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Bible Commentaries
Genesis 47

Pett's Commentary on the BiblePett's Commentary



The Life of Joseph (Genesis 37:2 to Genesis 50:26 )

In this section we have the life of Joseph from beginning to end. It quite clearly bears within it the stamp of a deep knowledge of Egypt, its customs and its background, and could not have been written by anyone who did not have that deep knowledge, and who was not familiar with things at court. The correct technical terms are used for court officials. And the whole of Joseph’s stay in Egypt is clearly written against an Egyptian background without the artificiality which would appear if it was written by an outsider.

Verses 1-17

Jacob and His Family Tribe Arrive and Settle in Egypt (Genesis 46:28 to Genesis 47:12 )

Genesis 46:28

‘And he sent Judah before him to Joseph to show the way before him in Goshen, and they came into the land of Goshen.’

Jacob sent Judah ahead to ask Joseph to meet him to show them where they should settle in Goshen. Judah is now clearly seen as the leader of the brothers. The LXX here has ‘to appear before him’ which requires two further letters in the Hebrew, but it also gives the name of a city and therefore must be considered doubtful.

Genesis 46:29-30

‘And Joseph made ready his chariot and went up to meet Israel his father, to Goshen, and he presented himself to him and fell on his shoulder (Hebrew ‘neck’) and wept on his shoulder a good while. And Israel said to Joseph, “Now let me die since I have seen your face that you are still alive.” ’

Joseph comes up in his chariot. If this is before the Hyksos the chariot would be a rare sight in Egypt and would cause something of a sensation on its way. But he wants to reach his father quickly. And when they meet he weeps on his shoulder for some good long while. We are not told if Joseph is accompanied by his retinue but it seems probable that he would have at least some of his bodyguard with him.

Jacob’s happiness and great joy is brought out by his words. Now that he has seen his son is still alive he can die content.

Genesis 46:31-34

‘And Joseph said to his brothers and to his father’s house, “I will go up and tell Pharaoh, and will say to him, ‘My brothers and my father’s house, who were in the land of Canaan have come up to me, and the men are shepherds for they have been keepers of cattle, and they have brought their flocks and their herds and all that they have.’ And it shall happen that when Pharaoh shall call you and shall say, ‘What is your occupation?’, you will say, ‘Your servants have been keepers of cattle from our youth, even until now, both we and our fathers’, that you may dwell in the land of Goshen, for every shepherd is an abomination to the Egyptians.” ’

Joseph is clearly very concerned that they should settle in Goshen. That was his purpose from the beginning (Genesis 45:10). He knows that it will be better for them there. It is good pasture and they will meet their own kind. They might be very miserable elsewhere in Egypt because of the general attitude to shepherds and foreigners. Pharaoh has, however, said that they can live anywhere and he is a little afraid that Pharaoh might, with the best of intentions, insist on somewhere else. So with his knowledge of affairs he briefs them on what to say so as to get his way.

“I will go up and tell Pharaoh.” Pharaoh had told him to bring them to Egypt. Now he must report back on his accomplishment of the task. He knows then that Pharaoh will call them into his presence. This is a great privilege indeed, but it will be because they are his kinsfolk. Then they must know what to say.

“Your servants have been keepers of cattle--.” This will turn Pharaoh’s mind towards Goshen.

“Every shepherd is an abomination to the Egyptians.” They were probably looked on as uncivilised and irreligious.

Genesis 47:1

‘Then Joseph went in and told Pharaoh, and said, “My father and my brothers, and their flocks and their herds, and all that they have, have come out of the land of Canaan, and behold they are in the land of Goshen.”

“Went in.” Pharaoh lived an isolated life in his palaces as befitted a god. Apart from his high officials entry to him was difficult and all who entered his presence must be suitably clothed, washed and shaved. Joseph would make the usual preparations before entering in his regalia as Vizier. He enters alone. Court etiquette demands that he speak to Pharaoh himself before bringing in his brothers. Pharaoh might decide not to see them.

