Jacob's Journey to Egypt
by Eric Lyons, M.Min.
Three times in the Old Testament, it is stated that seventy people from the house of Jacob went down into Egypt. According to Genesis 46:27, “All the persons of the house of Jacob who went to Egypt were seventy.” In the first few verses of the book of Exodus, Jacob’s sons are named, and then again we are told, “All those who were descendants of Jacob were seventy persons” (Exodus 1:1,5). The third Old Testament reference to this number is found in Deuteronomy 10:22, where Moses spoke to the Israelites about the “great and awesome things” that God had done for them (10:21). He then reminded the children of Israel of how their “fathers went down to Egypt with seventy persons,” which Jehovah made “as the stars of heaven in multitude” (Deuteronomy 10:22). The difficulty that Christians are challenged to resolve is how these verses can be understood in light of Stephen’s statement recorded in Acts 7:12-14. Being “full of the Holy Spirit” (7:55) with a “face as the face of an angel” (6:15), Stephen reminded the Jews of their history, saying, “When Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent out our fathers first. And the second time Joseph was made known to his brothers, and Joseph’s family became known to the Pharaoh. Then Joseph sent and called his father Jacob and all his relatives to him, seventy-five people” (Acts 7:12-14, emp. added). Skeptics, as well as concerned Christians who seek to back their faith with reasonable answers, desire to know why Acts 7:14 mentions “seventy-five people,” while Genesis 46:27, Exodus 1:5, and Deuteronomy 10:22 mention only “seventy persons.” Exactly how many of Jacob’s household went to Egypt?
Similar to how a person truthfully can give different degrees for the boiling point of water (100° Celsius or 212° Fahrenheit), different figures are given in the Bible for the number of Jacob’s family members who traveled into Egypt. Stephen (in Acts 7:14) did not contradict the Old Testament passages where the number seventy is used; he merely computed the number differently. Precisely how Stephen calculated this number is a matter of speculation. Consider the following:
In Genesis 46:27, neither Jacob’s wife (cf. 35:19) nor his concubines is included in the seventy figure.
Despite the mention of Jacob’s “daughters and his son’s daughters” (46:7), it seems that the only daughter included in the “seventy” was Dinah (vs. 15), and the only granddaughter was Serah (vs. 17).
The wives of Jacob’s sons are not included in the seventy (46:26).
Finally, whereas only two descendants of Joseph are mentioned in Genesis 46 in the Masoretic text of the Old Testament, in the Septuagint, Joseph’s descendants are calculated as being nine.
Taking into consideration how many individuals were omitted from “the seventy persons” mentioned in the Old Testament, at least two possible solutions to this alleged contradiction may be offered. First, it is possible that Stephen included Jacob’s daughters-in-law in his calculation of seventy-five. Jacob’s children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren amounted to sixty-six (Genesis 46:8-26). If Jacob, Joseph, and Joseph’s two sons are added, then the total number is seventy (46:27). If, however, to the sixty-six Stephen added the wives of Jacob’s sons’, he could have legitimately reckoned Jacob’s household as numbering seventy-five, instead of seventy. [NOTE: Jacob is listed by Stephen individually.] Yet, someone might ask how sixty-six plus “twelve” equals seventy-five. Simple—not all of the wives were included. Joseph’s wife obviously would not have been calculated into this figure, if Joseph himself were not. And, at least two of the eleven remaining wives may have been deceased by the time the family journeyed to Egypt. We know for sure that Judah’s wife had already died by this time (Genesis 38:12), and it is reasonable to conclude that another of the wives had passed away as well. (In all likelihood, Simeon’s wife had already died—cf. Genesis 46:10.) Thus, when Stephen stated that “Joseph sent and called his father Jacob and all his relatives to him, seventy-five people” (Acts 7:14), realistically he could have included the living wives of Joseph’s brothers to get a different (though not a contradictory) number.
A second possible solution to this alleged contradiction is that Stephen quoted from the Septuagint. Although Deuteronomy 10:22 reads the same in both the Masoretic text and the Septuagint (“seventy”), Genesis 46:27 and Exodus 1:5 differ in the two texts. Whereas the Masoretic text says “seventy” in both passages, the Septuagint says “seventy-five.” As R.C.H. Lenski concluded, however: “This is a mere matter of counting” (1961, p. 270).
