Parashat Vayehi

Why Bondage?

An exploration of why the Children of Israel were destined to be slaves toPharaoh

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Provided by the Jewish Theological Seminary, a Conservative rabbinical seminary and university of Jewish studies.

The book of Genesis ends as it starts, with its lead characters in a state of exile. The existential human condition is to be out of place, far from home. Jacob's clan no longer resides in the land promised to his father and grandfather. Yet the narrator makes it unmistakably clear that their final destination was not Egypt, but Canaan, the land that would eventually bear Jacob's other name, Israel, the one who "strove with beings divine and human and prevailed" (Genesis 32:29).

Prior to relocating to Egypt, to be reunited with his long-lost son Joseph, Jacob is reassured by God that "I Myself will go down with you to Egypt and I Myself will also bring you back" (Genesis 46:4). As the end of his life approaches, Jacob beseeches Joseph to inter him in the family burial place in Hebron (47:29-30), and in a subsequent conversation makes pointed reference to Canaan as his nation's "everlasting possession" (48:4). Joseph, indeed, accorded his father a protracted state funeral on the way to burying him in "the field of Makhpelah" (50:13). As for Joseph, he did not ask the same of his brothers, only that when God restores them to Canaan, they should take his embalmed bones with them for burial.

Reaffirming Canaan

In short, the Torah goes out of its way at this juncture to reaffirm Canaan as the sacred destiny of Jacob's progeny. Despite the detour into Egypt, the storyline never loses sight of its end. As Joseph avers to his brothers, they are in Egypt by design, not accident. What appears to happen at random up close, from a distance gains purpose and meaning. God employed Joseph to rescue his family, if not Egypt itself, from a terrible famine. Henceforth, the fate of both will be intertwined, though Israel's sojourn is never destined to become permanent.

The question I wish to ask is what was the need for the sojourn in the first place? If the narrative leaves nothing to chance, what did it intend to accomplish by subjecting the nation to emerge from Abraham's loins to centuries of suffering? God guides Abraham to Canaan only to tell him when he gets there that the land is not yet his, that his descendants will have to endure affliction and bondage in a land not their own for some 400 years (Genesis 15:13). The wrinkle suggests a change of heart. The story is so familiar to us that we have stopped feeling the inelegance of the plot. Or perhaps, God's will is not to be questioned.

I confess that the traditional commentaries are not much concerned with my question. The first answer I can find is the one given by the Torah itself. The land is not empty and its inhabitants are not yet wholly unworthy of it: "For the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete" (Genesis 15:16). The explanation implies an inchoate concept of a just war. Depravity constitutes a valid reason for dispossessing a people of its ancestral home. In this case, cultic practices and moral standards of the Amorites are well on their way to rendering the land completely contaminated. When that point is reached, but not before, conquest is permissible. Though the Torah displays a heartening sensitivity for the other here, the fate of the Amorites seems irreversible. The purpose of the detour in Egypt is to wait out the inevitable.

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Rabbi Ismar Schorsch

Rabbi Ismar Schorsch served as chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary.