After They’ve Seen Paree
After Joseph revealed his true identity to him brothers, he sent them back to Canaan to tell their father Jacob the good news: his long-lost son Joseph was still alive and was, in fact, the ruler over all of Egypt. At first Jacob did not believe them, but once convinced, he set out with his sons on the return journey to Egypt. Along the way, he stopped in Beer Sheba, where he offered sacrifices to God. Then, in a night vision, God called to Jacob and said to him, “Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt.” (Gen 46:3)
Ancient commentators were puzzled by these words. After all, Jacob had been told that his son was in charge of the whole country; what was there for him to be afraid of? Some interpreters suggested that Jacob’s real worry concerned his children: once established in the lush landscape of Goshen, where the living was easy, would they not be tempted into sin? And would they ever want to go back to the hardscrabble existence that was life in Canaan?
As someone who actually resided in Egypt, Philo of Alexandria (the great Jewish philosopher and biblical commentator who lived in the early first century C.E.) certainly knew what he was talking about when he explained:
[After hearing that Joseph had invited him to Egypt, Jacob’s] joy was joined with fear in his soul at the prospect of leaving his ancestral way of life. For he knew how natural it is for youth to go astray, and how being away from one’s country can be an invitation to sin, especially in Egypt… He also knew how wealth and honor prey on the minds of those with little sense… He Whose eye alone can see the invisible soul took pity, and in his sleep at night appeared to him and said, “Do not be afraid to go to Egypt.” (On Joseph, 254)
Similarly, Josephus (late first century C.E.) writes:
Halting at the Well of the Oath [Beer Sheba], he [Jacob] there offered sacrifices to God; [however,] he feared that by reason of the prosperity prevalent in Egypt, his sons might become so enamored of settling there that their descendants would never again return to Canaan to take possession of it, as God had promised… Then God appeared to him and called him twice by name. (JA 2:170-72)
In these passages one can see the stereotypical association of Egypt with luxuriance and the licentiousness that goes along with it; these offered a readymade explanation for God’s words, “Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt…”
A similar idea appears in rabbinic midrash, which highlighted the unusual verb form in “I Myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you back.” Literally, the Hebrew text includes what looks like an extra infinitive verb, as if it were saying “I will bring you back and also bring.” From this rabbinic interpreters concluded that God’s promise was meant to include the “you [Jacob,] and all the other righteous ones who are like you, that is, [all of] Israel. For Jacob was afraid that his descendants would settle down in Egypt; that is why God announced to him, ‘I will bring you back and also bring [them].’” In other words, “Don’t worry Jacob! All your sons will come back from Egypt, just like you.”
The trouble is, the Torah never says anything about Jacob’s sons returning to Canaan, either dead or alive, and almost ever since, some Jews have questioned the necessity of living in Israel’s ancestral homeland. Today, many native-born Israelis say they are quite content to be living in Los Angeles or Berlin, and. I’ve known more than a few young graduate students who have gotten an offer of employment that was just too good to refuse, so they’ve packed up their families and headed off to California. Very few of them, I think, stop to ask Jacob’s question in Josephus’ retelling: What if my children become “so enamored of settling there that their descendants [will] never again return to Canaan?” And what does that mean for Canaan?