Genesis 47:1&2 “Joseph went and told Pharaoh, ‘My father and brothers, with their flocks and herds and everything they own, have come from the land of Canaan and are now in Goshen.’ He chose five of his brothers and presented them before Pharaoh” [and on to verse 31].
The life of Joseph is one of the clearest passages of the Bible to demonstrate and illustrate the providence of God. “God’s works of providence at his most holy, wise and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures and all their action,” says the Westminster Shorter Catechism. In fact David Kingdon’s little book on Joseph, Mysterious Ways (Banner of Truth), is sub-titled, ‘The Providence of God in the Life of Joseph.’ Certainly in the chapter before us we see God’s providence from different angles.
1. THE MERCY OF PROVIDENCE IS SEEN IN THE AGREEABLENESS OF PHARAOH.
We see this in the opening six verses of the chapter.
i] Joseph prepares Pharaoh to meet his brothers. He had already told the king about his family; “The men are shepherds; they tend livestock, and they have brought along their flocks and herds and everything they own” (Gen. 46:32). Though Joseph has experienced all things working together for his good this conviction has never made him insensitive and boorish in his dealings with others. He takes nothing for granted in the arrival of the 70 members of his family and their servants in the land – even though Pharaoh has personally invited them to come and expressed his desire to meet Joseph’s father Jacob. Still he prepares Pharaoh for the arrival of these men of whom you can say that they are certainly not Egyptians.
ii] Joseph also carefully selects and prepares which of his 70 family members will meet Pharaoh. Not all his brothers were cultured and intelligent men; no doubt some of them, just like us, had personality problems. We are told, “He chose five of his brothers and presented them before Pharaoh” (v.2). He didn’t make it difficult for Pharaoh; the king would have no regrets when he actually met Joseph’s family. They seemed intelligent men; there might have been some family likeness to his prime minister. Pharaoh had made this sweeping invitation to his servant Joseph, “Bring everybody, the whole family down here to Egypt.” So Joseph also prepared his brothers, telling them exactly what Pharaoh would say to them. He’d ask them, “What do you do for a living?” It’s the sort of question we ask people when we meet them; “What’s your work?” And Joseph told his brothers how they were to reply. “Tell him precisely what you do, ‘Your servants have tended livestock from our boyhood on, just as our fathers did’ (Gen. 46:34); I have smoothed the way for you. I have told him this already. He knows, but, you understand, Egyptians disdain those who look after livestock, but you must be open and honest with him, and we’ll trust in God’s providence.”
iii] The interview works out perfectly smoothly. The five men met Pharaoh, and the first question he asked them was, “What is your occupation?” (v.3) and they replied as Joseph had coached them, “Your servants are shepherds . . . just as our fathers were” (v.4). Then there is a plea they make, asking Pharaoh if they could settle in Goshen. That area would be an ideal place for a new settlement, more suitable than the arable lands, highly favoured, which bordered the Nile. The farmers there would be up in arms if Pharaoh gave these foreigners such lands for mere grazing, and yet Goshen was more fertile than the lands they had left. It was also in the east, on the Canaan side of Egypt, not densely populated like the rest of the country, an empty land, not rich arable land, but ideal for herdsmen, and secluded, a place where their religion and culture could be maintained. There would be less danger of the children of Israel being Egyptianized living in Goshen. They would be left to themselves; there would be no clashes with the local population. They wouldn’t be harassed by Egyptians as illegal travelers who had no permission to be living there. There’d be no campaign to move them on. There in Goshen they could develop their customs and ethos without contamination by the Egypt’s idolatry, and in the long term they could escape from Egypt more easily; a million people wouldn’t have to ford the Nile and drive their sheep and goats through its crocodile infested waters.
Pharaoh complies with their request and gives them what they ask, saying, “Let them live in Goshen” (v.6). He freely tells Joseph that his father and brothers can have “the best part of the land” (v.6). However, Pharaoh gives them more; he speaks privately to Joseph about his brothers, “If you know of any among them with special ability, put them in charge of my own livestock” (v.6). Pharaoh even gave them royal positions. This office of the royal herdsmen is mentioned frequently in Egyptian inscriptions since we know that with all their disdain for cows and goats Pharaoh possessed vast herds of cattle. Rameses III is said to have employed 3,264 men, mostly foreigners, to take care of his herds. So some of Joseph’s family became officers of the crown and enjoyed legal protection that was not usually given to aliens. So here we first see the providence of God; the Lord who had been with Joseph in Potiphar’s house, and in prison, and in Pharaoh’s court, is now with Jacob and his family in Egypt. Pharaoh’s heart is in his hands.