Astutely he lays the foundation. He stresses their flocks and their herds and that they are now settled temporarily in Goshen. But it is Pharaoh who will have the last word. Meanwhile outside in an antechamber await his brothers and his father.

Genesis 47:2

‘And from among his brothers he selected five men and presented them to Pharaoh.’

Five was the Egyptian number of completeness and thus Pharaoh would see five as suitably representing the whole. They too would need to be washed and shaved, and clothed in suitable clothing. They would enter his presence and abase themselves before him.

Genesis 47:3-4

‘And Pharaoh said to his brothers, “What is your occupation?” And they said to Pharaoh, “Your servants are shepherds, both we and our father.” And they said to Pharaoh, “We have come to sojourn in the land, for there is no pasture for your servant’s flocks, for the famine is severe in the land of Canaan. Now therefore we pray you, let your servants dwell in the land of Goshen.”

Joseph knew what question they would be asked. He had seen such visitors questioned many times before. And his brothers knew what to reply. They stressed that they were shepherds and needed pasture for their flocks. But they made clear that they were not presuming. They asked only what had been granted many times before to similar Asian shepherds, permission to sojourn in the land of Goshen while the famine is on. The rest is up to Pharaoh.

Genesis 47:5

‘And Pharaoh spoke to Joseph, saying, “Your father and your brothers have come to you. The land of Egypt is before you. Settle your father and your brothers in the best of the land. Let them settle in the land of Goshen. And if you know any able men among them then make them rulers over my cattle.” ’

Pharaoh gives his response to their request, and it is generous. There is no question of temporary sojourning. They must be given the very best. Joseph can select anywhere he wants for them to settle in, and as they have requested it, let it be in the land of Goshen. What is more, if any are suitable they are to be given high and important positions among those who look after Pharaoh’s own cattle.

Joseph then seeks to introduce his father.

Genesis 47:7

‘And Joseph brought in Jacob his father and set him before Pharaoh. And Jacob blessed Pharaoh.’

Jacob comes in before Pharaoh. We need not doubt that he too behaves with great respect but he takes advantage of the privilege of an old man and a patriarch, in ancient days respected in all societies, and pronounces a blessing on Pharaoh.

Genesis 47:8

‘And Pharaoh said to Jacob, “How many years are the years of your life.”

Pharaoh can see how old Jacob is, and is clearly impressed. His question is one of respect and courtesy. The full and perfect life in Egypt was seen as one hundred and ten years. But he can see that Jacob is older even than that.

Genesis 47:9-10

‘And Jacob said to Pharaoh, “The days of the years of my sojourning are a hundred and thirty years. Few and evil have been the years of the days of my life, and they have not attained to the days of the years of the life of my fathers in the days of their sojourning.” And Jacob blessed Pharaoh and went out from the presence of Pharaoh.’

Jacob cannot prevent himself from a quiet boast in the most respectful manner. He lets Pharaoh know that he is one hundred and thirty years old but that compared with his fathers he is still but a comparatively young man. His words indicate that this is partly due to the great problems and trials he has faced.

“The days of the years of my sojourning --- the days of their sojourning.” This too is a quiet reminder of the transitoriness of life. Men do not belong here, they sojourn. Pharaoh, with his belief that in the afterlife he would live on as Osiris would appreciate that.

Jacob again blesses Pharaoh. We do not know what form the blessing would take but it would possibly be a standard patriarchal blessing, probably in the name of Yahweh.

Genesis 47:11

‘And Joseph placed his father and his brothers, and gave them a possession in the land of Egypt, in the best of the land, in the land of Rameses. And Joseph provided his father and his brothers and all his father’s household with food according to the number of their dependents.’

Joseph gladly obeys Pharaoh. The best of the land would belong to Pharaoh and in his name he is able to take possession of it and allocate it to his family.

