70. Genesis 45:21 – 47:26

III. D. 4.  continued

g) Israel Moves to Egypt (Genesis 45:21 – 47:12)

Joseph loaded his brothers, but especially Benjamin, with many gifts, not only food but also fancy clothes; “changes of garments” could be translated “garments for changing”, meaning fancy clothes for wearing on special occasions, such as when being presented to Pharaoh. Day to day clothes were not changed very often; clothing in general was too expensive to be worn the way we wear it. But Joseph clearly favored Benjamin giving him money and more clothes, and he made it clear to the others that they had no right to be jealous. “Do not quarrel on the journey,” he told them, reminding them that they had no cause to complain if he did give preference to Benjamin over them. Not only was Benjamin his full brother and therefore naturally the object of extra gifts, but considering the past they could not have expected any presents at all. But I think Joseph was not mainly expecting them to be jealous of his generosity toward Benjamin; the more likely cause of quarreling now would be the blame game, of who did what and whose fault was it.

By this time Jacob was 130 years old. Both Rachel and Leah were dead, but he could hardly be said to be alone with eleven sons nearby and Bilhah and Zilpah still alive as well. And yet his companion and true love, Rachel, was gone and her only remaining son was on a dangerous trip into Egypt. He knew he could literally lose everything, all his sons. He had been left feeling desolate and vulnerable. So how could Israel  be expected to believe the news? It might even have been dangerous to tell a very old and presumably delicate man such good news. Can someone actually die from the opposite of shock at bad news, from the shock of good news? Twenty years of grief  made it unbelievable anyway and that would have cushioned the drama of the moment. And he was naturally also afraid to believe. It feels dangerous to believe such overwhelmingly good news because the risk of disappointment is so horrible. It was the generosity of the gifts from Joseph that finally convinced him.

And so it was that in about 1868 b.c. Israel moved to Egypt. There were still five years of famine left and so there was a practical reason for his moving. He packed up all he could – a lengthy process for someone that wealthy, but after all they were nomads – despite Pharaoh’s message that they should just leave their possessions behind and count on being recompensed in Egypt. They could have traveled only slowly, so it was perhaps two days of traveling before they reached Beersheba, twenty-five miles to the south, and there God appeared to Israel for the fifth and last time in this world, before He met him again at the top of the ladder He had first shown him.

From the words that God spoke to him it is clear that Israel had some reservations about going to Egypt but it is not clear why he did. He would have known the oracle to Abraham at the establishing of the Covenant, that Abraham’s descendants would go to a foreign land and be enslaved, though the foreign land had not been specified as Egypt. It could be that Jacob did not connect the future foreign land of their enslavement with Egypt and was just nervous about leaving his home; for a nomad he had been pretty settled in Hebron for more than two decades, and perhaps his advancing age made him afraid to leave what had become familiar. Or it could be that he did connect Egypt with the land of their enslavement and was apprehensive about the future on that account. God promised Israel to personally accompany him into Egypt and to personally see to it that he (that is, his descendants) were brought back to the land of Canaan.

The way God worded His promise suggests that He knew Israel was still unclear about the scope of God’s authority in the world, that God Most High was not merely the God of Canaan but also had authority and presence in Egypt. It was a deeply embedded concept in the Middle East that gods were settled in their own cities and lands. The universal god was always imagined as so remote and uninvolved that he hardly counted as a real god. And though we tend not to think about future generations much in our culture, though we tend to not care much what happens to our remains after we die, the ancients did care a lot. It was important to Israel to know that he would be buried in Hebron with Leah and Isaac and Abraham. We moderns do not think of the afterlife as anything in particular, and certainly not as a condition in which we will feel or think or be aware of anything that has to do with this present life. We  emphatically don’t believe in ghosts and carefully segregate the future life from the present life as if we were trying to avoid contamination. It is characteristic of our culture to emphasize the present world and to avoid thinking much about death or what comes after, even if we do believe in an afterlife. But Israel expected to have some sense of what was happening to his descendants and of what was happening to his remains; he expected to be involved emotionally in the future of his children.

