Genesis 46

The editors and redactors who completed the text that became our book of Genesis (and indeed the whole Tanakh) certainly seem to be setting the stage for the following link in Israel’s version of its history (leaving aside here, we remind the reader, questions of empiricism: ours is an effort to focus on the stories — taken as stories, but for that no less valuable — and seeking to discover meanings and applications therein): the exciting and irreplaceably central Exodus. In this chapter Jacob and those under his charge and care, or anyway those who would have been under his care at one point but now care for him in his frailty, depart Canaan after a divine message to the Patriarch that all is well and this is the life-path to travel (verses two through four). Leaving everything behind except what could be carried in the wagons that Pharaoh had ordered be provided for them (in 45.19, after the Egyptians serving Joseph had reported to Pharaoh that the men visiting him were in fact Joseph’s brothers), the land of the Promise to Abraham and his descendants is temporarily abandoned in order to establish a new homeland — of sorts — in the Goshen region of the Nile delta. The emigrating group is listed as counting seventy (but this includes Jacob, and Joseph with his wife Asenath and their two sons who, of course, were already in Egypt): a digit that symbolizes completion and perfection. From this beginning would rise the masses who, as the tale goes, grew and grew (Exodus 1.7) during a period of four hundred and thirty years (Exodus 12.40), with very much of it in enslavement. (Maybe nearly the whole? Exodus 1.8 explains that: “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph” and it is after this when they start to become treated as slaves, as detailed in verses nine through eleven.)

The narrative is not there yet though. After a long listing of parents’ names and their children, father and son are finally brought back together, whereupon Joseph “presented himself to him [Jacob] and, embracing him around the neck, he wept on his neck a good while” (46.29b). Jacob’s response to this is, I think, a quintessential marker of the themes and ethos of the entire Joseph plotline:

46.30: “Then Israel [/Jacob] said to Joseph, ‘Now I can die, having seen for myself that you are still alive.’”

Once more the point is driven home that this is a story of personal development and family, of learning how to be and to be with one another, to orient oneself aright and to accept each other and, what is more, to find peace — and faith — within a world that seems hopelessly out of control. No one could have foreseen the events that brought Joseph to the pinnacle of Egyptian government, second only to the Pharaoh; not his brothers, who purely wanted to be rid of the arrogant young nuisance, and certainly not himself. When Jacob was shown the tunic he had earlier given to his favorite son covered in blood (the cruelty of the deception!) and guessed that Joseph had been killed by a “savage beast” he refused to be comforted, declaring that he would go to his grave still mourning for him (37.31-35). Years passed and we get glimpses here and there of how Jacob seems to be going through the motions well enough, yet as readers we infer that this character still, and always will, carry that grief. Then suddenly this chapter presents the incredible, and it is not the guaranteed sustenance for his entire clan that comforts Jacob (recalling that the famine is ongoing), nor is it the safety of being moved well inside the borders of the era’s strongest country and placed under the personal protection of its monarch; no, merely seeing that his boy yet lives is what brings healing to Jacob. The ethic is an extraordinarily simple one, and perhaps for that reason only too easy to forget, but the way these pictures of our characters weave it together provides charmingly compelling reminders.

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