“In the land of Rameses.” It would not be called this until much later (when Rameses was Pharaoh in 13th century BC). Moses probably made this change to a name familiar to his own readers and listeners who would remember from whence they had come.

And not only were they settled in the best of the land but they received ample food to feed all their retainers throughout the famine.

Joseph Feeds Egypt During the Famine On Behalf of Pharaoh (Genesis 47:13-26)

We should recognise that what follows is schematised to some extent. Not all silver would run out for everyone at the same time, some would keep their cattle and herds longer than others, the description covers the general picture. But in the end all would succumb for the famine goes on and on. It must be remembered that Egypt looked on the land of Canaan as under her control, sometimes more so, sometimes less so, and therefore recognised some sense of responsibility towards it.

Genesis 47:13-17

‘And there was no bread in all the land, for the famine was very severe, so that the land of Egypt and the land of Canaan wilted by reason of the famine. And Joseph gathered up all the silver that was found in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan for the corn which they bought, and Joseph brought the money into Pharaoh’s house. And when the silver was all spent in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan, all the Egyptians came to Joseph and said, “Give us bread, for why should we die in your presence? For our silver fails.” And Joseph said, “Give your cattle, and I will give you corn for your cattle if your money fails.” And they brought their cattle to Joseph, and Joseph gave them bread in exchange for the horses, and for the flocks, and for the herds and for the asses, and he looked after them with bread in exchange for all their cattle that year.’

The famine continues and conditions get more and more severe. Meanwhile silver pours into Pharaoh’s coffers until the majority of people in Egypt and Canaan have no silver left. Then they begin to trade in their herds and flocks, their horses and their asses, until again they had no more of these, and they all belong to Pharaoh. Many would have only a few. And in the end these too run out. For the Egyptians this would not be quite so bad. They probably do not actually hand the animals over, rather they are assigned to Pharaoh and looked on as his property. Then they act as keepers and shepherds for Pharaoh providing each with part of the revenue (compare Genesis 47:24). The high officials over Pharaoh’s cattle (verse 6) would now have plenty to do in organising it all.

“They brought their cattle.” This may refer to the first movement when some would actually bring their cattle for exchange and the agreement is made. Eventually it would become recognised that they can simply be given in pledge. Alternately it may be that they have to bring them to be valued and listed.

“Their horses.” If these are pre-Hyksos days these would be comparatively rare in Egypt which may be why they are mentioned first. While Canaan is not mentioned in 15b it is probably to be understood to some extent (it was the people of Egypt who would approach Joseph about the matter) and the majority of the horses may have come from Canaan or through Canaan from even further afield.

“And he looked after them.” Literally ‘led them’. The word is usually used of a shepherd leading his flocks. Joseph was a shepherd to them.

But the Jacob family tribe are meanwhile kept well provisioned through the good offices of Joseph, and keep their silver and their cattle.

Verses 18-20

‘And when that year ended they came to him the second year and said to him, “We will not hide from my lord how that our silver is all spent, and the herds of cattle are my lord’s. There is nothing left in the sight of my lord but our bodies and our lands. Why should we die before your eyes, both we and our land? Buy us and our land for bread, and we and our land will be servants to Pharaoh. And give us seed that we may live and not die, and that the land be not desolate.” So Joseph bought all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh, for the Egyptians sold every man his field because the famine was severe on them, and the land became Pharaoh’s.’

“And when that year ended they came to him the second year.” This is not the second year of the famine. We have already seen that Jacob and his family tribe have had sufficient silver to tide them through two years. This is ‘the second year’ after the one in which the silver had run out and the majority pledged their animals. It is thus well into the famine.

Now the people pledge themselves and their land to Pharaoh. In one sense nothing changes. They still live on the land and they still serve Pharaoh and pay taxes. It is the conception that is different. There is a new sense in which they are no longer freeholders and they are no longer freemen, although the old social distinctions between men would not change. This especially affects the ‘nobility’ who have been jealous of their influence and independence but whose power is now crushed.