I like Dr. Ligon Duncan’s comment on this response of Pharaoh; “Humanly speaking, we wouldn’t have expected a warm reception for Jacob’s family. But mere man isn’t in control here, and even Pharaoh, considered a god by his own people, is not in control. It is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who is in control. This is one of those beautiful incidents in which God rewards faith in this life, temporally. God doesn’t always show us that our decisions have been the right decisions by rewarding us immediately. We know that because we do the right thing doesn’t result automatically in our temporal happiness and peace. There are in fact occasions in our lives when doing the right thing provokes the evil one, or provokes the professing church or the world against us. Christians keep the Lord’s Day and then they get the sack, or they don’t get promotion, but here in this passage we see that in God’s goodness he rewards the faith of Jacob. Think of the tremendous thing that Jacob has done. He has uprooted himself from the land of promise. He has committed himself to dying in a strange land, a pagan land.&n
bsp;He’ll never again see the land of his fathers with his own eyes, and God rewards his faith that obeys God with these kind providences, a splendid fertile and peaceful land for his family to settle into. God confirms that his hand is upon Jacob’s family.
“Also we see here a good model for Christians dealing with those who are in positions of government and authority. Joseph does it right, and teaches his brothers to do it right. I couldn’t help thinking of the apostle Peter teaching gentile Christians how they were to behave in similar circumstances. He says to them, “Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to . . . live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men. Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God. Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honour the king” (I Peter 2: vv. 11-17). What a contrast we see here in the truthful response of Jacob’s sons with the first visit of Abraham to Egypt, when he lied to King Abimelech and told his wife also to lie saying she was his sister. God is honoring himself in the truthfulness of his people. He is setting the stage where his glory will be shown in Egypt, not the least of which will be through his people. God in his goodness allows his people to be a witness to him here.”
2. THE BLESSING OF THE GOD OF PROVIDENCE RESTING ON JACOB.
We move to the second scene (vv.7-10); here it is the old patriarch Jacob himself, Joseph’s father, whose turn it is to meet with Pharaoh. What do we witness in this encounter?
i] Consider the contrasts between these two men. A Jew and a Gentile; a commoner and a king; the humble head of a family destined to become a mighty nation, and a mighty monarch of a people soon to be humbled; a herdsman and one who abominated herdsmen; an older man dressed as a shepherd and a younger man dressed in royal apparel.
ii] Consider that the lesser blesses the greater. Jacob actually was the first and last to speak in this interview. Instead of bowing deeply before the great Pharaoh, to our surprise Jacob lifts up his hands and blesses Pharaoh. Jacob asks for God’s blessing on the king for his kindness to his family. Jacob had cheated and lied in order to obtain a blessing from his father but here he generously passes on God’s blessing to Pharaoh. The blessing is in fact mentioned twice (vv.7&10) and it reminds us of the covenant God made with Jacob’s grandfather Abraham. “You will be a blessing to the nations, and you will bless them.” Here it is being fulfilled, in Jacob and in Joseph, that promise that God had made to Abraham is being realized when Jacob raises his hands imploring God’s blessing on Pharaoh.
iii] Consider the answer the lesser gives to the greater when he inquires as to his age. “How old are you?” asks Pharaoh (v.8). Such a naive question provoked by the sight of this very ancient figure standing before him. We don’t meet a simple answer, “I was 130 on my last birthday.” No one in the world today has met a person of that age. Jacob’s answer is extensive, “The years of my pilgrimage are a hundred and thirty. My years have been few and difficult, and they do not equal the years of the pilgrimage of my fathers” (v.9). Notice that Jacob doesn’t say that he has existed for 130 years. He does not think his chronology is all that important, that he has lived for so many circles of the planet about the sun. It is not important how long you live, but how you live. Life is measured by its depth, not its duration. David prays, “Lord, make me to know my end, and the measure of my days, what it is: that I may know how frail I am” (Psa. 39:4). Jacob tells Pharaoh, “My life has been pilgrimage”; he had not lived only to live. He was conscious that he was on a journey, and every pilgrimage goes somewhere. Jacob was aware that he was traveling a road that led to God. He had renounced material possessions and land ownership as his purpose in life. He would not be domiciled in his own home land on this journey. Jacob told Pharaoh that he’d been on a ‘difficult’ pilgrimage and there’s no doubt about that. Jacob had cheated his brother Esau and deceived his father Isaac and lived with the guilt of that. As a result of his folly he’d had to flee for his life to Mesopotamia to his uncle Laban and that gentleman deceived Jacob by giving him on his wedding night not the lovely Rachel whom he adored but it was her sister Leah behind the veil. He became a man with two wives and then two more were added. Coming back to Canaan, his daughter Dinah was raped, and his sons deceived him into thinking that his beloved son Joseph had been torn apart by wild animals. Then a son slept with one of Jacob’s common law wives – the young man’s own aunt. Then there was the famine, year after year, and the imprisonment of Simeon in Egypt, and his fear for Benjamin’s life. His life had been extraordinarily difficult. You meet people who have had just one of those trials and they talk and talk to everyone about it, but Jacob had many such difficulties. He told Pharaoh “My years have been few and difficult,” but what had sustained him on the pilgrimage is what sustains every believer, the covenant promises of God. God would be with him even in Egypt. And eventually God would bring these pilgrims to the promised end of their journey. He would work all things for their good.
