Arguing with Aseneth

Gentile Access to Israel's Living God in Jewish Antiquity

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Jill Hicks-Keeton
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , November
     272 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


We learn little of Aseneth, the Egyptian woman married to Joseph and the mother of two tribes of Israel, from the book of Genesis. Later interpreters would fill in her backstory, fixating on Aseneth’s foreignness despite her inclusion-by-marriage in the Israelite ancestral lineage. One such text, the ancient Greek novel Joseph and Aseneth, imagines the affective transformation Aseneth undergoes as she sheds her association with Egyptian idols in exchange for Israel’s God. Jill Hicks-Keeton in Arguing with Aseneth: Gentile Access to Israel’s Living God in Jewish Antiquity suggests that this narrative is particularly “invested in the proper boundaries that delimit and define the people belonging to Israel’s God” (4). Yet, unlike other ancient Jewish texts that rely on conceptions of Israelite distinctiveness in terms of bodily symbols (i.e., circumcision) or kinship alliance as markers for the incorporation of Gentiles into the people of Israel, Hicks-Keeton argues that Joseph and Aseneth builds a theological argument for the conversion of Gentiles into covenantal insiders.

Hicks-Keeton approaches Joseph and Aseneth as a literary whole, examining logical patterns and literary devices, rather than quest for original textual witnesses. Building upon the recent work of Patricia Ahearne-Kroll, who insists that it is impossible to establish an “original” text for Joseph and Aseneth, Hicks-Keeton focuses instead upon fixed elements occurring across an early “core narrative.” In a sustained analysis of the epithet “living God,” Hicks-Keeton argues that this phrase appears in the earliest streams of textual transmission, and plays an essential role in the regulation of boundaries between Joseph and Aseneth. For example, Joseph’s “living God” is compared to Aseneth’s “dead” and “mute” gods, deploying the binary of life-versus-death as justification for why Joseph cannot kiss “a strange woman” (8:5). With this in mind, Hicks-Keeton is confident that the text originated in Greco-Roman Egypt, where the Joseph story held greater resonance, and participated in the broader intra-Jewish debates surrounding Second Temple Jewishness. 

Life as a pervasive theme signals to Hicks-Keeton that Aseneth’s transformation from the realm of death to life narratively functions as a model for gentile inclusion. Hicks-Keeton also observes that it is unclear what this transformation exactly entails: is this a kinship or ethnic transformation or is there more to the story? While conceding that kinship is very much a part of the narrative, Hicks-Keeton argues that Aseneth is incorporated into the covenant of the living God—a distinction drawn from the Deuteronomic LXX—which Hicks-Keeton argues emphasizes Aseneth not as a daughter of Israel, but rather a daughter of the universal God (65). Through intertextual analysis of the LXX’s use of the “living God,” Hicks-Keeton contends that Joseph and Aseneth uses the phrase differently, subverting the presumed expectation that when confronted with the “living God” a foreigner must die. Instead, the “living God” offers a provision of life and a means for becoming a convenantal insider. 

Amidst Hellenistic Jewish texts of this period, the “living God” epithet appears as a common boundary marker. Yet, Hicks-Keeton argues that Joseph and Aseneth uses the boundary distinctly to imagine a universal creator who bestows life to all of his creation irrespective of covenantal status. Further, while other ancient Jewish authors, like Paul and the author of Judith, grapple with gentile inclusion, their entry point is the debate over circumcision, which Aseneth’s womanness eschews. Hicks-Keeton sees in Joseph and Aseneth a unique response to Second Temple debate over how someone joins the people of Israel—through a change in cultic allegiance and not in patriarchal descent. 

Hicks-Keeton draws our attention to the disparate ancient Jewish notions of whether and how gentiles might shed their “gentileness” and become worshippers of Israel’s God. While in some scholarly circles describing the piety and practices of ancient Jews as “religious” is taboo, Hicks-Keeton takes seriously Aseneth’s worship of the “living God” and does not shy away from imagining a gentile access to God based on individual interiority. This renewed focus upon religious affect reopens the question of the role of kinship in conceptions of Aseneth’s new status. 

Hicks-Keeton argues “Aseneth does not become Jewish. She becomes covenanted” (140), and insists that this narrative demonstrates that “gentiles can be incorporated as gentiles solely by expressing fidelity to the God of Israel” (134). But would Aseneth’s encounter with the “living God” have happened without the subtext of her marriage to Joseph? Could she become a covenantal insider without such a kinship affiliation? Does the emphasis on Aseneth’s piety narratively compensate for her presumed lack of circumcizable body parts or is this model only for persons for whom circumcision is not applicable? Comparison with the book of Ruth might be an apt place to turn. Ruth similarly joins the people of Israel through marriage and expresses allegiance to both Naomi’s people and God. Further, both women, Aseneth and Ruth, served as important matriarchs in the Israelite ancestral lineage. Perhaps, then, Joseph and Aseneth does not so much depart from earlier Jewish texts, but provides them with a more resonant model. 

Hicks-Keeton writes convincingly that Joseph and Aseneth builds a theological argument for gentile inclusion, and opens the question as to whether or not Joseph and Aseneth was intended to apply to all gentiles. Indeed, the text notably distances Aseneth from her foreign context from the outset, describing her as “in every respect like the daughters of the Hebrews” (1:7), and emphasizing that Aseneth despised all other men (2:1) until meeting the Israelite Joseph. The narrative further compares Aseneth’s famed beauty to that of the biblical matriarchs and describes her father as an astute discerner of the God of Israel. Thus, we might ask whether Aseneth is cast as the most unEgyptian-like Egyptian in order to suggest that a select few may enter the fold? The text almost suggests that if Joseph had to marry an Egyptian, then at least she was the most “Israelite-like” of them. Or, as Hicks-Keeton suggests, does the narrative emphasis of a universal “living God” intend to provide a model for all gentiles? How should we understand a “universal God” who is simultaneously “Israel’s God?” Joseph and Aseneth presents an intriguing query into the function and intention of universal language. 

Hicks-Keeton participates in broader trends in the study of early Judaism which recognizes that later works incorporating scriptural stories did not merely comment on scriptural stories but crafted new tales of their own—tales informed by the author’s own historical contexts, concerns, and aspirations. The author of Joseph and Aseneth used the biblical story as a gateway to voice their own conceptions of Jewishness amidst a landscape of cultural contestation. Hicks-Keeton in Arguing with Aseneth listens to that creative voice and imagines the stakes of Aseneth’s story for God-worshipping gentiles. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Krista N. Dalton is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Kenyon College.

Date of Review: 
November 14, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jill Hicks-Keeton is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Oklahoma, where she is also affiliate faculty in Judaic Studies. She taught previously at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. In 2018, she was recognized as a Society of Biblical Literature Regional Scholar, having been nominated by the Southwestern Region.


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