“Give us seed that the land be not desolate.” This may indicate attempts to maintain some kind of crops on the land. Some would certainly attempt to use what water there was to irrigate land and grow some kind of meagre crop. The Nile was not completely empty. Or it may signify that at this stage they see the end of the famine in sight. The former seems more likely. They are bravely trying to keep some form of normality on the land, some signs of life among the continuing deadness.

Verse 21

‘And as for the people he removed them to the cities from one end of the border of Egypt even to the other end of it.’

This refers to a largish part of the people and was probably for administrative convenience. Not all would be taken away from the land. But the task of feeding the people was onerous and it would be easier if they were all in one place. Once the crisis was over they could move back. Previously they may have been unwilling to leave their land, but now that it belongs to Pharaoh things are different. The whole scenario is of a gradually worsening situation.

The LXX has here ‘he made slaves of them.’ This involves changing he‘evir le‘arim to he‘evid la‘avadim and assumes the d was later read as an r (they are very similar in Hebrew) and that the v dropped out, but this may have been due to failure to understand why he gathered them in cities. But it may be that LXX is witness to an early reading.

“Made slaves” is an emotive term capable of many meanings. If the thought is that they ceased to be ‘freemen’ this has already been stated. But in one sense the people of Egypt were always seen as ‘slaves of Pharaoh’ for he was a god. It is true that there would be a sense of a loss of independence but their overall condition has not worsened. They simply have to recognise their responsibility to pay ‘the fifth’ (see later). There is no suggestion that they are bitter about it. Rather they are grateful and look on Joseph as their ‘saviour’. Thus the reading may be correct. But there is much to be said for retaining the ‘harder reading’.

Verse 22

‘Only the land of the priests he did not buy. For the priests had a portion from Pharaoh and ate their portion which Pharaoh gave them, and for that reason they did not sell their land.’

The priests were powerful and influential. Furthermore they were provided with their food by Pharaoh. Thus they did not need to sell their land and remained semi-independent. We know that in the later so-called New Kingdom this was so. The extensive Temple lands were not formally included in Pharaoh’s right of possession. This is further support for the view that this was not under the Hyksos. They would not have given such benefits to the priests who were opposed to them, the priests of Re and Atum.

Verse 23

‘Then Joseph said, “Behold I have bought you this day, and your land, for Pharaoh. Look here is seed for you, and you shall sow the land, and it shall be that at the ingatherings you shall give one fifth to Pharaoh, and four parts shall be your own, for seed of the field, and for your food and for those of your households and for food for your little ones.” ’

The famine is now approaching its end and Joseph declares their new position. From now on they are debtors to Pharaoh for one fifth of their produce, and on these terms he provides them with seed for sowing. This is not onerous. It may well be that they had already been paying this amount in taxes. And to receive seed at the end of a famine was luxury indeed. This has ever been the problem of a famine, that the seed has been consumed and little is left for sowing.

“This day.” This clearly is not intended to mean that the transaction from start to finish took place on that day. These transactions took place over fairly long periods. ‘This day’ refers to the end position. He is really saying, ‘this day I declare to you that ---’ and from this day they must fulfil the responsibility of the fifth.

We can compare with this how later Israel would have to give one tenth to Yahweh as well as many sacrifices and offerings. One fifth is a typically Egyptian proportion.

Verse 25

‘And they said, “You have saved our lives. Let us find favour in the eyes of my lord and we will be servants to Pharaoh.” ’

The people are profoundly grateful. They do not look on Joseph’s measures as harsh. They rather think of him as the one who has delivered them from disaster. He has well served Pharaoh. And in their gratitude they pledge themselves anew to the service of Pharaoh.

We must remember that they still have their lands, they still have their cattle, they still have their social standings, only they are in pledge to Pharaoh. It is only the most influential who are really affected for they have lost something of their independence. And even they are grateful to have survived the famine.

