Beyond “Universalism versus Particularism” in the Study of Ancient Judaism and Christianity: A Note on Aseneth

The story devises what we might call a “strategy” of gentile inclusion, providing a synthetic argument in favor of gentile incorporation through its creative appropriation of theological language from Jewish scriptures. The text fashions Israel’s “living God” as the universal, life-giving, creator God who may bestow (new) life to all creatures, including those originally excluded.

See Also: Arguing with Aseneth: Gentile Access to Israel’s Living God in Jewish Antiquity (Oxford University Press, 2018).

By Jill Hicks-Keeton
Assistant Professor of Religious Studies
University of Oklahoma
August 2018

“Who belongs?” Ancient Jewish and Christian thinkers were deeply concerned with defining who belonged to the community of people chosen by the God of Israel. Debates and divisions ensued about the proper relationship of Jews and gentiles, unstable identity categories that were themselves constructed variously by our ancient sources. Often the contested question of who belonged was tackled through narrativized theology—that is, storytelling in which God was a central character. Ancient writers who affiliated in some way with the God of Israel, across both genres and languages, fashioned this God both as the creator of the world and as the God who specially elected the nation of Israel. Such a delicate dual theological commitment would naturally raise a series of stark questions about the relationship of this God to other nations. Why, and for what purpose, did the God who created the world and all its peoples forge a covenant with one particular people? Could, or should, non-Jews be granted access to this God or to this people? If so, how? And by what means?

One might not guess that the tale of Joseph the patriarch from Genesis could be a way into these issues. Joseph’s story arc in Genesis 37-50 deals heavily in internal family intrigue as he and his brothers spar, sometimes with life-and-death consequences, in both Canaan and Egypt. But along the way, almost incidentally, we are told that Joseph weds an Egyptian woman. Genesis mentions her in three brief moments (Gen 41:45, 50; 46:20). We learn very little about her. She is the daughter of an Egyptian priest. She is given in marriage to Joseph. She becomes the mother of his two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh. Then she disappears from the story entirely.

A later author (or authors) writing in Greek, likely in Egypt sometime in the first centuries BCE or CE, breathed fresh life into the character of Joseph’s wife by crafting a new story about her, a romance now known as Joseph and Aseneth (hereafter, Jos. Asen.). This narrative purports to fill in details of Aseneth’s marriage to Joseph as it depicts a dramatic shift in Aseneth’s cultic practice: she abandons her native Egyptian deities for exclusive veneration of Joseph’s God as a prerequisite for her marriage to Joseph and incorporation into the family of Jacob. Jos. Asen. is thus not unlike works of modern fan fiction, such as the book-turned-musical Wicked: The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz vis-à-vis Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz. These works shift the literary spotlight from protagonists populating familiar (perhaps even canonical) tales towards minor characters whose previously ignored wounds are nursed, sublimated motivations explained, and neglected dreams explored as the primary elements of a new narrative.

While Aseneth is indeed a significant protagonist in Jos. Asen., Israel’s God is also an active character in the story. Jos. Asen. is concerned not merely with Aseneth and Joseph and their exploits, romantic or otherwise. It is simultaneously constructing God. It is doing theology. And it does so, I suggest, as a means of wrestling with the question of who belongs to this God. The narrative’s most fundamental theological statement is that Israel’s God is the “living God,” and it is this divine moniker that provides an important clue for discerning what’s at stake in this tale.

As Jos. Asen. weaves a story of love sparked, thwarted, and finally consummated, readers follow along as the daughter of an Egyptian priest becomes daughter of the God of Israel and bride of the Hebrew patriarch Joseph. She moves, in the idiom of the narrative itself, “from death to life.” But to signal the happy ending of the story is to get ahead of the action. As in any good romance, the initial kiss is deferred. Prompted by her father at their first meeting, Aseneth moves toward Joseph with lips pursed. The patriarch immediately and unexpectedly refuses her advance. In a blistering rejection scene, Joseph dramatically declares that he cannot use the same mouth both to bless the “living God” and to kiss a woman who worships “dead and mute idols” (Jos. Asen. 8:5-6). Joseph’s declaration classifies them into two groups: He worships a “living God,” while she worships “dead idols.” As a result, he says, he receives blessings of life while she wallows in death. And he will not engage in corpse-kissing.

Joseph constructs a discursive boundary with tangible consequences: the handsome hero cannot kiss the beautiful heroine. (Yet.) Jos. Asen. uses the categories of life and death to deposit gods, accompanied by their human worshippers, into distinct, bounded units whose borders cannot tolerate transgression. Aseneth’s cultic practice separates her to such a degree that the chasm between her and Joseph is as real as the distinction between life and death. Aseneth must—and will—be made alive before she can kiss Joseph.

As the narrative unfolds, Aseneth’s lips, along with her entire person, are remade as she abandons her Egyptian gods in favor of exclusive devotion to Joseph’s God, the God who lives. The appellation “living God” for Joseph’s deity not only anchors this cringe-worthy rejection scene, but also appears in some textual witnesses as Aseneth begins her turn to Joseph’s God (Jos. Asen. 11:10) and as she receives a new name from a mysterious angelic visitor at the conclusion of her dramatic transformation (Jos. Asen. 19:8). Jos. Asen. uses this descriptor in combination with other language of “life” and “living” as a means of marking out who belongs—and who can belong—to such a God. Those who live are in; those who don’t are out.

Throughout the narrative, in a creative literary move, God’s giving of life is formulated in terms of God’s creative power. Jos. Asen. authorizes and authenticates Aseneth’s receipt of life from Israel’s “living God” by deploying imagery from the inaugural creation account(s) in Genesis. Cleverly “remixing” Gen 37-50 with Gen 1-2 becomes a means, for Jos. Asen., of bridging the divide between Joseph and Aseneth, between insider and outsider. To illustrate this, let’s back up to the moment just prior to Aseneth’s repentance sequence. Joseph has had a nice visit in the home of Aseneth and her family. As he prepares to leave, Aseneth’s father Pentephres reasonably recommends that his guest spend the night, but Joseph insists that he cannot. He must leave today. Joseph’s explanation deals not with travel logistics or personal responsibilities. He gives a theological, rather than practical, reason for his plans: “I will go out today,” he says, “because this is the day on which God began to make all his creatures.” He goes on to say that he will return when “this day of the week” returns (Jos. Asen. 9:5).

The reader is not treated to Pentephres’s reaction to Joseph’s reply, but one might guess that Joseph’s rationale would strike his host, an Egyptian priest, as perplexing. The reader, on the other hand, receives a clue from the narrator that illuminates Joseph’s seemingly peculiar logic: we are told that Aseneth repents of her idol worship for the next seven days, a period that culminates in her transformation into an Edenic figure of beauty. Just as God began to make creation on this day, God will begin to remake Aseneth on this day. Just as God’s original creation took seven days, Aseneth’s re-creation event spans seven days. 

At the conclusion of these seven days, Aseneth brings herself to address Joseph’s God, mobilizing language that explicitly marks this God as creator. She prays: “Lord God of the ages, who created all (things) and gave life (to them), who gave breath of life to your whole creation…who brought the invisible (things) into the light…who lifted up the heaven and founded it on a firmament upon the back of the winds, who founded the earth upon the waters, who put big stones on the abyss of the water” (Jos. Asen. 12:2).[2] Jos. Asen. pelts its reader with vocabulary borrowed from the Genesis creation narratives: heaven, abyss, light, firmament, water, earth, and “breath of life” (Gen 2:7). Aseneth closes her depiction of a generative God with an echo of the means of creation in Gen 1: “For you, Lord, spoke and they were brought to life, because your word, Lord, is life for all your creatures” (Jos. Asen. 12:2).

The divine response to Aseneth’s prayers is an angelic visitor who tells Aseneth that she has now moved from death to life. She has now “eaten blessed bread of life.” She has now “drunk a cup of imperishability.” The consumption metaphors that Joseph had invoked to draw boundaries between himself and Aseneth have now been reversed. Good news for the hopeless romantics among us: Aseneth is no longer out of bounds. Her movement from death to life maneuvers her from exclusion to inclusion. Joseph and Aseneth meet again soon, and this time, it is Joseph’s turn to fall in love at first sight. Indeed, Aseneth’s transformation is borne out on her body, which the narrative describes with a series of visuals that recall Eden. Aseneth’s lips – whose kiss Joseph originally refused – have been transformed by eating honey from a honeycomb formed by bees from the Garden of Eden, which in the Greek scriptures is translated “paradise.” Her bones are now “strong like the cedars of God’s paradise of delight” (Jos. Asen. 16:15). Her hair is now “like a vine in the paradise of God prospering in its fruits” (Jos. Asen. 18:9). Joseph apprehends that she has been transformed merely by seeing her renewed, Edenic beauty. His “living God” has given her new life. It’s no wonder that Joseph and Aseneth are now quickly married. Paradise indeed.

