The transition from "He gave them a possession… in the best part of the land" to "and they subjugated them and afflicted them"

  • Dr. Brachi Elitzur

When God forges the Covenant Between the Parts with Avraham, He tells him of a future situation of foreignness, subjugation, and slavery:


"Your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and they will subjugate them and afflict them for four hundred years. And also that nation whom they will serve will I judge, and afterward they will come out with great substance… And in the fourth generation they shall come back here, for the iniquity of the Emorites is not yet complete." (Bereishit 15:13-16)


To Avraham, whose life is devoted to spreading the way of God throughout the land and inculcating the values of morality and righteousness, this future prophecy is unintelligible. How is it possible that the Land of Israel, which is in the early stages of purification from the abominations of its inhabitants, will fall back into the hands of its defilers and wallow once again in impurity after a mere four generations? How will Avraham's descendants end up going off to a foreign land, when the praise of Eretz Yisrael and the moral obligation of holding on to it are among the founding principles of his household?


The last few parashot of Sefer Bereishit (VayeshevVayigash) describe the process of the descent to Egypt, step by step, stage by stage, such that the chain of events makes sense and can be explained in terms of cause and effect. The prophecy concerning foreignness in a strange land, which had seemed incomprehensible and far-fetched in Avraham's time, is now coming together, leading to the moment when all the elements necessary for the transition of Yaakov's family to Egypt are ready and in place.


Whereas the natural realm contributes to the description of the material and human circumstances that lead Yaakov's family to Egypt, bringing about the realization of the Divine vision that "your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs," the realization of the second part of the prophecy – "And they shall subjugate them and afflict them for four hundred years" – appears to lack any earthly, natural dimension. The rapid, sharp, and perplexing transition from the description of Yosef as ruler of Egypt, by whose word everything in the country is decided, to a "new king" who decrees for Yosef's descendants that "every son who is born, you shall cast him into the Nile," demands some background, so as to trace the natural events that comprise the intermediate stages in between these two opposite states.


In this shiur, we shall try to see whether Parashat Vayechi, representing a transitional unit between the two periods, can bridge the gap by describing the factors leading to the plunge in the status of Am Yisrael and their image in the eyes of the Egyptians.


We shall divide our discussion into three parts:

a. The process by which the legendary image of Yosef's family in the eyes of the Egyptians is created

b. The expression of this image during the years of Pharaoh's reign

c. The cause of the change – the final request, "I pray you, do not bury me in Egypt," and its expressions in our parasha


Yosef and his forefathers in the eyes of the Egyptians


The rulers of Egypt had become familiar with the dynasty of Yosef's family already in the day of Avraham, just a few years after the first journey to Eretz Yisrael. Avram journeys to Egypt as a result of the famine in the land. Seemingly, this is a routine story of immigration during years of famine, the sort of circumstances that frequently bring untold numbers of hungry people to Egypt, but the impact of this visit is deeply inscribed in the national memory, owing to the plague that befalls the leader of the country:


And God plagued Pharaoh and his household with great plagues, on account of Sarai, Avram's wife. (Bereishit 12:17)


The Egyptians believe in the supernatural, and they understand that the plague that afflicts their king is a phenomenon with mythical significance. God's intervention in order to protect Avram and his wife testifies to their honored status. The "anger of the gods" on Avraham's behalf causes the Egyptians to fear him, and therefore the king himself appoints a convoy to escort him out of the kingdom, taking care to first return Avraham's wife to him, thereby appeasing the "anger of the gods":


"…Now, therefore, behold your wife; take [her], and go.” And Pharaoh commanded his men concerning him, and they sent him off with his wife and all that was his. (19-20)


The next encounter with a member of the family comes when the caravan of Ishmaelites sells Yosef to the Egyptian captain of the guard. Once again, this would appear to be a routine transaction carried out on the Egyptian slave market. However, the arrival of this Hebrew slave brings great prosperity. The exceptional nature of this phenomenon is expressed in the textual emphasis on the amazement that it arouses in Potifar and the range of responsibilities that he entrusts to Yosef in the wake of this Divine blessing:


