Plenty in the Midst of Famine
Topic: Sovereignty of God Passage: Genesis 47:1–47:31
“PLENTY IN THE MIDST OF FAMINE”
1 So Joseph went in and told Pharaoh, “My father and my brothers, with their flocks and herds and all that they possess, have come from the land of Canaan. They are now in the land of Goshen.” 2 And from among his brothers he took five men and presented them to Pharaoh. 3 Pharaoh said to his brothers, “What is your occupation?” And they said to Pharaoh, “Your servants are shepherds, as our fathers were.” 4 They said to Pharaoh, “We have come to sojourn in the land, for there is no pasture for your servants’ flocks, for the famine is severe in the land of Canaan. And now, please, let your servants dwell in the land of Goshen.” 5 The Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Your father and your brothers have come to you. 6 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, put them in charge of my livestock.”
7 Then Joseph brought in Jacob his father and stood him before Pharaoh, and Jacob blessed Pharaoh. 8 And Pharaoh said to Jacob, “How many are the days of the years of your life?” 9 And Jacob said to Pharaoh, “The days of the years of my sojourning are 130 years. Few and evil have been the days of the years of my life, and they have not attained the days of the years of the life of my fathers in the days of their sojourning.” 10 And Jacob blessed Pharaoh and went out from the presence of Pharaoh. 11 Then Joseph settled 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, as Pharaoh had commanded. 12 And Joseph provided his father, his brothers, and all his father’s household with food, according to the number of their dependents.
13 Now there was no food in all the land, for the famine was very severe, so that the land of Egypt and the land of Canaan languished by reason of the famine. 14 And Joseph gathered up all the money that was found in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan, in exchange for the grain that they bought. And Joseph brought the money into Pharaoh’s house. 15 And when the money was all spent in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan, all the Egyptians came to Joseph and said, “Give us food. Why should we die before your eyes? For our money is gone.” 16 And Joseph answered, “Give your livestock, and I will give you food in exchange for your livestock, if your money is gone.” 17 So they brought their livestock to Joseph, and Joseph gave them food in exchange for the horses, the flocks, the herds, and the donkeys. He supplied them with food in exchange for all their livestock that year. 18 And when that year was ended, they came to him the following year and said to him, “We will not hide from my lord that our money is all spent. The herds of livestock are my lord’s. There is nothing left in the sight of my lord but our bodies and our land. 19 Why should we die before your eyes, both we and our land? Buy us and our land for food, and we with our land will be servants to Pharaoh. And give us seed that we may live and not die, and that the land may not be desolate.”
20 So Joseph bought all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh, for all the Egyptians sold their fields, because the famine was severe on them. The land became Pharaoh’s. 21 As for the people, he made servants of them from one end of Egypt to the other. 22 Only the land of the priests he did not buy, for the priests had a fixed allowance from Pharaoh and lived on the allowance that Pharaoh gave them; therefore they did not sell their land.
23 Then Joseph said to the people, “Behold, I have this day bought you and your land for Pharaoh. Now here is seed for you, and you shall sow the land. 24 And at harvest you shall give a fifth to Pharaoh, and four fifths shall be your own, as seed for the field and as food for yourselves and your households, and as food for your little ones.” 25 And they said, “You have saved our lives; may it please my lord, we will be servants to Pharaoh.” 26 So Joseph made it a statute concerning the land of Egypt, and it stands to this day, that Pharaoh should have the fifth; the land of the priests alone did not become Pharaoh’s.
27 Thus Israel settled in the land of Egypt, in the land of Goshen. And they gained possessions in it, and were fruitful and multiplied greatly. 28 And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years. So the days of Jacob, the years of his life were 147 years.
29 And when the time drew near that Israel must die, he called his son Joseph and said to him, “If now I have found favor in your sight, put you hand under my thigh and promise to deal kindly and truly with me. Do not bury me in Egypt, 30 but let me lie with my fathers. Carry me out of Egypt and bury me in their burying place.” He answered, “I will do as you have said.” 31 And he said, “Swear to me;” and he swore to him. Then Israel bowed himself upon the head of his bed.
