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Monday, June 17th, 2024
the Week of Proper 6 / Ordinary 11
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Bible Commentaries
Genesis 47

Calvin's Commentary on the BibleCalvin's Commentary

Verse 1

1.Then Joseph came. Joseph indirectly intimates to the king, his desire to obtain a habitation for his brethren in the land of Goshen. Yet this modesty was (as we have said) free from cunning. For Pharaoh both immediately recognizes his wish, and liberally grants it to him; declaring beforehand that the land of Goshen was most excellent. Whence we gather, that what he gave, he gave in the exercise of his own judgment, not in ignorance; and that he was not unacquainted with the wish of Joseph, who yet did not dare to ask for what was the best. Joseph may be easily excused for having commanded his father, with the greater part of his brethren, to remain in that region. For neither was it possible for them to bring their cattle along with them, nor yet to leave their cattle in order to come and salute the king; until some settled abode was assigned them, where, having pitched their tents, they might arrange their affairs. For it would have shown a want of respect, to take possession of a place, as if it had been granted to them; when they had not yet received the permission of the king. They, therefore, remain in that district, in a state of suspense, until, having ascertained the will of the king, they may, with greater certainty, fix their abode there. That Joseph “brought five from the extreme limits of his brethren,” (183) is commonly thus explained, that they who were of least stature were brought into the presence of the king: because it was to be feared lest he might take the stronger into his army. But since the Hebrew word קצה (qatsah) signifies the two extremities, the beginning and the end; I think they were chosen from the first and the last, in order that the king, by looking at them might form his judgment concerning the age of the whole.

(183) Quod Joseph quinque ex fratrum extremitate adduxit In the text Calvin has it, “Et de extremis fratribus suis cepit quinque viros.” The English version renders the passage, “some of his brethren.” Other interpreters, a “definite part.” Gesenius, however, translates the term מקצה, “from the whole;” which perhaps gives the best sense. “And he took from the whole number of his brethren, five men, and presented them unto Pharaoh.” — Ed

Verse 3

3.Thy servants are shepherds. This confession was humiliating to the sons of Jacob, and especially to Joseph himself, whose high, and almost regal dignity, was thus marked with a spot of disgrace: for among the Egyptians (as we have said) this kind of life was disgraceful and infamous. Why, then, did not Joseph adopt the course, which he might easily have done, of describing his brethren as persons engaged in agriculture, or any other honest and creditable method of living? They were not so addicted to the feeding of cattle as to be altogether ignorant of agriculture, or incapable of accustoming themselves to other modes of gaining a livelihood: and although they would not immediately have found it productive, we see how ready the liberality of the king was to help them. Indeed it would not have been difficult for them to become invested with offices at court. How then does it happen that Joseph, knowingly and purposely, exposes his brethren to an ignominy, which must bring dishonor also on himself, except because he was not very anxious to escape from worldly contempt? To live in splendor among the Egyptians would have had, at first, a plausible appearance; but his family would have been placed in a dangerous position. Now, however, their mean and contemptible mode of life proves a wall of separation between them and the Egyptians: yea, Joseph seems purposely to labor to cast off, in a moment, the nobility he had acquired, that his own posterity might not be swallowed up in the population of Egypt, but might rather merge in the body of his ancestral family. If, however, this consideration did not enter their minds, there is no doubt that the Lord directed their tongues, so as to prevent the noxious admixture, and to keep the body of the Church pure and distinct. This passage also teaches us, how much better it is to possess a remote corner in the courts of the Lord, than to dwell in the midst of palaces, beyond the precincts of the Church. Therefore, let us not think it grievous to secure a sacred union with the sons of God, by enduring the contempt and reproaches of the world; even as Joseph preferred this union to all the luxuries of Egypt. But if any one thinks that he cannot otherwise serve God in purity, than by rendering himself disgusting to the world; away with all this folly! The design of God was this, to keep the sons of Jacob in a degraded position, until he should restore them to the land of Canaan: for the purpose, then, of preserving themselves in unity till the promised deliverance should take place, they did not conceal the fact that they were shepherds. We must beware, therefore, lest the desire of empty honor should elate us: whereas the Lord reveals no other way of salvation, than that of bringing us under discipline. Wherefore let us willingly be without honor, for a time, that, hereafter, angels may receive us to a participation of their eternal glory. By this example also, they who are brought up in humble employments, are taught that they have no need to be ashamed of their lot. It ought to be enough, and more than enough, for them, that the mode of living which they pursue is lawful, and acceptable to God. The remaining confession of the brethren (Genesis 47:4) was not unattended with a sense of shame; in which they say, that they had come to sojourn there, compelled by hunger; but hence arose advantage not to be despised. For as they came down few, and perishing with hunger, and so branded with infamy that scarcely any one would deign to speak with them; the glory of God afterwards shone so much the more illustriously out of this darkness, when, in the third century from that time, he wonderfully led them forth, a mighty nation.