And God was with Yosef, and he was a successful man, and he was in the house of his Egyptian master. And his master saw that God was with him and that God caused all that he did to prosper in his hand. And Yosef found favor in his eyes, and served him, and he made him overseer of his house, and placed all that he had in his hands. And it came to pass that from when he placed him in charge of his house and all that he had, God blessed the Egyptian's house on account of Yosef, and God's blessing was upon all that he had, in the house and in the field. And he left all that he had in Yosef's hand, and he knew nothing in his regard, except for the bread that he ate… (39:2-6)


The lie concocted by Potifar's wife concerning the Hebrew slave who had brought all this blessing upon his master's house is disseminated amongst the Egyptians:


"The Hebrew slave whom you brought for us came to make sport with me. And it came to pass, as I lifted my voice and cried out, that he left his garment with me, and fled outside." (39:17-18)


Nevertheless, it seems that Potifar does not "buy" the story. He is forced to punish his slave for appearances' sake, for the supposed attempted assault on his wife, but proof of Potifar's doubting of his wife's account lies in the fact that Yosef is not executed by the captain of the guard (sar ha-tabachim), who is responsible for carrying out death sentences of this sort.[1] Instead, Yosef is placed in "custody" (mishmar),[2] a wing of the prison reserved for "white-collar" criminals, even though he is supposedly accused of a violent crime. Likewise, Potifar acquiesces to Pharaoh's proposal that he give his daughter, Osnat, as a wife to the same Egyptian slave who had supposedly attempted to lie with his wife.


The impression made by the actual story among the Egyptians may be gauged from an ancient Egyptian legend, "A story of two brothers," which dates to the same period. The legend speaks of a shepherd named Bata who lived in the home of his eldest brother, Inpu, who was a farmer. One day, at the time of laboring in the field, Bata is sent to his brother's house to bring seed. His brother's wife tries to tempt him, but he rejects her. The woman then invents the lie that the younger brother tried to lie with her. When Bata hears of this, he flees. Inpu is ultimately convinced of Bata's innocence, and he kills his wife.[3]


No special insight is required to perceive the similarity between the two stories. The tremendous impression created by the noble manners of the Hebrew slave is transformed and preserved as an Egyptian legend.


Yosef's ability to interpret dreams arouses great admiration among the Egyptians, as reflected in the unprecedented appointment of a foreign slave and released prisoner as the ruler of Egypt, by whose word everything is decided. The Egyptians are aware that Yosef is influenced by the power of the gods (as they understand it):


Pharaoh said to his servants: “Can we find such a man as this, in whom there is the spirit of God?” And Pharaoh said to Yosef, “Since God has shown you all this, there is none so insightful and wise as you are. You shall be over my house, and by your word shall all my people be ruled; only in the throne will I be raised above you.” And Pharaoh said to Yosef, “See, I have set you over all the land of Egypt.” And Pharaoh removed his ring from his hand, and placed it upon Yosef's hand; and he dressed him in garments of fine linen, and placed a gold chain around his neck. And he had him ride in the second chariot which he had, and they cried before him, “Bend the knee!,” and he put him over all the land of Egypt. And Pharaoh said to Yosef, “I am Pharaoh, and without you no man shall lift his hand or his foot in all the land of Egypt." (41:38-44)


Pharaoh's rhetorical question, "Can we find such a man as this, in whom there is the spirit of God?," is left unanswered, since no one disagrees. The silence of his ministers expresses their unanimous agreement concerning Yosef's appointment – even though some of the more senior and veteran ministers must surely have had their eyes on this lofty position.


The supernatural Egyptian literature deals extensively with dreams as a means of communicating with the world of the gods. One ancient inscription, known as the "Famine Stela," describes a situation that resembles in many ways the reality described in Sefer Bereishit: a famine that lasts seven years, a consultation between the king and a sage, priests with special rights, agrarian reform aimed at avoiding famine, and a dream that inspires the proposed interpretations.[4] There is no doubt as to a connection between the two accounts, proving once again the degree to which the exemplary image of Yosef made a profound impact on the Egyptian consciousness.


