Jacob's Seventieth Descendant

by John P. Pratt

reprinted from Meridian Magazine (Aug. 18, 2000).
©2000 by John P. Pratt. All rights Reserved.

Index, Home

1. Ancient Solutions
2. The Solution
3. The Hebrew Tradition
4. The Christian Tradition
5. Conclusion
Applying strict logic to an account in Genesis leads to discovering a startling hidden treasure in the scriptures. Our science editor gives the answer to the scriptural puzzle presented last month.

In last month's article, "Hidden Treasures in the Scriptures" we looked at what appears to be a first class logic puzzle in the Book of Genesis (Gen. 46:5-27). At first the problem looks like a simple mistake: the record implies that Jacob had seventy descendants when he arrived in Egypt, and yet only sixty-nine appear to be listed. Now let's look at the solution, which indeed has been a hidden treasure in the scriptures. The answer is important because it is strong evidence from the Bible of a Jewish tradition that has been thought by scholars to be merely a fanciful fabrication. Not only does it add to our knowledge of Biblical history, but the solution likely affects your genealogy because Jacob's seventieth descendant is likely to be your own ancestor!

The problem, which is given in full in last month's article, arises from the following two apparent inconsistencies in the Biblical record. Jacob had four wives, and the number of descendants of each is given along with a list of their names. The first problem is that it claims Leah had 33 living descendants, but only 32 names are listed with her. Secondly, it makes a big point that 66 descendants made the trip to Egypt with Jacob, and that Joseph and his two sons were already there, for a total of seventy. Both statements seem to be missing somebody, so the question arises whether it is possible to reconcile all the statements.

Most modern scholars assume that Moses wrote the Book of Genesis himself, or that it was written down centuries after Moses from oral traditions. Thus, they tend to overlook human "errors" and usually don't even mention this problem at all. On the other hand, ancient Jewish commentators studied every word of Genesis because they understood that the entire book was given as a revelation from God to Moses. Therefore, any apparent inconsistency demanded a real explanation. Although it does not appear that they deduced the correct solution, it is instructive to review the solutions which they offered.[1]

1. Ancient Solutions

One solution given by Jewish commentators near the time of Christ was that Jacob is to be counted with the 69 to bring the total to 70. This is also the usual solution given by modern Bible commentators, if they mention the problem at all. That solution will not work, however, because the numbers of descendants given for each of the four wives do indeed add up to seventy (Leah 33, Zilpah 16, Rachel 14, Bilhah 7), so clearly it was not the author's intent to include Jacob himself in the count. Other solutions were that another son of Dan, or that Asher's daughter Serah, or even that the Holy One of Israel would complete the count.

The best ancient solution was probably deduced as follows. First, Leah had 33 descendants but only 32 are listed as making the trip, so the missing descendant must be from Leah. Second, 66 made the trip, 3 were already in Egypt, and yet the total in Egypt when Jacob arrived in Egypt was 70. Therefore, one might have been born just as they crossed the border into Egypt. The proposed person was Jochebed, the mother of Moses, who was Levi's daughter and Leah's granddaughter (Exo. 2:1, 6:16-20). That answer should technically be disqualified on at least two counts. First, the puzzle states that Jacob took with him all of his sons' daughters, so that should include her, even if carried in the womb. Secondly, the Bible specifically states that Jochebed was born to Levi after he arrived in Egypt (Num. 26:59). That did not stop the commentator from inventing this detailed description of her birth, which is clearly a taylor-made solution to our problem:

Such was the manner of Jacob's arrival in Egypt. He came with his whole family, sixty-nine persons they were in all, but the number was raised to seventy by the birth of Jochebed, afterward the mother of Moses, which took place when the cavalcade had advanced to the space between the one and the other city wall.[2]

Why should Jochedbed, rather than any other unnamed infant, be chosen for this very clever solution to the problem? She was a particularly good candidate because she was said to be very old at the time of Moses birth. There is a tradition of uncertain origin that she was 130 years old at his birth.[3] That's forty years older than Sarah at the birth of Isaac! In any case, if she were 130, and if Moses was 80 when he delivered Israel from bondage (Exo. 7:7) then the total stay in Egypt would have been 210 years (if she had been born as they entered). That is close to the traditional 215 years for the stay in Egypt.[4] When the apocryphal Book of Jasher was compiled from Jewish traditions, this commentary had become so well accepted that Jasher explicitly states that Jochebed "was born unto them in their going down to Egypt" (Jasher 59:9), a rare example of actually changing the Biblical record that she was born after they arrived in Egypt. Moreover, the length of the sojourn in Egypt according to that book was cut from 215 years down to 210 years (Jasher 81:3, compare Ex. 12:40), apparently just to fit this very solution to this puzzle.

2. The Solution

Now let us turn to what I propose is the real solution, which does not require any additional information or Biblical background to see, but which can be deduced only from the information given in the "puzzle" itself. In other words, it could be deduced if all the names were changed to fictitious names, so that the puzzle could be solved independent of the rest of Biblical history.

