Israel Before Pharaoh

Then Joseph came and told Pharaoh, and said, My father and my brethren, and their flocks, and their herds, and all that they have, are come out of the land of Canaan; and behold, they are in the land of Goshen. And he took some of his brethren, even five men, and presented them unto Pharaoh . . . And Joseph brought in Jacob his father, and set him before Pharaoh: and Jacob blessed Pharaoh. Genesis 47:1, 2, 7

There were seventy souls of the household of Jacob which came from the land of Canaan to sojourn in Egypt. The number seventy here undoubtedly has special significance ordained by the counsel of God and brought about by His providence. It is the product of seven multiplied by ten. Seven is the number used in Scripture to symbolize the cov­enant of God. Ten is the number of completeness. The number seventy in this connection, therefore, symbolizes the complete covenant people of God. This is precisely what Jacob’s family was. It, in distinction from all of the other nations of the earth, was chosen to be the peculiar people of God, to partake of His covenant, and to live in communion of life with Him. It was now that family which had been brought, according to the counsel of God, to sojourn in the land of Egypt. Once the reunion of Joseph with his family was complete, Joseph began to set forth his plans for their future. It was not to be thought that, with the immigration of Jacob’s family to Egypt, all of their problems were immediately cared for. True, the famine was for them no more a cause for concern; but there were now some new and grave dangers which had to be avoided. In the first place, care had to be taken that the children of Israel did not become separated from each other, scattered through the land of Egypt. They were still a peculiar people distinct from all other nations of the earth. It was necessary for them to maintain the unity of life and communion of saints which is always becoming to the children of God. In the second place, the danger had to be avoided of developing permanent attachments to Egypt. God had given His approval to their immigration, but only as a temporary measure. They might not remain there for­ever. Canaan was still the promised land, and only in Canaan could the final blessing of their nation be re­alized. To that land of promise they had to return. Finally, it was necessary for them to keep themselves free from contamination by the spiritual corruptions of Egypt. Al­though there were undoubtedly a number of Egyptians that had been brought to conversion by the witness of Joseph, such as Joseph’s wife, Pharaoh, the steward of Joseph’s house, and others, the Egyptian people generally formed a very wicked nation. They were a highly civilized nation, and, for that very reason, their sins were very subtle and appeal­ing. The children of Israel could not afford to become very closely associated with them or to allow themselves to be influenced by them.

Within the mind of Joseph the conviction had arisen that his family had to be maintained in the hereditary occupa­tion of their fathers, to keep sheep and cattle and to continue to live as shepherds. It is remarkable how that throughout the old dispensation, from Abel to David and even to the shepherds on the fields of Ephratah, the covenant people of God were always closely identified with the keepers of sheep and cattle. God had a purpose in causing it to be so. The shepherd is a nomad who in his wandering serves as a figure of the believer’s pilgrim journey upon the earth. Even more, it kept the people of God in close familiarity with the animals whose sacrifice filled such an important part in prefiguring the bloody death of Jesus Christ upon Calvary. Joseph seemed to sense the importance of his brethren maintaining this manner of life even while sojourning in Egypt, a land not generally adapted to the keeping of cattle and sheep. Moreover, in continuing to live as shepherds, the children of Israel would erect a natural defense against the dangers that threat­ened them in this new land. It would serve to prevent them from making close social ties with the Egyptians, for the shepherd was an abomination to the Egyptians. The Egyp­tians considered a keeper of livestock to be on the lowest level of society, and, if the Israelites would continue to care for their herds, the Egyptians would consequently make little effort to mingle with them or intermarry. This had been their greatest danger in Canaan, and it could thus be prevented in Egypt. Again, it would prevent them from becoming overly attached to the land as such. Quite naturally a shepherd in his wandering does not form the attachment to particular plots of land as, for example, a farmer does to the piece of land which he works. Thus the Israelites would be the more ready to leave Egypt when the time of their sojourn was ended. Finally, it would necessitate their dwelling in Goshen, the only portion of Egypt adapted to the keeping of extensive herds of cattle, and the advantages of that would be many. First, Goshen was on the outer fringes of Egypt and inhabited by an alien people. By settling there the children of Israel would not be infringing upon the rights of the Egyptian people. Sec­ondly, there was a natural boundary between Goshen and the rest of Egypt. Kept there by their occupation, the Israelites would not be inclined to drift into other parts of Egypt. Finally, it was the portion of Egypt closest to the land of Canaan. Travelers from Canaan would constantly be passing by them reminding them of their promised inheritance, and, when the time came for them to return, they would not be required to cross over other portions of Egypt. These various considerations all served to crystallize Joseph’s plans for the future very clearly.