Verse 26

‘And Joseph made it a statute concerning the land of Egypt to this day, that Pharaoh should have the fifth. Only the land of the priests alone did not become Pharaoh’s.’

The writer summarises the position as it still is in his day. How long the fifth remained the standard we do not know. But when the Hyksos took over things would change. This would suggest he wrote before that time.

But how does this tie in with what we know of conditions in Egypt? Certainly we know that in the period before the Hyksos there was a feudal system whereby the land was largely owned by the nobility with the peasantry under their control. This would clearly be brought to an end by Joseph’s reforms, and confirms the picture presented. Assuming, as we have suggested, that this took place before the advent of the Hyksos, their coming would change the situation in the part of Egypt that they controlled. They in fact restored the land to a feudal system.

But when they were expelled and the so-called New Kingdom was established the whole land was expropriated and transferred to Pharaoh, being declared his exclusive property. This may well have been because it was seen as a restoration of the position before the reign of the Hyksos, which would thus confirm the accuracy of the Joseph story. This position then continued for many centuries.

Verses 27-31

The Family Tribe Prosper - Jacob’s Plea (Genesis 47:27-31 )

Genesis 47:27

‘And Israel dwelt in the land of Egypt, in the land of Goshen, and they obtained possessions in it and were fruitful, and multiplied greatly.’

This summary states what happened after the famine was over and covers many years. Jacob and the Family Tribe prosper greatly (by now the name ‘Israel’ is beginning to be attached to the tribe - note the plural, ‘they obtained’) and become even wealthier. Furthermore they continue expansion, with nothing to hinder them, and many children are born to the tribe. They ‘multiply greatly.’ Their move appears to be a success. They see no reason to return to Canaan. But Jacob’s heart is still there.

Genesis 47:28-31

‘And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years. So the days of Jacob, the years of his life, were one hundred and forty seven years, and the time drew near that Israel must die, and he called his son Joseph and said to him, “If now I have found favour in your sight put, I pray you, your hand under my thigh and deal kindly and truly with me. Do not bury me, I beg of you, in Egypt, but when I sleep with my fathers you will carry me out of Egypt and bury me in their burial place.” And he said, “I will do as you have said.” And he said, “Swear to me.” And he swore to him. And Israel bowed himself on the bed’s head.’

Jacob lives another seventeen years, reaching one hundred and thirty seven. It is probable that we are not to see this as too literal. It is doubtful if account was kept of age so accurately and there are grounds for thinking that the patriarchal ages are to be seen as round symbolic numbers. For this see The Use of Numbers in the Ancient Near East and in Genesis. But he is clearly of a great age (compare Genesis 47:9).

Now, with death approaching, he is concerned that he should be buried with his fathers in the land of Canaan. He therefore calls Joseph to come to him privately for he has a favour to ask him which only Joseph can guarantee, for what he will ask may well conflict with recognised Egyptian protocol.

“If I have found favour in your sight.” He remembers the high position occupied by his son. ‘Put your hand under my thigh’ - a typical type of oath, possibly seen as swearing on his life producing functions (compare Genesis 24:2). ‘Swear to me.’ This will not only put Joseph under obligation but will enable him to thwart any other plans by anyone else. No one would dispute an oath to a dying man and it will give him leverage with Pharaoh whose permission will have to be sought (see Genesis 50:4-6).

“And Israel bowed himself on the bed” s head.’ This probably represents the weak old man bowing to his son, assisted by the bedhead, partly because of who he is, but also in gratitude at his firm promise. It stresses how weak he is. But it may be partly because of his blindness (Genesis 48:10). The end was not to be long in coming.

Jacob Adopts Ephraim and Manasseh and Gives Them His Dying Blessing (Genesis 48:1-22)

Bibliographical Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Genesis 47". "Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/pet/genesis-47.html. 2013.
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