Verse 5

5.And Pharaoh spake unto Joseph. It is to be ascribed to the favor of God that Pharaoh was not offended when they desired that a separate dwelling-place might be granted to them; for we know that nothing is more indignantly borne by kings, than that their favors should be rejected. Pharaoh offers them a perpetual home, but they rather wish to depart from him. Should any one ascribe this to modesty, on the ground that it would have been proud to ask for the right of citizenship, in order that they might enjoy the same privilege as natives; the suggestion is indeed plausible. It is, however, fallacious, for in asking to be admitted as guests and strangers, they took timely precaution that Pharaoh should not hold them bound in the chains of servitude. The passage of Sophocles is known: —

%Os tiv de< pro<v tu>rannon ejmporeu>etai,
Kei>nou ojti< dou>lov, kan ejleu>qerov mo>lh|

Who refuge seeks within a tyrant’s door,
When once he enters there, is free no more.
Langhorne’s Plutarch

It was therefore of importance to the sons of Jacob to declare, in limine , on what condition they wished to live in Egypt. And so much the more inexcusable was the cruelty exercised towards them, when, in violation of this compact, they were most severely oppressed, and were denied that opportunity of departure, for which they had stipulated. Isaiah indeed says that the king of Egypt had some pretext for his conduct, because the sons of Jacob had voluntarily placed themselves under his authority, (Isaiah 52:4;) but he is speaking comparatively, in order that he may the more grievously accuse the Assyrians, who had invaded the posterity of Jacob, when they were quiet in their own country, and expelled them thence by unjust violence. Therefore the law of hospitality was wickedly violated when the Israelites were oppressed as slaves, and when the return into their own country, for which they had silently covenanted, was denied them; though they had professed that they had come thither as guests; for fidelity and humanity ought to have been exercised towards them, by the king, when once they were received under his protection. It appears, therefore, that the children of Israel so guarded themselves, as in the presence of God, that they had just ground of complaint against the Egyptians. But seeing that the pledge given them by the king proved of no advantage to them according to the flesh; let the faithful learn, from their example, to train themselves to patience. For it commonly happens, that he who enters the court of a tyrant, is under the necessity of laying down his liberty at the door.

(184) The passage does not occur in any of the tragedies of Sophocles extant; but it is found among the fragments of lost plays, selected from different authors of antiquity by whom they had been quoted. The words here introduced are taken from Plutarch’s Life of Pompey. It may be observed, that the word τύραννος is not necessarily to be understood in a bad sense. It sometimes merely means a king; but the idea of arbitrary power, whether well or ill used, is always involved in it. For the passage itself, see “Sophoclis Tragaediae Septem.” Tom. Ii. Fragmenta, p. 95. Oxon., 1826. — Ed

Verse 6

6.The land of Egypt. This is recorded not only to show that Jacob was courteously received, but also, that nothing was given him by Joseph but at the command of the king. For the greater was his power, the more strictly was he bound to take care, lest, being liberal with the king’s property, he might defraud both him and his people. And I would that this moderation so prevailed among the nobles of the world, that they would conduct themselves, in their private affairs, no otherwise than if they were plebeians: but now, they seem to themselves to have no power, unless they may prove it by their license to sin. And although Joseph, by the king’s permission, places his family amidst the best pastures; yet he does not avail himself of the other portion of the royal beneficence, to make his brethren keepers of the king’s cattle; not only because this privilege would have excited the envy of many against them, but because he was unwilling to be entangled in such a snare.

Verse 7

7.And Joseph brought in Jacob his father. Although Moses relates, in a continuous narrative, that Jacob was brought to the king, yet I do not doubt that some time had intervened; at least, till he had obtained a place wherein he might dwell; and where he might leave his family more safely, and with a more tranquil mind; and also, where he might refresh himself, for a little while, after the fatigue of his journey. And whereas he is said to have blessed Pharaoh, by this term Moses does not mean a common and profane salutation, but the pious and holy prayer of a servant of God. For the children of this world salute kings and princes for the sake of honor, but, by no means, raise their thoughts to God. Jacob acts otherwise; for he adjoins to civil reverence that pious affection which causes him to commend the safety of the king to God. And Jeremiah prescribes this rule to the Jews, that they should pray for the peace of Babylon as long as they were to live in exile; because in the peace of that land and empire their own peace would be involved. (Jeremiah 29:7.) If this duty was enjoined on miserable captives, forcibly deprived of their liberty, and torn from their own country; how much more did Jacob owe it to a king so humane and beneficent? But of whatever character they may be who rule over us, we are commanded to offer up public prayers for them. (1 Timothy 2:1.) Therefore the same subjection to authority is required severally from each of us.

