Jacob’s faith for the future—Genesis 47:28-31

The future beyond us

Sometimes God’s promises are for the future, even beyond our own lifetimes. We can trust, however, in his reliability.

Two sets of seventeen years frame Jacob’s relationship with Joseph: the Joseph narrative opens when Joseph had lived with his father for seventeen years (Gen 36:2), and Jacob lived in Egypt after being restored to Joseph for seventeen years (47:28). In that time, Joseph has gone from being a beloved son dependent on his father to being a respected figure on whom his father depends.

Jacob thus prefaces a request to his son with language that might be considered odd for a father, but not so much when we remember the great rank in society that Joseph now held: “If I find favor in your eyes” (47:29). This is the language that Jacob had once used for Esau (32:5; 33:8, 10); this language has appeared in Genesis most recently as voiced by Egypt’s people toward Joseph (47:25).

As Jacob is preparing to die at the age of 147 (47:28), he makes Joseph swear to him in the same sort of solemn way that Abraham had once made his servant swear to him. In 24:2-9, aged Abraham made his servant swear to get a wife for Isaac from Mesopotamia rather than Canaan, and not to take Isaac back there. God had brought Abraham and Isaac to the land of promise, and there was no going back. Here the aged Jacob makes Joseph swear to bury him in Canaan, the land where his fathers Isaac and Abraham were buried (47:29-31). Like Abraham, Jacob looks to the future, recalling God’s promise that the land of Canaan would one day belong to his descendants.

That this request is an expression of faith in God’s future promise seems clear from Joseph’s own dying request, narrated after the events following Jacob’s burial. Joseph makes his people swear to bury him in the promised land someday, when God would bring his people back to the land of promise (50:24-25). As the author of Hebrews recognizes, this was an act of faith expressing his confidence in God’s promise (Heb 11:22).

How important is this matter to Jacob? “Swear to me,” he demands, and Joseph swears to him (Gen 47:31). But this is not the first time in Genesis that Jacob demanded that someone swear to him. In his youth (well over a century earlier, by Genesis’s chronology), Jacob made Esau swear to him to give him the birthright (25:33). When Jacob sought the birthright, he was looking to the future, considering God’s promise to the household of Abraham and Isaac. Toward the end of his life, Jacob again makes someone swear, honoring the expectation of the future that God had promised.

Joseph secures the people’s land—Genesis 47:18-26

This passage tells us a lot about Joseph. Joseph worked on behalf of both Pharaoh, his boss, and the people, selling them grain when they needed it and faithfully delivering all the profits to Pharaoh. He also exempted the Egyptian priests, following Pharaoh’s expectations. Joseph offers a positive model here. First, he is a worker with integrity, on whom his boss could depend. Second and third, he also is able to help the people in the time of need—and able to do so because he walked with God and understood what God was communicating in Pharaoh’s dreams. Fourth, God cares about feeding hungry people, and Joseph’s role as a public manager was no less important or God-led than more direct preaching ministries would be. And fifth, we see that Joseph also could work respectfully with those who held views different from himself.

Some of these points have come up before, so I will look at just a couple points here. First, what should we make of Joseph allowing the people and their land to belong to Pharaoh? Second, in multicultural and multifaith societies, we can learn from the honorable way that Joseph treats Egypt’s priests.

When Joseph bought the people’s land for Pharaoh (at their desperate request, 47:19), in practice he allowed the people to keep four-fifths of the produce, taking only one fifth for Pharaoh (47:24). Although a tenth was probably more common in that milieu (cf. 14:20; 28:22; 1 Sam 8:15, 17), Joseph had already been exacting a fifth in the time of prosperity, when it was little compared to the abundance (41:34); much of this grain might likewise be invested in their future. (Even today, most Western nations do not consider excessive a 20 percent taxation rate.)

In their own words, Joseph was to buy them and their land so that they and their land would not die (Gen 47:19); they are grateful for their lives being rescued (47:25). The taxation on their yield would not yet take effect anyway, however, since there would be no yield in the short run; Joseph instead gathered the people to the centers where food could be distributed efficiently during the remainder of the famine (47:21).

Today we might view Joseph’s accumulation of wealth for and loyalty to Pharaoh as harmful for later generations of Egyptians, but Joseph had access only to his own generation. He would not have known the long-range behavior of later Pharaohs, and we cannot control what subsequent generations do to our legacy. (Our forebears in many denominations and many nations would be horrified to see what has become of their legacy!) In fact, scholars often argue that Joseph entered Egypt during the Hyksos dynasty; a change in peoples ruling Egypt would obliterate the memory of how Joseph saved the people. Whether Joseph arrived in the Hyksos era or not, Scripture is clear that a ruler arose who did not know Joseph (Exod 1:8). Of course, in light of Christ we would hope for better things than subjecting a nation to Pharaoh; but overall, Joseph’s contribution was probably the most positive one possible in his situation. Had he not preserved the people, there would not have been descendants to oppress.

