Pharaoh, Flocks and Famine.


He had sent Judah ahead of him to Joseph to show the way before him in Goshen, and they came into the land of Goshen. Then Joseph prepared his chariot and went up to meet Israel his father in Goshen. He presented himself to him and fell on his neck and wept on his neck a good while. Israel said to Joseph, “Now let me die, since I have seen your face and know that you are still alive.” Joseph said to his brothers and to his father’s household, “I will go up and tell Pharaoh and will say to him, ‘My brothers and my father’s household, who were in the land of Canaan, have come to me. And the men are shepherds, for they have been keepers of livestock, and they have brought their flocks and their herds and all that they have.’ When Pharaoh calls you and says, ‘What is your occupation?’ you shall say, ‘Your servants have been keepers of livestock from our youth even until now, both we and our fathers,’ in order that you may dwell in the land of Goshen, for every shepherd is an abomination to the Egyptians.”

So 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.” And from among his brothers he took five men and presented them to Pharaoh. Pharaoh said to his brothers, “What is your occupation?” And they said to Pharaoh, “Your servants are shepherds, as our fathers were.” They 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.” 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.” – Genesis 46:28-47:6 ESV

Sometimes the stories of the Bible become so familiar to us that they lose their significance and we lose our sense of awe at the display of God’s power found in them. The story of Joseph is a case in point. We have already seen so many examples of God’s sovereign, providential hand at work, predestining Joseph for his role as the savior of God’s people. Time and time again, God has displayed His power and undeniable control over the affairs of men and even the realm of nature. The seven year famine was part of God’s plan, just as much as Joseph’s rise to the second most-powerful position in the land of Egypt. Each and every event connected with this story reveals yet another example of God’s sovereign control over everything and everyone.

As Jacob, his sons and their families arrive in Egypt, and are reunited with Joseph, we are provided with yet another example of God’s providence. Jacob was a shepherd by trade. So were his sons. When Jacob had gone through his self-imposed exile in Paddam-aram, he had been a shepherd, tending the flocks of his uncle, Laban. And he had been good at his job, at one point telling his uncle, “You know how hard I’ve worked for you, and how your flocks and herds have grown under my care. You had little indeed before I came, but your wealth has increased enormously. The Lord has blessed you through everything I’ve done” (Genesis 30:29-30 NLT). Jacob eventually left Laban’s employment, but not before he had a few choice words for his uncle and former boss:

“For twenty years I have been with you, caring for your flocks. In all that time your sheep and goats never miscarried. In all those years I never used a single ram of yours for food. If any were attacked and killed by wild animals, I never showed you the carcass and asked you to reduce the count of your flock. No, I took the loss myself! You made me pay for every stolen animal, whether it was taken in broad daylight or in the dark of night.

“I worked for you through the scorching heat of the day and through cold and sleepless nights. Yes, for twenty years I slaved in your house! I worked for fourteen years earning your two daughters, and then six more years for your flock. And you changed my wages ten times! In fact, if the God of my father had not been on my side—the God of Abraham and the fearsome God of Isaac—you would have sent me away empty-handed. But God has seen your abuse and my hard work. – Genesis 31:38-42 NLT

It had been God who protected Jacob and who increased his wealth – in spite of the efforts of Laban. And it was Jacob who passed on his knowledge of shepherding to his sons. And they too became the owners of great flocks and herds. But then the famine came. Famine and flocks do not go well together. So Jacob and his sons were forced to look for another source of food to provide for their flocks and families. That is what had led them to Egypt in the first place. And now they were returning to Egypt to live, bringing all their flocks and families with them, because there were five more years of famine yet to come. Once again, this had all been a part of God’s divine plan for His people. It had been God who had blessed Jacob with flocks. It had been God who had brought about the famine that had threatened the well-being of Jacob’s flocks. And it was God who had moved the heart of Pharaoh to willingly and graciously accept Jacob and his family and flocks into Egypt, providing for them the best of his land as their possession.

Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Say to your brothers, ‘Do this: Load your animals and go to the land of Canaan! Get your father and your households and come to me! Then I will give you the best land in Egypt and you will eat the best of the land.’ You are also commanded to say, ‘Do this: Take for yourselves wagons from the land of Egypt for your little ones and for your wives. Bring your father and come. Don’t worry about your belongings, for the best of all the land of Egypt will be yours.’” – Genesis 45:17-20 NLT

And when they arrived, that is exactly what happened. They came before Pharaoh, explained their plight and pleaded for his help. Verse four of chapter 47 sums it all up.

Then they said to Pharaoh, “We have come to live as temporary residents in the land. There is no pasture for your servants’ flocks because the famine is severe in the land of Canaan. So now, please let your servants live in the land of Goshen.” – Genesis 47:4 NLT

What is truly amazing about this is that Pharaoh, as an Egyptian, hated shepherds. Joseph had even told his brothers to say to Pharaoh, “Your servants have taken care of cattle from our youth until now, both we and our fathers,” and warned them that, “everyone who takes care of sheep is disgusting to the Egyptians” (Genesis 46:34 NLT). And yet here were Hebrew shepherds coming before one of the most powerful men in the world, asking him to provide them with land to care for their flocks. And what did Pharaoh do? He gave them the land of Goshen, the best land in Egypt. Not only that, he employed some of the brothers to care for his own flocks and herds. These events should create in us a sense of awe and wonder at the providential care of God. This had all been His doing. The book of Proverbs reminds us, “The king’s heart is like a stream of water directed by the LORD; he guides it wherever he pleases” (Proverbs 21:12 NLT). Pharaoh’s generous offer had been part of God’s plan, just as much as the famine had been. The unlikely and implausible blend of Pharaoh, flocks and famine was God’s doing. As William Cowper stated so well, “God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform.” An Egyptian Pharaoh, a seven-year famine, and the famished flocks of the people of Israel. What a strange combination. And what a wonderful example of God’s mysterious providence. Which is why Cowper goes on to remind us:

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.

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