Jacob and His Family’s Complexities
God is in the Details
Genesis 46’s presentation of Jacob’s family tree is a remarkable composition. One of its lists of names is accompanied by an unusual person count, which is typically dismissed as an artefact of inconsistent sources/traditions. In the context of the book’s narrative, however, it serves an important purpose: it invites us to engage with the text’s numerical details in a careful and sustained manner and, in the process, to ponder its numerically-conveyed messages.
The text of Genesis 46.8–27 sets out Jacob’s family tree: his sons, daughters, and grandsons. It groups them by mother. That is to say, it lists (in order) the descendants of Leah, Zilpah, Rachel, and Bilhah, and provides a sub-total (person count) for each branch/sub-group.
Leah’s descendants are listed in 46.8–15, where we encounter our text’s first oddity. While the text lists 34 names, it provides a person count of 33 (cp. 46.15)—a point we’ll return to later.
Next the descendants of Zilpah (Leah’s servant) are listed (45.16–18).
In 46.19–22, the text moves on to deal with Rachel’s descendants.
And, finally, the descendants of Bilhah (Rachel’s servant) are listed (46.23–25).
We can thus summarise the text’s presentation of Jacob’s family tree as follows.
Finally, in 46.26–27, Jacob’s descendants are totalled up in two different ways. First, we’re told that ‘the souls of Jacob’ who entered Egypt amounted to 66 people (46.26), and then we’re told that ‘the souls of the house of Jacob’ who entered Egypt amounted to 70 people (46.27).
That our text provides us with two different totals isn’t particularly unusual in and of itself. If you asked me how many people there are in my family, I could give you quite a few different answers, depending on whom I chose to include in my count (in-laws, uncles, cousins, etc.). And the author of Genesis 46 is clearly aware that the number of people in a family tree can be counted in different ways (hence at one point in his list he adds the qualifier ‘the wives of Jacob’s sons not included’: 46.26).1 What’s unusual is the particular totals at which our author arrives (viz. 66 and 70), since it’s not immediately apparent how he’s arrived at them. Let’s therefore see if we can reconstruct his logic. We’ll start with the count of 33, in the process of which we’ll also address the totals of 66 and 70.
As we’ve seen, while Leah is said to have 33 descendants, the text of 46.8–15 lists 34 descendants (cp. our table above); that is to say, the text seems to contain one name too many. As a result, some commentators argue that Er and Onan shouldn’t be included in 46.8–15’s person count (since they never made it as far as Egypt) (cp. 38.1–10),2 which is a plausible idea in and of itself, but it does little to solve the problem at hand since we then end up with one descendant too few (viz. 32). Other commentators therefore argue that our author’s count of 33 excludes Dinah, which is more satisfactory arithmetically, but it doesn’t sit well with the text, since the count of 33 is explicitly said to include Jacob’s ‘sons and daughters’ (46.15).3
Rabbi Hiyya adopts a different approach. In most English translations, 46.15 reads as follows: ‘These are the sons of Leah, whom she bore to Jacob, together with his daughter Dinah (ואת דינה בתו)’. According to Rabbi Hiyya, however, the phrase ואת דינה בתו tells us not simply that Leah bore Jacob a daughter (Dinah), but that Leah bore a daughter along with Dinah (i.e., that Dinah was one of a pair of twins) (cp. Bavli Bava Batra 123a). While Hiyya’s interpretation of the text is almost certainly not what its author meant to convey, Hiyya’s conclusion—that Leah had two daughters, one of whom is Dinah and the other of whom isn’t named—has a lot to commend it:
It makes sense of 46.8–15’s count of 33 (since 6 sons, 2 daughters, and 27 grandchildren, less Er and Onan, makes 33 descendants).
By extension, it makes sense of 46.27’s count of 70 (since 70 is the sum of the text’s various sub-totals, i.e., 33 + 16 + 14 + 7).