Verse 8

8.How old art thou? This familiar question proves that Jacob was received courteously and without ceremony. But the answer is of far greater moment, in which Jacob declares that the time of his pilgrimage was a hundred and thirty years. For the Apostle, in his epistle to the Hebrews, (Hebrews 11:13,) gathers hence the memorable doctrine, that God was not ashamed to be called the God of the patriarchs, because they had confessed themselves to be strangers and pilgrims on the earth. Of one man only this is mentioned; but because he had been instructed by his forefathers, and had handed down the same instruction to his son, the Apostle honors them all with the same eulogy. Therefore, as they were not ashamed to wander during the whole course of their life, and to be opprobriously called foreigners and strangers wherever they came; so God vouchsafed to them the incomparable dignity, that they should be heirs of heaven. But (as it has been said before) no persons ever had a more peculiar and hereditary possession in the world, than the holy fathers had in the land of Canaan. The Lord is said to have cast his line, in order that he might assign to each nation its bounds: but an eternal possession, through a continual succession of ages, was never promised to any nation, as it was to the posterity of Abraham. In what spirit, then, ought we to dwell in a world, where no certain repose, or fixed abode is promised us? Moreover, this is described by Paul as the common condition of all pious persons under the reign of Christ, that they should “have no certain dwelling-place;” (1 Corinthians 4:11;) not that all should be alike cast out as exiles, but because the Lord calls all his people, as by the sound of the trumpet, to be wanderers, lest they should become fixed in their nests on earth. Therefore, whether any one remains in his own country, or is compelled continually to change his place, let him diligently exercise himself in the meditation, that he is sojourning, for a short time, upon earth, till, having completed his course, he shall depart to the heavenly country.

Verse 9

9.Few and evil have the days of the years of my life been. Jacob may here seem to complain that he had lived but a little while, and that, in this short space of time, he had endured many and grievous afflictions. Why does he not rather recount the great and manifold favors of God which formed an abundant compensation for every kind of evil? Besides, his complaint respecting the shortness of life seems unworthy of him; for why did he not deem a whole century and a third part of another sufficient for him? But if any one will rightly weigh his words, he rather expresses his own gratitude, in celebrating the goodness of God towards his fathers. For he does not so much deplore his own decrepitude, as he extols the vigor divinely afforded to his fathers. Certainly it was no new and unwonted thing to see a man, at his age, broken down and failing, and already near to the grave. Wherefore, this comparison (as I have said) was only intended to ascribe glory to God, whose blessing towards Abraham and Isaac had been greater than to himself. But he does not compare himself with his fathers in sufferings, as if they had been treated with greater indulgence; for we know that they had been tried to the utmost with all kinds of temptations: he merely states that he had not attained their age; as if he had said, “I, indeed, have arrived at those years which, by others, is deemed a mature old age, and which complete the proper term of life; but the Lord so prolonged the life of my fathers, that they far exceeded this limit.” He makes mention of evil days, in order to show that he was not so much broken down and consumed by years, as by labors and troubles; as if he had said, “My senses might yet have flourished in their vigor, if my strength had not been exhausted by continual labors, by excessive cares, and by most grievous sufferings.” We now see that nothing was less in the mind of the holy man than to expostulate with God. Yet it may seem absurd that he speaks of his life as being shorter than that of his fathers. For, whence does he conjecture that so little time should still remain for him, as to prevent him from attaining their age? Should any one answer, that he formed this conjecture from the weakness of his body, which was half dead; the solution will not prove satisfactory. For Isaac had dimness of sight and trembling limbs thirty years before his death. But it is not absurd to suppose that Jacob was every moment giving himself over to death, as if the sepulcher were before his eyes. He was, however, uncertain what length of time was decreed for him in the secret counsel of God. Wherefore, being unconcerned about the remainder of his life, he speaks just as if he were about to die on the next day.

