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Vayeḥi: Why is There a Book of Genesis?

This week we read the last of the 12 readings in the book of Genesis, the last of four full weeks devoted to the story of Joseph.  That’s more than Abraham gets.  Quite surprising.

What I want to look at today is Gen 50:20, Joseph telling his brothers, You schemed to do something evil to me, but God schemed the same thing for good.  The verb חשׁב (ḥ-š-b) means “think” in Modern Hebrew, but I translate it here as “scheme” because Biblical Hebrew looks askance at private thought when anyone other than God does it.  In this case, God has made use of the brothers’ scheme (says Joseph) “in order to do what is happening right now — to keep alive a multitudinous people” (להחיות עם־רב  l’haḥayot am rav).  This word l’haḥayot is the same word used in Gen 6:19 when God commands Noah to take two of every species of animal, male and female, into the ark “to keep them alive.”  Joseph himself has already used this word as well in speaking to his brothers in Gen 45:7.

Joseph does not know that some of his brothers actually intended to kill him; he is sure that they wanted to get rid of him and were instrumental in selling him into slavery down in Egypt, heedless of the great harm this would cause him.  Yet the whole thing (he proclaims) was actually orchestrated by God, and its actual purpose was to save the lives of the family.  As we’ve seen over the last few weeks, the whole thing is indeed God’s plan, but it’s not the plan Joseph thinks it is.

Instead, it’s the plan that God revealed to Abraham back in Genesis 15.  In that episode, God tells Abraham two things: Your descendants are going to be slaves in another country for 400 years; they will come back to the land of Canaan — the land that we now know as the land of Israel — in the fourth generation.  V. 16 adds one more crucial bit of information, the reason Abraham’s descendants must leave Canaan: The “iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.”  Implicitly, in four generations (or 400 years), their iniquity will be complete.

What does it mean that their iniquity “is not yet complete”?  It means that it will take that long before God is justified in throwing them out of the land of Canaan and bringing the Israelites in.  Rashi explains that the Bible begins with the creation of the world so that when the Jews take possession of Canaan they will be able to say that God created the world and can give any part of it to anyone he chooses.  But the story that plays out in the Torah does not present things that way.

God doesn’t want to just toss the Canaanites out of their homes for no reason but assumes that sooner or later they will have so many vile sins on their record that their expulsion and replacement by the Israelites will be totally justified.  But the Israelites-to-be must also undergo some process of change before God is willing to settle them in this land that somehow has a metaphysical connection to the divine realm.

Joseph evidently didn’t realize that his family was ultimately supposed to inherit the land of Canaan.  He thought everybody was going to move to Egypt and live the good life, just as a prime minister’s family might expect.

God’s scheme, however, had nothing to do with saving the lives of Jacob’s children.  What it had to do with was moving them to Egypt so that they could be enslaved — and turn into a nation. The “multitudinous people” that Joseph said was being saved was God’s own people-to-be, the Israelites.  That was certainly not good for those individuals who were born into Egyptian slavery and died there.  But the biblical author had to get the Israelites off of the Canaanite stage and more especially had to get them onto the Egyptian stage.

In fact, if I understand correctly, that is the entire purpose of the book of Genesis.  If this is how Genesis ends, I think the purpose of the book has to be understood as getting the Israelites to the point where they could be enslaved in Egypt so that God can bring them back out.  That’s really what the entire story of the Torah is: how the relationship between God and the Israelites was established by unenslaving them.

When you think about it, what we see in Genesis is:

  • the unmotivated assertion in Gen 15:13 that God plans for Abraham’s descendants to be enslaved
  • the story of deception and betrayal (starting in Genesis 27) that snowballs in such a way as to lead Jacob’s family to settle in Egypt
  • the Egyptians offering themselves to Joseph as Pharaoh’s slaves in Gen 47:19, setting up a measure-for-measure equivalence when the Israelites are enslaved in Exodus 1

Genesis, then, though it has so many of the stories we all learned as children, is really a prologue to the Torah.  Its second-to-last chapter, Genesis 49, where Jacob blesses his sons, matches (from the perspective of the overall composition) the second-to-last chapter of the Torah, Deuteronomy 33, which invokes the tribes named after those sons, whose story is told in the last four books of the Pentateuch.

With the end of the book of Genesis, the past is prologue.  Next week, we begin the real story of the Torah.

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.