Genesis 47: Pharaoh Meets Joseph’s Family

By Mary Jane Chaignot

After Joseph’s family comes to Egypt, and he preps them about speaking to Pharaoh, Joseph goes to Pharaoh as his family’s representative. He tells him that his family has arrived and are currently in Goshen. Joseph chooses five of his brothers to join him before Pharaoh. Scholars debate whether these are stronger or weaker brothers. If Pharaoh sees the strong ones, he might want them for his army. On the other hand, taking the stronger ones will make the best impression on Pharaoh. Regardless, no criterion is given, and no names are shared.

After the introductions and practically on cue, Pharaoh asks what they do. The brothers reply that they are shepherds just like their forefathers, using the exact term Joseph cautioned against. There is no reaction from Pharaoh on the term. They continue that they “have come to live here for a while, because the famine is severe in Canaan and your servants’ flocks have no pasture. So now, please let your servants settle in Goshen.”

And as anticipated, Pharaoh tells them to reside in Goshen. There is a lot of repetition here. Some scholars suggest this is evidence of different sources with a comingling of stories. Others say it’s all part of the negotiating process. Back in the ’60s and ’70s when people were interested in J, D, P, and E strands, they attributed all these repetitions to different strands. Each strand had their version, and someone at the end put them all together. But now scholars ask, “How does that solve anything?” The fact is that eventually someone joined all of them and allowed all the repetitions. So there must have been more going on here than just different strands. People look at these texts now and think these are part of the negotiation process. Multiple meetings confirm what has already been promised.

All in all, Pharaoh is treating these people very well. He is giving them the best land. One does wonder, though, if this land has actually been vacant all this time. Generally, one might assume that if this is really the best land, someone else would already have been occupying it. Nothing is ever said about that. One option is that Joseph has already been buying up land during the famine. That comes up later in the story, but perhaps it explains why this land appears to be available.

As it is, Pharaoh is showering these people with the best Egypt has to offer. That includes land, but is not limited to it. One assumes that he also provides tents, furniture, utensils. It also helps to remember that there are only about 75 people. It might be easier to make such commitments because it is a small group of people.

Then Pharaoh says to Joseph that if any of them have special abilities, they should be put in charge of taking care of his livestock. It is possible that his livestock is already being pastured in Goshen. If the Egyptians feel that shepherding really is an abomination or an activity unbecoming for them, they might have been delighted to let someone else be in charge. Likewise, being in Pharaoh’s employ provides the Israelites with a measure of protection and security. As an intelligent person and a good businessman, Pharaoh wants to utilize the best people for the job. Living in Goshen probably means that they don’t have to intermingle that much with the Egyptians. Not to mention the fact that everyone is still in the midst of a famine. Planting crops is pointless if the crops won’t grow. The bottom line is that they are able to prosper using their skills as shepherds and in taking care of livestock.

The biggest benefit, though, from having them settle in Goshen, separate from the Egyptians, is that they are allowed to live their own lives. Presumably, they are even able to worship according to to their traditions and offer their own sacrifices. And basically, they are free to follow God’s command to “be fruitful and multiply.”

Only after these negotiations have ended does Joseph bring his father in to see Pharaoh. Immediately, Jacob blesses Pharaoh. This blessing comes as a little bit of a surprise. One might think it more likely that Jacob would be the one to bow down before Pharaoh, to pay him obeisance. Instead, Jacob, the inferior, blesses Pharaoh, the superior. It probably doesn’t mean they’re on an equal level—because they are not. Yet, Jacob blesses Pharaoh. The text does not elaborate on the nature of the blessing, but if it has any affinity to what Isaac does and what Jacob will do later for his own sons, it might be something along the lines of, “May your days be full, may your enemies be weak, fields be fertile” … and the like. Clearly, Jacob is more senior than Pharaoh and has benefitted from his many kindnesses. He has many reasons to show his gratitude.

In response, Pharaoh asks how old he is. Jacob replies that he is 130, and that his life has been filled with challenges. He also states that he is not as old as his forefathers. This number helps determine a timeline for events. Readers know that Jacob is forty when he goes to Paddam Aram in order to escape from Esau’s revenge. He works for Laban seven years before he marries Leah. Add a few years to that and Reuben, Leah’s first son, could be eighty years old by now. But Joseph is probably only in his forties, give or take a few years, at this point. So taking these numbers into consideration, there could be a 35 to 40-year span between Reuben and Joseph. It gives a different perspective to the time when Joseph has his dreams as a young man of 17: Reuben is already 52-57 years old. It’s easier to see why the brothers might have been less than pleased with him.

