By Jill Hicks-Keeton
(New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2018), 232 pp., $99.00 (hardcover)
Reviewed by Gerbern S. Oegema
The story of the Hebrew patriarch Joseph in Egypt is a fascinating and consequential one. The Bible shows Joseph being sold into slavery, becoming vizier, and saving his family during the seven years of famine, but it says almost nothing about his Egyptian wife, Aseneth. Recognized already in antiquity, this desideratum gave rise to legends, including the Jewish novel Joseph and Aseneth, which expands on what little is said in the Bible (Genesis 41; Genesis 46; Genesis 48) about Joseph and Aseneth, the idol-worshiping daughter of an Egyptian priest.
For centuries, scholars have been fascinated by this extra-canonical literary work, without ever reaching a consensus about why and for what purpose the novel may have been written. Was it to promote conversion in antiquity, as the portrayal of the remorseful and converting Aseneth may suggest? And how was it composed and copied that there are so many different versions of the work? Is it best accessed through the genre of Jewish conversion stories, or is it rather a much later, third- or fourth-century Christian narrative?
In her beautifully written and produced monograph, Jill Hicks-Keeton offers a fresh look at theses issues. Without dwelling much on the various theories about the provenance of the novel, Hicks-Keeton tries to read it from within, by identifying its main theme. This she finds in the concept of a “living God,” with which Israel and Judaism differed from all other ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean religions.
This religious concept enjoyed a lot of attention after Alexander the Great had introduced Hellenism—a way of thinking many Jewish people learned to embrace, and one that allowed many Greek-educated gentiles to become interested in Judaism.
Hicks-Keeton focuses on Joseph and Aseneth as not so much promoting an actual conversion process as making Judaism more attractive and accessible in its belief in a God different from all “dead” idols of the other peoples. More specifically, the author’s thesis is that Joseph and Aseneth was written not as rhetoric to convert gentiles, as the Book of Jubilees and the apostle Paul argued for, but rather to ease access for gentiles to Israel and its “living God.”
The author examines the provenance of Joseph and Aseneth: from the way it interprets Genesis to how boundaries are defined in Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomistic History to the various approaches to life, death, and the living God in Hellenistic Judaism. She also explores the inclusion of gentiles in the Book of Jubilees and Paul’s letters as compared to that in Joseph and Aseneth.
If you'd like to help make it possible for us to continue Bible History Daily, BiblicalArchaeology.org, and our email newsletter please donate. Even $5 helps:
Whereas the final word about Joseph and Aseneth has not been said yet and may never be, the value of Hicks-Keeton’s careful study lies in the way she situates the work in the wider Greco-Roman world, in which Judaism found itself navigating a multicultural environment. Its different approaches of adaptation, assimilation, and rejection to the new culture could also result in different ways of adopting other cultural elements and people into its own world. Whereas it employs a sensitive balance between different theological threads from the books of Genesis and Deuteronomy on the one hand and the conventions of the ancient Greek novel on the other, the novel also allows people from outside to enter the Jewish world, even to the extent that an Egyptian idol-worshiping woman can convert to the one true God. By doing so, Aseneth became not only the mother of Joseph’s sons but even a symbol of God’s openness to anyone who wishes to follow the same path.
This has made Joseph and Aseneth different from many other Jewish works in antiquity. And Hicks-Keeton’s innovative, refreshing approach won her the 2020 Manfred Lautenschlaeger Award for Theological Promise.
Gerbern S. Oegema is Professor of Biblical Studies and Director of Centre for Research on Religion at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec. His research interests encompass topics within ancient Judaism and the Jewish background of early Christianity.
The world of the Bible is knowable. We can learn about the society where the ancient Israelites, and later Jesus and the Apostles, lived through the modern discoveries that provide us clues.
Biblical Archaeology Review is the guide on that fascinating journey. Here is your ticket to join us as we discover more and more about the biblical world and its people.
Each issue of Biblical Archaeology Review features lavishly illustrated and easy-to-understand articles such as:
• Fascinating finds from the Hebrew Bible and New Testament periods
• The latest scholarship by the world's greatest archaeologists and distinguished scholars
• Stunning color photographs, informative maps, and diagrams
• BAR's unique departments
• Reviews of the latest books on biblical archaeology
The BAS Digital Library includes:
• 45+ years of Biblical Archaeology Review
• 20+ years of Bible Review online, providing critical interpretations of biblical texts
• 8 years of Archaeology Odyssey online, exploring the ancient roots of the Western world in a scholarly and entertaining way,
• The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land
• Video lectures from world-renowned experts.
• Access to 50+ curated Special Collections,
• Four highly acclaimed books, published in conjunction with the Smithsonian Institution: Aspects of Monotheism, Feminist Approaches to the Bible, The Rise of Ancient Israel and The Search for Jesus.
The All-Access membership pass is the way to get to know the Bible through biblical archaeology.
Sign up to receive our email newsletter and never miss an update.
Dig into the illuminating world of the Bible with a BAS All-Access membership. Combine a one-year tablet and print subscription to BAR with membership in the BAS Library to start your journey into the ancient past today!Subscribe Today