Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Early Jewish Monotheism and Divine Plurality Pt. 2

Sam Shamoun

We continue our analysis of the extant non-canonical Jewish writings to see what the authors of such works believed about God, principal angels and other heavenly beings. In this article we will be examining certain statements from the writing called Joseph and Aseneth.

Before delving into this work a little background information is necessary. The author(s) is/are anonymous and scholars are not certain whether this is a Jewish work, whether a writing of the Essenes or Egyptian Jews and that the work was probably composed in Egypt.

To add to the confusion, there are those who actually think that this is pretty much an anonymous Christian writing or that it contains interpolations by Christians.

Scholars are also divided over the exact date of the composition. They range it anywhere between the 1st century BC and early 2nd century AD. And even though it was originally written in Greek there are extant versions of Joseph and Aseneth in Armenian, Slavonic, Latin, Middle English, and Syriac.

Yet since many believe that Joseph and Aseneth is representative of Second Temple Judaism we will take a look to see what it has to say concerning the Deity, e.g., did some if not many of the Jews in the period before, during and shortly after Christ believe that there was a second Divine Power who was personally distinct from and yet completely resembled Yahweh? Or did they hold to a very strict form of monotheism, e.g. unitarianism, which ruled out the possibility of another entity sharing the unique Divine essence of Yahweh?

With the foregoing in view we now turn our attention to Joseph and Aseneth. According to the book Aseneth, the Egyptian woman who eventually became Joseph’s wife, besought the true God to deliver her and to make her a true believer. The work describes the fulfillment of her prayer, which is where we pick it up. The following quotes are based, for the most part, on the translation of C. Burchard that is found in volume 2 of The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha edited by James H. Charlesworth. All bold and italic emphasis will be ours.

“And when Aseneth had ceased making confession to the Lord, behold, the morning star rose out of heaven in the east. An Aseneth saw it and rejoiced and said, ‘So the Lord God listened to my prayer, because this star rose as a messenger and herald of the light of the great day.’ And Aseneth kept looking, and behold, close to the morning star, the heaven was torn apart and great and unutterable light appeared. And Aseneth (saw) it and fell on (her) face on the ashes. And a man came to her from heaven and stood by Aseneth’s head. And he called her and said, ‘Aseneth, Aseneth.’ And she said, ‘Who is he that calls me, because the door of my chamber is closed, and the tower is high, and how then did he come into my chamber?’ And the man called her a second time and said, ‘Aseneth, Aseneth.’ And she said, ‘Behold (here) I (am), Lord. Who are you, tell me.’ And the man said, ‘I am the chief of the house of the Lord and commander of the whole host of the Most High. Rise and stand on your feet, and I will tell you what I have to say.’

“And Aseneth raised her head and saw, and behold, (there was) a man in every respect similar to Joseph, by the robe and the crown and the royal staff, except that his face was like lightning, and his eyes like sunshine, and the hairs of his head like a flame of fire of a burning torch, and hands and feet like iron shining forth from a fire, and sparks shot forth from his hands and feet. And Aseneth saw (it) and fell on her face at his feet on the ground. And Aseneth was filled with great fear, and all of her limbs trembled. And the man said to her, ‘Courage and do not be afraid, but rise and stand on your feet, and I will tell you what I have to say.’… And the man said to her, ‘Courage, Aseneth, chaste virgin. Behold, I have heard all the words of your confession and your prayer. Behold, I have also seen the humiliation and the affliction of the seven days of your want (of food). Behold, from your tears and these ashes, plenty of mud has formed before your face. Courage, Aseneth, chaste virgin. For behold, your name was written in the book of the living in heaven; in the beginning of the book, as the very first of all, your name was written by my finger, and it will not be erased forever. Behold, from today, you will be renewed and formed anew and made alive again, and you will eat the blessed bread of life, and drink a blessed cup of immortality, and anoint yourself with the blessed ointment of incorruptibility. Courage, Aseneth, chaste virgin. Behold, I have given you today to Joseph for a bride, and he himself will be your bridegroom for ever (and) ever… And, therefore, the Most High Father loves her [Repentance], and all the angels stand in awe of her. And I, too, love her exceedingly, because she is also my sister. And because she loves you virgins, I love you, too.’” 14:1-11, 15:2b-6, 8

Aseneth then proceeds to worship the man as she asks for his name:

“And when the man had finished speaking these words, Aseneth rejoiced exceedingly with great joy about all these words and fell at his feet and prostrated himself [sic] face down to the ground before him, and said to him, ‘Blessed be the Lord your God the Most High who sent you out to rescue me from the darkness and bring me up from the foundations of the abyss, and blessed be your name forever. What is your name, Lord; tell me in order that I may praise and glorify you for ever (and) ever.’ And the man said to her, ‘Why do you seek this, my name, Aseneth? My name is in the heavens in the book of the Most High, written by the finger of God in the beginning of the book before all (the others), because I am chief of the house of the Most High. And all names written in the book of the Most High are unspeakable, and man is not allowed to pronounce nor hear them in this world, because those names are exceedingly great and wonderful and laudable.” 15:11-13

