A Proper Perspective of Poverty and Prosperity (Genesis 47:13-31)
While I was browsing through a bookstore some time ago I came across a book that had an eye-catching title: Sacred Cows Make Good Hamburger. I did not buy the book, nor have I ever read it, but the subject was fascinating. Unfortunately, while this may be true I do not see many standing in line to grind that hamburger. Some of our strongly held convictions may be good material for hamburger, but the one who challenges our thinking is not going to be very popular. Frankly, I have agonized over the task that is mine in explaining and applying this text in Genesis 47, not because it is unclear, but because it runs counter to the grain of the teaching in many Christian circles.
Many of the Jews of Jesus’ day thought that prosperity and spirituality were inseparable. In our time it is just the opposite. We are frequently told that we can not prosper or have a savings account while there are others who have less than we. Particularly we Americans are on a guilt trip because we are prosperous while much of the world lives in poverty. Some of this guilt may be well founded, but not necessarily all of it.
Joseph’s actions in this chapter do not fit our preconceived notions very well, for he sold grain to starving men. Not only did he accumulate all the money in the land, but he also gathered up all the cattle and the land, and even the people were enslaved. How could a man who, to this point, has a flawless record suddenly be so greedy and insensitive? And if Joseph troubles us, so must the entire nation of Israel, for they greatly prospered while the Egyptians sank deeper and deeper into poverty. It would seem that much of Israel’s affluence was at Egypt’s expense. How can we justify God’s blessing Israel in this way?
As I suggested, some of our ideas may make good hamburger. Let us consider these verses very carefully, for they help us to gain a proper perspective on poverty and prosperity.
Pharaoh’s Prosperity and Egypt’s Poverty
Now there was no food in all the land, because the famine was very severe, so that the land of Egypt and the land of Canaan languished because of the famine. And Joseph gathered all the money that was found in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan for the grain which they bought, and Joseph brought the money into Pharaoh’s house. And 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, for why should we die in your presence? For our money is gone.” Then Joseph said, “Give up your livestock, and I will give you food for your livestock, since your money is gone.” So they brought their livestock to Joseph, and Joseph gave them food in exchange for the horses and the flocks and the herds and the donkeys; and he fed them with food in exchange for all their livestock that year. And when that year was ended, they came to him the next year and said to him, “We will not hide from my lord that our money is all spent, and the cattle are my lord’s. There is nothing left for my lord except our bodies and our lands. Why should we die before your eyes, both we and our land? Buy us and our land for food, and we and our land will be slaves to Pharaoh. So give us seed, that we may live and not die, and that the land may not be desolate” (Genesis 47:13-19).
For two years now the famine has been severe in Egypt and Canaan (45:5). All private reserves of wheat have been exhausted, and all the money of Egypt and Canaan had been spent in buying government grain from Joseph. And the famine lingered on and on. In desperation the Egyptians approached Joseph, reminding him of their plight. Joseph knew that while their money was gone their wealth was not, for they still possessed many cattle. Had these cattle remained the possession of the Egyptians they would have perished, for there was no grass for pasture and no grain for feed. And who but Pharaoh would want them, for no one could sustain them through these years of drought? In this sense Joseph did the Egyptians a favor to take the cattle off their hands by exchanging them for grain which they must have to survive. Some of these livestock may have been purchased by the Israelites, who were keepers of flocks (46:34) and who were relatively unaffected by the famine (47:27). Many, if not all, of the flocks which Joseph purchased for Pharaoh may have been cared for by Joseph’s brothers (cf. 47:6).
The sale of their livestock enabled the Egyptians to live through another year. As the following year approached, they found themselves once again appealing to Joseph for life-sustaining grain. They did not have either money or cattle, but they still possessed two valuable commodities: land and labor. At their own suggestion, the Egyptians exchanged their land and their labor for grain to survive the famine. Their land would belong to Pharaoh, they said, and they would be his slaves. Joseph also agreed to provide them with grain for seed when the famine ended and planting time came (47:18-19).
So Joseph bought all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh, for every Egyptian sold his field, because the famine was severe upon them. Thus the land became Pharaoh’s. And as for the people, he removed them to the cities from one and of Egypt’s border to the other. Only the land of the priests he did not buy, for the priests had an allotment from Pharaoh, and they lived off the allotment which Pharaoh gave them. Therefore, they did not sell their land. Then Joseph said to the people, “Behold, I have today bought you and your land for Pharaoh; now, here is seed for you, and you may sow the land. And at the harvest you shall give a fifth to Pharaoh, and four fifths shall be your own for seed of the field and for your food and for those of your households and as food for your little ones.” So they said, “You have saved our lives! Let us find favor in the sight of my lord, and we will be Pharaoh’s slaves.” And Joseph made it a statute concerning the land of Egypt valid to this day, that Pharaoh should have the fifth; only the land of the priests did not become Pharaoh’s (Genesis 47:20-26).
And so the ownership of the land in Egypt changed hands—that is, all the land except that being acquired by the Israelites (verse 27) or maintained by the priests, who were supported (like the Israelites) by Pharaoh (verse 22). The people were brought in from the rural areas to the cities (verse 21). This was probably for a couple of administrative reasons. First of all, the grain was stored in the cities (41:35) and thus could be more efficiently distributed there. Perhaps also, removing the people from their land made the transfer of ownership more tangible and permanent. Once their land was left, the emotional attachment to it would tend to weaken.
The terms of the servitude of the Egyptians were spelled out by Joseph (verses 23-24). Joseph acquired both the people and their land for Pharaoh. When the famine ended, he would provide them with seed for planting. When crops were again harvested, one fifth would be given to Pharaoh. The rest would belong to the people for food, fodder, and seed for the next crop. Moses writes that it was under these conditions that Egypt was found in his own day. What happened during Joseph’s administration continued on until the time when Moses was in the palace of the Pharaoh (verse 26). Who, better than Moses, would know this?
Some find it hard to believe that Joseph could be a party to the acquisition of all the wealth of Egypt, along with the people themselves. Before we are too quick to condemn Joseph, several observations should be considered.
(1) Neither the grain nor the gain belonged to Joseph, but to Pharaoh. That is why I entitled this section “Pharaoh’s Prosperity and Egypt’s Poverty.” Joseph cannot be condemned for selling the grain rather than giving it away because it was not his to give. And all the profit was Pharaoh’s. Joseph’s actions did not bring him personal gain at Egypt’s expense. His duty was to further Pharaoh’s interests, and this he did very well.
(2) The favor which Pharaoh bestowed on Joseph’s relatives was a matter of grace, which he determined to grant the Israelites just as he did the priests. There was a great discrepancy between the good fortune of the Israelites and the economic failure of the Egyptians, but this was not due to Joseph’s choice so much as it was Pharaoh’s.
(3) The “slavery” which the Egyptians submitted to was not the harsh and unfair variety which we know from our own nation’s history. Slavery does not have to be cruel and harsh, although it can be, just as a dictatorship does not have to be harsh and repressive (as when Christ will reign over the world). The slavery of which Joseph spoke was more the arrangement that a “sharecropper” would make with a land owner and could still do in our nation today. Slavery to these Egyptians meant the non-ownership of their lands and a 20% tax on their production. Having just passed April 15th and annual income tax returns and payments, most of us might be inclined to think that the Egyptians got off too easily. Who among us would not settle for a mere 20% tax?
(4) Such “slavery,” even among the Israelites, was not condemned:
And if a countrymen of yours becomes so poor with regard to you that he sells himself to you, you shall not subject him to a slave’s service. He shall be with you as a hired man, as if he were a sojourner with you, until the year of jubilee. He shall then go out from you, he and his sons with him, and shall go back to his family, that he may return to the property of his forefathers. For they are My servants whom I brought out from the land of Egypt; they are not to be sold in a slave sale. You shall not rule over him with severity, but are to revere your God (Leviticus 25:39-43).
