Chapter 47 starts with Jacob and his sons appearing before Pharaoh shortly after arriving in Egypt and ends seventeen years later with Jacob making Joseph swear to bury him in Canaan. In between we find out how Joseph manages the final years of the famine and establishes government policies that stand for hundreds of years. The book of Genesis starts to wind down as Jacob nears death and leadership of the family transitions to Joseph.
At the end of Chapter 46, Joseph coached his brothers on how to present themselves to Pharaoh. Here, he selects five of them to go before the king. There is no way to know who the five are or why Joseph takes only this group. Perhaps it’s a matter of respecting Pharaoh’s time or perhaps Joseph knows who will make the right impression. [Total guess: he doesn’t take the four sons of the maids and he doesn’t take Simeon and Levi because of the massacre at Shechem. Thus he takes Reuben (remember that he knows Reuben stood up for him before he was sold into slavery), Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin.] The five go before Pharaoh and – as Joseph told them to do – clearly explain that they are shepherds. They also come right out and ask Pharaoh to allow them to live in Goshen – something Joseph didn’t coach them to do (picture Joseph inwardly groaning when they ask).
Pharaoh responds favorably to them and gives them their request. He also tells Joseph to select the best shepherds among them and have them watch over his livestock. Pharaoh again shows by his kindness to the brothers his great love and respect for Joseph.
After presenting his brothers to Pharaoh, Joseph brings Jacob to him (it’s interesting that Jacob becomes the third patriarch to either travel to Egypt in a famine or want to travel there – Abraham went to Egypt to escape a famine and Isaac intended to – Jacob’s experience is much different than his grandfather’s, however – Abraham was ordered out of the land while Jacob is welcomed to it). Jacob blesses Pharaoh when he meets him (and when he leaves). This could be a greeting such as, “Oh king, live forever,” or it may be a formal blessing. If it’s the latter, then it shows the respect Pharaoh has for an older man and the father of Joseph as typically a blessing is pronounced by someone superior in social rank.
Pharaoh sees that Jacob is older and – apparently impressed – asks about his age. Jacob’s answer is interesting. He doesn’t just reply with his age. He first says that the years of his life have been the years of my sojourning. He could simply mean that he’s moved from place to place his entire life as a shepherd and thus hasn’t had a permanent place to live. He could also mean, however, that he sees his life as a sojourn through this world. It is interesting that the writer of Hebrews says Jacob and his forebears saw themselves as strangers and exiles on the earth. With that in view, it could mean that Jacob’s response is much weightier than Pharaoh knows.
All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a country of their own. And indeed if they had been thinking of that country from which they went out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them. (Heb 11:13-16)
Isn’t this how all of us should respond when asked about our life? Shouldn’t we see this life as a sojourn through a land that isn’t our permanent home? Isn’t our age just a measure of how long our trip home has lasted? The world looks different and the anxieties it produces seem smaller when it’s only a temporary residence instead of a home. And our usefulness for God’s kingdom grows when we desire a better country. If we want God to not be ashamed to be called our God, we must desire His world more than this one.
The second interesting part of Jacob’s answer is his description of the quality of his life. He says his years have been few and unpleasant, and that he hasn’t attained the years of his fathers (Abraham lived 175 years, Isaac lived 180). As we know from studying Jacob’s life, he has lived through many years of familial strife and disappointment. What we also know is that much of it came about as a result of his own actions. From Esau’s birthright to Isaac’s blessing; from Laban’s wedding games and employment tricks to having twelve sons with four women; from Simeon and Levi’s treachery to Reuben’s betrayal; from living in mourning for 17 years to now relocating to Egypt in his old age; he has seen many years that were unpleasant.
That said, we also know that God has been faithful to him throughout all of it. Jacob’s commentary on his life doesn’t take away from all that God has done for him. In fact, it makes it all the more remarkable. As we pointed out in our study of Chapters 45-46, the one constant throughout Jacob’s life has been God’s amazing mercy. God has been merciful to Jacob even as he lived through the ramifications of the selfish decisions he often made.
Since Pharaoh approved having his family live in Goshen – just as Joseph hoped (46:34) – Joseph finalizes their settling there. He not only settles them in Goshen, but he actually gives it to them as a possession. Since the rest of the people in Egypt are about to lose title to all of their land, this is not a small development for Jacob and the brothers. This also may point to the family understanding that they will stay in Egypt for a long time. Gaining possession of the land may show that they know they won’t return to Canaan even after the famine is over.
The scene shifts back to the people of Egypt and how they continue to live through the famine. Sometime during the remaining five years of the famine after Jacob comes to Egypt (45:6) – probably in the last two or three years – the people run out of money to buy grain from the storehouses. The text says that this affects not just Egypt but all of Canaan as well.
The people come to Joseph and explain their situation. They are out of both food and money. They still can’t grow crops because of the famine and they can’t buy food because they’ve spent everything buying grain already. They’re at an impasse and don’t know what to do. They appeal to Joseph, “Give us food, for why should we die in your presence?” Joseph tells them to pay for food with their livestock. If they bring all of their flocks and herds to Pharaoh, they’ll get food for the next year. Apparently the people have purchased enough grain to this point to keep the animals alive. The people readily agree, even though the loss of livestock will presumably be an enormous handicap once the famine ends. Nothing matters now more than staying alive (hard to think long-term when you’re starving).