Expressions of this mythical image during the years of Yosef's leadership


The years of plenty and of famine in Egypt are managed quite capably by Yosef. Pharaoh transfers all administrative authority to him, and Yosef's servants obey his every word:


And all the land of Egypt was famished, and the people cried to Pharaoh for bread, and Pharaoh said to all of Egypt: “Go to Yosef; do whatever he tells you." (41:55)


Even Yosef's peculiar orders to bestow favors at the Egyptians' expense on the ten men suspected of espionage, are carried out with not a word of complaint:


And Yosef gave orders to fill their sacks with corn, and to return each man's money to his sack, and to give them provision for the way; and so it was done for them. (42:25)


As the famine becomes increasingly severe, Yosef becomes the owner of all the land in Egypt, and the original owners of the land are bought by him and assume the status of lessees. At the same time, Yosef's family members enjoy a regular supply of food:


And Yosef settled his father and his brothers and gave them a possession in the land of Egypt, in the best part of the land, in the land of Ra'mses, as Pharaoh had commanded. And Yosef supported his father and his brothers and all of his father's household with bread, according to their children. And there was no bread in all the land, for the famine was exceedingly severe, and the land of Egypt and the land of Cana'an languished because of the famine. (47:11-13)


And Yosef bought all of the land of Egypt for Pharaoh, for each of the Egyptians sold his field, for the famine prevailed over them, and the land became Pharaoh's. (ibid. 20)


And Yosef said to the people, “Behold, I have bought you this day, and your land, for Pharaoh; here is seed for you, that you may sow the land." (ibid. 23)


Yosef is party to the passing of legislation that becomes part of the history of the Egyptian kingdom:


And Yosef made it a law over the land of Egypt to this day, that Pharaoh should have a fifth part; except for the land of the priests alone, which did not become Pharaoh's. (ibid. 26)


Yosef is regarded by those around him as someone who is blessed by God and who spreads this blessing to benefit his environment. An employee of Yosef's house calms the brothers' fears concerning the money that was returned to their sacks, explaining that they have merited to enjoy some of the same Divine blessing that surrounds his master:


And he said, “Peace be to you, fear not; your God and the God of your father has given you treasure in your sacks; your money came to me.” And he brought out Shimon to them. (43:23)


As Rashbam explains: "'And the God of your father' – Everyone knew that they had experienced miracles in the past."


Yosef's lofty position and the mythical aura surrounding him explain the extraordinary efforts expended by Pharaoh and his servants in preparing the journey to bring Yaakov down to Egypt and the resources set aside for the family's needs, despite the emergency situation in the country:


And the report was heard in Pharaoh's house, saying, “Yosef's brothers have come.” And it pleased Pharaoh and his servants. And Pharaoh said to Yosef, “Tell your brothers, Do this: load your beasts and take yourselves off to the land of Cana'an. And take up your father and your households and come to me, and I shall give you the good of the land of Egypt, and you shall eat the fat of the land. And you are commanded – do this: Take wagons from the land of Egypt for your children and for your wives, and bring your father, and come. And give no thought to your goods, for the good of all the land of Egypt is yours. (45:16-20)


In light of all of the above, we might say that not only has our original question not been answered; it has in fact become even more troubling. How can we explain such a sharp turnaround in the attitude of the Egyptian leader towards the progeny of a family with an ancestor who once held such a high position in the country, and whose rare insight saved the kingdom from economic ruin?


The cause of the change – the command, "Do not bury me in Egypt"


Pharaoh invests tremendous efforts in the absorption of Yaakov and his family in Egypt. He turns a blind eye to the fact that Yosef's brothers practice shepherding – regarded as "the abomination of Egypt" – and he settles them on prime Egyptian land, in the Goshen region.


Praise of this area is found in the Papyrus Anastasi III 2,1-9[5] papyrus written by an ancient Egyptian scribe:


A pleasant tract of land, unparalleled… God Himself established it… its fields are full of every good thing… its gardens are fresh and green… its barns are full of produce… olives, figs, wine, honey.