Significantly, post-transformational Aseneth is represented as having a special role in God’s revivifying of others. With new life for Aseneth comes a new name: she will be called “City of Refuge,” as she will become a shelter for “many nations” who turn to the God of Israel (Jos. Asen.15:7). Scholars have long recognized that Aseneth’s new position makes her a paradigm for future gentiles who affiliate themselves with the God of Israel. There is more at stake here, though: Aseneth’s new name and position participate in the narrative’s broader life-and-death motif. In the Torah, the cities of refuge are divinely-mandated places of safety to which offenders could flee and, in spite of their offense, live. Numbers 35 and Deuteronomy 19 command the Israelites to designate three such cities of refuge within the land of Canaan and three “beyond the Jordan.”[3] They are to function as spaces to which a person who has accidentally killed someone may flee to avoid vengeance from the victim’s family members. God commands the cities’ construction in order to protect both Israelite and alien from being put to death for involuntary manslaughter. Aseneth has moved from death to life. And now, as City of Refuge, she has become a mythic place of shelter wherein others too may be afforded life.

And what, we might ask, is the nature of this life anew? Into what is Aseneth, along with those after her, incorporated? The Israelites? The Jewish people? A set of cultic practices? A status as God’s elect? As a way into this line of inquiry, let’s return to Jos. Asen.’s most fundamental theological statement: that Israel’s God lives. The divine title “living God” appears nowhere in Genesis. We instead have to turn to Deuteronomy, another scriptural text with which Jos. Asen. betrays creative engagement. In an adventure story that takes place in the second part of the narrative, Pharaoh’s son attempts to persuade Joseph’s brothers to join in a treacherous plan to kill Joseph so that he himself can have Aseneth. He taunts them with a stark choice: “Behold, blessing and death…before your face. Take now rather the blessing and not the death” (Jos. Asen. 24:7). Subsequent narrative events reveal that he has it backwards: he is, in fact, the one who will die, while Joseph is the one who will be blessed. But it was certainly a cunning try on his part, since his words mimic God’s speech in Deuteronomy 30: “Behold, I have given before your face today life and death, good and evil” (Deut 30:15 LXX my trans.; cf. Deut 30:19).

For Deuteronomy, the opposition of life and death is a thematic binary that distinguishes between those who belong to Israel’s God (those who are blessed) and those who do not (those who are cursed). As part of this literary motif, the epithet “living God” occurs twice in Deuteronomy LXX in the context of God’s election of Israel and giving of the Decalogue. In chapter 4, Moses recounts for the Israelites their reaction to encountering God at Choreb. While the setting is a fiery mountain, the mood is one of “darkness, gloom, tempest” (Deut 4:11 NETS). The Israelites cannot see the God who speaks, but they hear a voice from the blaze. They are bewildered. They are fearful. And they are surprised even to have survived such an encounter: “Ask of former days which occurred long before your own, from the day that God created a human being on the earth; ask at the end of the sky up to the end of the sky whether a thing this great has ever happened, whether such a thing has been heard of; whether any nation has ever heard the voice of a living god speaking from the midst of fire, as you have heard, and you lived” (4:32-33 NETS).

In this scene, the “living God” is scary and Israel is special. Israel is so special, the logic goes, that they did not die upon encountering God. They are, apparently, the first in the history of humankind to remain alive after hearing the voice of this “living God.” The epithet makes a second appearance in chapter 5, where the “living God” once again boasts a frightening, fiery presence whose voice imperils those who hear it (Deut 5:23-26 LXX). A dichotomy emerges between the Israelites – those who have heard the voice of God and yet lived – and other nations – all (other) “flesh,” who have not. Implied is that other peoples would not live, or have not lived, in the face of this “living God.” Deuteronomy’s use of this epithet carves out an extraordinary relationship between a singular God and a special people. Receiving life from the “living God” is a sign of election, of participating in the covenant.

Jos. Asen.’s cringe-inducing rejection enacts with near-identical logic a distinction between who is in and who is out – between us and them. Covenantal insiders receive life from this “living God,” whereas outsiders face death. Jos. Asen.’s use of this Deuteronomic distinction to mark those who are in or out of God’s covenantal blessings means that the category of covenant is the operative means of inclusion for this gentile heroine. Her life anew enacts her acceptance by Israel’s “living God” and her incorporation into the blessings of life enjoyed by those internal to the covenant. And her inclusion makes possible the inclusion of others as well.