A man had been driving for miles along a stretch of wooded road in southwestern Virginia unsure of where he was. Growing tired and frustrated, he spotted a country store, pulled over, and went inside to ask for directions. Two men were seated in front of a pot-bellied stove, playing checkers while a third stood looking on. When the door opened, the men glanced up and nodded at the stranger.
“Can you tell me how to get back on the Interstate?” he asked.
The men looked at one another, shrugged their shoulders, and finally one of them said, “We don’t rightly know.”
“Can you tell me how far it is to Roanoke?”
A second man slowly replied, “We don’t know.”
So he tried a third question: “Then can you tell me where this road leads.”
The same answer: “We don’t know.”
Becoming more agitated by the moment, the lost traveler blurted out, “You don’t know very much do you?”
“Nope,” the first man responded, removing the pipe from his mouth. “But we’re not lost.”
There are many of us who go through life knowing where we want to go, but not knowing how to get there. We may think that we are making good time in our journey, only to find out in the end that we have been headed in the wrong direction. Twice in the Book of Proverbs we read, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death” (Proverbs 14:12 and 16:25). It is through Jesus Christ alone that “the way, and the truth, and the life” are revealed, because “No one comes to the Father except through” Him (cf. John 14:6). The only road leading to eternal life goes through Jesus.
Until we are willing to allow our “coordinates” to be aligned with His, life becomes for us a meaningless—and ultimately, destructive—journey.
As we have seen in the life of Joseph, God’s sovereignty rules over the affairs of His creation and in the lives of His people. Even at times when we are not aware of His presence and cannot directly trace His hand, He is actively engaged in carrying out His plan.
Joseph’s father, Jacob, and his brothers, along with their families had come to Goshen, having arrived at the height of the famine that had severely affected both Egypt and Canaan. But before they were able to settle in that land where the providence of God had led them, there were some matters that had to be taken care of. Protocol demanded that Joseph confer with Pharaoh and set up a meeting in which he might introduce his family. We read about this meeting in Genesis 47, verses 1 through 6, where we see...
Pharaoh’s regard for Joseph’s family (Genesis 47:1-6).
Hearing that Joseph was still living, after believing that he had been dead for more than twenty years, had revived the life of Jacob and reawakened his call from God. This has been repeatedly pointed out through the interplay between the patriarch’s two names, “Jacob” (the man operating in the flesh) and “Israel” (the man yielded to the sovereign plan of God).
Although there remained many questions and hurdles to overcome, Jacob was becoming more and more aware of his destiny. The Lord had told him shortly after departing Canaan, “Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for there I will make you into a great nation” (Genesis 46:3). The very promise recalled the covenant pledge first made with Abram two generations earlier (cf. Genesis 12:2). What’s more, the Lord reminded Jacob that Egypt would not be his family’s permanent home. “I myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up again,” God had said (cf. Genesis 46:4). The family’s stay in Egypt would be lengthy, but temporary nonetheless. For four centuries they would be cast in the role of “sojourners.”
We are told that Joseph took five of his brothers and “presented them to Pharaoh.” As was expected, Pharaoh asked their occupation, and they admitted to being “shepherds.” From the last chapter we learned that, for religious reasons, Hebrew shepherds were “abominable” in the eyes of the Egyptians (cf. Genesis 46:34 with 43:32). What that meant was that Joseph’s family could not be/would not be assimilated into Egyptian culture. Again, the invisible hand of God was in motion in a manner that would shield His people from the influences of a pagan culture.
When Pharaoh learned the brothers’ occupation, out of respect for Joseph, he agreed to arrange for them to settle in Goshen. Remarkably, the area that he granted them is referred to as “the best of the land.” Located, as it was, on the east of the Nile River, it had apparently remained sufficiently fertile during the famine and would provide for the family’s flocks and herds. It would seem that much of Egypt’s own livestock had been moved to that land, and Pharaoh even offered jobs of caring for them to any of Joseph’s family who may have needed work.