Still it was necessary before Joseph’s plan could be car­ried out that he obtain permission from Pharaoh. Neither must we think that this was a mere technicality. We are apt to think sometimes that because in the past Pharaoh had given so much power into the hands of Joseph, he must have himself been a rather weak and poor king. Actually the op­posite was true. It is the nature of a weak king to keep all of his power jealously to himself, wielding it whimsically to serve his personal desire. It was a sign of greatness on the part of Pharaoh that he recognized the even greater wisdom with which God had blessed Joseph and delegated sufficient authority to him to enable him to use his ability fully in the serving of the nation. But by the same measure we may be sure that he watched over Joseph carefully that he did not subject his power to misuse. Moreover, because Joseph was a prudent and faithful servant, he was not willing to pursue persona] plan for himself and his family without gaining full approval from Pharaoh.

With great care Joseph instructed his brothers so that they might properly make their need known before Pharaoh. It was important that they should not appear before Pharaoh as rough and crude men merely trying to gain what was best for themselves. They should come, rather, in an attitude of humble gratitude for the privilege that Pharaoh had given them to dwell in his land and manifesting an honest concern for what would be best for the Egyptians as well as for themselves. Carefully he advised them, “I will go up, and shew Pharaoh, and say unto him, My brethren, and my father’s house, which were in the land of Canaan, are come unto me; and the men are shepherds, for their trade hath been to feed cattle; and they have brought their flocks, and their herds, and all that they have. And it shall come to pass, when Pharaoh shall call you, and shall say, What is your occupation? that ye shall say, Thy servants’ trade hath been about cattle from our youth even until now, both we, and also our fathers: that ye may dwell in the land of Goshen; for every shepherd is an abomination unto the Egyptians.” Thereupon Joseph selected the five brothers best capable of presenting their case to Pharaoh and brought them to the king. As Joseph had said, it was not long before Pharaoh in­quired concerning their occupation. Bearing in mind the instructions of their brother, they answered, “Thy servants are shepherds, both we, and also our fathers.” Humbly they stated their request, “For to sojourn in the land are we come; for thy servants have no pasture for their flocks; for the famine is sore in the land of Canaan: now therefore, we pray thee, let thy servants dwell in the land of Goshen.” Pharaoh did not give them an immediate reply. He waited evidently to give to their request careful consideration. Only then did he call Joseph to tell him, “Thy father and thy brethren are come unto thee: The land of Egypt is before thee; in the best of the land make thy father and brethren to dwell; in the land of Goshen let them dwell: and if thou knowest any man of activity among {hem, then make them rulers over my cattle.’’ Pharaoh was well pleased with the plan which had been suggested. Not only did it give him opportunity to repay Joseph in a small way for all that he had done, but it allowed him to do so without causing undue tension among his own people. According to the counsel of God, Israel was brought for an extended and most significant sojourn in the land of Egypt, one which would have a great effect on the future history of His chosen people.

Once the family was fairly settled in the land of Goshen, Joseph brought also his father to meet with Pharaoh. There is something extremely affecting about that meeting between those two. Each spoke to the other from a position of per­sonal dignity, but with deepest respect for the other. The attachment which they felt for each other was immediate and real, for they shared together a paternal affection for the person of the same son. To Pharaoh, Joseph was the young man whom he had lifted out of prison unto a position of highest power and glory, and of this exaltation Joseph had proved himself more than worthy. To Jacob, Joseph was the seed of his own loins and the son of the wife that he loved, and to him also Joseph had ever shown a most favor­able response of love. Moreover, the relationship that both had maintained toward Joseph was of the deepest spiritual kind. From the earliest years Jacob had instructed his son in the truth that had been given to him from God, and had always rejoiced in the willingness of Joseph to learn. For many years they had shared together their deepest spiritual love. And the relationship between Pharaoh and Joseph had been much the same, just that Joseph had been the teacher and Pharaoh the one that learned. How many hours and days they had spent together like this we can only imagine; but it was sufficient to arouse within Pharaoh a deep respect for the people of God. Now that these two men, sharing together a mutual love, met and talked together, we might wish that their full conversation were recorded for us. Surely they had much in common.

Nevertheless, no sooner did the two meet than it became immediately evident whose dignity was the greater. Pharaoh was the head of a great and mighty nation; Jacob was the head of the covenant people of God. It speaks well, once again, for Pharaoh that he immediately recognized himself as a mere child in faith when compared to this great patriarch of so many years of experience in the matters of the living God. With humble gratitude he bowed his head to receive through the patriarch the blessing of his Almighty God. Finally, after gazing upon the years of experience written across the face of the patriarch, himself having grown in a land where people died much younger, he could only in­quire in frank wonderment, “How old art thou?” The answer of Jacob shall ever live on as a classical example of self­-evaluation, “The days of the years of my pilgrimage are an hundred and thirty years: few and evil have the days of the years of my life been, and have not attained unto the days of the years of the life of my fathers in the days of their pilgrim­age.” Jacob was not complaining, nor did he hold the least spirit of discontent. Honestly he evaluated his life. He had not attained to the years of his fathers, but during his life he had experienced very much in the way of sin and evil. He had nothing wherein to boast. He anticipated the thought of the Psalmist, “The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labor and sorrow; for it is soon cut off and we fly away” (Ps. 90:10).

Giving Pharaoh once more his blessing, Jacob turned from him and departed.        

B.W.