This reading of Jos. Asen. provides further evidence for the dismantling of an old paradigm in biblical studies that heralded early Christianity as a universal religion that shed the deep-seated ethnic particularism of ancient Judaism. This characterization, which sees Judaism and Christianity as easily distinguishable and fundamentally opposed, has already been productively challenged from both sides. As many scholars have noted, early Jesus followers often used the language of ethnicity, rather than the modern notion of “religion,” to describe themselves.[4] The apostle Paul, to take our earliest example, did not abandon the category of genealogical descent, or the fundamental opposition between “Jew” and “gentile,” in his reformulation of Jewish tradition in light of the Christ event.[5]

The caricature of ancient Judaism as uniformly particularistic has also been unmasked as a fiction. “Judaism was in its own ways,” Terence L. Donaldson writes, “just as ‘universalistic’ as was Christianity— indeed, in some ways even more so.”[6] In an impressive sourcebook in which he surveys Jewish scriptures and other ancient Jewish literature, Donaldson has organized the evidence into four “patterns of universalism” into which various pieces of Jewish literary works can be slotted. These include gentiles sympathizing with the worship of Israel’s God, gentiles being adopted into the community belonging to Israel’s God, gentiles ascribing to monotheistic veneration of Israel’s God, and gentiles participating in the worship of Israel’s God in the eschaton. He finds three of these four in Jos. Asen.

As useful as these “patterns” are, however, they simultaneously splinter the narrative into discrete strands that, in reality, work together in the telling of a coherent story. Jos. Asen. does much more than participate in pre-existing, insulated patterns. It narrativizes a theological logic that transcends a mere combination of such templates. The story devises what we might call a “strategy” of gentile inclusion, providing a synthetic argument in favor of gentile incorporation through its creative appropriation of theological language from Jewish scriptures. The text fashions Israel’s “living God” as the universal, life-giving, creator God who may bestow (new) life to all creatures, including those originally excluded. In the hands of Jos. Asen., this divine epithet emphasizes the creative capacity of Israel’s God in order to underscore God’s reach beyond the genealogical line of the patriarchs. Jos. Asen. ultimately transforms the epithet into a tool to support its theological justification of gentile inclusion in the elect. Such openness, however, does not negate the covenantal relationship of God with Israel. Like Deuteronomy, Jos. Asen. uses the epithet “living God” as a boundary-drawing device to separate Israel’s God from all other gods. Furthermore, the metaphor of “life” in Jos. Asen. is a means of articulating the blessings of God’s covenant forged specifically with Israel. Thus, the narrative does not universalize God in such a way that Israel’s special status is undermined. Rather, it opens up access to God— access that is dependent upon sole veneration of Israel’s living God.

Such a coherent reading of the logic animating Jos. Asen. suggests that we need better vocabulary than “universalistic” and “particularistic” as we seek to characterize, organize, and compare ancient accounts of the relationships between Jews and gentiles. The scholarly discourse of “universalism” and “particularism” in the study of ancient Judaism actually obscures the ways in which individual ancient authors negotiated group affiliation. Instead of “universalism” and “particularism” we should be speaking of border (im)permeability and the conditions under which and mechanisms through which borders are alternately made, remade, and evince more or less permeability.


[1] Adapted from Jill Hicks-Keeton, Arguing with Aseneth: Gentile Access to Israel’s Living God in Jewish Antiquity (Oxford University Press, 2018).

[2] Translations throughout are those of Christoph Burchard  (“Joseph and Aseneth: A New Translation and Introduction,” in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, Vol. 2, ed. James H. Charlesworth (New York: Doubleday, 1985), 177-247.

[3] Anathea E. Portier-Young, “Sweet Mercy Metropolis: Interpreting Aseneth’s Honeycomb,” Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha 14.2 (2005): 133-57.

[4] Denise Kimber Buell, Why This New Race: Ethnic Reasoning in Early Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005).

[5] Caroline Johnson Hodge, If Sons, Then Heirs: A Study of Kinship and Ethnicity in the Letters of Paul (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007); Cavan W. Concannon, “When You Were Gentiles”: Specters of Ethnicity in Roman Corinth and Paul’s Corinthian Correspondence (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014).

[6] Terence L. Donaldson, Judaism and the Gentiles: Jewish Patterns of Universalism (To 135 CE) (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2007).

Add new comment

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.