Verse 12

12.And Joseph nourished his father, etc., according to their families (185) Some explain the expression, “the mouth of the little one,” as if Joseph nourished his father and his whole family, in the manner in which food is conveyed to the mouths of children. These interpreters regard the form of speech as emphatical, because, during the famine, Jacob and his family had no more anxiety about the providing of food than children, who cannot even stretch out their hand to receive it. Others translate it “youth,” but I know not with what meaning. (186) Others take it, simply, according to the proportion and number of the little children. To me the genuine sense seems to be that he fed all, from the greatest to the least. Therefore, there was sufficient bread for the whole family of Jacob, because, by the care of Joseph, provision was made to supply nourishment even to the little ones. In this manner Moses commemorates both the clemency of God, and the piety of Joseph; for it was an instance of uncommon attention, that these hungry husband men, who had not a grain of corn, were entirely fed at his expense.

(185) Usque ad os parvuli Even to the mount of the little one. לפי חטÃ, (Lephi chataph.)

(186) Alii vertunt pubem; sed nescio quo sensu.

Verse 13

13.And all the land of Canaan fainted. It was a memorable judgment of God, that the most fertile regions, which were accustomed to supply provisions for distant and transmarine nations, were reduced to such poverty that they were almost consumed. The word להה (lahah,) which Moses uses, is explained in two ways. Some say that they were driven to madness on account of the famine; others, that they were so destitute of food that they fainted; but whichever method of interpretation be approved, we see that they who had been accustomed to supply others with food, were themselves famishing. Therefore it is not for those who cultivate fertile lands to trust in their abundance; rather let them acknowledge that a large supply of provision does not so much spring from the bowels of the earth, as it distills, or rather flows down from heaven, by the secret blessing of God. For there is no luxuriance so great, that it is not soon exchanged for barrenness, when God sprinkles it with salt instead of rain. Meanwhile, it is right to turn our eyes to that special kindness of God by which he nourishes his own people in the midst of famine, as it is said in Psalms 37:19. If, however, God is pleased to try us with famine, we must pray that he would prepare us to endure hunger with a meek and equal mind, lest we should rage, like fierce, and even ravenous wild beasts. And although it is possible that grievous commotions were raised during the protracted scarcity, (as it is said in the old proverb that the belly has no ears,) yet the more simple sense of the passage seems to me to be, that the Egyptians and Canaanites had sunk under the famine, and were lying prostrate, as if at the point of death. Moreover, Moses pursues the history of the famine, with the intention of showing that the prediction of Joseph was verified by the event; and that, by his skill and industry, the greatest dangers were so well and dexterously provided against, that Egypt ought justly to acknowledge him as the author of its deliverance.

Verse 14

14.And Joseph gathered up all the money. Moses first declares that the Egyptian king had acted well and wisely, in committing the work of providing corn to the sole care and authority of Joseph. He then commends the sincere and faithful administration of Joseph himself. We know how few persons can touch the money of kings without defiling themselves by peculation. Amid such vast heaps of money, the opportunity of plundering was not less than the difficulty of self-restraint. But Moses says, that whatever money Joseph collected, he brought into the house of the king. It was a rare and unparalleled integrity, to keep the hands pure amidst such heaps of gold. And he would not have been able to conduct himself with such moderation, unless his divine calling had proved as a bridle to hold him in; for they who are restrained from thefts and rapaciousness by worldly motives alone, would immediately put forth their hand to the prey, unless they feared the eyes and the judgments of men. But inasmuch as Joseph might have sinned without a witness of his fault; it follows that the true fear of God flourished in his breast. Plausible and well coloured pretexts, in excuse of the theft, would doubtless present themselves. “When you are serving a tyrant, why may it not be lawful for you to apply some part of the gain to your own advantage?” So much the more does it appear that he was fortified by downright honesty; since he repelled all temptations, lest he should desire fraudulently to enrich himself at the expense of another.

Verse 15

15.And when money failed. Moses does not mean that all the money in Egypt had been brought into the royal treasury; for there were many of the nobles of the court free from the effects of the famine; but the simple meaning of the expression is that nearly all had been exhausted; that now the common people had not money enough to buy corn; and that, at length, extreme necessity had driven the Egyptians to the second remedy of which he is about to speak. Moreover, although, like persons driven to desperation, they might seem arrogantly to rise up against Joseph; yet the context shows that nothing was farther from their minds than to terrify, by their boldness, the man whose compassion they suppliantly implore. Wherefore the question, Why should we die in thy presence? has no other signification than that they felt themselves ruined, unless his clemency should afford them relief. But it may be asked how the Canaanites supported their lives. There is indeed no doubt that a grievous pestilence, the attendant on famine, would carry off many, unless they received assistance from other regions, or were miserally fed on herbs and roots. And perhaps the barrenness was not there so great, but that they might gather half, or a third part of their food, from the fields,

