Over two centuries before Yaakov's sons arrived in Egypt, their exile, bondage, and ultimate redemption were foretold to their great-grandfather Avraham at the Covenant of Pieces.1 Yet, despite the significance of these events for the future Israelite nation, neither their cause nor purpose are revealed. The reader is thus left to ponder several issues:
- Did Hashem ordain that Yaakov's family would be forced to uproot from Canaan and remain in Egypt for centuries? Was the unfolding of these events a realization of a Divine master plan2 or merely a product of human volition?
- What was accomplished by such a process of exile, slavery, and even attempted extermination, and why does Hashem not explain this to Avraham?3 Why would Hashem permit the Egyptians to inflict such hardships upon His chosen nation?4 Did the Israelites or their forefathers do anything that made them deserve such a fate? And could they have done anything to prevent its fulfillment?
- Why did Hashem feel compelled to share such a terrifying prophecy with Avraham, and why did Avraham respond with complete silence? Could he not have prayed for Divine mercy upon his descendants?5
Egypt: Penitentiary or Incubator?
In Tanakh, suffering on a large scale such as exile or subjugation usually comes as a punishment for evil deeds.6 Thus many commentators attempt to identify a sin or sins which led to the Egyptian bondage. The Torah itself, however, neither explicitly records that any particular sin was responsible for the decree,7 nor does it state that Hashem' hand was responsible for causing the suffering.8 It also does not offer Avraham or his descendants any option of repentance,9 as is frequently the case when punishment is involved. Consequently, others contend that the exile and slavery could not have been a punishment, but were rather a method of inculcating values and instilling faith. But if so, could Hashem not have found a different way to incubate and educate the nation without causing such terrible suffering?
The Covenant of the Pieces combined two related decrees, the exile of "גֵר יִהְיֶה זַרְעֲךָ" and the oppression of "וַעֲבָדוּם וְעִנּוּ אֹתָם". These two events, though, affected different generations. The generation of Yosef and his brothers was exiled, but no member of that generation suffered the oppression and bondage which afflicted their descendants.10 And as noted above, the prophecy regarding both of these decrees was given already to Avraham, who lived long before the generations during which it came to fruition. Thus, any approach must relate to and account for the relationships between these various generations. If the exile and bondage were punishment for a sin, which of the generations was the guilty party? Was it the generation to whom they were predicted, the generation which was exiled, or the generation which was enslaved? Alternatively, if the objective was to educate, which generation was the focus? And, finally, is it possible that the various stages of the decree had different goals which were aimed at different generations?