Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Vayigash

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il


Parashat Vayigash 5760/1999

"Your ancestors went down to Egypt seventy persons in all"

Prof. Moshe Zippor

Department of Bible

The first time that the Torah mentions that the number of persons who went to Egypt was seventy is in this week's parasha (Gen. 46:27): Jacob takes all the members of his household, seventy in number, and goes to live under Joseph's protection. It is repeated in the beginning of the book of Exodus (1:5), where Scripture tells of the change in the status of the house of Jacob from a small family of welcome guests in Egypt to a large and mighty people who posed a potential threat to the country's security (Ex. 1:6ff). The same number is repeated by Moses when he describes the fulfillment of the promise to make Israel into a great nation: "Your ancestors went down to Egypt seventy persons in all; and now the Lord your G-d has made you as numerous as the stars of heaven" (Deut. 10:22). Compare this with, "He [Jacob] went down to Egypt with meager numbers ... but there he became a great and very populous nation" (Deut. 26:5), where the number seventy is not explicitly mentioned.

"Seventy persons" is a typological number, symbolizing a large clan or large community. This can be shown from a number of contexts. When the people had multiplied greatly, they were represented by "seventy of the elders of Israel." Such a body is mentioned in the account of the theophany at Mount Sinai, when Moses ascends the mount and leaves behind him the leadership of "seventy elders" (Ex. 24:1, 9). This body is mentioned again when Moses complains in a moment of hardship that he has not the strength to bear the weight of the entire people by himself and G-d commands him to take "seventy of Israel's elders ... elders and officers of the people," to share with him the burden of leading the people (Num. 11:10ff.).

When the Israelites came to Elim on their journey through the wilderness, they found "twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees" (Ex. 15:27). These numbers too have symbolic meaning. Just as twelve is the number of the tribes of Israel, so the same number occurs with respect to Abraham's other progeny -- the sons of Ishmael. They too, like the sons of Israel, were twelve, and they too multiplied greatly and became nations (Gen. 25:16). Nahor, Abraham's brother, also had twelve sons, eight by the mistress of his house Milcah, and four by his concubine, although Scripture does not make this reckoning explicitly (Gen. 22:20-24).

The officials and elders of Succoth were "seventy-seven in number" (Judg. 8:14), apparently a combination of seventy elders and seven officials (compare Esther 1:7). The prophet Ezekiel said that he saw in a vision "seventy men, elders of the House of Israel," standing in a hidden place in the House of the Lord in Jerusalem and offering incense to abominations (Ezek. 8:11). The number given by the Canaanite king Adoni-bezek when he said that "seventy kings, with thumbs and big toes cut off, used to pick up scraps under my table" (Judg. 1:7) is quite possibly also typological.

There are other instances of seventy being used to denote a large family, a sort of clan: Gideon and Ahab each had seventy sons (Judg. 8:30; also cf. Judg. 12:9-14; II Kings 10:1). There might also be a connection between seventy as a typological number for counting people and "seventy years" used to denote the length of a person's life (as in Ps. 90:10). "Seventy years" is meant to indicate a long period of time (cf., for example, Is. 23:15; Jer. 25:10).[1]

The idea of seventy elders as a number with symbolic significance is the basis for the accepted number in Talmudic literature for the members of the Sanhedrin; but since a court "cannot be balanced," but must have an odd number of judges in order to arrive at decisions, the number became seventy-one (Mishnah Sanhedrin 1.5-6). [The privilege of abstaining does not exist in Jewish law, since a person who is incapable of making a decision has no place in a decision-making institution.]

"Seventy elders" comes up again, undoubtedly under the influence of the sources mentioned above, in the legends about the Septuagint, the translation of the Bible into Greek. This story appears in many sources in a number of versions.[2] The Sages and other sources refer to the translators as "seventy elders," although several sources mention a different number: seventy-two (Tractate Sopherim 1.8).[3] This number occurred previously in the Letter of Aristeas (46-50), which tells that in order to produce the translation six delegates from each tribe were sent to Alexandria, and continues to name each and every one of them, totaling seventy-two. Indeed, in Josephus, who was acquainted with this work, both numbers are cited: seventy translators (Ant. 12.11.86), and six from each tribe (loc. sit., 8.56). In this regard one should mention the view that in order to appoint "seventy elders of the people" to help him perform his office (Num. 11:16), Moses selected six from each tribe, and of them he chose seventy by lots; the other two, who were not chosen and therefore remained in the camp and did not assemble by the Tent, were Eldad and Medad, on whom the spirit of the Lord also rested although they were in the camp (Num. 11:26; cf. Sifre 65.1; Sanhedrin 17a).

Later midrashim comment on the verse: "When the Most High gave nations their homes and set the divisions of man, He fixed the boundaries of people in relation to Israel's numbers" (Deut. 32:8),[4] that the number of the world's nations equals the number of the children of Israel -- seventy; as if the number of the nations and their boundaries were arranged by the Holy One, blessed be He, in relationship to the number of the children of Israel.[5] From whence comes the idea that the number of the nations is seventy? The reference is to the "Table of Nations," i.e., to the list of the descendants of Noah (Gen. chapter 10), who became "seventy nations."