Verse 16

16.Give your cattle. It was a miserable spectacle, and one which might have softened hearts of iron, to see rich farmers, who previously had kept provision stored in their granaries for others, now begging food. Therefore, Joseph might be deemed cruel, because he does not give bread gratuitously to those who are poor and exhausted, but robs them of all their cattle, sheep, and asses. Seeing, however, that Joseph is transacting the business of another, I dare not charge his strictness with cruelty. If, during the seven fruitful years, he had extorted corn by force from an unwilling people, he would now have acted tyrannically in seizing their flocks and herds. But seeing that they had been at liberty to lay up, in their private stores, what they had sold to the king, they now pay the just penalty of their negligence. Joseph also perceived that they were deprived of their possessions by a divine interposition, in order that the king alone might be enriched by the spoils of all. Besides, since it was lawful for him to offer corn for sale, it was also lawful for him to exchange it for cattle. Truly, the corn belonged to the king; why then should he not demand a price from the purchasers? But they were poor, and therefore it was but just to succor them in their want. Were this rule to prevail, the greater part of sales would be unlawful. For no one freely parts with what he possesses. Wherefore, if his valuation of the cattle was fair, I do not see what was deserving of reprehension in the conduct of Joseph; especially as he was not dealing with his own property, but had been appointed prefect over the corn, with this condition, that he should acquire gain, not for himself, but for the king. If any one should object that he ought at least to have exhorted the lying to content himself with the abundant pecuniary wealth which he had obtained; I answer, that Moses relates, by the way, but a few things out of many. Any one, therefore, may easily conjecture, that a business of such great consequence, was not transacted by Joseph, without the cognizance and judgment of the king. But what, if it appeared to the king’s counselors, an equitable arrangement, that the farmers should receive, in return for their cattle, food for the whole year? Lastly, seeing that we stand or fall by the judgment of God alone, it is not for us to condemn what his law has left undecided.

Verse 18

18.They came to him the second year. Moses does not reckon the second year from the date of the famine, but from the time when the money had failed. But since they knew, from the oracle, that the termination of the dearth was drawing near, they desired not only that corn should be given them for food, but also for seed. Whence it appears that they had become wise too late, and had neglected the useful admonition of God, at the time when they ought to have made provision for the future. Moreover, when they declare that their money and cattle had failed, they do it, not for the purpose of expostulating with Joseph, as if they had been unjustly deprived of these things by him; but for the purpose of showing that the only thing remaining for them was to purchase food and seed at the price of their lands, and that they could not otherwise be preserved, unless Joseph would enter into this compact. For it would have been the part of impudence to offer no price or compensation. They begin by saying, that they had nothing at hand, and that, therefore, their lives would be lost, unless Joseph were willing to buy their lands; and in order to excite his compassion, they ask again, why he would suffer them to die, and their very land to perish? For this is the death of the earth, when the cultivation of it is neglected, and when, being reduced to a desert, it can bring forth nothing more.

Verse 20

20.And Joseph bought all the land. Any one might suppose it to be the height of cruel and inexplicable avarice, that Joseph should take away from the miserable husband men, the very fields, by the produce of which they nourished the kingdom. But I have before showed, that unless every kind of purchase is to be condemned, there is no reason why Joseph should be blamed. If any one should say that he abused their penury; this alone would suffice for his excuse, that no wiles of his, no circumvention, no force, no threats, had reduced the Egyptians to this necessity. He transacted the king’s business with equal fidelity and industry; and fulfilled the duties of his office, without resorting to violent edicts. When the famine became urgent, it was lawful to expose wheat to sale, as well to the rich as to the poor: afterwards it was not less lawful to buy the cattle; and now, at last, why should it not be lawful to acquire the land for the king, at a just price? To this may be added, that he extorted nothing, but entered into treaty with them, at their own request. I confess, indeed, that it is not right to take whatever may be offered without discrimination: for if severe necessity presses, then he who wishes, by all means, to escape it, will submit to hard conditions. Therefore, when any one thus invites us, to defraud him, we are not, by his necessities, rendered excusable. But I do not defend Joseph, on this sole ground, that the Egyptians voluntarily offered him their lands, as men who were ready to purchase life, at any price; but I say, this ought also to be considered, that he acted with equity, even though he left them nothing. The terms would have been more severe, if they themselves had been consigned to perpetual slavery; but he now concedes to them personal liberty, and only covenants for their fields, which, perhaps, the greater part of the people had bought from the poor. If he had stripped of their clothing those whom he was feeding with corn, this would have been to put them indirectly and slowly to death. For what difference does it make, whether I compel a man to die by hunger or by cold? But Joseph so succors the Egyptians, that in future they should be free, and should be able to obtain a moderate subsistence by their labor. For though they might have to change their abode, yet they are all made stewards of the king: and Joseph restores to them, not only the lands, but the implements which he had bought. Whence it appears that he had used what clemency he was able, in order to relieve them. Meanwhile, let those who are too intent on wealth beware lest they should falsely employ Joseph’s example as a pretext: because it is certain that all contracts, which are not formed according to the rule of charity, are vicious in the sight of God; and that we ought, according to that equity which is inwardly dictated to us by a secret instinct of nature, so to act towards others, as we wish to be dealt with ourselves.