We have already mentioned something about the list of descendants of Israel who went with him into Egypt. In 46:26 we are told that 66 direct male descendants came with Israel when he went into Egypt, but there are three problems with that total. First of all, the total included Er and Onan, whom God had killed five or six years previously; the significance of their inclusion in this list has already been discussed in the section on Judah. Second, though Perez the son of Judah must have been a young  child when they moved to Egypt, the total included the two future sons of Perez. Third, the total included ten sons for Benjamin but at the time Benjamin was only about twenty-two years old. Perhaps Benjamin had five to ten wives by this early age? Furthermore, there is a discrepancy between this list of Benjamin’s descendants given here and the list of Benjamin’s descendants given in Numbers 26:38-40. In Genesis, Ard and Naaman are listed as Benjamin’s sons whereas in Numbers they are his grandsons; also the list of Benjamin’s sons in the book of Numbers includes three names not mentioned in Genesis and leaves out six names given in Genesis. The genealogy in Numbers also leaves out a son of Simeon and a son of Asher.

These discrepancies are not serious problems unless you insist on taking the genealogies as strict chronological and biological accounts, which I don’t. The sons missing from the later account in Numbers may have died childless in Egypt; contributing nothing to the census being taken at that point they would naturally have been left out. It is also possible they were actually grandchildren since the genealogies are not careful to completely distinguish each generation. It has been suggested that the list was inserted later, when Genesis was being written down, not as a genealogical record, but as a list of those ancestors whose descendants became numerous enough to be counted as distinct clans. This is a reasonable theory except that the presence of Er and Onan on the list would argue against it. On the other hand, the list does point out that they had died, so they were included for particular reasons that over-rode the purpose of the list (I think to emphasize their continued standing in the Covenant despite their evil character). On the whole it seems most logical to me to interpret these 66 descendants of Israel who “came with him into Egypt” as the totality of the male descendants, dead or alive, that he had when he died seventeen years later, but this interpretation is suspect as well.

It is important to understand that just as this list included some who did not actually move into Egypt, so it does not include many in Israel’s household who did move with him. Not only the women that were not listed, but also many, probably hundreds, of servants who had joined the household of Jacob. All of those people would be sorted out and incorporated within Israel as they lived in Egypt, attaching ultimately to one tribe or other. The tribes of Israel were not neat, airtight packages; they contained many who were not descendants of Abraham through Isaac. The Covenant may have been exclusive of the descendants of Ishmael and of Esau and of the other children of Abraham and Keturah, but then it smuggled a lot of them back in. Ishmael was sent away to found a people of his own, and Esau wandered away, but anyone who stayed was included in the Covenant people of Israel.

The brothers, other than Benjamin, had a narrow range of ages, at this time between their mid-forties to their late thirties. Judah seems to have taken the lead in organizing the move into Egypt, but it was Joseph who had thought it all out. He did not want his family to live too close to the Egyptian court; for one thing, he knew well the Egyptian distaste for foreigners. Though he had procured Pharaoh’s favor, he knew that Pharaoh’s successor would probably not be so positive. Even a great deliverance such as Joseph had managed would fade in memory all too quickly; foreigners just did not have a great future in Egypt. Goshen was good pastureland and had the advantage of being remote from the court and in the general direction of Canaan. Joseph must have ruminated on what he had heard of God’s call to Abraham and Isaac and doubtless he knew of the oracle to Abraham that his descendants would become slaves in another nation. It would be easy for Joseph to figure out that it would be Egypt that would enslave them. He wanted them to be as separate as possible from the Egyptians, segregated together in an area that would help preserve some ethnic identity as their status deteriorated.

Furthermore, I think he was trying to protect his family from the strong lure of Egyptian culture. The Egyptians were by far the most complex and impressive culture of that day and were imitated by everyone exposed to them, much like the American culture has been imitated recently. The Canaanites, who were growing numerically in Egypt, did exactly that, imitating Egyptian customs to a large extent. They tried to become as Egyptian as they could but would never be accepted by Egyptians as being truly legitimate. Joseph secured his family’s isolation from Egyptian culture by emphasizing their occupation as shepherds. The Egyptians were so oriented toward agriculture and the Nile and so prone to prejudice against outsiders that they tended to despise any custom alien to their way of life. Though it was a part of their culture, animal herders had the lowest social status. Herding was not a necessity for the Egyptians as it was in most nations, and they could afford to look down on it. Joseph wanted to ensure that even this Pharaoh would want to keep his distance from his favorite’s family.

