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.” The priest of On led the worship of the Egyptian sun god. Joseph’s marriage to his daughter seems to go against the Old Testament directive not to intermarry with pagans (Deuteronomy 7:3; Nehemiah 13:27). Was Joseph sinfully embracing Egyptian culture? Or is there more to the story? Here are some considerations:
First, it is clear that Joseph was a godly man, full of faith (Hebrews 11:22). He was not hesitant to give glory to God in Pharaoh’s presence (Genesis 41:25, 32), and Pharaoh recognized the power of God in Joseph (verse 38). Given Joseph’s staunch, lifelong commitment to do what was right, it’s unlikely that he would accept a sinful union to a pagan wife. There must be more to the story.
Second, Joseph was given his wife by Pharaoh. Joseph had just interpreted a prophetic dream for Pharaoh, and the king responded by honoring Joseph with a high-ranking office in Egypt and placing 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 from a high-profile family. The marriage of the daughter of the priest of On to a foreigner just out of prison was, in all likelihood, shocking to the Egyptian people. But the marriage cemented Joseph’s place in Egyptian society and removed all doubt as to Pharaoh’s approval of him.
Third, God permitted Joseph to take this wife. Scripture says nothing negative about the marriage to Asenath, even though she was the daughter of the priest of On. Through Asenath, Joseph had two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, who became the ancestors of two tribes in Israel. It could be that Asenath embraced the God of Israel who had so blessed Joseph. It could also be that, in giving Asenath to Joseph, the Pharaoh sanctioned Joseph’s religion, allowing Joseph to raise his family in the faith of his fathers. Certainly, Joseph did not become an idolater himself.
Fourth, 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 priests of On were considered to be among the most intelligent and cultured persons in Egypt, and their erudition was second to none. The ancient historian Herodotus reported that “the men of Heliopolis are said to be the most learned in records of the Egyptians” (History 2:3, trans. by G. Macaulay). 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.
The Mosaic Covenant later forbade intermarriage between the people of Israel and the people of Canaan in order to avoid idolatry (Exodus 34:15–16). But Joseph lived before the law was given, he was not marrying a Canaanite, and he did not fall into idolatry. God used Joseph’s marriage to the daughter of the priest of On to accomplish His will and provide for His people, the family of Jacob.
In short, Joseph did not sin by taking Asenath as his wife. The union could have been, in fact, a sign of Asenath’s adoption of her husband’s faith. In any case, God allowed Joseph to marry into the high-profile family of a respected priest, and He worked through that marriage to bless many.