3.2. The Death of Jacob’s Family, and the Birth of the Nation (1:1–7)

 (1) These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each coming with his household:

(2) Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah;

(3) Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin;

(4) Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher.

(5) The total number of persons that were of Jacob’s issue came to seventy, Joseph being already in Egypt.

(6) Joseph died, and all his brothers, and all that generation.

(7) But the Israelites were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them.

(1) These are the names: These first verses of Exodus describe the transition from a family to a nation. The story of the Jewish nation begins with an overview of its roots, of which there are two complementary aspects: the twelve tribes, represented by Jacob’s twelve sons, and the seventy souls who descended to Egypt, all of whom are Jacob’s direct descendants.

The names of the sons of Israel: By enumerating the names of each of the twelve tribes, the Torah wishes to emphasize their uniqueness. The tribes are not just faceless slices of the population. Each tribe, a uniquely individual entity having its own character and personality, will make its own special contribution to the future life of the nation.

According to the Midrash, the Jews in Egypt had a number of special merits that made them worthy of redemption from slavery. One of those was that “they did not change their names.” A person’s name carries a clear element of purpose and meaning. When a person is mindful of where he came from, where he is headed, and why he is here in the first place, such thoughts can be extremely conducive to realizing his mission in the world. Despite all the burdens of slavery, the Jews remembered that they were descended from the Patriarchs, and they remembered the Land to which they were destined to return (it is the same Land, which was mentioned to them by Joseph, Gen. 50:25, Exod. 13:19).

It should be noted that in the first chapter and the beginning of the second chapter of Exodus, names are virtually absent (except for the names of the sons of Jacob, all of whom have already died). The people are nameless, because their personalities are suppressed by slavery. The only exceptions to this are the midwives Shiphrah and Puah, and later Moses, because they assert themselves as individuals who dare to oppose the system.

The sons of Israel: In this verse “the sons of Israel” means, simply, the twelve sons of Jacob. But just a little later (v. 7) the same term becomes an ethnonym. Eventually, the name “Israel” will be the primary name of the Jewish people.

(5) The total number of persons that were of Jacob’s issue came to seventy: Seventy in Judaism is a typological number, alluding to the seventy nations of the world[1]. Thus, the Jewish people is a microcosm, as it were, of all of humanity. Among the Jewish people there must be “representatives” of each of the other nations. In order to advance all of mankind, the Jews must be able to establish contact and mutual understanding with each of the nations of the world.

(6) Joseph died, and all his brothers, and all that generation: The process of creating the new nation begins with the death of Jacob’s sons. The Jewish people is created in two stages. First Abraham, Isaac and Jacob create a family. Only after this family dies can the actual nation gradually come into existence.

This is not only about physical death (if such were the case the Torah would have no reason to mention it, since it is obvious that over time every generation inevitably dies). Rather, it is the heritage of the Patriarchs that is dying here, their ideals and values; of them only a faint reflection remains, a memory (the Jews “did not change their names”).

In order to create a new and viable nation, this reflection had to be turned into something more. We can compare the death of Jacob’s sons to the process of conception, in which the seed of Israel was destroyed in Egypt, just as when a child is born, the father’s seed is completely consumed inside the mother in the process of creating a child, and only genetic material remains to be taken from it. Joseph’s generation dies in just this sense. The previous generational line has completely died out, and now a nation must be created in a totally new way.

(7) So that the land was filled with them: The Jews are gradually spreading from the land of Goshen to other parts of Egypt. The Jews in Egypt were still only a proto-nation. Although they had a certain national identity, there was no sense of the Jews as a separate and independent entity.

The Midrash offers us yet another approach to reading this verse. According to the Midrash, “The land was filled with them” means that circus arenas and amphitheaters were filled with Jews, who were now aligning themselves with Egypt’s cultural stratum. The Jews were becoming assimilated into Egypt’s general culture, and it would therefore become necessary not only to remove the Jews from Egypt, but also to “remove Egypt from the Jews.”

[1] The tenth chapter of Genesis enumerates the seventy nations that descended from Noah. For a more detailed discussion, see Bible Dynamics, commentary on Genesis chapter 8, “Noah’s Sons’ Descendants,” and Deut. 32:8.


Bible Dynamics, VOL. 2. EXODUS Copyright © by Orot Yerushalaim / P. Polonsky / English translation of the Torah by the Jewish Publication Society, New JPS Translation, 1985. With sincere gratitude for the permission to use. All Rights Reserved.

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