The descendants of Jacob that went to Egypt were sixty-six in number (Gen. 46:26), but counting Joseph and his two sons and Jacob himself (Gen. 46:27), the number is seventy. In the LXX [Septuagint—EL] all the sons of Joseph who he got in Egypt were counted, “nine souls,” which, with the sixty-six, made seventy-five (Lenski, p. 270).
Thus, instead of adding the nine living wives of Joseph’s brothers (as proposed in the aforementioned solution), this scenario suggests that the number seventy-five is the result following the reading from the Septuagint—which includes the grandchildren of Joseph (cf. 1 Chronicles 7:14-21). [NOTE: The Septuagint and the Masoretic text may differ, but they do not contradict each other—the former simply mentions some of Joseph’s descendants who are not recorded by the latter.] In Albert Barnes’ comments concerning these differences, he appropriately noted:
Why the Septuagint inserted these [Joseph’s descendants—EL], it may not be easy to see. But such was evidently the fact; and the fact accords accurately with the historic record, though Moses did not insert their names. The solution of difficulties in regard to chronology is always difficult; and what might be entirely apparent to a Jew in the time of Stephen, may be wholly inexplicable to us (1949, p. 123, emp. added).
One of the more “inexplicable” things regarding the 70 (or 75) “of the house of Jacob who went to Egypt,” revolves around the mention of some of Jacob’s descendants who apparently were not born until sometime after the journey to Egypt was completed. If one accepts the Septuagint’s tally of 75, including the grandchildren of Joseph, he also must conclude that Manasseh and Ephraim (Joseph’s sons) fathered these children sometime after Jacob’s migration to Egypt, and possibly before Jacob’s death seventeen years later (since Ephraim and Manasseh still were very young when the house of Jacob moved to Egypt). If one excludes the Septuagint from this discussion, there still are at least two possible indications in Genesis 46 that not all “seventy” were born before Jacob’s family arrived in Egypt. First, Hezron and Hamul (the sons of Perez) are included in the “seventy” (46:12), yet the evidence strongly leans toward these great-grandsons of Jacob not being born until after the migration. Considering that Judah, the grandfather of Hezron and Hamul, was only about forty-three when the migration to Egypt took place, and that the events recorded in Genesis 38 (involving his family) occurred over a number of years, it seems logical to conclude, as did Steven Mathewson in his “Exegetical Study of Genesis 38,” that “Judah’s sons Perez and Zerah were quite young, perhaps just a few months old, when they traveled to Egypt. Therefore it would have been impossible for Perez to have fathered Hezron and Hamul, his two sons mentioned in Genesis 46:12, before the journey into Egypt” (1989, 146:383). He went on to note:
A close look, however, at Genesis 46:12 reveals a variation in the mention of Hezron and Hamul. The end of the verse reads: “And the sons of Perez were Hezron and Hamul.” Yet throughout Genesis 46, the listing of descendants was done without the use of a verbal form. For example, verse 12a reads, “And the sons of Judah: Er and Onan and Shelah and Perez and Zerah” (146:383).
Hebrew scholar Umberto Cassuto commented on this “special phraseology,” saying, “This external variation creates the impression that the Bible wished to give us here some special information that was different from what it desired to impart relative to the other descendants of Israel” (1929, 1:34). Cassuto also explained what he thought was the intention behind this special use of the verb “were.”
It intended to inform us thereby that the sons of Perez were not among those who went down to Egypt, but are mentioned here for some other reason. This is corroborated by the fact that Joseph’s sons were also not of those who immigrated into Egypt, and they, too, are mentioned by a different formula (1:35).
