Genesis: Folklore of Faith, lesson 41

Genesis 46-49: Israel in Egypt

Adult Bible Class HMC, originally broadcast Sept. 1, 2006. Craig D. Atwood 

Introduction:            Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. We sent Lehoma off into her semi-retirement last week with a lovely party in Fellowship Hall. Lehoma joined Home Church with her children in 1978 and eventually left her vocation as a teacher to become a pastor here. Her story is a wonderful reminder of the importance of valuing each individual in a congregation and letting every flower blossom.

Labor Day: Happy Labor Day weekend! I know that many of our regular listeners are away this weekend enjoying the last bit of summer. Throughout the year letters to the paper and people on radio complain that we no longer observe Memorial Day or Independence Day with parades and patriotic singing. Less often do we hear complaints that we do not properly observe Labor Day, a day to honor all those who work, especially in manufacturing. We don’t hear much any more about the daily heroism of those who rise early or labor through the night, often for minimal wages.

            The American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr caused a sensation in his congregation in Detroit in the 1920s by speaking out for the rights of auto workers. Niebuhr observed that churches have no trouble condemning the sins of alcoholism, fornication, and unbelief, but they ignore the sins of exploitation, intimidation, and extortion. He wrote in 1925, “The morality of the church is anachronistic. Will it ever develop a moral insight and courage sufficient to cope with the real problems of modern society?” Ask yourselves if things have changed since 1926 when Niebuhr wrote: “look at the industrial enterprise anywhere and you find criminal indifference on the part of the strong to the fate of the weak. The lust for power and the greed for gain are the dominant note in business.” (Leaves from the Notebook, 65, 76)

Overview:            We are nearly to the end of our study of Genesis, but we still have 5 chapters to go! I am afraid that we will not give these chapters the attention that we gave to the earlier chapters of the book. This is in part because we have exhausted our time for Genesis, but it is also because these final chapters are not as important as some of the previous ones. After Joseph has been reconciled to his family, the story becomes anti-climatic. The final chapters appear to be an almost random collection of materials rather than a narrative. Much of the material was probably collected by the priests of Israel to establish family lines and property rights. Rather than read all of this to you, I’ll give a summary of the material with commentary on the more interesting sections.

Chapter 46            In chapter 46 we have the account of Jacob coming to Egypt with his entire household. Here we learn that the family had grown quite large, and Jacob already had many grandchildren when he came to Egypt. We don’t need to go into the genealogy in detail, but it is worth noting that it includes several people not mentioned elsewhere in the Bible. The main functions of the genealogy here is to put all of the tribes of Israel in Egypt. We need to remember that the two most important events in the history of ancient Israel were the Exodus from Egypt and the Babylonian Captivity. In many ways, the story of the patriarchs is connected to these two events. Genesis is a prelude to the story of the Exodus and conquest of the Promised Land, but it was also written to encourage those who had been in exile in Babylon. We have seen that the theme of exile and restoration runs throughout Genesis.

            The Exodus remains the central story of the people of the covenant. It was a story that was used to unify the tribes, to make them a nation. All the children of Israel through the centuries shared in the Exodus; therefore it is not surprising that Genesis goes to great lengths to place all of the tribes in Egypt. In a way, the story of the Exodus and the Passover function like Thanksgiving and Independence Day for Americans. If you go to schools during November, you’ll see pictures of Asian Americans and Hispanics drawn into the traditional Thanksgiving tableau of English Puritans and Indians. The Israelites did that with the story of the Exodus. The original Exodus probably involved just a couple of tribes, but the story of the Exodus because the story for all Israelites.

Goshen:            The story of Israel coming to Egypt is personalized by having Joseph ride out in a chariot to meet his father in Goshen, which lies between the Nile and the Red Sea. Joseph told his family to say that they were herdsmen because the Egyptians had herdsmen and shepherds. I don’t know if this was a true perception of Egyptians, but it is consistent with the earlier story that Egyptians would not eat with Israelites. According to Genesis, the Israelites did not assimilate to Egyptian society the way Joseph did. By the time of Jesus there were Jewish enclaves in many of the cities of the Mediterranean. One of the largest neighborhoods was in Alexandria in Egypt where the Jews governed themselves by their own laws. According to Genesis, the Israelites in Goshen had a similar separate existence.