Dr. Ligon Duncan points out that, “Chuck Colson, in the story of his conversion, talks about how cynically the staff of the White House would treat Christian leaders who came to speak to President Nixon. They noticed that no matter how angry those Christian leaders claimed to be about certain policies of the government, when they were brought into the presence of the President of the United States of America, in the symbolic room of power, the oval office, they would go weak and crumble. Even if they were walking down the hall on their way to the oval office and saying, ‘Now when I see the president, I’m going to tell him this, and I’m going to tell him that, and I’m going to set him straight,’ when they were ushered through the door of the oval office suddenly they’d become as meek as lambs.” Now you might grumble at Dr. Ian Paisley of Belfast but he has never been intimidated by the Houses of Parliament or the European Parliament. He has been utterly unashamed of the gospel and spoken of it to the royal family and the prime minister and members of the cabinet. He has not been bought by the trappings of power. Isn’t it interesting how utterly unimpressed by rank and royal
paraphernalia was Jacob when he met Pharaoh? When Jacob was asked how old he was he wasn’t coy and didn’t give a simpering, syrupy answer. He gave the answer of a pilgrim: “I am one hundred and thirty, and my years have been few and difficult in comparison with my fore-fathers.” Jacob speaks as a man who has seen the Lord, and he is the head of the covenant. It is he who blesses Pharaoh. Here we see again a glimpse of God’s determination to bring all the nations of the world to the Messiah even in Jacob blessing Pharaoh.
3. THE KINDNESS OF PROVIDENCE IN THE GENEROSITY OF PHARAOH AND JOSEPH.
We see this in these words, “So Joseph settled his father and his brothers in Egypt and gave them property in the best part of the land, the district of Rameses, as Pharaoh directed. Joseph also provided his father and his brothers and all his father’s household with food, according to the number of their children” (vv.11&12). You see two things;
i] Joseph gave them lands. He exceeded his brothers’ original request. They wanted to ‘settle’ in Goshen, that is to sojourn there, but Joseph gave them property they owned in that part of the country. It was the district which later was called ‘Rameses,’ named after the famous Pharaoh and his dynasty, in other words, pastures favoured by the king of Egypt himself, and so especially fit for the children of the King of kings. There they could settle down, multiply and become a great nation.
ii] Joseph gave them food. Until their own crops were harvested Joseph supplied all 70 of his relatives with food, sufficient for them all. Everyone had enough food to eat. Not one of them would die of starvation even in those famine times. There’s no hint that Joseph’s kindness towards his brothers was anything but absolutely genuine, motivated by love and induced by his trust in the providence of God, and it never varied. Later on, after his father has died and his brothers were still a little bit shaky about how Joseph might treat them with their father dead and gone, Joseph’s kindness continued, because God was with him and he was able to be kind, he was able to magnanimous. He had come to grips with the sovereignty and the purposes of God in his providence. So in this passage, while the rest of Egypt was subjugated to Pharaoh because of the famine, Jacob’s family was able to grow and prosper. They were provided for by Joseph and his kindness. They were provided for by Pharaoh and the gift of the land. In this passage, primarily, we see the kindness of God’s providence, in the favour of Joseph the prime minister and Pharaoh the king, towards the 70 members of the family of Jacob. Again, the theme of God’s providence is being emphasized.
