27 December 2008

Joseph's makeover
and the trophy wife.

In the morning, he is a prisoner, a foreigner. He is summoned by Pharoah. He is cleaned up, shaved, and dressed. By night time he is dictator. He has a new uniform. A new chariot. A new name. A slave no more..

The Wyclif translation of the Bible captures the magnificence of the makeover from the lens of 14th century England and its view of monarchy:

“And [Pharoah] turned the name of Joseph, and called him by Egyptian language, the savior of the world; and he gave to Joseph a wife, Osnat, the daughter of Potifar, priest of Heliopolis”---meaning City of the Sun. (Genesis 41:45).

The text tells us that Joseph was 30 years old. As for Osnat, the text only tells us that she was the daughter of the priest of the City of Sun and that she gave Joseph two sons.

Our tradition has struggled with Osnat. Notwithstanding the injunctions against foreign women, our hero Joseph has not only taken a foreign wife---but she is a the daughter of a pagan priest.

There is a Talmudic view that Osnat was really Jewish. It held that she was the product of the rape of Dinah, and that Dinah’s daughter was adopted by the childless priest of Heliopolis.

Another response, from Hellenic times, proposed that Osnat had converted to Judaism.

I speak of the
Book of Joseph and Osnat. Scholars believe it was written in Egypt, probably between 200 years before or after the turn of the Common Era. Most likely it was written in Greek by a Jewish author, though a minority view is that the writer was Christian. It has survived in Armenian, Latin, Syriac and Slavonic and Middle English. The original Greek has been lost. The book can be found on the internet. It is 29 chapters, which are more like 29 paragraphs.

Early on, the book seeks to distinguish Asnat from ordinary Egyptians. In the first chapter it says:

“And she was quite unlike the daughters of the Egyptians, but in every respect like the daughters of the Hebrews. And she was as tall as Sarah, as beautiful as Rebecca and as fair as Rachel.”

The Crown Prince of Egypt wanted to marry her, but Pharaoh objected saying that Osnat was not of royalty and that a marriage had been arranged with another royal family.

Joseph met her during his travels in the first year of plenty. At that time, Osnat was 18 years old and living in a castle with her father.

When her father suggested that she marry Joseph, Osnat refused. She said he was a foreigner, a fugitive and a former slave. When she saw him, her heart melted and she regretted speaking evilly of him. Later they met. Joseph refused to embrace her because she was an idolator.

In great detail, the book describes Osnat’s conversion.
She puts on sack cloth and sits in ashes. She separates herself from her servants. She fasts for seven days. She smashes her idols. She throws her jewelry out the window so the poor can take it. On the eighth day she prays to God, repents for her idolatry and atones for speaking evilly of Joseph.

An angel who looks like Joseph appears to her.
The angel says: “Take heart, Osnat, for lo, the Lord has heard the words of your confession.”

He tells her that she has been written into the book of life, that she will eat the bread of life and drink the cup of immortality. He tells her that she will be Joseph’s bride.

The angel changes her name to City of Refuge.
He says nations will take refuge in her and take shelter under her wings. People who give penitence to God will find security within her walls.

The angel performed a ceremony with a magical honeycomb.

Joseph now accepts Osnat as his wife. Joseph, Osnat and her father go to Pharaoh. Pharoah places gold crowns on the heads of Osnat and Joseph. Pharoah hosts a seven day wedding feast.

Meanwhile, the Crown Prince becomes jealous. He wants to kill Joseph and take Osnat for his wife.

At first he solicits Simon and Levi to kill Joseph. When they refuse, he solicits Gad and Dan. The Crown Prince played on their resentment for being the sons of maidservants. The Crown Prince planned to kill Pharaoh because Pharaoh treated Joseph as a son.

An ambush is planned while Osnat and Joseph were to journey to her country estate. However, Joseph changes his plans and goes to distribute corn. Osnat and her guards leave for the country estate.

The plot is foiled because of the illness of Pharoah and the prophecy of Levi.

When the Crown Prince approached Pharoah’s chambers, the guards turned him away because Pharoah had been ill and was trying to sleep.

The Crown Prince proceeded to the site of the ambush. Levi got word of the plot. Levi and the other brothers go to rescue Osnat. As the battle begins, Gad and Dan saw that God was with Osnat. They begged Osnat for mercy. In the course of the fighting, Benjamin hurls a stone which severely injures the Crown Prince.

The Crown Prince was brought to the Pharoah’s palace. Levi told Pharoah what had happened. Pharoah bowed to Levi. Three days later the Crown Prince died of his wounds. Pharaoh mourned and then died. He left his crown to Joseph. Joseph ruled as king of Egypt for 48 years. Then Joseph gave his crown to Pharoah’s grandson and acted like a father to him.

Professor David Flusser, who died in 2000, teaches that the story of Osnat reflects an internal Jewish tradition which has many expressions, including the Unetaneh Tokef which is recited on the High Holidays. This prayer concludes: “And prayer and repentence and charity remove the evil of the decree.”

I disagree. The book is a great fairy tale.