The sons of Israel did so: and Joseph gave them wagons, according to the command of Pharaoh, and gave them provisions for the journey. To each and all of them he gave a change of clothes, but to Benjamin he gave three hundred shekels of silver and five changes of clothes. To his father he sent as follows: ten donkeys loaded with the good things of Egypt, and ten female donkeys loaded with grain, bread, and provision for his father on the journey. Then he sent his brothers away, and as they departed, he said to them, “Do not quarrel on the way.”
So they went up out of Egypt and came to the land of Canaan to their father Jacob. And they told him, “Joseph is still alive, and he is ruler over all the land of Egypt.” And his heart became numb, for he did not believe them. But when they told him all the words of Joseph, which he had said to them, and when he saw the wagons that Joseph had sent to carry him, the spirit of their father Jacob revived. And Israel said, “It is enough; Joseph my son is still alive. I will go and see him before I die.”
So Israel took his journey with all that he had and came to Beersheba, and offered sacrifices to the God of his father Isaac. And God spoke to Israel in visions of the night and said, “Jacob, Jacob.” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “I am God, the God of your father. Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for there I will make you into a great nation. I myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up again, and Joseph’s hand shall close your eyes.” – Genesis 45:21-46:4 ESV
Upon their return to Canaan, the brothers found their father a bit hard to convince. He didn’t exactly find the news of Joseph being alive believable. After all the years that had passed, it was far from being too good to be true, it was impossible. But he finally came around when he heard the whole story and saw the wagons and goods that Joseph had sent. He became convinced that his son was alive and that he should go and see him while he still had time.
But as amazing as the news of Joseph’s “resurrection” was to Jacob, the most fascinating part of this story is the way in which God chose to fulfill His promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Decades earlier, God had called Abraham out of Ur and sent him to Canaan, promising to give him the land as his possession and to make of him a great nation.
The Lord had said to Abram, “Leave your native country, your relatives, and your father’s family, and go to the land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who treat you with contempt. All the families on earth will be blessed through you.” – Genesis 12:1-3 ESV
But Abraham never owned any land in Canaan, and he only had two sons when he died. Yet years later, God would reconfirm the promise to Isaac, Abraham’s son. This is where it gets interesting.
Now there was a famine in the land, besides the former famine that was in the days of Abraham. And Isaac went to Gerar to Abimelech king of the Philistines. And the Lord appeared to him and said, “Do not go down to Egypt; dwell in the land of which I shall tell you. Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you and will bless you, for to you and to your offspring I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath that I swore to Abraham your father. I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and will give to your offspring all these lands. And in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.” – Genesis 26:1-5 ESV
Two things jump out. The mention of a famine and the reference to the land of Egypt. On this occasion, God commands Isaac to NOT go down to Egypt to escape the famine. Instead, he was to remain in the land. What makes this so fascinating is that his father, Abraham, had faced a similar situation years earlier, not long after God he had arrived in the land of Canaan.
At that time a severe famine struck the land of Canaan, forcing Abram to go down to Egypt, where he lived as a foreigner. – Genesis 12:10 ESV
Abraham traveled to the land of Canaan, just as God had told him to do, and found it suffering from a severe famine. His decision was to go to Egypt. It was there that Abraham came up with the ridiculous idea for Sarah, his wife, to lie and say that she was his sister. This was because she was beautiful and Abraham feared that someone would have him murdered just to get their hands on her. Abraham’s worst fear came true when Pharaoh himself found Sarah attractive and took her into his harem. It took a divine intervention from God to save her and return her to Abraham. God even blessed Abraham, allowing him to walk out of Egypt with great wealth.
But in all three cases, with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, God chose to utilize a famine and a foreign country to accomplish His divine plan. Egypt looms large in each of the stories. For Abraham, it was a place of escape. He had been called to Canaan, but found it not as he had expected. The famine in the land caused him to run to the Nile valley where he knew he could find food for he and his wife. There is no indication that God sent him there. For Isaac, the presence of yet another famine had caused him to consider going to Egypt, just as his father had done. But God commanded him not to go. He was to stay in the land that God would show him. And yet, in the case of Jacob, God would visit him in a dream and tell him, “I am God, the God of your father. Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for there I will make you into a great nation. I myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up again, and Joseph’s hand shall close your eyes” (Genesis 46:3-4 ESV).
This time, God was clearly sending His people to Egypt and confirming that, in Egypt, He would make them into a great nation. Three men, three famines and three occasions to turn to Egypt for help. But only in the last case did God command that Egypt was to be the place of refuge for His people and the means by which He would fulfill His promise. It is fascinating to consider why God chose to send Joseph to Egypt and then have Jacob and his entire family end up living there. Why did He not simply leave them in the land He had promised to them? What was His reasoning for sending them to Egypt where they would remain for 400 years, many of those years as slaves? God doesn’t give us answers. But we are simply asked to trust in His plan and the timing of that plan. God dealt differently with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. His promise to them was the same, but the particular plan He had for each of them was distinctly different. Abraham went to Egypt but hadn’t been told to. Isaac considered going to Egypt, but was commanded not to. Jacob was reticent to go to Egypt, but God assured him to do so. The time was right. What had been wrong for Abraham and Isaac was now right for Jacob. God was going to make of Jacob a great nation, but He was going to do so while Jacob and his family lived in Egypt. The opening lines of the book of Exodus provide us with a snapshot of what God did to fulfill His promise to Jacob.
These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each with his household: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin, Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher. All the descendants of Jacob were seventy persons; Joseph was already in Egypt. Then Joseph died, and all his brothers and all that generation. But the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them. – Exodus 1:1-7 ESV
Why did God choose to do it this way? We don’t know. But we can know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that it was the way He chose and all His ways “are perfect. Everything he does is just and fair. He is a faithful God who does no wrong; how just and upright he is!” (Deuteronomy 32:4 NLT).