It was a magnanimous gesture on the part of the most powerful ruler in the world at that time. But where God is at work, nothing is beyond the realm of possibility. Just as Joseph’s family was honored as a result of Joseph’s faithfulness, so you and are I are made recipients of God’s blessing through the cross-work of Jesus Christ. It is what the Bible calls “grace.” We do not deserve or merit his favor, anymore than Joseph’s brothers earned Pharaoh’s favor.
Following the brothers’ audience with the king,the optimal moment had come for Joseph to introduce his patriarchal father to Pharaoh. Although it may have been the only time that the two men would ever stand face-to-face, their meeting would prove to be significant. We read of it in verses 7 through 12. Here we are told of...
Jacob’s recognition of Pharaoh’s favor (Genesis 47:7-12).
The scene described in these verses would have been unimaginable under normal circumstances. A humble Hebrew shepherd standing—not kneeling—in the presence of this mighty king. And astonishingly we read, “And Jacob blessed favor.” The importance of this statement is borne out historically from Abram’s encounter with Melchizedek in Genesis 14(:17-20). There, you may recall, Abram was blessed by Melchizedek, who is only later identified to us as a type of Christ (cf. Hebrews 7:3). As Hebrews 7:7 points out, it is always “the greater” who bestows blessing on “the lesser” (NASV). As the representative of the Lord Jehovah, Jacob was assuming the role of superior over the earthly king. And, as far as the record goes, Pharaoh amazingly conceded.
Perhaps taken by Jacob’s appearance, Pharaoh asked his age. Length of years was considered to be a sign of divine favor, and perhaps for the Egyptian kings even more so. In his helpful little book on the life of Joseph, Liam Goligher comments that...
The Pharaohs of Egypt were obsessed with their mortality and trying to ensure their immortality; hence the Pyramids and the mummification process. For them, 110 was considered the maximum age anyone could reach, but here is Jacob, already 130 (although he was in fact to die 17 years later, younger than the other patriarchs). Pharaoh is impressed and wants to know the secret.
It must have taken Pharaoh back a step or two when Jacob informed him that he had lived such a lengthy life, even though it had been filled with difficulty and unpleasantness. And like his sons had before him, Jacob too described his days and years as a “sojourning.” Could it be that there was a “quality of life” that Pharaoh saw in Jacob and knew nothing of?
As their memorable meeting came to an end, a meeting which most certainly would have had greater content than the Scriptures reveal, we are told that “Jacob (again) blessed Pharaoh.” Don’t miss the fact that Jacob did not bow the knee to this earthly ruler nor refer to himself as his “servant,” as his sons had earlier done.
This paragraph concludes by telling us that “Joseph settled 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, as Pharaoh had commanded.” “Rameses” may represent that specific portion of Goshen in which the family settled. Or maybe it was a later name that was given to that region. It was there that Joseph, under Pharaoh’s oversight, provided for their every need.
With his family settled in their new dwelling space, Joseph turned his attention to the pressing needs of the Egyptian people in verses 13 through 26. And while this section doesn’t deal directly upon Jacob’s family, it does provide important information affecting the subsequent events that would transpire.
By now the famine was well into its third year and circumstances had become quite dire. Counterintuitively, thanks to Pharaoh’s concern for the well-being of Joseph’s family, the new arrivals from Canaan would fare much better than the Egyptian citizens.
Joseph’s response to Egypt’s famine (Genesis 47:13-26)...
...involved a sequence of measures that have been labeled by some as “exploitative.” Were they that, or would this prove to be an example of wise administration during a time of national crisis?
As we trace the levels of Joseph’s plan in verses 13 through 26, we find that it was the means by which countless lives were spared. The Egyptians themselves would admit to as much in verse 25. Granted, it seems to have created a feudalistic system that would have consequences for generations to follow, but desperate times call for desperate measures. And these were certainly desperate times.
We see this in verse 13: “Now there was no food in all the land, for the famine was very severe, so that the land of Egypt and the land of Canaan languished by reason of the famine.” In response, Joseph instituted a three-stage plan.
- Phase one of Joseph’s plan involved the sale of grain that had been saved up from the years of bounty (cf. Genesis 41:34-36). When the people’s money ran out, they instinctively cried out to be fed.
