Genesis 46: Jacob and Family Move to Egypt

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Most scholars think Jacob and his family still live in Hebron. Upon hearing that Joseph is still alive, Jacob sets off without further ado with all his relatives and belongings. They travel roughly 26 miles; that brings them to Beersheba. There, he offers sacrifices to “the God of his father Isaac.” Isaac built this altar, and this is where God appeared to him and declared that he was the God that appeared to his father, Abraham. It is a nice touch that Jacob, on his way to see his son, stops to offer sacrifices to the God of his father. Interestingly, the word for “offer a sacrifice” appears only here and in Genesis 31.

Later that night, after Jacob has made sacrifices on the altar, God speaks to him in a “vision.” Despite the use of this word, scholars agree it is only an oral communication. This is not the first time God speaks to Jacob, but it is the last. Indeed, this is the last communication with any of the patriarchs. The first time is when Jacob is heading to Haran. God promises to be with him and to return him to this land.

God calls out to him, repeating his name twice. He answers, “I am here.” God tells him, “Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make you into a great nation there. I will go down to Egypt with you, and I will surely bring you back again. And Joseph’s own hand will close your eyes.”

This declaration is a classic oracle formula for “fear not.” There are four parts. 1) God identifies himself. 2) He reassures by saying, “fear not.” 3) He outlines the fearful aspects. 4) And He follows with promises. Generally, this is spoken before any suggestion of fearfulness. This is the case here as well. Jacob gives no indication that he is afraid. But he has many reasons for being so. He is leaving the Promised Land for a foreign country. He will most likely die on foreign soil. God specifically tells Isaac not to go to Egypt (see Gen. 26:2). And perhaps he is aware of God’s promise to Abraham that his descendants will be enslaved in Egypt (See Gen. 15:13). Nonetheless, these concerns are dwarfed by the prospect of seeing Joseph alive.

Another interesting point in God’s speech is the statement that “I will make you into a great nation there.” At the very least, this suggests they will be there for a while. And becoming a great nation will happen outside the borders of the Promised Land. God, however, will go down with them and will surely bring them back again. He just forgets to mention that it would be in 400+ years. There is no conflict between “I will bring you back,” and “Joseph’s hand will close your eyes.” One speaks to the national scene; the other speaks to Jacob’s individual experience. Traditionally, the eldest son or a near relative closes the eyes of the deceased. This will be Jacob’s experience, and it is borne out in later chapters.

Heartened by this information, Jacob and his family set out from Beersheba. Elderly and feeble, Jacob puts the details of the move in the hands of his sons. The sons take all their wives and children, along with all their livestock and possessions. Everything they have acquired in Canaan is loaded into the carts provided by Pharaoh. This is a migration; nothing is left behind.

Along with him are his sons and grandsons, his daughters and granddaughters. (Note the plural form of daughters and granddaughters.) We know of one daughter, Dinah, but perhaps there are others. Missing from this list is any mention of Leah or Zilpah or Bilhah. It is simply unknown whether they are still alive. There is no information that any of them have passed away, but they simply are not part of this story.

The list of people is formulated in relation to the wives and concubines. It begins with the children of Leah, then the children of her handmaid, Zilpah. This is followed by the sons of Rachel and her handmaid, Bilhah. Altogether Leah’s descendants number 33. Names are given to the four sons of Reuben, the six sons of Simeon, the three sons of Levi, the five sons of Judah and so on. And then there's the daughter, Dinah. Zilpah’s descendants number 16. Rachel’s descendants number 14. And Bilhah’s descendants number 7. The total of all these descendants is 70. Scholars have long pointed out the prominence of the number seven and its multiples among these lists.

The total number of children belonging to Leah and Zilpah is 49 – seven times seven. Rachel and Bilhah have 21 – three times seven. One might say that this is the number of Jacob’s descendants from his loins. If seven and its multiples indicate completeness, Jacob’s family is “complete.” However, scholars recognize that some machinations of the numbers are required to achieve this finality. The text states that 66 migrated to Egypt. Obviously, Joseph and his two sons are not included in the list because they are already in Egypt. That brings the number to 67. Various strategies are used to get it down one more. Some exclude Dinah or Jacob himself.