            There is evidence that the Egyptians viewed shepherding as unclean, and they often used other people to keep their flocks. It is a little hard for those of us who follow the Good Shepherd today to understand that shepherds were looked down upon in many ancient cultures, just as cow herders once were. In fact, the word coward comes from cow-herder. Basically, Joseph was telling his father that he should claim to be a shepherd rather than a sheik. He should deny that he was a wealthy and powerful man who owned large flocks. In this way, Jacob and his household would not be threatening to the Egyptians.

Chapter 47            I’ve mentioned several times that the chapter divisions in the Bible are not in the original text. They were added by Christian scholars in the Middle Ages, and the division between chapter 46 and 47 is not in the right spot. The first 12 verses of chapter 47 continue the story of Joseph getting his family settled in Egypt. He negotiates with Pharaoh to allow his family to settle in Goshen where there was pasture for the flocks. Goshen was probably in the NE part of the Nile Delta. No one knows for sure. The key points in this little story are that Pharaoh himself gave permission for the Israelites to settle in Goshen and that they lived in a separate community. It is interesting that Pharaoh asked Joseph to supply herdsmen for his own flocks in that area. Scholars have long speculated that this all fits with the Hyksos period of Egyptian history. The text says that the Israelites settled in the “best part of the land,” which would have caused problems in Egypt during a time of famine. The phrase probably meant the best land available.   

            Chapter 47 was probably meant to increase our respect for Joseph, but in our modern world it may have the opposite effect. We are told that Joseph used the famine to increase the power of Pharaoh. He made Egyptian farmers sell their land in exchange for food, reducing them to the status of tenants. The farmers had to pay about 20% of their produce in taxes. Part of the tax went to keep the supply of grain plentiful, but a large part of it went to the Egyptian temples. There the poor could go for free bread. In many ways it was a more efficient system that our complex welfare and taxation system. In reality, the Egyptian political system was less oppressive than it sounds in Genesis 47. Part of the reason for including this peek into Joseph’s political life is to prepare for the Exodus story. In effect, Joseph’s policy of reducing Egyptian farmers to tenants of the Pharaoh contributed to the later enslavement and oppression of the Hebrews in Goshen.

            The key thing for biblical history in chapter 47 is that Jacob made Joseph promise to bury him in Canaan. One of the most important themes in Genesis is the Promised Land. Jacob’s destiny was not in Egypt, and he insisted that he be buried with his ancestors.  The wandering Aramean would find a lasting resting place with his ancestors. Jacob also used this request as a way to bring the family back to Canaan, at least for a while.  

Chapter 48             Like Abraham and Isaac, Jacob blessed the next generation before he died. This is an important part of life’s transition. As he faced his own death, Jacob remembered his ancestors, but he also looked to the future. This is not a major part of modern American culture. We view each generation as distinct. The past is gone. The future will care for itself. It is the needs of the present that matter most to me. Our children satisfy our desires for love or status. For over a century, each generation in America has rejected what it received from the previous one and has little to offer the rising one. We have little genuine sense of an organic connection with those who have gone before us and will come after us. It is different in pre-industrial societies.

            Jacob will be buried with his father, and before he dies he wants to lay his hand on Joseph’s children. He is giving the children a great inheritance, not in gold and jewels. He is bringing them into the covenant with God. He is passing on his own faith in God and his striving with God. He is giving to them the promises and placing on them the duties of faithfulness. Jacob reminds Joseph (and us) that God once appeared to him at Luz and promised that he would be a great nation. El Shaddai (God Almighty) gave the promise, which Jacob gave to the future generation. The experience at Luz was not about the past; it was about the future.

Blessing:            Jacob begins his dying ritual with a special blessing of Joseph. You may wonder why Joseph, of all people, needed his father’s blessing. His dreams had come true. Not only his brothers, but all of Egypt had bowed down to him. He had power and wealth beyond his imagination, and he had been the savior of the entire family. Joseph had been blessed many times over, but he still came to his aged father to seek a blessing. He still wanted his father to lay hands on his children and speak words of hope for the future. For all of his wealth and power, Joseph was still a son of Israel, a child of the covenant. He had been denied his father’s presence, guidance, and love for so many years. Now that Jacob was dying, Joseph wanted a final blessing for himself and especially for his children. He wanted to belong again.

            Jacob’s blessing was not given to Joseph the Egyptian, Joseph the ruler of Egypt; it was to Joseph the son of Israel. Joseph was blessed in the name of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He was part of the house of Abraham, part of the covenant. The story of the family of Abraham will continue through Joseph and his sons. The book of Genesis is coming to end, and the story of the Israelites will soon begin.