- In response, phase two of his plan was put into place. The people “brought their livestock to Joseph, and Joseph gave them food in exchange for all their livestock that year.”
- As the famine persisted, conditions grew worse the following year. That brought about phase three. Growing more and more desperate for food in order to survive, the people willingly offered up not only their land, but their own lives as “servants to Pharaoh.” They would continue to work the land, but that land and twenty percent of what was produced on it would belong to Pharaoh. We might think of it (especially at this season of the year!) as a twenty-percent tax levied by the state. Twice the writer points out that only the priests were excluded from this arrangement, for reasons that were likely religious—and perhaps superstitious—in nature.
Men will do whatever is necessary in order to survive. Within the span of a couple of years, the citizens of Egypt had surrendered their money, their possessions, their land, and themselves. How ironic that Joseph, who had been brought into Egypt as a slave, was now the overseer of Egyptian citizens who had voluntarily become indentured servants.
These people were willing to sell themselves into slavery, but we must be careful in jumping to conclusions too quickly. Joseph’s plan was not a cruel one, but rather one in which the people could remain largely independent and self-sufficient. While they must give one-fifth of their produce to Pharaoh, they readily acknowledged in verse 25 that Joseph had “saved (their) lives.” This entire episode presents Joseph as a fair and just administrator who didn’t exploit a tragic situation for his own benefit.
In reading and reflecting upon these circumstances, we must not fail to recognize that while the Egyptian people were starving, God’s people were prospering in “the land of Goshen.” It is one of the major takeaways from this section that the Lord both protects and provides for His people as they sojourn in a foreign land. That statement is not intended in any way as a support for today’s “prosperity gospel.” Nevertheless, it is a principle that is indelibly true for the Church in every age.
The Lord has promised to care His own. The Apostle Paul encouraged Christians in his day that “God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:19). What that suggests—indeed requires—is that you and I live daily with full confidence in His sovereign and unshakable plan. Even—or especially—when things look bleak.
As Israel settled in for what would prove to be a longer pilgrimage than they had anticipated, we are told in verse 27 that in contrast to the plight of their Egyptian neighbors, Jacob’s family “gained possessions...were fruitful and multiplied greatly.” With that unlikely backdrop, the remainder of this chapter focuses on...
Jacob/Israel’s request of his faithful son (Genesis 47:27-31),
Verse 28 tells us that “Jacob lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years.” Before their separation, he had raised Joseph for the young man’s first seventeen years. Now he had him back for the last seventeen years of his own life. Are you aware that Jacob’s life spans half the Book of Genesis? He would live to be one hundred forty seven, but only thirty-four of his years were spent with Joseph. In terms of personal contact he knew all of his other sons much better, and yet it is Joseph to whom he entrusted himself with his final request.
Please notice that in the last three verses of this chapter Jacob is referred to exclusively as “Israel.” By now he had arrived at the place where he more fully recognized the foreordained role that had been called to play in the sovereign plan of God for His people. He was not about to immediately depart this life, but—as many of us would be wise to do—he was preparing for the inevitable day that his eyes would close in death.
At some point, he called Joseph to his side and asked him to pledge his loyalty by honoring his final request. “Do not bury me in Egypt,” he said, “but let me lie with my fathers. Carry me out of Egypt and bury me in their burying place.”
Sometimes people bear witness as much in their dying as they did in their lives. Perhaps even more so. As someone has put it, “We cannot live well until we are ready to die well.” Somehow the credibility of our whole life’s work comes to focus as we lie dying. You and I should pray that we learn to die well, and that the Lord will be honored in how we face death. By that I mean that we should pray that our faith would shine brightly when the hour of our death arrives, and that we would witness a good confession to our risen Savior (cf. 1 Timothy 6:12). That will happen only as we learn to live well in the assurance that God’s sovereign hand rests upon us.