"Seventy nations" are mentioned in other Midrashim as well. For example, according to the Talmud (Sukkah 58b) the total number of bulls brought as a sacrifice on the Festival [of Sukkot] is seventy, matching the number of nations in the world, and they "decrease steadily" (i.e., thirteen bulls on the first day; twelve on the second, etc.; Num. 29:13-32). But in fact the number "seventy" with reference to the nations of the world is not mentioned at all in Scriptures. It is not easy to arrive at an exact count of seventy nations from the list of names in Genesis chapter 10; it is not clear which are considered names of nations and which are not names of nations and therefore are not to be included in the tally.[6]

Just as the works of the Sages mention "seventy nations," so too, they mention "seventy tongues," a number which comes up in several places. For example, according to legend, Mordechai knew seventy tongues (Megillah 13b, on Esther 2:21-22). It was also said of the Sanhedrin that sat in the Chamber of Hewn Stone that they knew seventy languages (Menahot 65a).

From all of this we may deduce that the number seventy is typological and indicates a large amount. But in our parasha the Sages viewed "seventy persons" as a precise number rather than a symbolic figure meaning "many", and therefore it presented them with a problem, since the list of Jacob's descendants given in Genesis 46:5-21 only totals sixty-nine. The same total is obtained from adding up the lists of the sons born to each of the mothers, which accounting also includes Joseph among those going to Egypt, even though he was already in Egypt, as well as his two sons who were born in Egypt. The Sages try to explain this difficulty in a number of ways, among them:

1) The total of seventy included Yocheved, daughter of Levi (Ex. 6:20; Numbers 26:59), who is not mentioned here. According to legend, Yocheved was born "between the walls," i.e., at the entrance to Egypt, when Jacob and his sons came to join Joseph. The verse, "who was born to Levi in Egypt," (Num. 26:59) is explained as follows: "She was born in Egypt, but she was not conceived or carried in Egypt" (Genesis Rabbah, 94.9, Bava Batra 123a). Yocheved was the one who brought the count up to seventy.

2) "Dan's son completed them" (Midrash Samuel 34), apparently a reference to the words, "Dan's son [sons]: Hushim" (Gen. 46:23). The plural form of the name Hushim was interpreted as indicating another son who was included in the count but for whatever reason was not mentioned by name; perhaps he died en route, or perhaps he was born en route. Countering this assumption it must be noted that the reckoning of Bilhah's children (v. 25) only includes one son of Dan.

3) The Holy One, blessed be He, was counted along with them, bringing the number to seventy, to fulfill the words: "I Myself will go down with you to Egypt" (Gen. 46:4; cf. Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 39).

4) The explanation closest to the plain sense of Scriptures is that Jacob himself completed the count to seventy (Genesis Rabbah).

An interesting reading which appears in Genesis 46:27 and Exodus 1:5 in the Septuagint mentions "seventy-five persons" (some manuscripts of the Septuagint also give this number in Deut. 10:22). A similar variant appears at Ex. 1:5 in a Hebrew manuscript from Qumran. Genesis 46 in the Septuagint contains several changes in the list of names of those going to Egypt, including some additional names; most are names mentioned in the lists of genealogies in Chronicles (I Chron. 2-5).[7] The Aramaic Targum also mentions the third and fourth generations of Jacob's children, but the total of the names it lists in no way matches the number of "seventy-five persons" mentioned there. Attempts of various scholars to explain the lack of correspondence between the total number mentioned in the Septuagint and the names listed there (including the subtotals) have not been successful. But this is a matter for a separate study.

[1] Perhaps there is symbolism in the total number of years Adam lived, "930 years" (Gen. 5:5), being one thousand minus seventy.

[2] The baraitha in Megillah 9a; Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael on Ex. 12:40; the Jerusalem Talmud, Megillah 1.11[71d]; Tractate Sopherim, Higger ed., 1.9, and others. It appears even earlier in the epigraphic work, Letter of Aristeas, which is entirely about this event, and in Philo, Life of Moses 2.25-42; Eusebius cites the story in the name of the Jewish philosopher Aristobulus; Josephus presents it in Antiquities of the Jews 12.7-14; and it is found in other sources, as well.

[3] However an additional account is presented there (loc. sit., 1.8) about five elders "who wrote the Torah in Greek for King Ptolemy." Further on it reads as follows: "Another story is told of King Ptolemy -- that he assembled seventy-two elders, and sat them down in seventy-two houses, ... and went in to each and every one of them and said to them: Write me the Torah of your teacher Moses."

[4] On the formulation of this verse in the Qumran fragment, cf. P. Skehan, BASOR 136 (1954), 12-15.

[5] Cf. Yalkut Shimoni I.61; perhaps the midrash meant: according to the needs of Israel?

[6] Cf. sources cited by M. M. Kascher, Torah Shelemah on Gen. 9, p. 483 (109-110).

[7] Chronicles presents detailed lists, albeit sometimes truncated, of the families and their tribal offspring, and of where they settled in the land. This, however, is not a list of those who went to Egypt. In several instances names of people and names of places are mixed. The list, for the most part, covers a large number of generations, sometimes continuing further and mentioning names of important people and their genealogy even from the period after the destruction of the Temple (the House of David; I Chron. 3). Some of the lists given there are garbled, containing duplication with variations. Another list of Jacob's family found in the Bible is the census taken after the plague in the wake of the sin of Baal Peor (Num. 26). This account contains several differences in the family lists of the Israelites.

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