And has not great Joseph’s greater Son, Jesus, nourished and provided for us? Cannot we say with John the Baptist that “Of his fulness have all we received, and grace for grace”? Hasn’t he blessed us with every spiritual blessing in heavenly places in Christ? In him haven’t we all received redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace? And hasn’t this same Jesus given us a better country? The writer to the Hebrew spoke of that better land, “All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country – a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them” (Hebs. 11:13-16). The true fatherland of the sons of Israel is the same as ours, the glorious new heavens and earth that lies before us.
There is the throne of David;
And there, from care released,
The shout of them that triumph,
The song of them that feast;
And they who with their Leader
Have conquered in the fight
Forever and forever
Are clad in robes of white.
O sweet and blessed country,
The home of God’s elect!
O sweet and blessed country
That eager hearts expect!
Jesus, in mercy bring us
To that dear land of rest,
Who art, with God the Father
And Spirit, ever blest.
4. THE PROVISION OF PROVIDENCE IN SPARING THEM DURING THE FAMINE YEARS.
Joseph provided for his family, but the heart of this chapter is the lengthy description of how he provided for the whole population of Egypt and Canaan. The effect of the famine, against which Joseph had laid up huge stores of grain (Gen. 41:49), is described in three stages and I am grateful to my friend David Kingdon for pointing this out to me.
i] The Egyptians exchanged money (that is, silver) for food (verses 13-14). When Joseph received it he immediately brought it into Pharaoh’s palace. Joseph was an honest man. Calvin comments, “We know how few persons can touch the money of kings without defiling themselves by peculation.” Just consider how many members of parliament claimed exorbitant expenses. They defiled themselves from every political party, and some went to prison for what they did. Calvin admires Joseph: “It was a rare and unparalleled integrity, to keep the hands pure amidst such heaps of gold.” Joseph was a man of consistent integrity. Then there was the next stage …
iii] The Egyptians came to Joseph when the famine grew more severe and declared their willingness to mortgage their land and become royal slaves in exchange for food (vv.18-26). Their plight was desperate, as they recognized so pathetically, “There is nothing left for our lord except our bodies and our land” (verse 18). So they propose a radical measure: “Buy us and our land in exchange for food, and we with our land will be in bondage to Pharaoh” (v.19). Joseph acceded to their request. He bought their land on behalf of Pharaoh and he made the people royal serfs. The NIV’s rendering, “reduced the people to servitude” (v. 21), is in David Kingdon’s judgment unduly strong, because from that moment on their survival would be Pharaoh’s responsibility. In fact the Egyptians expressed their gratitude that what they requested was done (verse 25). “You have saved our lives,” they said.
We have nothing but horror and hatred of the African slave trade, and for all slavery today but what should be appreciated is that in ancient societies, slavery was the accepted way of bailing out the destitute, and the experience of that kind of slavery need not have been uniformly harsh. Under a benevolent master like Potiphar, Joseph enjoyed quite a comfortable and creative existence. We know that the law of Moses allowed that some temporary slaves could choose to become permanent slaves because they loved their masters (Exod. 21:5-6; see also Deut. 15:12-17). Gordon Wenham suggests that “Ancient slavery at its best was like tenured employment, whereas the free man was more like someone who is self-employed.” Such ‘slavery’ is not unknown today. In the mid-1970s, a white Christian, a doctor friend of David Kingdon, worked for a time in the very poor Ciskei region of South Africa. He and his wife were approached by a boy called Patrick, an African teenager. He offered to work for them in return for his food, and they agreed to help him. Needless to say he wasn’t ‘reduced to servitude!’ He was proud of his work in the doctor’s home.
So the land that the Egyptians surrendered “became Pharaoh’s” (v. 20). In exchange, they were given grain to eat and to sow (v. 23). When they reaped the next and subsequent harvests the Egyptians were taxed, a fifth of the crop went to Pharaoh. By contemporary standards this was not a burdensome arrangement. A tax of about twenty per cent would be considered normal. In private business agreements, interest rates could be considerably higher. According to Von Rad, “in the Babylonian economy the interest rates for the purchase of seed corn went as high as 40 per cent.”
Joseph’s measures served two purposes. First, they strengthened the position of Pharaoh and increased his wealth. All the land of Egypt, except that owned by the priests, belonged to Pharaoh, and a fifth of the harvest was his as well (v. 26). This situation continued to the time of the writing of Genesis (and no doubt beyond) – the law established by Joseph is “still in force today”, says the author of Genesis.
The second purpose served by Joseph’s measures is pregnantly stated (in verse 27): “Now the Israelites settled in Egypt in the region of Goshen. They acquired property there and were fruitful and increased greatly in number.” Joseph, of course, did not live to see the full extent of this increase, nor the fear that it produced in the heart of a future Pharaoh. But, had he not been the preserver of his family, there would have been no increase in numbers, no slavery, no Exodus (see Heb. 11:22).
