God Goes Down to Egypt with Jacob: A Story for the Exiles
After Jacob’s sons tell him that Joseph is still alive, and is even the ruler of Egypt, Jacob decides to go see his son before his death. Aged Jacob leaves Hebron and embarks on a journey to Egypt, which is his second journey into exile from the land of Israel. After the exile to Haran (Gen 28:10ff), where he spent 20 years, he once again has to go into an exile, whose end is hard to foresee.
When Jacob is first in exile, his father’s house remains in Canaan; though he comes back rich in family and possessions he had what to come back to in any case. Now, however, he departs for exile in Egypt with all his offspring and with all the possessions they acquired in Canaan, leaving only graves and altars, implying that he may not return. On the way, they reach Beer Sheba, where Jacob makes sacrifices to the God of his father Isaac, and, like his fathers, is vouchsafed a divine nocturnal revelation:
2 God called to Israel in a vision by night: “Jacob! Jacob!” He answered, “Here.” 3 And He said, “I am God, the God of your father. Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make you there into a great nation. 4 I Myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I Myself will also bring you back; and Joseph’s hand shall close your eyes.”
What Did Jacob Fear?
Fear Based on Life-Experience
Jacob fears the exile because he has already experienced it, and hence needs God’s encouragement. Jacob lives in the exile of Haran under the patronage of his conniving uncle Laban, who fools him whenever he can and takes advantage of Jacob’s status as a stranger to squeeze as much work out of him as possible. Now Jacob and all his children are moving to a new country where they will yet again experience the vulnerability of being strangers.
Fear of Leaving the Holy Land
From the beginning of the revelation, God tells Jacob not to fear to go down into Egypt. Rashi (1040-1105) says, “He was troubled at being compelled to leave the Holy Land.” Nahmanides (1194-1270) claims that this same verse contains a secret, “[God] calls him Jacob (i.e., not Israel) to hint that now he will no longer ‘struggle with God and man and succeed’, but rather he will be in a house of bondage until he is brought up again, for from this moment the exile began with himself and his seed and he feared it.” Shadal (1800-1865) assumes that, “Perhaps he worried that by going into Egypt with his entire household he would not be able to inherit the land of Israel.”
Thus commentators have linked Jacob’s fear with leaving the land together with the experience of exile and the problems of acclimation to a new place, as well as to a different social status and culture, involving additionally the threat that a temporary stay may become permanent and result in emigration, or even assimilation. God’s words, “I will make you there into a great nation” thus reassure Jacob that his descendants will become a great nation in Egypt, promising first of all that they, or at least most of them, will not assimilate but retain their identity.
Fear of Egyptian Aggression
From a reader’s point of view, Jacob’s fear foreshadows what happens in the beginning of the book of Exodus, where the Israelites are becoming “too numerous”; at a certain point, the Egyptians will no longer desire their massive presence. Jacob’s revelation therefore begins to implement the promise to Abraham in the Covenant between the Parts: “Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years;” (Gen. 15:13).
Although when God reveals this to Abraham, God does not name the land of the future exile, the verse expects the reader to know that Egypt is where the seed of Abraham will experience the enslavement.
In any case, exile is a recurring motif throughout the book of Genesis. Cain was the first exile, and Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and even Joseph experienced the difficulties and dangers of exile, together with the opportunities it may offer.
God’s Reassurance: “I Myself will go down with you”
God’s encouragement in the face of Jacob’s fear includes another reassurance, the promise that the divine presence and providence will be with him in Egypt: “I Myself will go down with you to Egypt.” These words respond not only to Jacob, but also to the argument about the scope of divine providence.
Jacob, according to the narrative, learns that God will not leave him, just as He did not leave him when he fled to Haran to escape his brother, Esau’s vengeance. In that story, God reveals Himself in the dream of the ladder, and Jacob’s surprised response was “Surely the Lord is present in this place, and I did not know it” (Gen 28:16). In Haran too, God reveals Himself and tells Jacob to return to the land of his fathers (Gen 31:3). On the way back, Jacob meets angels of God, and in his prayer before encountering Esau, he thanks God for His care.
Why Does Jacob Need Another Reassurance?
In other words, Jacob’s life story proves that God is with him. The divine promise en route to exile in Haran — “Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go” (Gen. 28:15) – is kept. In fact, God has been so consistently with Jacob and His promises are so clear that the additional promise in our passage appears superfluous. Jacob does not need the promise that God will go down with him into Egypt; ostensibly, he already knows this. Who, then, does need the promise, and what additional message does it contain?
A Revelation to the Readers: God Is with You in Exile Too
It seems that this promise is addressed to the readers of Genesis, opposing an old view that divine providence is limited and effective only in the land of His inheritance, so that leaving the land means leaving God and exposure to the influence of other gods.