Verse 21

21.And as for the people, he removed them to cities. This removal was, indeed, severe; but if we reflect how much better it was to depart to another place; in order that they might be free cultivators of the land, than to be attached to the soil, and employed as slaves in servile work; no one will deny that this was a tolerable, and even a humane exercise of authority. Had each person cultivated his field, as he had been accustomed to do, the exaction of tribute would have seemed to be grievous. Joseph, therefore, contrived a middle course, which might mitigate the new and unwonted burden, by assigning new lands to each, with a tribute attached to them. The passage may, however, be differently expounded; namely, that Joseph caused all the farmers to go to the cities to receive the provisions, and to settle their public accounts. If this sense is approved, the fact that Egypt was divided into provinces, afterwards called nomes, may probably hence have received its origin. This removing from place to place would, however, have been alike injurious to the king and to the people at large, because they would not be able to make their skill and practice applicable to new situations. Yet, since the matter is not of great moment, and the signification of the word is ambiguous, I leave the question undecided.

Verse 22

22.Only the land of the priests. The priests were exempted from the common law, because the king granted them a maintenance. It is, indeed, doubtful, whether this was a supply for their present necessity, or whether he was accustomed to nourish them at his own expense. But seeing that Moses makes mention of their lands, I rattler incline to the conjecture, that, whereas they had before been rich, and this dearth had deprived them of their income, the king conferred this privilege upon them; and hence it arose that their lands remained unto them free. (187) The ancient historians, however, injudiciously invent many fables concerning the state of that land. I know not whether the statement that the farmers, content with small wages, sow and reap for the king and the priests, is to be traced to this regulation of Joseph or not. But, passing by these things, it is more to the purpose to observe, what Moses wished distinctly to testify; namely, that a heathen king paid particular attention to Divine worship, in supporting the priests gratuitously, for the purpose of sparing their lands and their property. Truly this is placed before our eyes, as a mirror, in which we may discern that a sentiment of piety which they cannot wholly efface, is implanted in the minds of men. It was the part of foolish, as well as of wicked superstition, that Pharaoh nourished such priests as these, who infatuated the people by their impostures: yet this was, in itself, a design worthy of commendation, that he did not suffer the worship of God to fall into decay; which, in a short time, must have happened, if the priests had perished in the famine. Whence we infer how sedulously we ought to be on our guard, that we undertake nothing with an indiscreet zeal; because nothing is more easy, in so great a corruption of human nature, than for religion to degenerate into frivolous trifles. Nevertheless, because this inconsiderate devotion (as it may be called) flowed from a right principle, what should be the conduct of our princes, who desire to be deemed Christians? If Pharaoh was so solicitous about his priests, that he nourished them to his own destruction, and that of his whole kingdom, in order that he might not be guilty of impiety against false gods; what sacrilege is it, in Christian princes, that the lawful and sincere ministers of holy things should be neglected, whose work they know to be approved by God, and salutary to themselves? But it may be asked, whether it was lawful for holy Joseph to undertake this office, for by so doing, he employed his labor in cherishing impious superstitions? But though I can readily grant that in such great, and arduous, and manifold offices of trust, it was easy for him to slide into various faults; yet I dare not absolutely condemn this act; nor can I, however, deny that he may have erred, in not resisting these superstitions with sufficient boldness. But since he was required by no law, to destroy the priests by hunger, and was not altogether allowed to dispense the king’s corn at his own pleasure; if the king wished that food should be gratuitously supplied to the priests, he was no more at liberty to deny it to them than to the nobles at court. Therefore, though he did not willingly take charge of such dependents, yet when the king imposed the duty upon him, he could not refuse it, though he knew them to be unworthy to be fed on the dirt of oxen.

(187) The following passage from Sir J. G. Wilkinson’s Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians, will be read with interest. The priests “enjoyed important privileges, which extended to their whole family. They were exempt from taxes; they consumed no part of their own income in any of their necessary expenses; and they had one of the three portions into which the land of Egypt was divided, free from all duties. They were provided for, from the public stores, out of which they received a stated allowance of corn, and all the other necessaries of life; and we find that when Pharaoh, by the advice of Joseph, took all the land of the Egyptians in lieu of corn, the priests were not obliged to make the same sacrifice of their landed property, nor was the tax of the fifth part entailed upon it, as on that of other people.” — Vol. 1, p. 262 — Ed.