The capital of Egypt had already been moved from Thebes to Itjtawy (the ruins of Itjtawy have not yet been found) by Senusret’s great-grandfather. It was at this presently undiscovered site that Joseph presented his family to Pharaoh as required, choosing five brothers only so as not to be too much of an imposition. Then he presented Israel to Pharaoh. The interview was a matter of court manners and protocol, a necessary formality, but doubtless Pharaoh had great interest in seeing Joseph’s family. However, the interview concluded with Israel blessing Pharaoh, probably not part of the usual protocol. After all, what need did Pharaoh have for a blessing from this wandering animal herder? It wasn’t an insult to the Pharaoh, but it may have seemed beneath his notice.

And yet Israel’s blessing of Pharaoh is the most theologically significant part of the procedure. It was not merely a formality from God’s viewpoint. It was not merely polite well-wishing because Israel was the bearer of the Covenant and as the bearer of the Covenant his blessing carried God’s blessing as well. From this point on, Egypt was under God’s particular blessing. Even as idolators, even as the oppressors of the chosen people, even in the midst of the plagues, Egypt nonetheless enjoyed the warmth of God’s favor on them. Egypt was bound up with God’s promise to Abraham that he would be a blessing to all peoples. The Arabs, the Edomites, and now the Egyptians all became a special people to God, and this in spite of conflict and warfare and hostility and enslavement. They all became part of God’s overall plan of revelation, though it is not yet clear how it is all to be worked out. This point is emphasized as the Scripture goes on, particularly by the prophet Isaiah (see Isaiah 19:16-25) a thousand years after Joseph died.

The land of Goshen is still the most fertile and productive part of Egypt. In 47:11 Pharaoh called it “the land of Rameses”; this suggests that he intended them to settle in that part of Goshen near the city of Rameses. This was on the principal trading route which ran along the coast of the Mediterranean to the land that would be Philistia and beyond it to Mesopotamia. It was probably along this same route that Joseph had been brought to Egypt to be sold as a slave. Pharaoh also bestowed the care of the royal livestock on Joseph’s brothers; as we shall see Pharaoh’s herds were newly acquired, and now the benefits of doing service for Pharaoh would belong to Joseph’s family.

h) Joseph in Charge of Egypt (Genesis 47:13-26)

We now have a short description of how Joseph managed the land of Egypt during the famine. First he sold grain to the Egyptians for money, that is, for gold, silver, and other precious metals to be had in the land. Money was still informal by today’s standards. But this famine was the worst ever and the money was gone before the famine was gone. The next year the people of Egypt came to him to beg for food since no one in the whole land had any money left, but Joseph knew what to do. He traded food for all the livestock in Egypt during that year. And since all the livestock in Egypt became the property of Pharaoh, Pharaoh suddenly found himself in need of people to care for all those animals and Joseph’s brothers got the job. They were the right people in the right place at the right time, and Joseph might have introduced them as shepherds hoping for just such an offer.

The following year, with all the money and animals gone, the people had to sell their land; they were abandoning their drought stricken land and moving into the cities anyway. By this stage of the famine the land was mainly barren, but Joseph knew it would bloom again eventually. Along with their land, the Egyptians had to sell themselves to Pharaoh; from that point on the Pharaoh became the undisputed master of all of Egypt. No longer would the nomarchs, the Egyptian nobles, vie with him for power. From this point on in the history of the Middle Kingdom, the Pharaohs were the sole masters, and they owed it to Joseph. And when the famine ended the people paid the Pharaoh twenty per cent of everything they grew on the land as they had agreed. The power of the Pharaohs of the Middle Kingdom would never again be challenged by anyone. When the Middle Kingdom failed, it was not through the power of external rivals but through the internal weakness of the rulers.

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