Joseph’s solution works for a year. The next year the people come back to him when they run out of food and plead their case again. This time, however, they have nothing to offer. They have no livestock and no grain and no way to feed themselves. Instead of asking Joseph for a solution, they actually propose one themselves. They tell him they will exchange their land and their freedom for grain. They will give their land to Pharaoh and become his servants in return for food for another year.
Joseph agrees. He nationalizes their land and makes them Pharaoh’s servants. He may also – depending on how the Hebrew of verse 21 is translated – move all of them into cities. He then establishes a taxation policy that apparently stands for hundreds of years (note the author’s comment in verse 26 that it is still in effect at the time of writing – more than 400 years later). He tells the people that they will continue to farm Pharaoh’s land and will keep 80% of what they raise for themselves and give 20% to Pharaoh.
Note that Joseph tells them he will give them seed so they can sow the land (vs 23). This may mean that they are in the last year of the famine. Perhaps Joseph knows the famine is coming to an end and they can start planting again.
For the American mind, this part of the Joseph story is hard to accept. Remember that the people filled the storehouses by giving 20% of their harvest to the government during the seven years of plenty. Yet once the famine begins, they have to buy it back when they can no longer feed themselves. They essentially have to buy back their own grain. And once they run out of money, they have to give up everything they own and become indentured servants of the crown. Notice too that their status won’t change once the famine ends. They now live in a feudal system. They entered the famine as landowners but exit it as serfs.
How to reconcile this? First, read verse 25. The people react to Joseph’s plan by saying to him, “You have saved our lives! Let us find favor in the sight of my lord, and we will be Pharaoh’s slaves.” The people realize that Joseph could’ve taken advantage of them to a much greater degree. He has allowed them to keep 80% of what they farm on what is now Pharaoh’s land. Since they have absolutely no leverage – they’re starving – he could’ve demanded anything and they would’ve had no choice. Instead he’s set up a very reasonable arrangement. Second, we can’t read this story through American eyes. The arrangement with the people sounds odd to us because of the political system we live in. For Egyptians living 1800 years before Christ, however, it’s a life-saving answer that’s gracious and kind. And as we pointed out above in regard to the loss of livestock, anything sounds good when compared to starving to death.
The story fast-forwards seventeen years. The famine has been over for twelve years. Jacob is now 147 years old and nearing death. Interestingly, he has lived with Joseph in Egypt for the same number of years that he lived with him in Canaan (37:2).
Notice a passing statement in verse 27. It says that Israel (meaning Jacob’s family) has become fruitful and numerous in Goshen. But notice also that it says the people have acquired property in it. This reinforces what we found out in verse 11. While the people of Egypt had to give up their land during the famine, Joseph’s family apparently was able to gain possession and keep it. This is another side of the story that may be hard to comprehend from a fairness angle. It may also, however, be another example of God providing for His people – just as he promised Abraham He would.
Jacob calls for Joseph and makes him swear that he will bury Jacob in Canaan . As a sign of the oath, he asks Joseph to do the same thing Abraham asked his servant to do when he made him swear to not take a wife for Isaac from the daughters of Canaan (24:2). He asks Joseph to place his hand under his thigh. Just as we discussed in the study of Abraham and his servant, this may be a euphemistic way of saying that he places his hand near – or on – his genitals. This sounds extremely odd to us, but it may have something to do with signifying its effect on Jacob’s descendants or perhaps acknowledging circumcision as the sign of God’s covenant.
This is what we wrote in our study of Chapter 24:
“The purpose behind Abraham asking this of the servant is not clear. It could be that since the oath has to do with Abraham’s descendants, he wants the servant to swear by what makes those descendants possible. It also could have to do with circumcision. Perhaps because circumcision is the sign of the covenant, the servant swears by Abraham’s personal sign. It also could be a way to show submission to authority (something to consider is the commonalities behind this oath and what Jacob will ask of Joseph – in both cases the man asking for the oath is near the end of his life and wants to make sure that something is done even if his life is over – both also have to do with family issues and making a home in Canaan). Regardless of the meaning, it likely has a profound impact on the servant.”
In the same way, it likely has a profound impact on Joseph. Jacob wants to make very sure that Joseph doesn’t forget this oath.
The last sentence of verse 31 is hard to understand. It’s not clear what it means that Jacob bows at the head of the bed (NASB adds in worship after the word bows). Does he bow to Joseph because of his position in Egypt? Does he bow to thank Joseph for agreeing to take the oath? Or does he worship God because of the oath? In Hebrews it says that Jacob worships while leaning on the top of his staff when he blesses Joseph’s sons (Heb 11:21). Since the author of Hebrews uses this as an example of Jacob’s faith, perhaps it’s best to understand this as Jacob worshiping God. Perhaps he sees his promised burial in Canaan as a sign of God’s faithfulness.
Jacob’s life is almost over. He has two final acts – bless Joseph’s sons and prophesy about his own sons. It would be interesting to talk to him about his life now that it’s been seventeen years since he told Pharaoh his years have been few and unpleasant. Have the last seventeen years of living royally with Joseph changed his perspective? He will live to see the descendants of his two most beloved sons. Does that make his life richer and more satisfying? Regardless of his answer, it’s clear that these last years of Jacob’s life have been another example of God’s mercy in his life. God allows him to end his days surrounded by those he loves most.