1. We are told 66 descendants made the trip to Egypt, that Joseph and his two sons were already in Egypt, but that the total number in the House of Jacob on arrival was 70. The first possibility is that Jacob is the 70th person.

2. Jacob cannot be the 70th person because the totals for each of the four wives adds up to 70, so Jacob is not included in the count.

3. The person must be Leah's descendant because she had 33 and only 32 are listed with her name.

4. Because only 66 made the trip, the 70th person must have been in Egypt already (or perhaps born at the moment they crossed the Egyptian border!?).

5. Except for Joseph and his two sons, Jacob brought with him all his sons and his sons' sons and his daughters, and his sons' daughters, and also all of his great-grandchildren. At first, this wording might sound like a verbose way to state that Jacob brought all of his descendants with him except for Joseph and his two sons. But closer inspection shows that the list fails to include his daughters' children. Jacob only had one daughter, so the missing descendant must have been his daughter Dinah's child. There are many such examples in the scriptures where it looks like the Lord is going on with needless detail, when actually great truths are hidden in what is not said. Every word which proceeds forth from his mouth is carefully chosen.

6. Now for the surprise. The Bible states, "These are the names of the children of Israel," (Gen. 46:8), and there are indeed 70 names which follow. The seventieth name, which appears to be extra, is that of Asenath, the wife of Joseph. Her name is given in the verse about those who were already in Egypt, so that brings the total names to four of those who didn't make the trip.

7. But wait. Weren't we explicitly told that none of the wives of the twelve sons of Jacob were included in the count? So isn't Joseph's wife Asenath disqualified because of that? It is this point which convinced me that these verses qualify as a truly classic logic puzzle. The best puzzles have misleading clues, designed to make the puzzle difficult, such as we saw in point 5 above in the way the list of those making the trip was worded. A careful reading shows that the puzzle stated that none of the wives is included in the count of the 66 who made the trip (Gen. 46:26). So all of the wives but one are disallowed! The wording expressly allows Asenath to be the seventieth descendant. Such misleading and yet technically correct statements are the bread and butter of logic puzzles.

8. Thus, the solution to the puzzle is that Joseph's wife Asenath is the seventieth descendant of Jacob, being the daughter of Dinah.

Now let's look at Hebrew and Christian traditions which support this conclusion.

3. The Hebrew Tradition

But could Asenath really have been Dinah's daughter? To the best of my knowledge, this solution to the puzzle has never been published until now. No one has noticed that these verses in an obscure list of genealogy imply that Joseph's wife, the mother of the tribe who inherited the blessing of the firstborn of Israel, is also of the house of Israel. Could that really be true?

It turns out that it has long been a Jewish tradition that Asenath was the daughter of Leah's daughter Dinah by Shechem, a prince in the land of Canaan (Gen. 34:2). It has been thought by scholars that this tradition was no more than a fabrication. It was supposedly invented to explain the otherwise embarrassing fact that Joseph married an Egyptian woman, when Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were all given strict commands to marry in their own family lineage. It has always seemed strange to me, however, that a legend was invented to legitimize Joseph's wife's lineage by making her the illegitimate daughter of Dinah and someone from Canaan. Here is one of the many variations of this tradition:

Dinah was already pregnant by Shechem, an bore him a posthumous daughter. Her brothers wished to kill the child, as custom demanded, lest any Canaanite might say 'The maidens of Israel are without shame!' Jacob, however, restrained them, hung about his grand-daughter's neck a silver disk on which were engraved the words 'Holy to God!', and laid her underneath a thorn bush -- hence she was called 'Asenath'. That same day Michael, in the shape of an eagle, flew off with Asenath to On in Egypt, and there laid her beside God's altar. The priest, by name Potipherah, seeing his wife was barren, brought up Asenath as his own child.
Many years later, when Joseph had saved Egypt from famine and made a progress through the land, women threw him thank-offerings. Among them was Asenath who, having no other gift, tossed Joseph her silver disk, which he caught as it flew by. He recognized the inscription and, knowing the she must be his own niece, married her.[5]

In a less miraculous version of this tradition, Jacob himself placed the infant Asenath

near the wall of Egypt. On the same day Potiphar was taking a walk, accompanied by his retinue, and approached the wall. He heard the child weeping and commanded his followers to bring it to him. When he noticed the tablet and read the inscription he said to his followers, "This child is the daughter of eminent people. Carry it into my house and procure a nurse for it.[6]

It is clear from how different these two traditions are that much of these stories are the interpolations of men. All of these legends agree, however, on the core idea that Asenath was the daughter of Dinah and Shechem. The uncertainty seems to be on just how she came to arrive in Egypt and to be adopted by Potipherah.

