Circumcision, famously, is understood by ancient Israelites and Jews as a central marker of belonging, the sign of the covenant forged with their God. Some adherents to the God of Israel in the Second Temple period reasoned that gentiles too could choose to worship this God. If they surrendered their foreskins, they gained inclusion. Others disagreed. But what of those whose bodies did not have penises and were therefore erased from the conversation entirely? What of the unequipped, unqualified? What about, for example, women?
The biblical character Ruth is a natural starting place for such a question. The Moabitess, we’ll remember, adheres ultimately to the people, land, and deity of her Judean mother-in-law Naomi. As Cynthia Baker has recently shown, modern scholars who bifurcate religion from ethnicity as a way of explaining the historical origins of conversion to Judaism struggle to account for Ruth. She encapsulates, for them, a “problem about women.” If she cannot be circumcised, can she convert? Does she even need to? If not, does her inclusion matter? The androcentric categories that frame these questions make them impossible to answer. On the face of it, Ruth is neither Israelite nor convert, but “in” nevertheless. Square peg, round hole. Fashioned in a context of male concerns about belonging, Ruth does not fit.
An alternative way into this conversation is through the story of a character from Israel’s scriptures who is so obscure that she's barely a character at all. In the book of Genesis, a woman named Aseneth, the daughter of an Egyptian priest, is given in marriage to the patriarch Joseph. She becomes the mother of his sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. Her three stylized appearances afford her a slim profile: she is wife and mother. Aseneth does not speak. She does not act. Her only contribution to the plot is bearing children. And while in real life childbirth is no simple endeavor, Genesis reports the arrival of Joseph’s progeny matter-of-factly, with no reflection on the woman who, we might note, produced two of the tribes of Israel (Gen 48:5). She disappears from the story, eclipsed by the legacy of her husband and sons.
A later anonymous author (or authors) took up the character of Aseneth to propel a new narrative, molding her after the beautiful, virginal female leads of ancient Greek romances, weaving a story of love sparked, thwarted, and finally consummated with her marriage to Joseph. While the tradition’s provenance is unknown, many scholars, including myself, understand the tale to be a literary product of Greek-speaking Judaism in Egypt from around the turn of the era. Joseph and Aseneth, as it is now commonly known (hereafter, Jos. Asen.), imagines a pre-history of Aseneth’s marriage to Joseph and expands upon her role in the family’s subsequent escapades. Aseneth forsakes her native Egyptian gods and turns toward exclusive worship of Joseph’s God. We read along as she also encounters a mysterious angel and mischievous honeybees and as she joins the family of Jacob in some riveting post-nuptial misadventures. The narrative presents her, ultimately, as a mythic protector of future penitents, including “many nations,” who (re)turn to sole veneration of Israel’s God. At its heart, Jos. Asen. is a tale of transformation.
Yet Aseneth’s story is simultaneously a transformative tale. For Second Temple-period thinkers, the national epic of the Jewish people recounted in scriptural texts was a story that invited interpretation, interruption, and even intervention. Jos. Asen. participates in a broader literary phenomenon in Jewish antiquity wherein authors took up figures from Israel’s mythic past and crafted new stories, often as a means of explaining their own present and of envisioning, in competing ways, collective futures.
In my book Arguing with Aseneth, I suggest that this fanciful narrative is best understood in the context of the debates that swirled within Second Temple Judaism about the (im)possibilities of gentile inclusion. Jos. Asen. explores how its heroine, an utterly obscure character in the Genesis story—an Egyptian woman no less—matters for the self-understanding of the people belonging to Israel’s God. The text magnifies Aseneth’s transformation, marriage, and motherhood to a cosmically-significant scale, inscribing into Israel’s history a precedent for gentile inclusion. With its creative myth of origins that writes gentiles into Israel’s story through a female character, Jos. Asen. offers a distinctive argument within the larger landscape of ancient debates about the relationship of Jews and gentiles. Aseneth is a square peg in a round hole that transforms gentiles into God's people.
Historically, Aseneth’s relationship to Jewishness has formed a principal frame within which questions about her tale are asked and answered. She is alternately conceived by modern scholars as (1) coming up shy of full conversion because she fails to become socially integrated (in contrast to, say, penis-wielding Achior in the book of Judith, whose two-sentence conversion scene moves swiftly from belief to circumcision to joining the “house of Israel”), and (2) becoming so integrated through symbolic circumcision that she is conceived as having undergone “gene therapy” that results in her becoming genealogically Jewish. Both of these conclusions about Aseneth are conditioned by the shared goal of determining whether Aseneth has become a Jew. The telos of inclusion is Jewishness; “crossing the boundary” is made synonymous with “becoming a Jew.” But in Jos. Asen., post-transformational Aseneth, like Ruth in the book bearing her name, is not once given the moniker “Jew” (or “Israelite” or “Hebrew”).
What new possibilities open up for understanding Aseneth’s tale when we suspend Jewishness as the primary category of belonging and circumcision as the central marker of inclusion? Is there a different way in which Aseneth can participate that nevertheless signifies full incorporation? More pointedly, can we rescue Aseneth from questions about belonging that are usually asked by and are only answerable for males? Can we talk about Aseneth’s inclusion in the covenant without granting her a metaphorical penis?
