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Shemot: The Israelites are Created

This week, we begin the book of Exodus.

If you are one of the many people who, when you think of the Bible, you are really thinking of Bible stories, the Bible stories that you are think of are mostly not stories from the Bible as a whole, not even stories from the Torah as a whole, but stories from the book of Genesis: Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Flood, the tower of Babel, and then of course Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, culminating with the story of Joseph and his brothers.

Indeed, that is what “the Bible” has been for most people during most of history.  I have a massive book by James Kugel called Traditions of the Bible: A Guide to the Bible As It Was at the Start of the Common Era, 898 pages not counting the appendices and indexes, and 499 of those pages, way more than half, cover the book of Genesis.

Well, as this post appears it is January 11th, we’ve started reading Exodus and will not get back to the book of Genesis until Simchat Torah, in October, nine months from now.  (Yes, those of you who are thinking of having a baby have time to conceive it and it will be born before we get back to Genesis.)  From now on, it is all Moses all the time.  Are you ready for that?

I’m not.  I’m not, so I’m going to continue to talk for a bit about our favorite Genesis characters, but in a little bit of a roundabout way, by discussing the בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל  b’nei yisra’el, who make an appearance twice here at the beginning of the book of Exodus.

The book starts this way:

1 These are the names of the b’nei yisra’el who were coming to Egypt with Jacob (each of them came with his household):  2 Reuben, Simeon, Levi, 3 Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin, 4 Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher.  5 Every living person who came forth from Jacob’s loins totally 70 lives; and Joseph was already in Egypt.  6  Then Joseph and all his brothers and that whole generation died.  7 But the b’nei yisra’el reproduced in swarms and their numbers increased very, very overwhelmingly, and the land was filled with them.

These b’nei yisra’el who came down to Egypt — these of course are the “sons of Israel,” that is, of Jacob whom we saw arriving in Egypt in Gen 42:5.  We know that b’nei yisra’el means “the sons of Israel” here because immediately their names, all 11 of them, are listed.  (Joseph, as v. 5 notes, was already down in Egypt.)

Also in v. 5, the b’nei yisra’el are implicitly expanded just a bit: those 12 boys plus their sons and grandsons.  But those words that open the book of Exodus occur already in Gen 46:8, “these are the names of b’nei yisra’el who were coming to Egypt.”  What happens in Genesis 46 after that phrase is that there is a long genealogical list. Reuben’s name is not followed by Simeon but by his sons and the sons of all the sons. Going down through v. 27, where it says  that Joseph’s sons (two in number) were born to him in Egypt, all 70 names are listed.  In Exodus we just see the 12 names of the literal sons of Israel, his biological first generation descendants.

And our text does something very interesting.  Once those 70 who came down to Egypt with Jacob have so vastly increased in number, v. 7 turns that same phrase, b’nei yisra’el, into “the Israelites.” (In Hebrew, בן ben can refer to a member of a group.)  V. 1 makes it sound as if we are still in the book of Genesis, but the first paragraph of the book has shuttled us quickly and smoothly from the ancestral, family world of the Genesis stories to the story that will begin to be told in the rest of the Torah and on into the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings.

The Israelites as a people or a nation are mentioned a few times, anachronistically, in Genesis.  In Genesis 32 we are told that “the Israelites” don’t eat a certain sinew because of what happened to Jacob in his mysterious fight; Genesis 36, similarly, lists all the kings who reigned in the land of Edom “before any king reigned over the Israelites” (v. 31).  Throughout the Joseph story, though, the “sons of Israel” are literally the sons of a man named Israel, that is, Jacob.  It is here, in the first paragraph of Exodus, that the phrase changes its meaning permanently from referring to the sons of Jacob to meaning the Israelites.

We saw that this same phrase occurs in Gen 46:8 and is repeated exactly at the beginning of Exodus.  Biblical scholars have a fancy name for this kind of thing: “repetitive resumption.”  A repetitive resumption is not just something that happens in high-flown biblical writing; we do the same thing in natural language all the time.  You say or write something that perhaps is a little bit parenthetical and then when you want to resume the thread of the discussion you say, “Well, as I was saying,” and then you repeat the last few words of that part of the discussion and begin to move forward again.

Sometimes it’s easy to see that someone has inserted something into a biblical text and then resumed the original by repeating a few words of it in a “repetitive resumption.”  Other times an author will do that himself in order to say something parenthetical.  Genesis 47-50 is so clearly part of the story of Joseph that I think this was deliberately done by one writer.  What I would like to say is that it is not the same Genesis story that’s continuing here in the book of Exodus.  It’s the same people, it’s the same characters, but this is very clearly marked as a new episode.

Could the Torah have continued on with the story of the exodus without those chapters at the end of Genesis?  I think it could have.  But, as I mentioned last week, they were added to make an end for Genesis that would parallel the end of the Torah itself, where the blessing of Moses talks about the 12 tribes just as Jacob gives his 12 sons those unusual “blessings” meant to tell them what’s going to happen to them in the far future.

Now, at the beginning of Exodus, our author had to quickly leap back to a point where he could continue the story a bit more naturally and segue into this new episode.  If you felt a little bit unsteady on your feet as we moved so quickly from one man to twelve to (as we will learn in Exod 12:37) 600,000, and from the time of Jacob to that of his great-great-grandson Moses — if you felt a little bit unsteady on your feet as that happened, I can’t really blame you.

About the Author
Michael Carasik has a Ph.D. in Bible and the Ancient Near East from Brandeis University and taught for many years at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the creator of the Commentators’ Bible and has been a congregational Torah reader, blogger, and podcaster about the Bible. You can read a longer version of this essay at torahtalk.substack.com and follow Michael's close reading of Genesis 1 at michaelcarasik.substack.com.
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