It explains why our count of 33 is said to include ‘sons and daughters’ (46.15), and
It allows us to explain 46.26’s count of 66, as we’ll see below.
Since the people who entered Egypt can be counted either as 66 or as 70, the 66 are presumably a subset of the 70. So, who might they exclude? Well, after our author provides his count of 66, he immediately goes on to mention two sons of Joseph who were born to him in Egypt. (‘The persons of Jacob were…66 persons; the sons of Joseph, who were born to him in Egypt, were two’.) His count of 66 thus appears to exclude Joseph’s sons since they didn’t travel up to Egypt along with Jacob, in which case it’s also likely to exclude Joseph himself. The 66 must also, however, exclude one other person. Who? Our discussion of Leah’s descendants provides us with a plausible answer: our author’s count could legitimately (if it counted only named individuals) exclude Dinah’s sister, and arrive at a count of 66 as follows:
In sum, then, while Rabbi Hiyya’s interpretation of 46.15 seems an unlikely one, it points us in the right direction. 46.15’s count of 33 includes an unnamed daughter (per its reference to 33 ‘sons and daughters’), and the flexibility it gives us (either to include or to exclude Leah’s unnamed daughter) allows us to explain 46.26–27’s different person-counts of both 66 and 70; moreover, it allows us to do so in a manner which takes its cue from the particularities of the text itself. (One wonders if Rabbi Hiyya was aware of a reliable historical tradition which prompted him to read the text as he did.) Put another way, the text’s count of 33 appears to include one person too many (once the deaths of Er and Onan are accounted for), while its count of 66 appears to include one person too few (since the difference between the counts of 66 and 70 appears to be the exclusion of only three people, viz. Joseph and his two sons), and the flexibility provided by Leah’s unnamed daughter gives us a way to reconcile the two counts. 66 named individuals travelled up to Egypt, and 70 ultimately ended up there.4
Scripture doesn’t present us with complexities for no reason. Faced with a text like Genesis 46, reconstructing our author’s arithmetic is only part of our job as readers. We also need to consider why the author of Genesis 46 has chosen to enumerate Jacob’s descendants in the way he has. Below are my suggestions.
Our author’s higher count—i.e., the count of 70—is intended to draw our attention to various allusions to the number seven in the content and context of Genesis 46. Indeed, the text is replete with allusions to the number seven:
It is set against the chronological backdrop of the second week of Joseph’s stay in Egypt (i.e., the seven years of famine) and against the geographical backdrop of Beer-Sheva (בְּאֵר שֶׁבַע) (‘seven wells’) (43.1ff., 46.5).
In all, it mentions seven different women (Leah, Dinah, Zilpah, Serah, Asenath, Rachel, and Bilhah).
Its 70 individuals are divided into two distinct sub-groups: i] the 49 descendants of Leah and Zilpah (7 x 7), and ii] the 21 descendants of Rachel and Bilhah (3 x 7).
These sub-groups—each of which came at the cost of seven years’ labour (29.27)—contain further sub-groups of seven: Zilpah has 7 x 2 grandsons; Rachel has 7 x 2 descendants; and Bilhah has seven descendants.
And the two sub-groups are demarcated by the birth of Gad, which involves further allusions to the number seven, since Gad is the seventh of Jacob’s sons, is the father of seven sons, is preceded by 77 words in the text’s description of Jacob’s family tree, and has a name (גד) with a gematrial value of seven.
Jacob’s family tree is thus replete with allusions to the number seven, which is significant. In many senses, Jacob’s family was a mess, including the way he acquired it. Yet Jacob’s family tree is underlain by the hallmarks of the God who chose to stamp a sevenfold blueprint into the very fabric of his creation (in creation week). Put another way, for all the apparent messiness of Jacob’s life, the book of Genesis’s final description of Jacob’s seed reflects the superintentions of the God who commanded him (like Adam) to be fruitful and multiply (35.10–11). Significant for a similar reason is the order in which Jacob’s wives and sons are listed. Jacob had favourites among his wives and sons. As a result, Genesis’s account of Jacob’s ‘generations’ (toledot) begins not with a statement about Jacob’s firstborn (Reuben), but with a statement about Joseph (Jacob’s favourite) (37.2). When we get to Genesis 46, however, we find that Jacob’s generations are ordered differently: they begin not with Joseph, but with the wife and children whom God first provided for Jacob; in other words, they reflect God’s providence rather than Jacob’s preference.