With his family settled in Goshen, the text provides more information about the rest of the country. Joseph’s dealings with others come to light. In the beginning of the famine, when people come to Egypt, they bring money to buy grain. When that money runs out, and eventually it does, they will still need grain. All Egypt comes back to Joseph begging. At that point Joseph offers to take their cows and their livestock for payment. People willingly do that and they are given food. Perhaps that transaction buys them another year or two.

Unfortunately, the famine continues. The next time when they come back for more food, they offer to sell their bodies and their land. Without food, their bodies are little more than carcasses anyway; in the midst of a famine their land is arid. They are willing to sell themselves and everything they have to Pharaoh. At this point, Joseph starts buying up land, and pretty soon Pharaoh owns all the land. In a sense, Joseph reduces the people to servitude from one end of Egypt to the other. But all of this happens because the people take the initiative. He does not solicit any of them to do this; they offer to do it.

As a point of note, this does not include the land from the priests because they get an allotment from Pharaoh, and they aren’t starving. Eventually, Joseph gives people seed for the land that they are now working for Pharaoh. He tells them when the crops are in, they will have to pay Pharaoh 1/5 of everything. The other 4/5 they can keep. People are completely grateful. This is, of course, a form of taxation. The people have become indentured. He owns their land, their cattle, their bodies, and now they have to pay taxes. And the people think this is a very good deal because they are not dead. That gives one a glimpse of how desperate they really are.

Modern people might shiver over the implications of these transactions. What happens once the famine is over and people’s bellies are full? Will they still think this is a good deal? Obviously, desperate people will accept whatever terms are offered. This sounds great in the moment. People are only too happy to be in bondage to Pharaoh. But a few things are happening here.

Pharaoh doesn’t give people grain out of the goodness of his heart; he buys up the country. The people are happy to go along with it. It is presented very positively. It is keeping them alive. The bottom line is that Joseph is a shrewd business man; some scholars even say he is brilliant. He is masterminding the whole operation. That’s why he is in charge. By the end of this famine, Pharaoh will own Egypt – the land, the people, the money. Maybe they have had to pay taxes before too, but then it was from their own land. Now, however, they don’t own any land; they don’t even own the seed they are putting in the ground. The economic impact of this famine cannot be overstated. Yet, scholars point out that in the ancient world a 20% rate of taxation is not considered to be oppressive. Since this interlude really doesn’t add anything to the Joseph story, scholars think it is an attempt to show benevolence on the part of the Joseph. He treats people fairly. They get to keep 80% of their crops. It is a new world.

Some scholars think this is very ironic twist, considering what happens later in Exodus when the Israelites are all in bondage. It appears that Joseph’s family is exempt from any of these hardships. It is also important to remember that Joseph doesn’t live with his extended family in Goshen. As far as scholars know, he continues to live the life he has been living before they come. He takes care of them and provides for all their needs, but he does not live with them.

After the interlude about Egyptian economics, the text turns back to Joseph’s family. The Israelites live in Goshen and increase greatly. This is what God tells humans to do. This is God’s very first command: be fruitful and multiply. They are doing that now, in a sense being very obedient to God. They are fulfilling God’s command. Of course, this will become a big problem in several hundreds of years from now.

Nothing is said about the end of the famine. Seventeen years after their arrival, Jacob is planning for his death, bringing the total number of years of his life to 147. The seventeen years that he lives with Joseph in Egypt is a nice parallel to the seventeen years they lived together before the brothers sell Joseph to the Midianites. When he is about to die, he calls for Joseph and makes one final request. He states, “If I have found favor in your eyes, put your hand under my thigh and promise that you will show me kindness and faithfulness. Do not bury me in Egypt, but when I rest with my fathers, carry me out of Egypt and bury me where they are buried.” Joseph agrees to do so.

Nonetheless, the two of them swear an oath to this effect. The oath effectively makes Joseph accountable to God for its fulfillment and subject to God’s wrath if he reneges. Down the road, when they have a covenant with God, it will be based on kindness and faithfulness. So even though God never actually says the covenant words to Joseph, here Jacob says them. Almost by substitution, these ideas of covenant and faithfulness are words spoken to Joseph. This is doubly interesting since that blessing should typically go to the eldest son. And that, of course, is Reuben. Readers can only imagine how hard this must be for Reuben. Jacob’s final message to Joseph at this point is that they should not bury him in Egypt. He wants to be buried with the bones of his fathers.