As noted in previous studies, the latter section of the book of Genesis (chapters 37-50) is prophetic in nature. The future leadership of the nation of Israel is described hundreds of years before the fact. Joseph is a unique type of Messiah. His descendants, Ephraim and Manasseh will become leaders of the northern tribes of Israel. Judah, on the other hand, will be the dominant tribe in the south. Through Judah, God will preserve a remnant to complete His purpose of redemption. Messiah will come from the tribe of Judah. Even though the division of Israel between Judah and Joseph is only temporarily healed from time to time during the First Kingdom Era (1447 – 586 BC/BCE), the unification of the whole house of Israel will be accomplished in the Diaspora. Ezekiel prophesied of this unification (Ezekiel 37:15-23).
Judah was faced with the ultimate test of leadership. Benjamin had been found guilty of stealing Joseph’s cup and was destined to be thrown into prison for the rest of his life. Judah approached Joseph and proposed that he be imprisoned in the place of Benjamin. Judah laid down his life for the sake of his father and his brothers. In the words of Messiah Jesus, Judah took up his cross. This was the ultimate test of leadership. As a result, Judah became the unquestioned leader of the clan. Jacob, as a prophet, would recognize this through his prophecy concerning Judah.
“Judah, your brothers shall praise you; your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies; your father’s sons shall bow down to you, Judah is a lion’s whelp; from the prey, my son, you have gone up, he couches, he lies down as a lion, and as a lion, who dares rouse him up? The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until Shiloh comes, and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples” (Genesis 49:8-10).
God revealed Himself to Jacob one last time (at least this is the last recorded revelation to him). On the way to Egypt, God met Jacob at Beersheba and exhorted him not to fear moving the clan to Egypt. Here God revealed His purpose in moving Israel to Egypt.
“And He said, “I am God, the God of your father; do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make you a great nation there. I will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also surely bring you up again; and Joseph will close your eyes”. (Genesis 46:3-4)
God was in the “nation building” business. God did not reveal the fact, to Jacob, that it would take about 400 years for the nation to be built.
We may ask the question, why was it necessary for God to do this nation building in Egypt. Couldn’t God accomplish the same thing in the land of Canaan? Even though the Bible does not clearly answer this question, it does give us sufficient information to infer an answer. We believe that Judah’s interactions with the Canaanites (chapter 38) show that Israel was assimilating into the Canaanite population. Israel was in danger of becoming indistinguishable from the Canaanites. Israel would not become assimilated in Egypt. The Israelis were shepherds, and Egyptians despised shepherds. Israel would not be allowed to assimilate into the Egyptian population.
“for every shepherd is loathsome to the Egyptians.” (Genesis 46:34b)
Thus, Egypt served as an “incubator” for the infant nation of Israel. Israel maintained their distinct identity for the 400 years spent in Egypt. They grew from 70 souls (not counting Joseph, Exodus 1:5) to something like two to three million people in that time.
It is awesome to consider the wisdom of God and His revelation to man.