is also a merciful and compassionate God, the Father of the orphaned, the comfort of the broken-hearted, and the helper of the persecuted, fortifies her to offer a supplication, echoing the deepest longing of a Godseeking soul, full of saintly humility and contrition.The Prayer.
The prayer, which is a long one, shows indisputable elements of Essene lore. Asenath begins with an address to God as "Creator of the Universe, who fastened the foundationstones of the earth upon the abyss so that they do not sink; who spoke and all things were made; and whose word is the life of all creatures." She then makes a confession of her sins in words familiar to the Jew acquainted with the ancient liturgy:
"Have pity on me, O Lord; for I have greatly sinned, transgressed, and done evil. Knowingly and unknowingly, I have sinned by worshiping idols and by polluting my lips by their sacrificial meal. I am not worthy to open my mouth to speak to Thee, O Lord—I, the wretched daughter of Potiphar, once so proud and haughty."
Still more characteristic is her petition:
"I take refuge with Thee, O Lord. As the little child flees in fear to the father, and the father takes it to his bosom, so do Thou stretch forth Thy hands as a loving father and save me from the enemy who pursues me as a lion, from Satan, the father of the Egyptian gods, who desires to devour me because I have despised his children, the Egyptian gods. Deliver me from his hands, lest he cast me into the fire; lest the monster of the deep [leviathan] eat me up, and I perish forever. Save me; for my father and mother deny me, and I have no hope nor refuge but Thy mercy, O Lover of men, Helper of the broken-hearted! There is no father so good and sweet as Thou, O Lord. All the houses my father gives me as possessions are for a time and perishable; but the houses of Thy possession, O Lord, are indestructible and last forever."
On the morning of the eighth day an angel appears to her resembling Joseph, but with a face like lightning, and with eyes like beams of fire, the captain of the host of the Lord (Michael). He tells her to wash, and to exchange her garments of mourning for garments of beauty—for as a pure virgin she needs no veil—and then announces to her that "from that day on she should be reborn, while eating the blessed bread of life, and drinking the cup filled withimmortality, and anointing herself with the blessed oil of incorruption, and that her name should be written in the book of life never to be effaced." She should no longer be called "Asenath" (), but City of Refuge ("Manos" ), for through her many Gentiles (ἔθνη) should take refuge under the wings of the divine Shekinah (compare Rev. xiii. 6), and under her walls those that turn to God, the Most High, should find protection in repentance. (This is clearly the meaning of the original text; and what follows defies explanation.) The angel then prepares her for the arrival of Joseph as her bridegroom, and tells her to put on her bridal gown, "prepared from the beginning of the world," which glad tidings she receives with a prayer of thanksgiving to the Lord "who rescued her from darkness and led her from the deep abyss unto light."Christian Interpolation.
She then orders bread and wine to be set before the angel; but nothing is said of the eating of the bread and the drinking of the wine to which Joseph and the angel had both alluded in connection with her looked-for conversion. Instead of this, a miraculous incident is told. A honeycomb of wondrous odor is provided by the angel—prepared, as he says, by the bees of paradise from the dew of the roses, as food for the angels and all the elect ones of God. The angel puts some into the mouth of Asenath, saying: "Behold, thou eatest the bread of life and drinkest the cup of immortality, and art anointed with the ointment of incorruption. Behold, thy flesh shall bloom with the fountain of the Most High, and thy bones fatten like the cedars of the garden of God; thy youth shall not see old age and thy beauty shall never vanish; but thou shalt be like the walled mother-city for all (Syriac Version, "who take refuge with the name of the Lord God, the King of all the worlds"). Here again allusion is made to the Hebrew noun "manos" (refuge) for Asenath. Then, in several manuscripts and the Syriac translation, the story is told that the angel makes a cross over the honeycomb with his finger and the same is turned into blood. Another miracle follows. Some bees are slain by the angel, but rise again, thus symbolizing the resurrection. Obviously, this episode is an interpolation by a Christian writer, who removed the passage relating to the eating of the covenant bread and the drinking of the covenant wine alluded to afterward. Asenath, however—the main story continues—tells the angel to bless also her seven virgins; and he does so, calling them seven columns of the "City of Refuge," and wishing them also to attain eternal life. He then disappears in a fiery chariot drawn by lightning-like horses.