God of the Land – Some Examples
This old view is expressed, for instance, in David’s dialogue with Saul whom he encounters while fleeing from him.
“But why does my lord continue to pursue his servant? What have I done, and what wrong am I guilty of? Now let my lord the king hear his servant out. If the Lord has incited you against me, let Him be appeased by an offering; but if it is men, may they be accursed of the Lord! For they have driven me out today, so that I cannot have a share in the Lord’s possession, but am told, ‘go and worship other gods'” (1 Sam. 26:18-19).
Some other biblical writings support this view of David’s. Naaman, for example, who commands the king of Aram’s army, is about to return to his own land. He then asks Elisha for permission to take earth from the land of Israel so that upon it he can worship Israel’s god even in Aram (2 Kgs 5: 17). David fears going to another country ruled by another god, while Na’aman solves the problem by worshipping God in Aram upon earth brought from the land of Israel.
God of the World – The View of Genesis
The book of Genesis contains no such concerns.
- God takes Abraham out of Ur Kasdim (Gen 15:7).
- God addresses Abraham in Haran (Gen 12:1-3).
- God’s angels reach Sodom (Gen 19:1-29).
- God comes in a dream to Abimelech the Philistine king of Gerar (Gen 20:3-7).
- God’s angel reveals Himself twice to Hagar in the wilderness (16:7-12; 21:17-19) and He was there with Ishmael too (21:20).
- He is with Jacob in his wanderings (Gen 28-32).
The God of Genesis is thus universal, watching over and ruling the world with everything that is in it. Quite naturally, it is an especially significant message for a society facing exile. It has to be taught again and again that to enter another country does not mean entering the service of another god, and that the God of Israel will still be with them in the place of their exile.
This idea that is subtly expressed in Genesis is expressed more explicitly in several exilic texts. The conclusion of Solomon’s prayer, an exilic composition, notes that God hears the penitent Judeans in exile (1 Kings 8:46-50). Similarly, the famous Ezek 11:16 notes that God will function as a “mini-sanctuary (מקדש מעט)” for the Judeans in exile. Indeed, many scholars believe that one of the points of the book of Jonah, likely a post-exilic composition, is that the prophet tried to flee “from before the LORD (מלפני י-הוה),” namely away from the land of Israel, hoping that he could escape from God; the continuation of the book suggests otherwise, it suggests a universal God.
“I will Bring You Back” - The Meaning of God’s Enigmatic Promise
The stories of the ancestors were not written as biographies. The stories were written or redacted during the exilic period with an eye towards the future of Israel/Judah, whose history as a people in exile had already begun in the time of the First Temple and continued in the time of the redaction of Genesis, meaning the Persian period. From these stories we learn about the future of our people, whose history is characterized by the phenomenon of exile.
Who is God Promising to Bring Back to Israel?
The multiple significances of these stories are evident from the continuation of God’s final promise to Jacob: “and I Myself will also bring you back; and Joseph’s hand shall close your eyes.” Some have interpreted the final words of God to Jacob to mean, as Rashi writes, “He promised him that he (Jacob) would be interred in the [Holy] Land.” Others, like Shadal, are convinced that the promise of return is for Jacob’s seed, indicating the Exodus from Egypt; and for still others it relates to every exile in every era.
It is no coincidence that in these few verses (Gen. 46:1-7), the name Israel is repeated three times, once even as “the children of Israel.” Thus, the writer reiterates to his readers that the particular and the general are bound together, and that Jacob’s own fate is that of the people of Israel.
The Story of Jacob: A Story for Exiles
The book of Genesis, then, in its final form, outlines the fate of the nation, whose future is marked by exiles, calling on its people to preserve their identity as servants of God even in exile. It is hard to believe that this book, written some 2500 years ago, continues to be relevant from generation to succeeding generation. That raises the questions of whether the authors or the editors, who experienced exile, foresaw the people’s fate, that the Jews would live on as a people loyal to their God even in exile, or if the people took succor from their message and adapted themselves to what was written in the book. Perhaps what happened included elements of both.
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December 23, 2014
May 20, 2020
Professor Yairah Amit is Professor (Emerita) of Hebrew Bible in Tel Aviv University's Department of Hebrew Bible. She is the author of The Book of Judges: The Art of Editing (1999), History and Ideology: An Introduction to Historiography in the Hebrew Bible (1999), Hidden Polemics in Biblical Narrative (2000), Reading Biblical Narratives: Literary Criticism and the Hebrew Bible (2001). Her exegetical work is to be found in her Hebrew commentary to the book of Judges (in the Mikra Leyisra’el series) and in the commentary to the book of Judges in the Jewish Study Bible (JPS: 2004). Prof. Amit emphasizes critical approaches and is especially interested in aspects of story, history, ideology and editing. Her most recent publication is: In Praise of Editing in the Hebrew Bible: Collected Essays in Retrospect (2012).
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