You might not have noticed that there is no mention of the name of God in this chapter. The focus is on Joseph. God seems out of the picture altogether. But he’s not; it is all about the providence of God. Though hidden, he is, through Joseph, working his purposes out. Secular historians have a term ‘methodological atheism’, because all they can see are men and movements. They mistake the hiddenness of God for the absence of God. The Bible never does.
Joseph is exemplifying under the old covenant what the apostle Paul calls all believers to do today: “As we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers” (Gal. 6:10). Joseph used his God-given opportunity to do good, not only to his own family, but also to the inhabitants of Egypt and Canaan. In our ‘global village’ we have such opportunities created for us by God’s providence. They are unlikely to be as great as Joseph’s, but if we are spiritually alert we’ll be able to seize them and do good. It may be help in building a bungalow for men and women with learning difficulties here in Plas Lluest. It may be helping poor Kenyan children go to school by paying their fees. It may be no more than giving ‘a cup of cold water’ to one of Christ’s disciples (Matt. 10:42), or an encouraging word to a discouraged believer, but it will do good. In a groaning world we can help to alleviate suffering and relieve hunger. (See David Kingdon’s Mysterious Ways, Banner of Truth, 2004, pp.68-71).
So Joseph saved not only his family but the Egyptians and that was a clear fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham, “I will bless those who bless you . . . and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen.12:3). He kept alive the nation and so he kept alive the seed of the woman the line of Abraham and so Christ came in the fulness of time.
5. PROVIDENCE KEPT JACOB TRUSTING IN GOD UNTIL THE END.
You see this in the final four verses of the chapter, verses 28 through 31. Here is old Jacob speaking and his words are the words of a pilgrim facing death. He’s been sustained throughout his life by the promises of God, during great blessing as well as through heart-breaking trials, and in the presence of Pharaoh the most powerful man in the world, and now he focuses on the promise of God as death comes near. Now he calls for his son to place his hand under his thigh in a solemn oath. You remember the first time this was done is recorded in Genesis 24 and verse 12, as Abraham sends out his servant to gain a wife for his son. “You swear that you will not choose some pagan woman for Isaac.” Jacob was saying to Joseph, “My
son, never forget what God has said and sealed to us, in the promise of the covenant of grace. He has promised us the land. He has promised the land full of descendants. He has promised to prosper us. He has promised to make us a great nation, and all the nations of the earth are going to be blessed by my seed, and so don’t bury me here far from that land. Bury my bones there.”
Notice that Jacob wasn’t fearful that if he were buried in Egypt, he’d be separated from his eternal reward. This wasn’t some superstitious fearful action. In fact, we see in verse 30, how Jacob speaks; “When I rest with my fathers, carry me out of Egypt and bury me where they are buried.” Jacob doesn’t at all think that dying in Egypt will mean he won’t be resting with his fathers. When he dies, his soul is going to be immediately with his fathers, with Abraham and Isaac, but to be buried in Canaan alongside their bones is a great statement to his descendants that their hope is not in Egypt. That action became a redemptive statement and event. The hope of his descendants must be in the promise of God, and for them that means the land of promise. That hope in that promise must be so strong that in 400 years’ time they will all make a mighty trek out of Egypt and across a wilderness and into an occupied land driving out in pitched battles the people living there. Jacob was less concerned about the world he was entering at death than the future of God’s people in Egypt. His dying concern was that Joseph and his descendants would be just as focused on the promise of God given to his grandfather, Abraham, and that they’d never ever forget it. Egypt had to be to them what the ark had been to Noah, a temporary shelter from disaster in the outside world.
Our calling as pilgrims is to set our hope on that heavenly city which has true and eternal foundations. That is the destination of all the saints. Is that the focus of your discipleship? Is your hope there rather than here? Is your hope in the fulfillment of God’s plan for all his people? Or are you wrapped up in smaller things? Jacob, here, sets an example for us. For those of us who are pilgrims in a strange land, our sight must be on that city with foundations, and our hope must be in the promise of God, and nothing else. If our sights are off, and our hope is off, we are simply not pilgrims. We’re just not disciples of the same God who is the God of Jacob. May God enable us to be pilgrims despite all the enticements of the world, and set our hope on that place which is to come and to trust in his promises more than all the earthly blessings which we could possibly obtain.
4th September 2011 GEOFF THOMAS