Latest update: May 27th, 2013
This week’s parsha, Vayislach, relates a shocking episode that causes genuine outrage in the Israelite camp — the Canaanite Prince Shechem’s brutal assault of Yaakov’s daughter Dinah. “And Yaakov’s sons came in from the field when they heard it; and the men were grieved and agonized in fury because he had committed a despicable deed against Israel by laying Yaakov’s daughter – a thing not to be done” (Bereshit 34:7). The Torah then depicts the aggressive revenge of Yaakov’s sons against the Canaanite tribe, and the narrative flows on to additional future events, but of Dinah’s fate there is no further mention.
Two parshiyot later (Miketz) we learn of Yosef’s amazing rise to power in Egypt. Paraoh, in elevating Yosef to an exalted position, makes two ceremonial gestures. One: he grants Yosef a new name: “And Pharaoh called Yosef Tzafenat Paneah” (Bereshit 41:45) — and the second: he arranges a prestigious marriage for Yosef: “…he gave him for a wife Asenat the daughter of Potiphera, the priest of On…”(Ibid.)
These two official gestures by Paraoh seem linked: a prominent Egyptian name and a prominent Egyptian wife were designed to launch Yosef’s illustrious governmental career in Egypt. Egyptologists tell us that in the language of ancient Egypt Tzafenat translates as “supplier of food,” and Paneah as “vital.” From the connotation of the name given to Yosef it is apparent that it was a title denoting his job as Chief Steward, a preeminent and powerful governmental position further enhanced by his marriage to a woman hand-picked by Paraoh. By taking an Egyptian name and marrying a highborn Egyptian woman, Yosef acquired great prestige and, most importantly, an Egyptian identity.
When he married the daughter of Potiphera, the priest of On, Yosef became a member of a socially and politically prominent family. On, the equivalent of the Greek Heliopolis, neighboring the Eastern Delta or Goshen, later the site of the Hebrews’ settlement, was the center of sun worship. During the reign of Akhenaton when sun worship was the official religion in Egypt, the chief sanctuary to Ra, the Sun God, was erected in On, rendering the Priest of On the Supreme Clerical Authority.
Asenat, the daughter of the Supreme Clerical Authority, eventually became the mother of Menashe and Efraim. On his deathbed Yaakov raised Menashe and Efrayim to become Israel’s tribal fathers, on par with Yaakov’s own sons. Asenat, who, according to the Midrash, was the adopted daughter of Potiphera (whom Rashi identifies with Potiphar) thus became one of the eemahos of Bnei Yisrael, sharing that honor equally with Rachel, Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah.
Who was Asenat if not the natural daughter of Potiphera? Where did she come from? Rabbinic literature picks up the thread that the Torah text did not continue to weave. Midrash Esther reveals that Asenath was in fact Dinah’s daughter, born of Dinah’s disastrous encounter with the Canaanite prince Shechem. How did the tale evolve? How did Dinah’s daughter become the adopted child of the Egyptian potentate? What miraculous coincidence helped the beautiful young girl to reach Potiphera’s home?
“And Dinah gave birth to a daughter and named her Asenat, saying, `To my woe did I bear her for Shechem the son of Chamor who had taken me by force to his house'” (Midrash Esther). The same Midrash discloses that when “Yaakov saw that his sons regard Asenat with hostility, he took a gold medal and wrote upon it the Holy Name and placed on her neck.” With that Asenat left Yaakov’s household and the Almighty guided her to the house of Seleikha, wife of Potiphar.
“And Seleikha was barren of child, and she saw the lovely girl who came to her house, and she gathered her to her house, and she became her daughter” (Ibid.)
Years later, when Asenat was presented to him by Pharaoh, Yosef instantaneously noticed the medallion with the Holy Name on Asenat’s neck, and understood that it was the Divine Hand, which guided Asenat to him.
This Midrash solves several problems with one stroke. First, the brutality of Dinah’s fate is mitigated by this sequel. We are updated on Dinah’s story: the child born of the unhappy Shechem episode is redeemed from the stigma of her birth by eventually serving an essential role in the Divine plan. Secondly, through Asenat, Dinah’s rightful inheritance is restored, as she becomes a tribal ancestress on equal footing with her brothers. Thirdly, it allays fears about Yosef’s potential assimilation, marriage to a foreign woman being its ultimate element.
Not only did Yosef not marry an Egyptian, Chazal teach, on the contrary, he married a young woman provided by the Almighty Himself, a wife from the house of Yaakov to serve as a vital link to the next generation.Prof. Livia Bitton-Jackson
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