Verse 23

23.Then Joseph said unto the people. Here Moses describes the singular humanity of Joseph, which, as it then repressed all complaints, so, at this time, it justly dispels and refutes the calumnies with which he is assailed. The men, who were entirely destitute, and, in a sense, exiles, he reinstates in their possessions, on the most equitable condition, that they should pay a fifth part of the produce to the king. It is well known that formerly, in various places, kings have demanded by law the payment of tenths; but that, in the time of war, they doubled this tax. Therefore, what injury, can we say, was done to the Egyptians, when Joseph burdened the land, bought for the king, with a fifth part of its income; especially seeing that country is so much richer than others, that with less labor than elsewhere, it brings forth fruit for the maintenance of its cultivators? Should any one object that the king would have acted more frankly had he taken the fifth part of the land; the answer is obvious, that this was useful not only as an example, but also, for the purpose of quieting the people, by shutting the mouths of the captious. And certainly this indirect method, by which Joseph introduced the tax of a fifth part, had no other object than that of inducing the Egyptians to cultivate their lands with more alacrity, when they were convinced that, by such a compact, they were treated with clemency. And to this effect was their confession, which is recorded by Moses, expressed. For, first, they acknowledge that they owe their lives to him; secondly, they do not refuse to be the servants of the king. Whence we gather, that the holy man so conducted himself between the two parties, as greatly to enrich the king, without oppressing the people by tyranny. And I wish that all governors would practice this moderation, that they would only so far study the advantage of kings, as could be done without injury to the people. There is a celebrated saying of Tiberius Caesar, which savored little of tyranny, though he appears to have been a sanguinary and insatiable tyrant, that it is the part of a shepherd to shear the flock, but not to tear off the skin. At this day, however, kings do not believe that they rule freely, unless they not only flay their subjects, but entirely devour them. For they do not generally invest any with authority, except those who are sworn to the practice of slaughter. So much the more does the clemency of Joseph deserve praise, who so administered the affairs of Egypt, as to render the immense gains of the king compatible with a tolerable condition of the people.

Verse 27

27.And Israel dwelt in the land. Moses does not mean that Jacob and his sons were proprietors of that land which Pharaoh had granted them as a dwelling-place, in the same manner in which the other parts of Egypt were given to the inhabitants for a perpetual possession: but that they dwelt there commodiously for a time, and thus were in possession by favor, provided they continued to be peaceable. Hence the cause that they so greatly increased, in a very short space of time. Therefore, what is here related by Moses belongs to the history of the following period; and he now returns to the proper thread of his narrative, in which he purposed to show how God protected his Church from many deaths; and not that only, but wonderfully exalted it by his own secret power.

Verse 28

28.And Jacob lived. It was no common source of temptation to the holy old man, to be an exile from the land of Canaan, for so many years. Be it so, that on account of the famine, he was compelled to go to Egypt; why could he not return when the fifth year was passed? For he did not stupidly lie there in a state of torpor, but he remained quiet, because free egress was not allowed him. Wherefore, also, in this respect, God did not lightly exercise his patience. For, however sweet might be the delights of Egypt, yet he was more than miserable to be deprived of the sight of that land which was the lively figure of his celestial country. With the men of this world, indeed, earthly advantage would have prevailed: but such was the piety of the holy man, that the profit of the flesh weighed nothing against the loss of spiritual good. But he was more deeply wounded, when he saw his death approaching: because, not only was he himself deprived of the inheritance promised to him, but he was leaving his sons, of doubtful, or at least of feeble, faith, buried in Egypt as in a sepulcher. Moreover, his example is proposed to us, that our minds may not languish or become enfeebled by the weariness of a protracted warfare: yea, the more Satan attempts to depress them to the earth, the more fervently let them look and soar towards heaven.