A second indication that all “seventy” were likely not born before Jacob’s family migrated to Egypt is that ten “sons” (descendants) of Benjamin are listed (46:21). If Joseph was thirty-nine at the time of this migration (cf. 41:46), one can figure (roughly) the age of Benjamin by calculating the amount of time that passed between their births. It was after Joseph’s birth that his father, Jacob, worked his final six years for Laban in Padan Aram (30:25; 31:38,41). We know that Benjamin was more than six years younger than Joseph, because he was not born until sometime after Jacob discontinued working for Laban. In fact, Benjamin was not born until after Jacob: (1) departed Padan Aram (31:18); (2) crossed over the river (Euphrates—31:21); (3) met with his brother, Esau, near Penuel (32:22,31; 33:2); (4) built a house in Succoth (33:17); (5) pitched his tent in Shechem (33:18); and (6) built an altar to God at Bethel (35:1-19). Obviously, a considerable amount of time passed between Jacob’s separation from Laban in Padan Aram, and the birth of Benjamin near Bethlehem. Albert Barnes conservatively estimated that Benjamin was thirteen years younger than Joseph (1997). Biblical commentator John T. Willis said Benjamin was likely about fourteen years younger than Joseph (1984, p. 433). Also, considering Benjamin was referred to as “lad” (“boy”—NIV) eight times in Genesis chapters 43 and 44, which record events directly preceding Jacob’s move to Egypt, one would not expect Benjamin to be any more than 25 or 26 years of age at the time of the migration. What is somewhat perplexing to the Bible reader is that even though Benjamin was by far the youngest son of Jacob, more of his descendants are named in Genesis 46 than any other son of Jacob. In fact, some of these descendants of Benjamin apparently were his grandsons (cf. Numbers 26:38-40; 1 Chronicles 8:1-5).
But how is it that ten of Benjamin’s descendants, along with Hezron and Hamul, legitimately could appear in a list with those who traveled to Egypt, when all indications are that at least some were yet to be born? Answer: Because some of the names are brought in by prolepsis (or anticipation). Although they might not have been born by the time Jacob left for Egypt, they were in his loins—they “came from his body” (Genesis 46:26). Renowned Old Testament commentators Keil and Delitzsch stated: “From all this it necessarily follows, that in the list before us grandsons and great-grandsons of Jacob are named who were born afterwards in Egypt, and who, therefore, according to a view which we frequently meet with in the Old Testament, though strange to our modes of thought, came into Egypt in lumbis patrum” (1996). Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown agreed, saying:
The natural impression conveyed by these words [“these are the names of the children of Israel which came into Egypt”—EL] is, that the genealogy which follows contains a list of all the members of Jacob’s family, of whatever age, whether arrived at manhood or carried in their mother’s arms, who, having been born in Canaan, actually removed along with him to Egypt…. A closer examination, however, will show sufficient grounds for concluding that the genealogy was constructed on a very different principle—not that of naming only those members of Jacob’s family who were natives of Canaan, but of enumerating those who at the time of the immigration into Egypt, and during the patriarch’s life-time, were the recognized heads of families, in Israel, though some of them, born after the departure from Canaan, could be said to have “come into Egypt” only in the persons of their fathers (1997, emp. added).
While all seventy mentioned in Genesis 46 may not have literally traveled down to Egypt, Moses, writing this account more than 215 years later (see Bass, et. al., 2001), easily could have used a figure a speech known as prolepsis to include those who would be born shortly thereafter, and who eventually (by the time of Moses) would have been “the recognized heads of families.”
Barnes, Albert (1949), Notes on the Old and New Testaments: Acts (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).
Barnes, Albert (1997), Notes on the Old and New Testaments (Electronic Database: Biblesoft).
Bass, Alden, Bert Thompson, and Kyle Butt (2001), “Questions and Answers,” Reason & Revelation, 21:49-53, July.
Cassuto, Umberto (1929), Biblical and Oriental Studies (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1973 reprint).
Jamieson, Robert, et al. (1997), Jamieson, Fausset, Brown Bible Commentary (Electronic Database: Biblesoft).
Keil, C.F. and F. Delitzsch (1996), Keil and Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament (Electronic Database: Biblesoft), new updated edition.
Lenski, R.C.H. (1961), The Interpretation of the Acts of the Apostles (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg).
Mathewson, Steven D. (1989), “An Exegetical Study of Genesis 38,” Bibliotheca Sacra, 146:373-392, October.
Willis, John T. (1984), Genesis (Abilene, TX: ACU Press), orig. published in 1979 by Sweet Publishing Company, Austin, Texas.