Asenath then washes her face with pure water from the well, and behold! her whole being is transformed. She is amazed at her own beauty; and when she goes to meet Joseph he does not recognize her. She tells him: "I have cast all my idols from me; and, behold! a man from heaven came to me today and gave me of the bread of life, and I ate, and I drank of the blessed cup, and he gave me the name 'City of Refuge,' saying, 'In thee many heathen will seek refuge in God.'" Joseph, in return, blesses her, saying: "God has laid the foundation of thy walls; and the children of the living God shall dwell in the city of thy refuge, and the Lord God will be their King forever." They then kiss each other. (The rather strange symbolism contained in the narrative, which says that Joseph kissed her three times, thereby giving her the breath of life, the breath of wisdom, and the breath of truth, is hardly part of the original story.) Joseph accepts Asenath's invitation to partake of the meal she has prepared, Asenath insisting upon being permitted to wash his feet. Asenath's parents and relatives also come to partake of the meal, and, greatly amazed at her uncommon beauty, they praise "the Lord who reviveth the dead."Wedding-Feast Given by Pharaoh.
The wedding-feast is not given by Potiphar, who wanted Joseph to stay with Asenath at once, but by Pharaoh himself, who places golden crowns upon their heads, "such as were in his house from of old" (that is long prepared by God), and makes them kiss each other while he blesses them as father. He has all the princes of the land invited, and proclaims the seven days of the nuptial festivities to be national holidays, decreeing that whosoever should do any work thereon should be put to death.Typical Story of Convert to Judaism.
It is obvious that this is, to all intents, a typical story of the conversion of a heathen to Judaism. There is no other savior or sin-forgiving power mentioned throughout the book than the God of Israel. In fact, the conception of the Shekinah under whose wings the heathen came to take refuge, of the power of repentance by which all impurity of the soul is removed and eternal bliss is secured by the heathen, is so thoroughly Jewish that the Christian copyists seem to have been puzzled by it and thus led into confusion and error, as the manuscripts in ch. xv. show. But the leading idea of the story becomes clear and intelligible only by recurrence to the Hebrew name, "Asenath," which, by a transposition of the letters, is made to read "nasat" (she has fled)—from her idolatry, and which also suggests the idea of "manos" (refuge) and "nas" (to flee), also taken as "refuge" (Ps. lix. 17; II Sam. xxii. 3; Deut. xix. 3; and Ex. xvii. 15). Compare also Tan., Wayera, ed. Buber, ii. 110, where "nisah" occurs in Gen. xxii. 1, and "nes" in Ps. lx. 6; and Yalḳut, Judges, iii. 1, where the word "lenassot" is taken in the sense of "refuge": "God is refuge to His worshipers; while from the wicked the refuge departs" (Job xi. 20). Every proselyte is, according to Philo ("De Monarchia," i. § 7; "De Victimas Offerentibus," § 10; "De Septenario," § 2; "De Creatione Principum," § 6; "De Caritate," § 12; "De Pœnitentia," §§ 1, 2; "De Execratione," § 6; "Fragmenta ad Ex. xxii." § 20; compare Num. R. viii.), without a natural protector, because he has left his parents and his parental faith, and therefore seeks refuge under the wings of God as his Protector (Ruth ii. 12). This view of the proselyte claiming protection in some city of refuge, emphasized by Philo, has found expression also in the Halakah (see Sifre, Deut. 259; Targ. Yer. on Deut. xxiii. 16, 17). Asenath is presented as the type of a true proselyte who, finding herself forsaken when renouncing her idolatry, seeks and finds refuge in God. It seemsthat when the view of Asenath's having been a proselyte was superseded by the theory that she was the daughter of Dinah (see Asenath), Pharaoh's daughter, the foster-mother of Moses, replaced her in rabbinical tradition. She was represented as a proselyte who went to wash herself clean from the idolatry of her father's house, and became Bithyah, "the daughter of the Lord" (Soṭah 12b; Meg. 13a; Ex. R. i.; Lev. R. i.).
The second part of Asenath's Life and Prayer is of a different character. It resembles the heroic legends told of the sons of Jacob in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs and in the Book of the Jubilees; and its lesson is simply ethical: the pious ought to show magnanimity toward his enemy. On the twenty-first day of the second month in the second year of the famine, Jacob went with his family to live in Goshen, and Asenath went to see him because he was to her as a father and as a god. But she was amazed at his beautiful appearance, as he, with his thick snow-white hair and long white beard, resembled a robust youth with arms and shoulders like an angel (Gen. R. lxv.), and with the thighs, legs, and feet of a giant.Jacob's Heroic Sons.
