Commentary on Genesis 47

Last updated: December 16, 2009

English Translation (ESV)

1So 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.” 2And from among his brothers he took five men and presented them to Pharaoh. 3Pharaoh said to his brothers, “What is your occupation?” And they said to Pharaoh, “Your servants are shepherds, as our fathers were.” 4They 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.” 5Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Your father and your brothers have come to you. 6The 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.”

7Then Joseph brought in Jacob his father and stood him before Pharaoh, and Jacob blessed Pharaoh. 8And Pharaoh said to Jacob, “How many are the days of the years of your life?” 9And 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 to the days of the years of the life of my fathers in the days of their sojourning.” 10And Jacob blessed Pharaoh and went out from the presence of Pharaoh. 11Then 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. 12And Joseph provided his father, his brothers, and all his father’s household with food, according to the number of their dependents.

13Now 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. 14And 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. 15And 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.” 16And Joseph answered, “Give your livestock, and I will give you food in exchange for your livestock, if your money is gone.” 17So 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. 18And 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. 19Why 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.”

20So 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. 21As for the people, he made servants of them from one end of Egypt to the other. 22Only 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.

23Then 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. 24And at the harvests 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.” 25And they said, “You have saved our lives; may it please my lord, we will be servants to Pharaoh.” 26So 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.

27Thus Israel settled in the land of Egypt, in the land of Goshen. And they gained possessions in it, and were fruitful and multiplied greatly. 28And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years. So the days of Jacob, the years of his life, were 147 years.

29And 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 your hand under my thigh and promise to deal kindly and truly with me. Do not bury me in Egypt, 30but 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.” 31And he said, “Swear to me”; and he swore to him. Then Israel bowed himself upon the head of his bed.

Notes

2 And from among his brothers he took five men and presented them to Pharaoh.

It makes sense to translate the verbs in this sentence as pluperfects (hence had selected . . . had presented). Joseph does not travel from Goshen to Pharaoh’s palace, announce the arrival of his family in Egypt, return to Goshen, select five of his brothers, then make a second trip to Pharaoh.1

5-6 Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, “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, put them in charge of my livestock.”

Ancient and modern commentators have struggled over the suitability of Pharaoh’s answer (“Your father and your brothers have come to you,” v. 5) to the brothers’ question in v. 4 . . . . Some have understood this as a textual confusion created by the fusion of two different accounts (J and P). Because the brothers have already met with Pharaoh (vv. 1-4), it is unreasonable for him to inform Joseph of the family’s arrival. But Pharaoh is stipulating the basis for the kindness he extends to the brothers: “[Since] your father and your brothers have come to you . . .” (v. 5). The king’s generosity toward Jacob’s family is due to Joseph’s kinship (cf. “your . . . you,” vv. 5-6). The foreigner’s show of hospitality places him in a positive light, which contrasts strikingly with the Pharaoh of bondage “who did not know about Joseph” (Exod 1:8). Pharaoh provides Joseph’s family complete discretion in selecting “the best part of the land,” as he had promised (45:18), but his language is probably ceremonial (e.g., 13:9; 20:15) since he designates Goshen, in accord with their previous request (v. 6). Yet Pharaoh goes beyond Joseph’s requests by extending employment opportunities. Perhaps he reasoned that God’s blessing also rested on Joseph’s brothers, as it did with Joseph, guaranteeing his herds success. “Special ability” translates ‘anse hayil, lit., “men of competence/means”; the same phrase describes clever officials and exceptional combatants (e.g., Exod 18:21, 25; 2 Sam 11:16). These men will be promoted to “keepers” (NIV “in charge,” from sar) of the royal holdings; the same term describes Pharaoh’s “officials” (12:15; “taskmasters,” Exod 1:11).2

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.

Ramses II, in the thirteenth century B.C.E., enlarged the city of Tanis and made it his capital. Thereafter, this royal name was attached to it. The use of the name here in Joseph’s time is anachronistic.3

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.

The Egyptian theory of government gave the pharaoh the supreme right of ownership of the land by virtue of his divine status. In practice, private landed property existed in all periods of Egyptian history, but after the expulsion of the Hyksos in the middle of the sixteenth century B.C.E., the major part of the land became the actual property of the state. There is no way, however, of determining to which period in Egyptian history the present story relates.4

21 As for the people, he made servants of them from one end of Egypt to the other.

Though this sounds harsh, it was in this situation beneficial, for now their food supply was Pharaoh’s responsibility. The MT reading, “he transferred them into cities,” is difficult to understand, because they needed to stay on their holdings and cultivate them (cf. vv 23-24), even though the land was owned by the crown to whom they paid a fifth of their produce. Nor would they have moved to the cities just to be near the granaries.5

23-24 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. And at the harvests 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.”