Our text’s count of 70 thus tips us off to the existence of all sorts of numerical patterns in Jacob’s family tree. And the same is true of its count of 66. The number 66 is twice 33 (the number of Leah’s descendants), which draws our attention to doubled numbers elsewhere in Genesis 46. Jacob’s wives provided him with twice as many sons as their servants did. (Leah and Rachel bore Jacob eight sons, while Zilpah and Bilhah bore him only four.) And, individually, each of Jacob’s wives bore him twice as many named descendants as their servants. (Leah bore Jacob 32 named descendants while Zilpah bore him only 16, and Rachel bore Jacob 14 named descendants while Bilhah bore him only 7.) Hence, in terms of Jacob’s command to be fruitful and multiply, the text of Genesis 46 portrays a relationship with a servant as less productive than a commitment to a wife, and the accumulation of multiple wives as far from ideal. Jacob’s first marriage was his most fruitful. She provided Jacob with as many descendants as the rest of his wives put together. Jacob’s subsequent marriages then resulted in diminishing returns.5
The way in which these patterns are embedded in the text of Genesis 46 is quite remarkable. The details of the text don’t seem contrived. (For instance, Jacob’s wives all have different numbers of sons and grandsons, and not all of them survive.) Our text thus feels rather haphazard in its construction. And yet, for all its irregularities, it is underlain by a deep numerical harmony, which is testimony to the God of Creation’s ability to bring order out of chaos and light out of darkness. Equally important to note is our text’s method. Just as a cryptic crossword clue invites us to think carefully about its solution, so too do our text’s apparent discrepancies. Had our text included neat and tidy totals, I would probably not have written this article, and you would (certainly) not have read it. Yet, because of our text’s apparent discrepancies, we have been able to glean far more about its contents and message than we would otherwise have done. The Bible is thus an illustration of its own invitation: Seek and ye shall find.
In addition, at the outset of Genesis 46, our author tells us that Jacob’s sons gave birth to daughters as well as sons (as one would expect) (46.7), though he names and counts only one of these daughters (Serah) (46.17).
How the events of Genesis 38 fit into the chronology of Joseph’s story is not entirely clear. Jacob migrated to Egypt 22 years after Joseph was sold into slavery (cp. 37.2, 41.46–49, 45.6–7), which leaves little time for the events of ch. 38’s events to have taken place (i.e., for Judah to have fathered a son who grew up and married). Er and Onan *could*, just about, have died prior to Jacob’s relocation to Egypt. Alternatively, they could have been born after Jacob’s relocation to Egypt (on one of Judah’s [yearly]? trips to Canaan) and raised in Canaan by their mother (Shua’s daughter). At least some of Judah’s sons look to have been born in Canaan when he was not present (38.5). Either way, they would not have relocated to Egypt along with Jacob and would not, therefore, have been included in our person counts.
Moreover, 46.15’s reference to ‘sons and daughters’ is hard to gloss over, since the text’s other sub-totals simply refer to ‘sons’ (46.18, 22, 25).
The inclusion of Jacob and his four wives could then make up the total of 75 mentioned in Acts 7.15, as well as in the LXX of Gen. 46.27.
For a first wife to have more children than subsequent wives is actually a common situation (cp. Bean, L. L. & G. P. Mineau, ‘The Polygyny-Fertility Hypothesis: A Reevaluation’ in Population Studies, 40 , pp. 67–81, etc.).