Additionally, two of Judah’s sons, Er and Onan, have already died in the land. They are replaced by his grandsons, Hezron and Hamul. It is unlikely that these are the only two grandsons of Judah, but they are the only two that are named. Dinah is included to reach the number 33, even though there are other “daughters.”

Other points worth noting are that the language is always different when Rachel is mentioned. There is an introductory formula as well as a summarizing statement. Also, it mentions that Benjamin is the most prolific, having ten sons. It’s been so tempting to think of Benjamin as a younger man, given the previous stories about how the other brothers go to great lengths to protect him from any adversity. But according to this list, he is old enough to have ten sons. He could have had multiple wives, but he still has ten sons. Some scholars have made much of the fact that Joseph gives him so much more than any of the other brothers. Rather than think this is perpetuating the spoiling aspect of him as the “baby” of the family, it is more likely that this is meant as a test for the brothers. Could they still be nice to Benjamin even though he is favored? It brings to mind the brothers’ treatment of Joseph when he is favored. And if it is a test, the brothers pass it. Last but not least, Asenath, the wife of Joseph, is the only wife to be mentioned; she, of course, is not counted as a descendant.

Scholars' concession that this list is slightly contrived to make the numbers work out a certain way is made very clear by additional genealogical lists elsewhere in the Bible. Names are spelled differently. Grandsons are listed in different orders or missing altogether. According to Numbers 26, Benjamin only has five sons. Scholars sometimes attribute these differences to varying source material, but all are quick to point out that this isn’t intended to be an accurate historical picture of Jacob’s family.

Perhaps the key lies in the lists themselves. Both concubines are described with the notation that “Laban gave one each to Leah/Rachel, his daughters.” The mention of Laban at this point reminds the reader how little Jacob has when he arrives at Haran and meets Laban. Now his entourage is “complete.” It is a complete change!

Jacob sends Judah on ahead to find out exactly where Goshen is. The irony abounds. Judah will now mediate the reunion between Jacob and Joseph. Years ago, Judah played a major role in creating the separation between them. But once again, the narrator puts Judah in a leadership role, in part to establish him as a future leader of Israel.

There is no record of his conversation with Joseph upon his arrival. Instead, as soon as he has news, Joseph readies his own chariot to go to Goshen to greet them. He does not wait for his father to come to him. “As soon as Joseph appeared before him, he threw his arms around his father and wept for a long time.” This weeping, however, signifies tears of joy, not sorrow.

Upon seeing Joseph one more time, Jacob says that he is ready to die. This foreshadows the moment in the temple when Simon sees the baby Jesus. He, too, is ready to die. In fact, however, another seventeen years will pass before Jacob’s death. Nonetheless, Jacob has longed for this moment the better part of twenty years. He is finally at peace and is ready to die. Yet, there is not a single question from him as to how any of this has happened. He never asks, “How did you get to Egypt?” He is done with questions; he is content, and that is enough.

After the greetings, it is time to attend to some diplomatic matters. Joseph tells his family that he will go to see Pharaoh to tell him that they have arrived. He doesn’t want anything to upend this happy arrival. Pharaoh must be told. He will also tell Pharaoh that they are shepherds. Scholars think that Goshen was well suited for livestock, so it is the perfect place for them to settle. He wants Pharaoh to understand their vocation in caring for their flocks.

He also instructs his family in how to talk with Pharaoh. So when Pharaoh asks them what their occupation is, they should say they’ve all tended livestock, just like their forefathers did. They also should refer to themselves as his servants. There is considerable discussion regarding Joseph’s final statement, “Then you will be allowed to settle in the region of Goshen, for all shepherds are detestable to the Egyptians.”

This last comment about shepherding is a little confusing for later we read that Pharaoh has his own flocks – obviously someone is tending to them. So in which way would shepherds be detestable (the word is typically translated an “abomination”) to the Egyptians? Scholars think that most of the Egyptians lived in urban centers and were involved in sedentary agriculture. The nomadic herdsmen were thought to be quite inferior and possibly were kept separate. By telling Pharaoh that they are shepherds, they are paving the way for him to choose Goshen as the place where they can settle – nearby but still separate from the Egyptians. Regardless of this statement, Joseph is telling them to be completely transparent with Pharaoh regarding their occupation. He is doing everything he can to ensure their settlement in Goshen.