Another clue is that Joseph is tied to Shechem is that Joseph was buried at Shechem (Joshua 24:32). Why was he buried there, when Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were buried together in Hebron? Shechem later became part of the inheritance of the tribe of Manasseh, Joseph's son. Now let us turn to early Christian traditions about Joseph and Asenath.

4. The Christian Tradition

A rather different story is told in the apocryphal book Joseph and Asenath, which was a highly respected book of early Christianity.[7] A principal theme is Asenath's total conversion to Joseph's religion, facilitated by the appearance of an angel who looked like Joseph (J&A 14:9).

While this book says nothing about Asenath not being the literal daughter of Potipherah, it has many clues that the author knew her true lineage, but also wanted to keep it a secret. Remember, that during past ages, it was a huge disgrace to have been an illegitimate child, so the motive for keeping her lineage secret is obvious. Here are some clues that the author of Joseph and Asenath knew who Asenath really was.

1. The point is made that Asenath does not look anything like other Egyptian women, but that she was "slender like unto Sarah, beautiful like Rebekah, and radiant in appearance like Rachel."[8] Stating that she looked exactly like the three wives of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, all of whom were from Abraham's family, has a pretty clear implications about her true lineage, without giving details.

2. The author gives the ages of both Asenath and Joseph's brother Benjamin correctly, as being 18 years old at the time when Joseph was 30 (J&A 1:4, 27:2). That matches the Hebrew tradition perfectly,[9] although that information is not in the Old Testament.

3. Asenath goes into a soliloquy where she states that she is "an orphan, and desolate and abandoned and hated" (J&A 11:3). Such a surprising declaration is justified by explaining that she means only that she expects to be rejected by her Egyptian parents when she denounces their gods. The evidence that she really was a rejected orphan makes it much more understandable that such an unusual statement would be included.

4. The story speaks of Asenath's "foster father." He does not appear to be Potipherah, but rather a steward (J&A 18:2), but it is interesting that the story includes her foster father.

Thus, there are many clues that the author of the Joseph and Asenath knew who she really was. Much of the rest of the book appears to be interpolation and fabrication, or what we might call today a "historical novel." The great success of recent historical novels seems to be that they are set in a true historical setting. Similarly, it appears that the author of Joseph and Asenath wrote the account to be consistent with all of the historical setting of which he was aware.

5. Conclusion

If it is acknowledged that there really is a true logic puzzle purposely included in Genesis 46, then it is an important discovery because it elevates the tradition of Asenath's true lineage from being a mere fabrication to being indicated by scripture. But one cannot prove that the logic puzzle was in the mind of the author of Genesis. It could be argued that the puzzle is not there at all, that it is rather just a coincidence that two errors just happen to indicate that Asenath is of the House of Israel. Anyone taking that position, however, should explain why Asenath's name is in the genealogy list at all, especially in light of the explicit statement that none of the wives is included in the count. This point and all of the other unusual wording can best be explained by recognizing that Genesis does indeed contain all the information necessary to deduce that Asenath, the mother of the two tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, was the daughter of Dinah of the house of Israel.


The author wishes to thank Wiliam L. Walker, Jr. for introducing me to the Asenath traditions which helped me to solve the puzzle, and David Barker for helping to research the subject.


  1. Neusner, Jacob, Genesis Rabbah, The Judaic Commentary to the Book of Genesis, A New American Translation (Atlanta, Georgia: Scholars Press, 1985). Vol III, pp. 319-324.
  2. Ginzberg, Louis, The Legends of the Jews, (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1948), vol II, p. 122.
  3. For example see The Book of Jasher (Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Artisan Sales, 1988), which implies that Jochebed was 130 at Moses birth (Jasher 59:9, 68:2, 68:11, 73:1-2).
  4. The 430 years mentioned in Exo. 12:40 was interpreted to be 215 years from Abraham's entering Canaan until Israel entered Egypt, followed by another 215 years in Egypt. See the Jewish historian Josephus in Antiquities, XIV.xv.2.
  5. Graves, Robert & Patai, Raphael, Hebrew Myths (New York: Greenwich House, 1964), p. 237. See also Ginzberg, op. cit., II: 38.
  6. V. Aptowitzer, "Asenath, the Wife of Joseph," Hebrew Union College Annual (New York: Ktav Publishing, 1924), Vol. I, pp. 239-255.
  7. Burchard, C., "Joseph and Asenath," in Charlesworth, James H., The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (New York: Doubleday, 1985), 195 states, "Joseph and Asenath is one of the best attested and most widely distributed books included in this collection."
  8. Joseph and Asenath 1:8, translation from Ginzberg, op. cit., II:170.
  9. For example, Jubilees 30:2 says Dinah was 12 at the time of her union with Shechem. Joseph and Dinah were the same age, which would make Joseph about twelve years older than Asenath, so Asenath being 18 when Joseph was 30 makes sense. And Benjamin was born at Bethlehem shortly after the incident at Shechem, as the family traveled to Hebron (Gen. 35:18).