Much like we saw in the case of the Apocalypses of Abraham and Zephaniah, the writer(s) of this particular work has/have taken the various OT appearances of Yahweh and certain heavenly beings and applied them to this specific figure (cf. Ezek. 1:26-2:10; 8:1-4; Dan. 10:4-10; 12:5-7). The title, “commander of the whole host of the Most High”, and the worship that this figure receives are obviously meant to connect him with the very Divine Being that Joshua saw:

“When Joshua was by Jericho, he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, a man stood before him with his drawn sword in his hand; and Joshua went to him and said to him, ‘Are you for us, or for our adversaries?’ And he said, ‘No; but as commander of the army of the LORD I have now come.’ And Joshua fell on his face to the earth, and worshiped, and said to him, ‘What does my Lord bid his servant?’ And the commander of the LORD’s army said to Joshua, ‘Put off your shoes from your feet; for the place where you stand is holy.’ And Joshua did so.’” Joshua 5:13-15

This seems to explain why the writer(s) depict(s) Aseneth worshiping this Being. The author(s) may have recalled that since Joshua worshiped the Commander of Yahweh’s army it was therefore entirely appropriate that Aseneth do likewise.

Moreover, by calling him “the chief of the house of the Lord” it is evident that he holds the highest rank in heaven, having authority over all of God’s heavenly creatures, subject only to the God who sends him.

What makes this even more amazing is that this very same heavenly Being who is distinguished from the Most High God, e.g. he is the chief of the house of the Lord and commander of the whole host of the Most High (cf. 14:7-8), is himself referred to as G/god:

“And Aseneth said, ‘(What a) foolish and bold (woman) I (am), because I have spoken with frankness and said that a man came into my chamber from heaven; and I did not know that (a) G/god came to me. And behold, now he is traveling back into heaven to his place.’” 17:9

In some of the manuscripts we find the definite article added before the word G/god so that this Being is not simply some lesser heavenly messenger but THE God, i.e. he is fully Divine like God himself. On the other hand, it may actually be the case that certain scribes were uncomfortable with the idea of a second entity being called God and decided to attach the definite article in order to turn this into a theophany or an appearance of God himself, as opposed to that of a heavenly messenger.

However, this latter view seems unlikely in light of the clear distinction which the book itself makes between God Most High and this particular heavenly figure whom he sent. It seems more certain that some of the scribes (perhaps Christians?) could see that this figure was not a creature and therefore not a god, but a fully Divine entity and therefore the God while at the same time being personally distinct from the God that sent him. They decided to add the article before the word God in order to bring out this point more clearly.

Whatever the explanation may be one fact remains certain: Joseph and Aseneth provides a further example that there were Jews who realized from their reading of the Hebrew Bible that there was another fully Divine Person in heaven, One who was distinct from and in some sense subordinate to Yahweh God. And according to the inspired NT teachings that figure is none other than our risen and immortal Savior Jesus Christ, God’s eternal and beloved Son, the King of all kings and Lord of all lords, who is the Master or Lord of God’s household:

“Jesus left the temple and was going away, when his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. But he answered them, ‘You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another, that will not be thrown down.’ As he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, ‘Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?’ … ‘Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken; then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory; and he will send out HIS angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather HIS elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other… Watch therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord (ho kyrios humon) is coming. But know this, that if the householder had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have watched and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready; for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect. Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom his Lord (ho kyrios) has set over HIS household, to give them their food at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom his Lord (ho kyrios autou) when he comes will find so doing. Truly, I say to you, he will set him over all his possessions. But if that wicked servant says to himself, ‘My Lord (mou ho kyrios) is delayed,’ and begins to beat HIS fellow servants, and eats and drinks with the drunken, the Lord of that servant (ho kyrios tou doulou ekeinou) will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know, and will punish him, and put him with the hypocrites; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.’” Matthew 24:1-3, 29-31, 42-51

“In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the Heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.” Hebrews 1:1-2

“Therefore, holy brethren, who share in a heavenly call, consider Jesus, the Apostle and high Priest of our confession. He was faithful to him who appointed him, just as Moses also was faithful in God's house. Yet Jesus has been counted worthy of as much more glory than Moses as the builder of a house has more honor than the house. (For every house is built by some one, but the builder of all things is God.) Now Moses was faithful in all God's house as a servant, to testify to the things that were to be spoken later, but Christ was faithful OVER God's house as a Son. And we are his house if we hold fast our confidence and pride in our hope.” Hebrews 3:1-6

“And from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the Firstborn of the dead, and the Ruler of kings on earth. To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.” Revelation 1:5-6

“Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! He who sat upon it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems; and he has a name inscribed which no one knows but himself. He is clad in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, followed him on white horses. From his mouth issues a sharp sword with which to smite the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron; he will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name inscribed, King of kings and Lord of lords… And the rest were slain by the sword of him who sits upon the horse, the sword that issues from his mouth; and all the birds were gorged with their flesh.” Revelation 19:11-16, 21; cf. 17:14

Amen! Come Lord Jesus, come! You are the Chief of the house of God and the Commander of the armies of heaven, being the beloved and eternal Son of the Father and the Heir of all things! Amen.

Lord Jesus willing, more articles to follow shortly.