Israel’s request was not for himself alone, but for his people—God’s people. “Promise me,” he asked of his son. And Joseph answered, “I will do as you have said.” “Swear to me,” he insisted again. And Joseph swore, thereby taking an oath and making himself accountable to God in carrying out the desire of his father. The chapter concludes with these words: “Then Israel bowed himself upon the head of his bed.” The old man was satisfied. He was ready to die.
The meaning of that last phrase has been interpreted in several ways. It is argued that the Hebrew could very well mean, he “leaned upon the head of his staff.” However it is meant to be understood, it serves as an introduction for the next two chapters, where Jacob pronounces blessings upon his sons.
Jacob would live to see the end of the famine and enjoy more than a decade of prosperous years before dying. The account of his death is recorded at the end of chapter 49. What is found there may surprise you, given what we have learned about this man from the earlier chapters of his life.
Standing before Pharaoh, both Jacob and his sons had referred to their lives as a “sojourn” (“gur”). A “sojourner” is a pilgrim who is in transition from one location to another. Although he may reside in one place for an extended period, the main characteristic of one who is “sojourning” is that he has no immediate permanent residence. Wherever he is, he dwells as a stranger. The Bible describes the people of God as “strangers and exiles on the earth” (Hebrews 11:13), people who long for “a better country, that is a heavenly one” (cf. Hebrews 11:16).
As Christians, we are always people who are “on the way.” But we haven’t yet arrived. It is not only helpful but essential for the followers of Christ to live each day with the reality that we too are but “sojourners” or “pilgrims” called out by God to journey this life on our way to the next.
In his classic allegory, The Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan describes the main character, “Christian,” setting out on a journey toward “the Celestial City.” Along the way he encounters paths and pitfalls through which he must travel in order to arrive safely at his appointed destination. At times he is confused regarding which road to take. Pressing onward, he meets with friends who offer encouragement for him to persevere, as well as foes who try to discourage him and get him to turn back or to travel a less-demanding course. At times Christian comes near to despair, but he refuses to quit until he arrives at the place of heavenly rest.
Bunyan’s “Christian” is meant to symbolize those who are the called and chosen by God. How desperately we all need to see that this world is, most certainly, not our home. We are indeed “just a-passin’ through.” Our days on this earth are quickly gone...soon they will be no more.
Repeatedly the Scriptures impress this upon us. Job in his trials understood the brevity of life better than most, saying, “My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle and come to their end without hope” (Job 7:6), and adding “Now my days are swifter than a runner; they flee away; they see no good” (Job 10:20). Elsewhere he likened the mortality of man to “a flower (that) withers...(and) flees like a shadow and continues not” (Job 14:2).
But Job wasn’t alone. Isaiah wrote that “All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the LORD blows on it; surely the people are grass” (Isaiah 40:6-7).
James made the point even more personal and direct when he said, “You do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4:14).
There are no guarantees granted to us on the day that we are born. We have no assurance that we will live to see another day. Even David, the man “after God’s heart” (cf. 1 Samuel 13:14, Acts 13:22), pled, “O LORD, make me know my end and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting I am!” (Psalm 39:4).
And it was Moses who prayed words which serve as wise counsel for all of those who are on their way to “the Celestial City”: “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12).
Last month Billy Graham died at the age ninety-nine years. Just a few days earlier, Jerry West’s mother passed away at the same age. That is a very long life when measured by time. But one day time will be no more. And in the span of eternity, ninety-nine years will have seemed less than the blink of an eye. With each passing day, we come closer and closer to meeting the Lord.
Israel—both the man and the nation that would come from him—would not remain in Egypt. In God’s perfect time and in God’s perfect way they would arrive and take up residence in the land promised to Abraham and his offspring centuries earlier (cf. Genesis 13:17). On “the divine clandar,”“God is not slow to fulfill his promise” (cf. 2 Peter 3:9).
“Through many dangers, toils, and snares,” Bunyan’s “Christian would make his way to “the Celestial City.”
Like Jacob, we are all forced to admit that “evil (painful, difficult, unpleasant) have been the days of the years of my life.” But for those who have found their place in God’s sovereign plan and responded by faith to the grace offered through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on their behalf, the “sojourn” will surely be shown to have not been in vain.