Question: "Who were the priests of On? Was Joseph wrong to marry the daughter of a pagan priest (Genesis 41)?"
Answer: In Genesis 41, we read that Joseph married the daughter of the priest of On. Verse 45 says, “Pharaoh . . . gave [Joseph] Asenath daughter of Potiphera, priest of On, to be his wife.” This seems to go against the Old Testament directive not to intermarry with pagans (Nehemiah 13:27). Was Joseph sinfully embracing Egyptian culture? Or is there more to the story?
First, it is clear that Joseph was “given” a wife by Pharaoh. Joseph had just come from prison to interpret a prophetic dream for Pharaoh. When the dream was interpreted, the king honored Joseph with a high-ranking office in Egypt and placed him in charge of preparing for a future famine. Joseph’s rewards included a new position, a new Egyptian name (“Zaphenath-Paneah”), and an Egyptian wife. Joseph was not given a choice regarding whether to take Asenath as his wife.
Second, God permitted Joseph to take this wife. Through Asenath, Joseph had two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, who became two tribes in Israel. The two tribes from Joseph meant that the Levites could serve as priests and spiritual leaders and not be given a tribal land. Thus, there were still only 12 portions of inherited land in Israel.
Third, God used this marriage to strengthen Joseph’s new position as a national leader. The city of On was also known as Heliopolis, “The City of the Sun.” It was the center of worship of the sun god, Ra, and was located 10 miles northeast of modern Cairo. The high priest in On held the title of “Greatest of Seers.” When Joseph married into this family, he joined a social class befitting a national leader. Also implied in the marriage arrangement was Pharaoh’s confidence that Joseph, too, was a “seer,” or prophet, of the highest caliber.
Certainly, the Bible teaches separation from the world and that Christians are to marry a believing spouse (1 Corinthians 7). However, Joseph’s situation did not allow for this choice. Instead, God used this situation to accomplish His will in ways Joseph could not understand at the time.
When a Christian today is married to an unbelieving spouse, the New Testament encourages him or her to remain in the marriage unless the spouse leaves (or, if they do divorce, to stay unmarried): “To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife” (1 Corinthians 7:10-11). The Bible speaks elsewhere regarding the issue of adultery or sexual immorality as grounds for divorce (Matthew 5:32). The death of a spouse also allows the opportunity for remarriage to another believer (1 Corinthians 7:39).
Joseph did not sin by taking Asenath as his wife. He was given no choice in the matter. Further, the Old Testament Law had not been given, and the New Testament teachings regarding marriage did not yet exist. In addition, God worked through Joseph’s marriage to serve as a blessing to many and to become an important part of the history of God’s people.
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