Saturday, August 27, 2011

How God Kept the Israelites Together and Separate - Genesis 46:31-34

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,’ that you may live in the land of Goshen; for every shepherd is loathsome to the Egyptians.”

As I read this portion, I was truly puzzled as to its purpose.  I felt that all we had to know was what we read in the beginning of the next chapter of Genesis, chapter 47.  So I investigated a little further.

Commentator David Guzik considers these verses as describing how the people of Israel were to ask for the land of Goshen from Pharaoh.  He believes the Egyptians were agricultural in the sense of farming crops. They considered sheep unclean, and therefore detested anyone who was a shepherd.  He implies, therefore, that Pharaoh would let them take over Goshen and live there, still in Egypt, but out of the mainstream, by themselves.  It appears to me at least that when Joseph told his brothers that they will live in the land of Goshen (Genesis 45:10), he was speaking out of turn without the surety of Pharaoh’s concurrence on this promise.

Bible commentator Robert Jamieson on the other hand sees it in a slightly different light.  He suggests that it was a tribute of respect due to the Pharaoh (or any king) to inform him of one’s arrival.  (I talked about that when commenting on an earlier portion of scripture with respect to my experiences upon entering various parts of Canada that clearly were owned by native Aboriginal chiefs and their tribes.)  Jamieson suggests the instructions which Joseph gave them were worthy of his character both as an affectionate brother (to protect them) and a religious man (to do what was right).

Matthew Henry supports Jamieson’s view.  He sees Joseph as being an knowledgable prudent man, who did know the ropes, and thus could look out for the welfare of his brothers and father.  Henry sees it as only fair to let Pharaoh know how such a colony had come to settle in his dominions.

What is interesting here is that Joseph’s brothers once wanted to get rid of him, now he has to help them settle safely in a new land, his land.  And to protect them, he chose to have them live separately to the extent possible from the native Egyptians.  We also note that Goshen was the land that lay nearest to Canaan, less populated by natives, and lush with pasture for their herds.

Now was it Joseph or God, or both, that wanted the Israelites to be as far away from the influence of Egyptians ungodly practices?  I think both of them had this desire.  God certainly wanted them preserved as “His people” who would one day return to nearby Canaan.  Was not it appropriate then that the Egyptians saw shepherds as an abomination?

Notice that neither Joseph nor God expected the Israelites to change their careers in the new land.  There certainly was nothing wrong with being tenders of sheep and cattle and they weren’t to be ashamed of that.  Joseph understood that and he saw to it that they could continue their work as before.  When God calls us to a particular calling, He may move us, but not change His calling.  Yet as newcomers to someone else’s land, we need to abide by their rules and respect their ways, even if we do not adopt those that contradict God’s laws for ourselves.

Matthew Henry also points out that Joseph could have (had God so willed) employed most if not all of his family in his organization with some nice cushy jobs.  He did not do this because he knew they would become the envy of Egyptians who felt they lost these jobs to ‘foreigners’.  Sounds like much of what many people feel these days with respect to the employment of immigrants, both legal and illegal, in their countries.  That kind of success for the Israelites may also have made them too comfortable to even think about returning to Canaan and the pursuit of the promise that God had made to them.

For all the above reasons, and more, God saw to it that He kept His people separate, and desirous of some day returning to the promised land.  Maybe that is what he is doing for you and me today.   Maybe He is allowing us to live in a way that keeps as content enough to praise Him and yet desirous of our promised home in His presence.

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