Although Joseph acknowledges that he “bought” the people and their land for Pharaoh (v. 23), what follows is an informal agrarian pact, not treatment of the people as chattel (vv. 24-25). Since they agree to the proposal (v. 25), the arrangement is close to tenured farming, meaning that the farmer has access to the land and its produce and makes an agreed return to the owner. Moreover, the one-fifth tax, leaving four-fifths to the workers, is generous compared to what is known elsewhere in the ancient Near East . . . .

We might also add that the exception made to temple lands (vv. 22, 26) shows that Joseph’s action was not a crass land grab without regard for Egyptian tradition and society’s welfare. What Joseph established not only saved the people from starvation but also provided a system whereby they could live securely once the famine abated. The passage does not present Joseph as a brutal taskmaster, such as we see in Pharaoh’s policy of Exodus 1, but portrays him as a conscientious overseer. The point of the author’s inclusion of the agrarian reforms is to show that Joseph, who was subservient to an Egyptian overlord, has now become the overlord of the Egyptians.6

25 And they said, “You have saved our lives; may it please my lord, we will be servants to Pharaoh.”

Memories of the African slave trade color our view of slavery, so that we cannot understand this expression of gratitude. But in ancient society slavery was the accepted way of bailing out the destitute, and under a benevolent master could be quite a comfortable status (cf. Joseph with Potiphar). Indeed, the law envisages some temporary slaves electing to become permanent slaves rather than take the freedom to which they were entitled after six years of service. Ancient slavery at its best was like tenured employment, whereas the free man was more like someone who is self-employed. The latter may be freer, but he faces more risks (cf. Exod 21:5-6; Deut 15:12-17).7

29-30 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 your hand under my thigh and promise to deal kindly and truly with me. Do not bury me in Egypt, 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.”

But why even be concerned about the transportation of one’s corpse to the homeland, except for sentimental purposes? Jacob knows that there is to be no permanent residence in Egypt for his people. Egypt is to Jacob and his family what the ark was to Noah – a temporary shelter from the disaster on the outside. Even if represented only by his decayed remains, he wants to be a part of that redemptive act of God.8

31 And he said, “Swear to me”; and he swore to him. Then Israel bowed himself upon the head of his bed.

The verb “worshiped”/”bowed” (hwh) refers most basically to the physical position, which in turn can be an expression of honor (to superiors) or worship (to God). The difficulty here is that no object is identified. There is no second verb in the clause; NIV adds “leaned” for clarification of the translation it has chosen. The preposition (“on”/”at”) can be translated many different ways, but on the few occasions when it is used with this verb (Lev. 26:1; 1 Kings 1:47; Isa. 60:14; Ezek. 46:2; Zeph. 1:5) it indicates where the person bows. Though the final noun, “bed” (matta), can easily be repointed to mean “staff” (and by extension, “tribe,” matteh), the context of a deathbed scene makes the former more likely.

This word for “bed” also occurs two other times in the near context (48:2; 49:33). What does it mean to bow at one’s bed? Most helpful is 1 Kings 1:47, where David bows on his bed (different word for “bed” from Gen. 47:31) when news is brought that his kingdom has been securely passed to Solomon. In Akkadian rituals, figurines were set up at the head of a bed. If this indicates that one’s divine protector is positioned at the head of the bed, bowing down at the bed acknowledges divine care and protection. We can conclude, then, that Jacob’s bowing at the head of his bed is an acknowledgement of divine care that has allowed him to pass clan leadership successfully to his son Joseph.9

Bibliography

Hamilton, Victor P. The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament 1B. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995.

Mathews, Kenneth A. Genesis 11:27-50:26. The New American Commentary Volume 1B. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2005.

Sarna, Nahum M. JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis. 1st ed. Jewish Publication Society of America, 1989.

Walton, John H. Genesis. The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001.

Wenham, Gordon J. Genesis 16-50. Word Biblical Commentary 2. Thomas Nelson, 1994.

1Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50, 607.

2Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, 845.

3Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 320.

4Ibid., 322.

5Wenham, Genesis 16-50, 449.

6Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, 851-852.

7Wenham, Genesis 16-50, 449.

8Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50, 625.

9Walton, Genesis, 710.

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