Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Priest of Heliopolis

I was reading my daily Bible reading, trying to catch up the three days I'm behind and ran across something that drew my attention. I've probably read it dozens of times in the past but today, it sort of rang a bell with me and I felt inclined to do a little research.

I'm reading in Genesis of the time when Joseph was released from prison because he interpreted a dream for Pharaoh. The ruler was so impressed he appointed Joseph to be his second in command and to manage the food supply for the predicted seven years of plenty and seven years of famine. At that time, Pharaoh gave Joseph a wife. Her name was Asenath. She was the daughter Potiphera. Potiphera was a priest of Heliopolis.

The word Heliopolis (On) jumped out at me today because several years ago I kept running across this area of Egypt in my studies. I even watched a documentary on the History channel about it and a certain Pharaoh named Akhenaten (he changed his name to this from Amenhotep IV. There are variations in spelling of both names).

The interesting thing about this particular Pharaoh was that he began a rebellion in Egypt and established a religion that stated there was only a single God whom he called Aton, rather than the pantheon of gods Egypt believed in. The center for this religion is thought to have been at or near Heliopolis. I have given you a link to the History site that gives a bit more detail, and there are others that will give you information about Aton, the one God of Akhenaten.

"During the 18th Dynasty the pharaoh Amenhotep III renamed the sun god Aton, an ancient term for the physical solar force. Amenhotep's son and successor, Amenhotep IV, instituted a revolution in Egyptian religion by proclaiming Aton the true and only god. He changed his own name to Ikhnaton, meaning “Aton is satisfied.” This first great monotheist was so iconoclastic that he had the plural word gods deleted from monuments, and he relentlessly persecuted the priests of Amon. Ikhnaton's sun religion failed to survive, although it exerted a great influence on the art and thinking of his time, and Egypt returned to the ancient, labyrinthine religion of polytheism after Ikhnaton's death." From The History Channel - Egyptian Mythology

Now, you may ask why I find this small bit of the Bible of any interest at all. It's a good question. I believe in a single, unified God. I believe He is one single being. So, when I find Joseph, a child raised by a father who also believed in a single God but who is a prisoner in a city where the major religion worships hundreds of gods, being given a wife who is very likely the daughter of a Priest of a religion that teaches there is one, single God I find myself experiencing several emotions. Amazement comes to mind.
Had Joseph been presented with any other woman, he may not have accepted her because of the conflict in their religious beliefs. Or, he may have been drawn away from the God of his father to accept the gods of his wife. But here Joseph is presented with a woman who may very well have been taught to recognize only one reigning God. That's just amazing.

Of course you could say there is no evidence of Asenath's background. No, there isn't. But I find it a bit curious that we would even be told who this Egyptian woman's father was if there was no importance attached to it. When wives are mentioned in the Bible, their lineage is only important when something momentous is attached to it. Even men's lineage is subject to this peculiarity. For example, in Genesis 36:24 we find that one of the original peoples of Edom was a man called Zibeon who had two sons named Aiah and Anah. Anah is the one who discovered hot springs in the wilderness while he was grazing his father's donkeys.

Now, that single fact has no bearing on anything in the Bible that I know of. But for those repeating the oral history it would be very important for some reason. Perhaps the springs themselves became well known but this was Edom - the land of Esau, and not a place Jacob's descendants would bother with much. Obviously, only important information was added in the lineages of the Bible. You will find this kind of thing here and there where a recitation of names occurs.

Personally, I believe this particular wife was probably selected for Joseph for the reasons I mentioned. God looked out for Joseph. The religious uprising in Egypt probably occurred before the children of Israel came to Egypt. Imagine for a second, a rogue Pharaoh suddenly breaking with hundreds of years of tradition to establish a monotheistic religion. A single priest of this religion has a daughter destined to become the wife of Joseph and a direct ancestor of Jesus Christ - the god/man of Christianity. After the death of that Pharaoh, the religion of Egypt reverted back to polytheism and never again did such a thing occur.

Peculiar, interesting, amazing? I think so.


Here is a site that will give you more information on this infamous Egyptian. It is worth the read.