Joseph’s respectful relationship with the priests (47:22), the daughter of one of whom he had married (41:45; 46:20), offers a noteworthy model for God’s people working in a pluralistic society that welcomes us but includes a range of religious views. Moses married the daughter of a Midianite priest (Exod 2:16, 21; 3:1), in that case with perhaps even more concrete religious results! What God did for Israel ultimately convinced Moses’s already-wise father-in-law that YHWH was the greatest of gods (Exod 18:8-11). (Melchizedek, too, honored the highest God; Gen 14:18.)

Such examples are not limited to the Pentateuch. Daniel, trained in all the learning of the Chaldeans (Dan 1:4) served in a pagan court alongside pagan diviners (2:27-28; 4:7-8). Paul had friends (possibly sponsors) who were Asiarchs (Acts 19:31), members of the same class that produced priests of the imperial cult in Asia Minor. Scripture is clear that believers must not compromise with idolatry (1 Cor 10:7, 14-21; Rev 2:14, 20), even under duress (Dan 3:18; cf. 1:8; 6:10). But this does not mean that we should not associate with nonbelievers who practice it (1 Cor 5:9-10). As he illustrated perhaps most eloquently in the story of the Good Samaritan, our Lord Jesus calls us to love all our neighbors, not just those who agree with us.

Part of our witness as Christians is not just what we say (important as that is), but how we perform our work and serve the people around us.

Joseph’s further exaltation—Genesis 47:1-20

Now that Joseph’s family is reunited in Egypt, God blesses all of Joseph’s family through him. Pharaoh’s favor for Joseph’s family (47:1-6) continues the favor that God has given Joseph. Joseph himself bridges the Hebrew and Egyptian cultures, but it is good for these Hebrew herders to settle apart from the Egyptians. Otherwise, they would have become assimilated over the following generations, making an exodus back to the promised land inconceivable.

I treat the next scene—Jacob’s remarkable blessing of Pharaoh—in http://www.craigkeener.com/blessing-pharaoh-genesis-47/. That Jacob is 130 years old (47:9) would surely impress Pharaoh: age was respected, and in Egypt 110 (50:22, 26; Josh 24:29; Judg 2:8) was counted an extraordinarily ripe old age. That Jacob regards his lifespan as brief compared to that of Isaac and Abraham (Gen 47:9) would be even more impressive. Pharaoh respected this exotic family that had produced the gifted Joseph, but now he is impressed even further. Thus Jacob is permitted to bless the region’s most powerful ruler (47:10), even though the greater in status normally blesses the lesser (Heb 7:7).

God also further exalts Joseph himself in the eyes of the people. Administratively gifted Joseph, who had been sold for twenty pieces of silver, now gathers all the silver in Egypt and Canaan (47:14)! Moreover, the text emphasizes that he brought all the money to Pharaoh’s house (47:14). This emphasis recognizes that Joseph, unlike many of his contemporaries, was completely honest and avoided corruption. Pharaoh was right to trust him so thoroughly.

Why was Joseph able to make so much profit? Because of God’s plan and Joseph’s relationship with him, Joseph alone was able to see ahead, recognizing what God would do. But while he was making money and centralizing economic power for his boss, Pharaoh, he was also preserving alive people who would have otherwise starved. The next year they sell him their livestock (47:16-17), again strengthening Pharaoh while preserving the people.

Still, Joseph’s complete faithfulness to Pharaoh was preserving the people’s lives could raise a question about justice. Did Joseph actually seize all their livestock? It seems unlikely that he could have used everyone’s livestock; indeed, in that case he would have to provide grain for the animals even more directly and would need a new and massive infrastructure to house them. Much more likely, Pharaoh owned the livestock in principle but allowed the people continued use of the livestock, as with the land in the following year (47:24), a matter discussed further in the next lesson.

Joseph was loyal to his employer and also helped the people. This is not possible in every line of work; a hit man, for example, would have to quit his or her job when turning to follow God. But if Joseph quit his job, people could starve; corrupt officials could steal or hoard grain. (And as with a hit man, getting out of the job would not be a simple matter anyway.) Joseph acted prudently, saving the lives of many (50:20).