Jacob blessed her and, according to the Syriac translation, said to her, "Thou art like one who returneth from the battle-field after a long absence." Batiffol thinks that this refers to the rabbinic view that she was the daughter of Dinah; but the allusion is rather vague. More striking is it that Simeon and Levi, the two avengers of Dinah, accompany Asenath and Joseph, and play a prominent part as the protectors of Asenath in the event that follows. Levi, "whom Asenath loved more than all the other brothers of Joseph—because as a prophet and a saint he read the heavenly writings and disclosed them (in true Essene fashion) to Asenath in secret, having seen her place of bliss in a diamond-walled city in the highest heaven"—went to the right of Asenath, and Simeon to the left as they journeyed home. But the son of Pharaoh, on seeing Asenath, fell in love with her, and sent for Simeon and Levi, offering them great treasures if they would aid him in obtaining Asenath, who was, as he says, betrothed to him before Joseph took her to wife; but they refused to do so. When Pharaoh's son unsheathed his sword to kill them, Simeon intended to slay him; but Levi restrained his impetuosity, whispering to him, "We are God-fearing men; and it is not befitting that we should requite evil for evil." The son of Pharaoh fell into a swoon when he saw drawn from their scabbards the swords with which the two brothers had avenged the violence perpetrated by Shechem against their sister.
But he succeeded in winning, by some tale of falsehood, the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah to aid him in his plans. Dan and Gad at once agreed, and started that same night, each with five hundred warriors at his side, and with fifty spearmen on horses to form the vanguard. Naphtali and Asher followed, though they had at first tried to dissuade their brothers from acting so wickedly against their father and brother.Attack on Asenath's Body-Guard.
The son of Pharaoh, angry at his father's love for Joseph, made an unsuccessful attempt to slay his parent. He then went with six hundred spearmen to capture Asenath. Joseph had gone to the capital to sell corn, and Asenath was left with six hundred men as her body-guard, Benjamin being at her side in the chariot, when suddenly, from behind the thicket at the roadside where they had lain in ambush, the spearmen of Pharaoh's son came forth and began an attack upon Asenath's bodyguard. Asenath, when she saw Pharaoh's son, called upon the name of the Lord, and fled from her chariot; but Benjamin, a lad of nineteen with the power of a young lion, leaped from the chariot, and filling his hand with stones gathered from a ravine, cast one (like David) against the right temple of the son of Pharaoh, inflicting a deep wound which threw him from his horse to the ground half dead. Then he wounded in like manner fifty of the spearmen who were with Pharaoh's son; and they fell down dead before him.Levi's Magnanimity.
In the meantime Levi, who by his prophetic power realized Asenath's danger, called his brothers, the sons of Leah, to arms; and they pursued the men who lay in wait for Asenath, killing them all. The sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, however, fled before them, and with drawn swords hurried toward Asenath and Benjamin, intending to slay them; but at the prayer of Asenath, behold! their swords fell out of their hands to the ground and were turned into ashes. The sons of Bilhah and Zilpah implored her forgiveness, entreating her to save them from the hands of their brothers; and she pardoned them and told them to hide behind the thicket until she had succeeded in pacifying their brothers. This she did, telling them to spare their brothers and not to requite evil for evil; and when Simeon in his violent rage wanted to be the avenger of wrong, she entreated him again, saying, "Do not requite evil for evil, let the Lord avenge the wrong, but do you show forgiveness." Meantime the son of Pharaoh had risen from the ground, blood issuing from his mouth and forehead, and as Benjamin was about to strike him down, Levi seized his hand, saying, "Do not do this, brother, for we are pious men and it does not befit us to requite evil for evil, or to smite a fallen enemy. Assist me in healing his wounds; and if he recover, he will be our friend, and his father, Pharaoh, will be our father." Levi then lifted the son of Pharaoh from the ground, washed and bandaged his wound, placed him upon his horse, and brought him to Pharaoh, who received him with his paternal blessing. On the third day after his arrival the son of Pharaoh died, and his father, who was 109 years old, overcome with grief, soon followed. Pharaoh bequeathed the crown to Joseph, who ruled over Egypt forty-eight years, and then left the throne to Pharaoh's youngest son, who, being an infant at the time of his father's death, was left in charge of Joseph, who became a father to him.
This second part of the book has, as far as can be seen, left no trace either in rabbinical or patristic literature. The rôle played by the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah is, however, the same as is ascribed to them in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs (Test. Patr., Dan. 1 and Gad 1; but in Gen. R. lxxxiv.;Jer. Peah. i. 1, p. 16a; Targ. Yer. to Gen. xxxvii. 2, somewhat different). At any rate the ethical maxim, not to requite evil for evil, but to be magnanimous toward the enemy, is decidedly Jewish. A Christian writer would most certainly have emphasized the teaching: "Love your enemies" (Matt. v. 44).
The book as a whole belongs to the Hellenistic propaganda literature by which Jewish writers endeavored to win the non-Jewish world for the Jewish faith, while at the same time eagerly representing their Hebrew ancestors as physical as well as moral heroes.See Proselytes.