Pharaoh invests in the family of Yosef, whom he regards as Egypt's miracle – the person who succeeded in overcoming the natural disaster that threatened to destroy the kingdom, leading it instead to economic growth. The dwelling-place in Goshen, on prime Egyptian soil, is meant to ensure that the family will remain in the land even after the famine is over. The contribution of a family that enjoys Divine protection is an asset that must be retained at any cost.


The results of Pharaoh's efforts are not long in coming:


And Israel dwelled in the land of Egypt, in the land of Goshen, and they took possession of it, and grew and multiplied exceedingly. (47:27)


Nevertheless, there is something that disturbs Pharaoh's peace of mind. From the moment that Yaakov's family arrives in Egypt, something has cracked the iron-clad certainty of Yosef's assimilation amongst the echelons of the Egyptian empire. Rumors of Yaakov's will reach Pharaoh, and from them he gathers that Egypt is viewed as a temporary "city of refuge" for the family, while the ideological aspiration remains to return to their own country. The last part of Parashat Vayigash and the first two chapters of Parashat Vayechi confirm Pharaoh's fears. While day-to-day life is being lived out in the land of Goshen, the richest and most fertile area of Egypt, all eyes are turned to Eretz Yisrael:


·                  Yaakov's will includes an explicit request not to be buried in Egypt:


And the time drew near for Yisrael to die, and he called for his son, for Yosef, and said to him: “If now I have found favor in your sight, I pray you, place your hand under my thigh and deal kindly and truly with me: do not bury me in Egypt. Let me lie with my forefathers; and you shall carry me from Egypt, and bury me in their burial place.” And he said, “I shall do as you have said." (47:29-30)


When Yaakov repeats his will before his sons, he covers all possibilities of misinterpretation, setting forth explicitly at unusual and uncharacteristic length, the desired location for his burial:


And he commanded them, and said to them: “I will be gathered to my people; bury me with my fathers in the cave that is in the field of Efron, the Hittite, in the cave that is in the field of Makhpela which is before Mamre, in the land of Cana'an, which Avraham bought with the field from Efron the Hittite as a burial place. There they buried Avraham and Sarah, his wife; there they buried Yitzchak and Rivka, his wife; and there I buried Leah. The purchase of the field, and of the cave that is in it, was from the children of Chet. (49:29-32)


·                  Yaakov reminds Yosef of the blessing of the land, and the family's destiny upon it. From his wording we deduce that this reminder is meant to negate Yosef's thoughts about the future homeland of his children by emphasizing Eretz Yisrael as an eternal possession and the promise of an Israelite incentive to compensate for uprooting them from their birthplace:


And he said to me… “And I shall give this land to your descendants after you as an eternal possession. And now, Efraim and Menashe - your two sons who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you in Egypt, are mine; like Reuven and Shimon shall they be to me. And your offspring that bear after them, shall be yours, and shall be called after the name of their brothers in their inheritance." (48:4-6)


·                  The apology over Rachel's burial place – Yaakov fears that Yosef will adopt the precedent of Rachel's burial and bury Yaakov in the place where he dies. Rashi explains Yaakov's intention: "Even though I am troubling you to carry me, to be buried in the land of Cana'an, I did not do so for your mother" – and therefore he emphasizes that even though Rachel was not buried in the burial portion that had been set aside for her, she was buried in Eretz Cana'an:


"As for me, when I came from Padan, Rachel died by me in the land of Cana'an, on the way, just a short distance before coming to Efrat, and I buried her there on the way of Efrat, which is Bethlehem." (48:7)


·                  The blessing to Yosef's sons is dependent on their return to Eretz Yisrael:


The angel who redeems me from all evil, may he bless the boys, and may they be called by my name and the name of my forefathers, Avraham and Yitzchak, and may they multiply greatly in the midst of the land. (16)


·                   In his final prayer, Yaakov expresses the wish for Divine aid in returning his progeny to their land:


And Yisrael said to Yosef: “Behold, I die, but may God be with you and bring you back to the land of your forefathers." (21)


·                   Yaakov's parting words to his children also touch on a description of their future inheritance in Eretz Yisrael. Shimon and Levi are told that the nature of their inheritance will be different from that of their brothers:


I will divide them amongst Yaakov and scatter them amongst Israel. (49:7)


-  The inheritance of Yehuda will be in an agricultural region ideally suited to growing grapes: "Binding his foal to the vine…" (11) and more.