Verse 29

29.And he called his son Joseph. Hence we infer, not only the anxiety of Jacob, but his invincible magnanimity. It is a proof of great courage, that none of the wealth or the pleasures of Egypt could so allure him, as to prevent him from sighing for the land of Canaan, in which he had always passed a painful and laborious life. But the constancy of his faith appeared still more excellent, when he, commanding his dead body to be carried back to Canaan, encouraged his sons to hope for deliverance. Thus it happened that he, being dead, animated those who were alive and remained, as with the sound of a trumpet. For, to what purpose was this great care respecting his sepulture, except that the promise of God might be confirmed to his posterity? Therefore, though his faith was tossed as upon the waves, yet it was so far from suffering shipwreck, that it conducted others into the haven. Moreover, he demands an oath from his son Joseph, not so much on account of distrust, as to show that a matter of the greatest consequence was in hand. Certainly he would not, by lightly swearing, profane the name of God: but the more sacred and solemn the promise was, the more ought all his sons to remember, that it was of great importance that his body should be carried to the sepulcher of his fathers. It is also probable that he prudently thought of alleviating any enmity which might be excited against his son Joseph. For he knew that this choice of his sepulcher would be, by no means, gratifying to the Egyptians; seeing it seemed like casting a reproach on their whole kingdom. This stranger, forsooth, as if he could find no fit place for his body in this splendid and noble country, wishes to be buried in the land of Canaan. Therefore, in order that Joseph might more freely dare to ask, and might more easily obtain, this favor from the king, Jacob binds him by an oath. And certainly Joseph afterwards makes use of this pretext, to avoid giving offense. This also was the reason why he required Joseph to do for him that last office, which was a duty devolving on the brothers in common; for such a favor would scarcely have been granted to the rest; and they would not have ventured on the act, unless permission had been obtained. But, as strangers and mean men, they had neither favor nor authority. Besides, it was especially necessary for Joseph to be on his guard, lest becoming ensnared by the allurements of Egypt, he should gradually forsake his own kindred. It must, however, be known, that the solemnity of an oath was designedly interposed by Jacob, to show that he did not, in vain, desire for himself, a sepulcher in the land where he had met with an unfavorable reception; where he had endured many sufferings; and from which, at length, being expelled by hunger, he had become an exile. As to his commanding the hand to be put under his thigh, we have explained what this symbol means in Genesis 24:2

Verse 30

30.But I will lie with my fathers (188) It appears from this passage, that the word “sleep,” whenever it is put for “die,” does not refer to the soul, but to the body. For, what did it concern him, to be buried with his fathers in the double cave, (189) unless to testify that he was associated with them after death? And by what bond were he and they joined together, except this, that not even death itself could extinguish the power of their faith; which would seem to utter this voice from the same sepulcher, Now also we have a common inheritance.

(188) Dormaim, “I will sleep.”

(189) The cave of Machpelah. See above, on Genesis 23:9. — Ed.

Verse 31

31.And Israel bowed himself upon the bed’s head. By this expression, Moses again affirms that Jacob esteemed it a singular kindness, that his son should have promised to do what he had required respecting his burial. For he exerts his weak body as much as he is able, in order to give thanks unto God, as if he had obtained something most desirable. He is said to have worshipped towards the head of his bed: because, seeing he was quite unable to rise from the bed on which he lay, he yet composed himself with a solemn air in the attitude of one who was praying. The same is recorded of David (1 Kings 1:47) when, having obtained his last wish, he celebrates the grace of God. The Greeks have translated it, at the top of his staff: which the Apostle has followed in the Epistle to the Hebrews, (Hebrews 11:21.) And though the interpreters seem to have been deceived by the similitude of words; because, with the Hebrews, מוטה (mitah) signifies “bed,” מוטה (motah,) “a staff;” yet the Apostle allows himself to cite the passage as it was then commonly used, lest he might offend unskillful readers, without necessity. (190) Moreover, they who expound the words to mean that Jacob worshipped the scepter of his son, absurdly trifle. The exposition of others, that he bowed his head, leaning on the top of his staff, is, to say the least, tolerable. But since there is no ambiguity in the words of Moses, let it suffice to keep in memory what I have said, that, by this ceremony, he openly manifested the greatness of his joy.

(190) The reasoning of Calvin, besides being in every respect unsatisfactory, is founded on a misquotation of the original. He appears to have put down the words from memory, or else his transcriber has made the mistake for him. The only difference between the words rendered “a bed” and a “staff” lies in the Masoretic punctuation; of which, it is well known, the authority is disputed. Perhaps one of the strongest arguments on the side of those opposed to the points, is derived from this passage and the Apostle’s interpretation of it. If the word is not pointed, then it may mean either a bed or a staff; if, on the other hand, the present points are of equal authority with the text, the Apostle has quoted it wrong. The latter supposition is not to be endured. It seems to follow, then, that the original was either not pointed, or the copy used by St. Paul was pointed differently from the present text, or he knew that the points were not to be relied upon, for giving the precise meaning of the Holy Spirit in the word. — Ed.

Bibliographical Information
Calvin, John. "Commentary on Genesis 47". "Calvin's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/cal/genesis-47.html. 1840-57.
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