The second book of the Pentateuch is called “Exodus” in English but called “Names” in Hebrew due to the opening lines. In reviewing the first ten sentences of the book, there is seemingly a deeper message about the names themselves.
וְאֵ֗לֶּה שְׁמוֹת֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל הַבָּאִ֖ים מִצְרָ֑יְמָה אֵ֣ת יַעֲקֹ֔ב אִ֥ישׁ וּבֵית֖וֹ בָּֽאוּ׃
These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each coming with his household:
רְאוּבֵ֣ן שִׁמְע֔וֹן לֵוִ֖י וִיהוּדָֽה׃
Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah;
יִשָּׂשכָ֥ר זְבוּלֻ֖ן וּבְנְיָמִֽן׃
Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin;
דָּ֥ן וְנַפְתָּלִ֖י גָּ֥ד וְאָשֵֽׁר׃
Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher.
וַֽיְהִ֗י כָּל־נֶ֛פֶשׁ יֹצְאֵ֥י יֶֽרֶךְ־יַעֲקֹ֖ב שִׁבְעִ֣ים נָ֑פֶשׁ וְיוֹסֵ֖ף הָיָ֥ה בְמִצְרָֽיִם׃
The total number of persons that were of Jacob’s issue came to seventy, Joseph being already in Egypt.
וַיָּ֤מָת יוֹסֵף֙ וְכָל־אֶחָ֔יו וְכֹ֖ל הַדּ֥וֹר הַהֽוּא׃
Joseph died, and all his brothers, and all that generation.
וּבְנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל פָּר֧וּ וַֽיִּשְׁרְצ֛וּ וַיִּרְבּ֥וּ וַיַּֽעַצְמ֖וּ בִּמְאֹ֣ד מְאֹ֑ד וַתִּמָּלֵ֥א הָאָ֖רֶץ אֹתָֽם׃ (פ)
But the sons of Israel were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them.
וַיָּ֥קָם מֶֽלֶךְ־חָדָ֖שׁ עַל־מִצְרָ֑יִם אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹֽא־יָדַ֖ע אֶת־יוֹסֵֽף׃
A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.
וַיֹּ֖אמֶר אֶל־עַמּ֑וֹ הִנֵּ֗ה עַ֚ם בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל רַ֥ב וְעָצ֖וּם מִמֶּֽנּוּ׃
And he said to his people, “Look, the nation of the sons of Israel is too numerous for us.
הָ֥בָה נִֽתְחַכְּמָ֖ה ל֑וֹ פֶּן־יִרְבֶּ֗ה וְהָיָ֞ה כִּֽי־תִקְרֶ֤אנָה מִלְחָמָה֙ וְנוֹסַ֤ף גַּם־הוּא֙ עַל־שֹׂ֣נְאֵ֔ינוּ וְנִלְחַם־בָּ֖נוּ וְעָלָ֥ה מִן־הָאָֽרֶץ׃
Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground.”
The first sentence opens with calling Jacob by his changed name “Israel” before switching to his birth name “Jacob.” The text then lists all of the names of Jacob’s sons and subsequently pivots back to “Israel” after Joseph and his brothers died. At the end of the section, not only does the text pivot to using “sons of Israel” to include women and later generations but the new king in Egypt goes further in calling them a “nation of the sons of Israel.”
There is clearly more to appreciate in the names employed.
Birth Names of Human-Tension
The names given to the Jewish forefathers are explained inside the text in Genesis with some rationale given of how the parents felt at the time of the baby’s birth. Often, the names portend events in the future.
Consider how Sarah laughed when she heard she was going to have a child (Genesis 18:12) and then later Abraham named him Isaac (Genesis 21:3) after the Hebrew name for laughter. Sarah seemingly approved of the name (Genesis 21:6) only to soon witness Isaac’s half-brother Ishmael making fun of him (Genesis 21:8). Isaac’s name was an omen of things to come or perhaps served as the catalyst for how people perceived him. Maybe both.
One can see the impact of names when reading about Jacob’s eldest son, Reuben. Born to an unloved wife, Leah, Genesis 29:32 describes one of the saddest baby-namings in the Bible: “Leah conceived and bore a son, and named him Reuben; for she declared, “It means: ‘The LORD has seen my affliction’; it also means: ‘Now my husband will love me.’” How that name must have weighed on Reuben! To carry a name that shows his mother was unloved! With Leah’s sister as another wife and two handmaids also producing half-brothers, the family dynamic was extremely difficult. When his mother’s sister Rachel died years later and Jacob opted to still not enter Leah’s tent but that of Bilhah, Rachel’s handmaid, Reuben was apoplectic and raped Bilhah (Genesis 35:22).
The bible is deliberately silent on Jacob’s reaction to the event, stopping the story mid-sentence and starting a new paragraph with “Now the sons of Jacob were twelve in number.” Seemingly, Reuben is not punished by his horrific act and remained part of the collective twelve sons. Perhaps Jacob acknowledged that it was Reuben’s obligation to fight for the honor of his spurned mother, maybe even uniquely among Leah’s six sons, as he bore the name of desperate love.
Jacob himself was named by his mother Rebecca for the contentious relationship he would have with his brother Esau. In Genesis 25:23, God told Rebecca that two nations were struggling inside her womb and she named Jacob in Genesis 25:26 because he was clutching the heel (ekev in Hebrew) of Esau. This highly fraught relationship continued for years until an angel renamed Jacob in a night struggle, seemingly redoing the struggle in Rebecca’s womb. This time, Jacob came out on top but instead of clutching the heel of the winner, he incurred a permanent limp. As the victor, he was renamed Israel (Genesis 32:29) “for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” It was only at this point, stripped of a name that carried the significance of brotherly-confrontation, that Jacob met with Esau who had come to meet him with a 400-person army. Peace prevailed.
Karma of the Nation of Israel
After reviewing the nature of how parent-given names influenced the lives of the biblical forefathers, we can take a fresh look at the opening sentences of Exodus in a different manner.
From the middle of the first sentence through the sixth, the Bible names Jacob and his sons by their parent-given names with Joseph separated from everyone – twice. First, he is described as already living in Egypt and then specifying his death while not listing any other deaths in the family. Seemingly this fits the narrative to come, that a new Egyptian king did not know Joseph. A casual reader would infer that the new king did not know how Joseph saved the entire region from starvation and made Egypt into a rich and powerful nation.
But such a linear reading could have been accomplished without starting and closing the section with the name “bnai Yisrael,” at first being the sons of Jacob, then the extended family and ultimately entire nation of Israel.
The birth-named middle section is a family set upon itself. As sons of Jacob, they were dysfunctional to an extreme: Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery after throwing him into a pit; the sons lied to their father that Joseph was dead; Reuben raped his half-brothers’ mother. The list goes on. This family of Jacob was a quarrelsome bunch, quite distinct from Joseph whose position was established in Egypt. The Egyptians tolerated the sons of Jacob only because of – and under the control of – Joseph.
When Joseph died and a new king arose, it was not so much that the new king no longer appreciated what Joseph did for Egypt as much as he no longer saw a small fragmented family under the control of an Egyptian prince. Instead, the “sons of Israel” had become generations and ultimately a “nation of the sons of Israel,” large and no longer under the control of a reliable Egyptian. As alarming, this rag tag group had a blessed name, meaning that it will prevail in dealing with “beings divine and human.” This unnerved the new king.
She’mot, the Book of Names, is not only a story of how a family became a nation, but how such family matured beyond individual names of personal conflict to realize the full-potential of its divine name.
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