THE BEGINNING OF WISDOM – PART IX - SECTION II
THE PEOPLE OF
GOD MOVE INTO EGYPT
I. Chapter 46 describes the family of Jacob as it departs to Egypt in a fashion that brings out some subtle ambiguities about the journey.
A. Israel begins his journey to Egypt by stopping at Beer-sheba, the site of several holy and historical events, including: the agreement between Abraham and Abimilech and later Isaac and Abimilech that set up good relations between the people of God and the secular world; Abraham's sojourn after the "sacrifice" of Isaac; the appearance of God to Isaac; and the appearance of God to Jacob as he journeyed to the land of Laban. See Gen. 21:32, 22:19, 26:23-33, 28:10.
1. Jacob probably
wanted some assurance and guidance about how to proceed in the midst
of such opportunity (insofar as he would have Joseph back and be in
the privileged class) and risk (insofar as he would be in a foreign
land for an extended time.)
2. God appears
to Israel, calling him by his original name Jacob, which may imply a
more personal communication to the one whom God had first spoken.
3. Jacob responds,
"Here, I am" as Abraham did to the call to sacrifice Isaac and Moses
will to God at the burning bush. It is a sign of readiness to
do God's will.
4. God assures Jacob that he should go down to Egypt, for he will become a great nation. Then God says that he will bring Jacob back after Joseph has closed his eyes, that is, after he has died. The obvious implication is that Jacob's family will return one day. It is noteworthy that God identifies the family with Jacob. In Jewish thought the family and the individual were often associated with each other. Early on in Jewish thought, there was only the haziest notion of an afterlife; but if the family continued the individual continued in it.
B. Israel then continues the journey, taking his sons and everything they have. However, Israel the patriarch does not completely commit himself.
sons take everything that they have, but it is not clear that Israel
does. He may well be leaving his own wealth behind so that he
has an escape.
2. They use the
transportation that Pharaoh provides, indicating a certain reliance
on him that will become dangerous later on.
C. The text then lists the members of Israel's family, divided up according to the sons. It is a first indication of the division of Israel into twelve tribes.
1. The enumerations have a couple of ambiguities.
the six sons of Israel and Leah and their children number 32 and two
dead (Er and Onan, the first sons of Judah); and yet the text says that
there are 33 of them. It may be that Er and Onan (both of whom
offended God) are being counted as one, or perhaps more likely Onan
is being cut out altogether.
3. It is noteworthy
that Benjamin, the least of the brothers has the most children, nine.
It would be from his line that St. Paul would descend. It is often
the seemingly least people that God works with the most.
D. When the family arrives in Egypt, Israel is hopeful but still cautious.
1. Instead of
going to meet Pharaoh in the mainland of Egypt, he sends Judah, the
leader of his sons, ahead to bring Joseph to him in Goshen.
2. Joseph does
come to Israel and is overjoyed at the meeting. Israel certainly
rejoices as well, saying that he can now die in peace, similar to the
words used by Simeon when he saw the child Jesus. See Luke 2:29-32.
However, in that case, the joy was for salvation now available to all
3. Even in this
moment of joy, however, Jacob is a bit reserved. He refers, not
to "my son" as before, but only by name to Joseph. Joseph
is now a bit more remote from him.
E. Joseph is also careful in his planning. He goes out of his way to tell his brothers that they are all shepherds and have ever been so that they can remain apart from the Egyptians.
1. Joseph makes
it clear that the Egyptians despise shepherds. The reason is not
clear, although there has ever been some tension between nomadic shepherds
and more fixed farmers, as was the case between Cain and Abel.
It may be related to the fact that the Egyptians worshipped many gods
in animal form, and thus looked down on the eating or sacrifice of animals.
Later, Moses would make it clear that Israel's animal sacrifices would
be abominable to the Egyptians. See Ex. 8:22-23.
II. Chapter 47 begins with the meetings between Joseph and Pharaoh and then between Jacob and Pharaoh. The negotiations are friendly, but there is some tension in the background.
A. First Joseph goes to Pharaoh with five of his brothers.
1. Joseph may
have selected the five that would be most likely to impress Pharaoh,
or perhaps least likely to say anything foolish. Joseph is avoiding
a total commitment to this meeting.