I think we can, and I think the place to start is with the language used by Jos. Asen. to describe her transformation. She is said to receive life anew from Joseph’s “living God.” The heroine moves from outsider to insider, from foreigner to familiar, from one excluded to one embraced, and—in the idiom of the narrative itself—“from death to life.” Such language, I suggest, engages a theological repertoire inherited from Israel’s election scene in Deuteronomy LXX that was widely deployed by a variety of ancient Jewish storytellers: the distinction of life and death as a way of organizing who is good and bad, blessed and cursed, in and out (Deut 4:32-33; 5:34-35 LXX). Only Israel’s God lives—along with those who belong to this God. Aseneth’s receipt of life anew marks her as a participant in the covenantal blessings associated with those who worship this “living God.”
Not all ancient Jewish thinkers would have agreed with the position developed in Jos. Asen. To take two famous examples: the book of Jubilees denies all access by gentiles (conceived as anyone not genealogically linked to Jacob) and therefore would reject Jos. Asen.’s very conclusions. The apostle Paul, on the other hand, shares with Jos. Asen. the view that gentiles can—and should—abandon their native gods and turn to sole veneration of the Jewish God. Notably, Paul, like Jos. Asen., uses a character from Genesis to negotiate entry for gentiles. The apostle creatively reworks gentiles’ genealogy as he constructs for his gentiles-in-Christ a kinship link with Abraham (Gal 3; Rom 4).
Both Paul and Jos. Asen. endeavor to incorporate gentiles in their own present by intervening in Israel’s mythic past. Unlike Paul’s Abraham, however, Aseneth is not reconceived in the first instance as an ancestor, a physical progenitor to whom kinship is traced. Jos. Asen. portrays her as special to gentile penitents in a different way: the narrative uses city imagery to imagine Aseneth as a mythic protector of the “many nations” who, like Aseneth, turn to Israel’s God and there find mercy, refuge, and life. Thus, while Paul and Jos. Asen. both invoke reworked characters from Genesis to make space for gentile inclusion, their appropriations of these characters take strikingly different routes to their goal. Patrilineal lines of descent and physical conceptions of ancestry are fundamental to the apostle’s mythmaking. Those who have been “baptized into Christ,” for Paul, have become sons of Abraham (Gal 3:27, 29). Gentile inclusion comes through a male figure and is described as the miraculous granting of genealogical descent to those who otherwise would have no claim to biological filiation with the ancient Israelites.
It is perhaps no accident that Jos. Asen. has chosen a female character, ineligible for covenantal circumcision, through which to develop its case for gentile inclusion. Rather than make her story cohere with that of a circumcised male, Jos. Asen. exploits the ambiguity that results from the choice of a figure whose body requires incorporation without circumcision. The ambiguity is not a problem; it’s a solution. Aseneth becomes a potential model for any uncircumcised person who turns to Israel’s God. More than Ruth, moreover, Aseneth is spectacularly fashioned as a mythic mediator of God’s mercy to those whom the narrative expects to make such a turn. This marks Jos. Asen. as having an extreme position within the discourse of gentile inclusion in Second Temple Judaism: gentiles can be incorporated as gentiles by expressing fidelity to the God of Israel. I venture to say, then, that the apostle Paul is not, to play a bit with Daniel Boyarin’s suggestive title, the most “radical Jew” in antiquity–or at least not the only one.
This reading of Jos. Asen. shows us that we need to expand our categories of inclusion if we want to capture accurately the full range of ways in which ancient Jewish thinkers wrestled with questions of belonging. We miss just how significant Jos. Asen.’s contribution to this ancient argument is if we accept only Ioudaios as the end goal of gentile inclusion or, correspondingly, circumcision as the premiere mechanism of accomplishing incorporation. Much as it is today, Jewishness was a contested category in antiquity. Our extant evidence reveals diversity among definitions of what it meant to be “a Jew.” Scholars have imagined something of a sliding scale on which individual Jewish authors may be located: the greater the emphasis on Jewishness as biological filiation, the less permeable the boundary between Jew and gentile, and, conversely, the greater the emphasis on Jewishness as religious practice, the more permeable the boundary between Jew and gentile. While Jubilees and Paul, to take two examples discussed here, perhaps belong on such a scale, Jos. Asen. does not. Aseneth does not become circumcised. She does not convert. She does not become Ioudaios. (She cannot.) She becomes revivified, a metaphor for covenantal incorporation that does not rely on androcentric metrics of inclusion.
The character of Aseneth becomes transformed from material mother of the sons of Joseph to mythic mother-figure for the tribes of Israel and penitent nations who join in worshiping Israel’s God. She has become, in this ancient tale, a productive site of intervention in Israel’s story—a matriarch who matters in the history of and for the future of God’s covenanted community.
Jill Hicks-Keeton is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Oklahoma, where she teaches courses on biblical literature, ancient Judaism, and early Christianity. Her new book is Arguing with Aseneth: Gentile Access to Israel’s Living God in Jewish Antiquity (Oxford University Press, 2018), from which this post was adapted. Her recent writing includes online articles in Ancient Jew Review and Religion & Politics treating the new Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C.: “The Museum of Whose Bible? On the Perils of Turning Theology into History”(Jan. 24, 2018), and “What the Museum of the Bible Conveys about Biblical Scholarship behind Church Doors” (March 13, 2018). Follow her on Twitter @JillHicksKeeton