Manasseh was the firstborn son of Joseph and his Egyptian wife. By this time, Joseph had experienced a series of ups and downs in Egypt. He had enjoyed success as manager of Potiphar’s household—only to be thrown in jail, falsely accused of trying to seduce Potiphar’s wife.
After languishing in prison for at least two years, Joseph appeared before the pharaoh to interpret his dreams. Joseph accurately predicted seven years of abundance followed by seven years of famine—and rose to prominence, becoming second only to Pharaoh himself. It was during the seven years of abundance that Joseph took a wife and started a family. The hope that his new family would replace the one he’d lost years before was reflected in the meaning of Manasseh’s name: “making to forget.”
Joseph, however, would not be allowed to forget his family for long— and this forever changed the course of Manasseh’s legacy. Some time after being reunited with his brothers and his aging father, Jacob, Joseph presented his two sons to receive the family blessing. Jacob, now going by the name Israel, took Manasseh and Ephraim on his lap and announced that they would be counted among his own sons. This act secured Manasseh’s place alongside Judah, Levi, Benjamin, and the others as a forefather of one of Israel’s twelve tribes.
Manasseh’s descendants came to be renowned for their valor. They were among the first to capture territory in the Promised Land, and commanders from the tribe of Manasseh once aided the prophetess Deborah in driving out the Midianites.
The story of Manasseh’s birth includes one rather curious detail: His mother, Asenath, was the daughter of Potiphera (no known relation to Potiphar). Potiphera was a priest at On, a city devoted to the worship of the Egyptian sun god, Ra. The Bible does not say whether Asenath embraced the monotheism of Joseph’s family. In any case, Joseph’s choice of a spouse was a brush with idolatry— something that would plague Manasseh and his descendants for centuries to come.