2. Pharaoh asks
them their profession. It is ever a concern of governments that
immigrants be productive and contribute to society.
3. The brothers are very respectful and describe themselves as shepherds, as Joseph had instructed. Pharaoh seems almost pleased at this answer, despite the fact that the Egyptians despise shepherds.
a. Some have
proposed that Pharaoh may have been a foreigner, as the Greek Hyksos
dynasty was when it dominated Egypt in the 17th century (about
likely possibility is that Pharaoh knew the economic desirability of
herdsmen, and so was pleased to find people who would do it. For
he even offers to have members of Joseph's family tend his own flocks.
Immigrants are often welcomed to do work that needs to be done, but
that the native population despises.
1. When Jacob
first comes, Pharaoh's first question is his age. Jacob seems
like the venerable old man, and Pharaoh is impressed, or possibly a
bit nervous, about his status, for Egyptians highly valued age and tradition.
2. Jacob says that he has been a wayfarer for 130 years.
- When they
come to Egypt, Joseph is about 40, making Jacob about 94. It is possible
that this meeting occurred much later. It could also be that Jacob
is including the time since Isaac left Abraham at about the age of 18
or 20, after the proposed sacrifice on Mount Moriah.
6. Pharaoh does
not seem to mind Jacob's independence. At this point, there
is a favorable alliance between the foreign religion and the state.
It may even be that Pharaoh sensed the divine working in Jacob as He
had in Joseph.
A. At one level, the narrative is straightforward. Pharaoh has vast quantities of surplus food, and the people need it during the famine. Joseph sells it to them on behalf of Pharaoh, first for money, then for animals (the next form of wealth) and then for the land and the people themselves. At the end of the seven years, Pharaoh has acquired complete feudal like power.
- The text refers
to the slavery of the people, but the situation is probably more like
serfdom. For if the people were completely enslaved, there would
be no point in Joseph ordering them to give a fifth of their income
- The Egyptian
priests managed to escape the bondage, probably because of their mystique
and their cleverness. The Egyptian religion would continue, and Joseph
could not stop it with his political power. As with the power of Jacob,
and later of Judah, religious power is more subtle, but more enduring
than political power, represented by Joseph.
B. In describing the rise of power of the Pharaoh, the text is describing an example of the historical phenomenon of the rise of complete governmental power in an era (about the eighteenth century B.C.) during which the great empires, and great imperial government, was growing in Egypt, Babylon, Syria, and for that matter, even Crete. These events are probably taking place a little after 1800 B.C. Hammurabi's Code was written in 1760 B.C. The great palace of Minoan Crete was built in 1720 B.C.
- It is noteworthy
that the text presents a more decentralized government as the beginning
state and a more feudal structure rising in a few years from the crisis.
C. The text does not say whether this rise of large government is a good or bad thing, or simply inevitable in such a situation. See Leon Kaas, The Beginning of Wisdom 631-633.
1. On the one
hand, it works to the family of Jacob's favor temporarily. On the
other hand, the government would eventually enslave them. And,
when the country of Israel was established, the future king was not
supposed to build up a large treasury or army, or make foreign alliances.
See Duet. 17:14-20.
3. Origin said
that, as the Egyptians became slaves because they did not know the word
of God that guided Joseph, so all carnal people will become slaves of
desire. See Origin, Homilies on Genesis 6:2-3.
A. The text indicates
a people that is expanding both in population and in wealth. One
can imagine that the native Egyptians were already getting a jealous
of these new and favored people. Even assuming that the foreign
Hyksos dynasty was not yet ruling over Egypt, when it later did, the
Hebrews would be associated with them. And when that dynasty was
overthrown, it would make the resentment against the Hebrews take the
form of oppression.
B. Jacob, seeing his people prosper, but perhaps worried about them becoming too acclimated to this land not their own, makes a demand of Joseph, i.e. that he be buried in the sacred town of Bethel.
1. He turns to
Joseph, both because Joseph can most easily arrange the burial, and
to remind this, his most beloved son, of his heritage.