Pharaoh's fear starts to become realized in the cautious request voiced by Yosef, who – despite his most respected position - is afraid to speak directly to Pharaoh, relying instead on intermediaries:


… Yosef spoke to Pharaoh's house, saying, “If I have now found favor in your sight, I pray you, speak in the ears of Pharaoh, saying: ‘My father caused me to swear, saying, ‘Behold, I die; in my grave which I dug for myself in the land of Cana'an – there shall you bury me.’ And now, I pray you, let me go up and bury my father, and I shall return." (50:4-5)


In his request, Yosef apologizes and promises to return after the burial, but from this moment onwards, we witness a change in Pharaoh's attitude towards him and his family. The unlimited authority that had been vested in Yosef now becomes a stranglehold maintained by Pharaoh and his ministers, who tighten their grip on the family – supposedly as a show of respect to the dead, but actually to avoid any possibility of having a trickle of family members back to Eretz Yisrael, Egypt's adversary. The descriptions of Yaakov's funeral procession to Eretz Yisrael describe, on the overt level, the displays of honor to the dead that were widely accepted in ancient Egypt, but on the covert level, they include expressions that maintain a clear link to the future subjugation in Egypt and the Exodus:


Pharaoh said: “Go up, and bury your father as he caused you to swear.” And Yosef went up to bury his father, and with him there went up all of Pharaoh's servants, the elders of his house, and all the elders of the land of Egypt; and all of the house of Yosef and his brothers, and the house of his father; only their children and their flocks and their herds did they leave in the land of Goshen. And there went up with him both chariots and horsemen, and it was a very great company… And Yosef returned to Egypt, he and his brothers and all those who went up with him to bury his father, after he had buried his father. (50:6-14)


The earliest buds of the subjugation, then, start with Pharaoh, who did know Yosef – and the whole process is embarked upon precisely because he knew Yosef. Pharaoh is very fearful of a "brain drain" from his country. What concerns him even more than this is the thought of what Yosef's family might contribute to the rival power located at Egypt's border, and the advantage that that country would enjoy in the international realm as a result of their presence there.


The Pharaoh who does not know Yosef declares:


"Let us deal wisely with them, lest they multiply, and it shall be that if there happens to be a war, they might join our enemies and fight with us, and so go up out of the land." (Shemot 1:10)


This line of thinking is a direct result of the advice that he received from his predecessor to prohibit and prevent the departure of Bnei Yisrael from Egypt and to suppress their reproduction and their areas of occupation, lest their numbers and their power be turned in the future against Egypt.


Hence, while the vision of the Covenant Between the Parts is a primordial, Divine promise, the way in which it is realized is the result of human action – for the good and the bad.



Translated by Kaeren Fish


[1]See Onkelos and Targum Yonatan, as well as Rashbam: "'Sar ha-tabachim' – [so called because] it is at his hand that those killed and incarcerated in his prison are punished."

[2] The word "mishmar" is mentioned at the beginning of the story; later, on Yosef is brought out of "the pit" – seemingly a dungeon, for he needs a shave and a change of clothing upon emerging. It would seem that Yosef's appeal to the royal butler and his complaint over the injustice perpetrated against him by Potifar are the reason for the worsening of his prison conditions.

[3] See N. Shopak, “Sifrut Mitzrayim ha-Keduma ve-Sifrut ha-Mikra, Sifrut ha-Mikra 2 (Jerusalem, 5771), p. 619. The legend has a mythical continuation describing the reward that Bata receives from the gods for his act of valor.

[4] See N. Shopak, "Iyyun Me-Chadash Be-Chalomot Ha-Sarim U-Par'o Be-Sippur Yosef Be-Zika Le-Chalomot ha-Mitzriim," Shenaton Le-Cheker Ha-Mikra Ve-Ha-Mizrach Ha-Kadum 15 (5765), pp. 55-95.

[5]  Translation: Anson Frank Rainey, Olam HaTanakh, Bereishit, Tel Aviv 2002, p. 242.