Manasseh and Ephraim:            Jacob assures Joseph that his two sons, who had an Egyptian mother, were part of this covenant. This was an important idea for the original readers of Genesis, many of whom had been born in Babylon. The fact that they were born outside of the Promised Land did not mean that they were born outside of the covenant. God’s promises to Abraham remained true despite the accidents of geography. To emphasize the inclusion of Joseph’s Egyptian-born sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, Jacob adopted them as his own sons, equal to Simeon and Reuben. We know from archaeological records that this type of adoption of grandsons did happen in the ancient Near East, so this may simply be reporting an historical fact. But I think more is informed here. This adoption of Ephraim and Manasseh was an attempt to establish the legitimacy of these tribes as part of Israel. There is probably a whole lot more history and intrigue represented in this story of blessing than we are able to decipher in our day.

            It is also far too tedious for a Sunday morning Bible class! So I’ll give you a short version of what archaeologists and biblical scholars have discovered. They have labored for decades trying to reconstruct the history of the Israelite tribes, and it remains very confusing. One thing we know is that the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh were always linked together. Over the centuries, Ephraim emerged as the stronger tribe. By the 8th century BC, it had become the major tribe of the northern kingdom of Israel, and the prophets used the names Ephraim and Israel almost interchangeably. There is an obscure reference to the city of Shechem (“mountain slope – sekem, v. 22), which Jacob says that he captured from the Amorites. That will become the capital of the tribe of Ephraim and at times the seat of government.

            The changing fortunes of Manasseh and Ephraim are symbolized in this story of the blessing. Jacob placed his right hand on Ephraim, the younger son, rather than on Manasseh. Joseph tried to intervene and correct the mistake, but Jacob will not let him.  This is yet another story in Genesis where the younger son is blessed. It is a reminder that God’s work in the world does not always match our expectations of what should happen. We, like Joseph, keep trying to straighten God out rather than receiving the blessings that God has chosen to give.

Read: I’ll read 48:14-21

Chapter 49 is a long and ancient poem about the twelve tribes of Israel. We don’t need to into the details here, but many scholars think that this is one of the oldest pieces of biblical literature. The poem is very complex and appears to have evolved over many years. There are different kinds of material here. Some verses are short, punning verses; others are extended oracles directed to individuals. It is interesting that the order of the tribes here is unique in Scripture. Leah’s children come first, Rachel’s last. The poem itself interrupts the narrative a bit awkwardly. It is also a little surprising that this “blessing” by the dying Jacob includes so much condemnation of the tribes. This corresponds to historical reality. The tribe of Reuben was absorbed by the Moabites, Simeon was absorbed by Judah. Levi lost its land and became a priestly casts.

            The two tribes that get the most attention are Judah and Joseph. This is not surprising since these will be the two kingdoms of Israel, but the poem does not fit the Joseph narrative well. Here it is Judah to whom the sons of Jacob will bow. Judah will have the scepter of royal authority, and the tribe will be prosperous. They will be up to their eye-balls in wine. These verses were probably part of the royal propaganda of the house of David, but they would have resonated well with the Jews in captivity in Babylon who longed to restore the Kingdom of Judah.

            The other son richly blessed was Joseph, but here it speaks of his descendents as one tribe rather than two. There is no mention here of Ephraim and Manessah, but clearly the poet had these tribes in mind. The other tribes will have their struggles and make their contributions to the Kingdom of Israel, but Ephraim will be the heart of the kingdom. Ephraim will flourish in all ways. Joseph had been separated from his brothers, but in the end, his descendents will rule. Most scholars are convinced that these verses about Joseph’s descendents were written in the 9th century when the northern Kingdom of Israel was prosperous and powerful. The first Israelite to be mentioned by name in any Egyptian source (that we know of) was Omri, the king of Israel. Until the kingdom was destroyed and the tribes dispersed in 722 BC, Israel was more powerful than Judah. We can see that in this poem.

Conclusion: Next week we will come to the end of our year-long study of the Book of Genesis. The church office has most of these lessons on computer files if you would like any that you’ve missed. It has been a long journey, and next week we’ll summarize some of the important things we’ve learned from Genesis. On September 17, we’ll have a guest teacher, and then on September 24 we’ll begin our year-long study of the Gospel of John. 

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