Even when a fellow Israelite was overtaken by poverty, he could sell himself as a slave to another. Such slavery was not forbidden, but the slave owner was cautioned to possess this slave in a gentle and gracious way. This is just what we see Joseph doing.
(5) We should not be distressed at the actions of Joseph when the Egyptians praised him and regarded him as their savior:
So they said, “You have saved our lives! Let us find favor in the sight of my lord, and we will be Pharaoh’s slaves” (Genesis 47:25).
If the Egyptians suggested this arrangement in the first place (verse 19) and then gratefully submitted to it (verse 25), why should we become so upset, unless, of course, we do not like to think such a thing could happen to us? Such an economic condition may be undesirable, but it is not unbiblical.
(6) Much of the dilemma of the Egyptians was of their own making. Joseph created neither the seven years of plenty nor the seven years of famine; he predicted both and proposed a program to deal with them. His plan did cost the Egyptians their fortunes and some of their freedom, but it also saved them from certain death. The dire need of the land of Canaan is readily explainable, but why was there this need in Egypt? I must forewarn you that I am reading between the lines, but it is my contention that the dire poverty of the Egyptians was a dilemma of their own making.
If Joseph was the competent administrator he was portrayed to be, surely he informed the general population of the famine coming after the seven years of plenty. This would secure their cooperation in carrying out the plan Joseph had proposed to alleviate the devastation of the coming years of drought. Furthermore, if Joseph believed “that government governs best which governs least,” he would have endeavored to get the nation to follow his example in saving up for the years of adversity. Joseph accumulated one fifth of the crops of the land during the abundant years. That left four-fifths of a bumper crop for the Egyptians. Should they not have been storing up grain for the famine as well as Joseph? But it would seem that they thought the years of plenty would go on and on. Why not spend some of this excess profit? They seem to no more have expected the famine to come than the people in Noah’s day looked for a flood. The Egyptians, I believe, were informed that hard times were coming, yet they failed to prepare for them. No wonder they did not complain about Joseph’s handling of this matter and heralded him as a savior.
All lines of evidence lead us to the same conclusion: Joseph was just as godly a man here as he had been elsewhere. He wisely had prepared for the future, and his laying up a store of wheat made it possible for him to save his nation from disaster.
Israel’s Prosperity and Egypt’s Poverty
While the Egyptians were fainting under the famine, the Israelites were flourishing. Egypt’s loss, to some degree, was their gain:
Now Israel lived in the land of Egypt, in Goshen, and they acquired property in it and were fruitful and became very numerous (Genesis 47:27).
Israel prospered in spite of the famine and the poverty which Egypt experienced. This small, select group prospered while the mainstream of Egyptian populus were impoverished. It may not be too much to say that the Israelites prospered at Egypt’s expense. For example, the land they acquired was probably purchased at a good price from an Egyptian farmer who knew he would lose his land anyway. The cattle that were obtained were possibly purchased from a farmer who would have otherwise watched them starve to death. What was purchased might have been at ten cents on the dollar.
This raises some questions about the prosperity of the Israelites during the famine. Was it wrong for them to be prosperous while others were doing without? Was it right for them to buy land while others had to give theirs up? Before we become too smug, let me ask you a question. Have you ever gone to a “going out of business” sale? Of course you have. And did you insist that the business sell you its merchandise at full retail price because times were hard? No, you delighted at getting something drastically marked down. That business’ loss was your gain, and you went away proud of the bargains you found.
Lest we lose our sense of perspective, let me also remind you that the prosperity of Israel at this time paved the way for her future persecution. Stigers, in his excellent commentary on Genesis, entitles verses 13-26 “Foundations for oppression.”99 A little lesson in history will help put this section into perspective.
Before Joseph or Jacob entered the land of Egypt, there had been a large influx of Asiatic Semitic slaves into Egypt. They congregated largely in the Delta region of Egypt, the same area where Goshen was located. Over a period of time these Hyksos land owners formed a political coalition which gave them great power in the Delta. At a weak point in Egyptian political power, the Hyksos coalition overthrew the throne, and a Hyksos Pharaoh was installed. It is most likely that the Pharaoh under whom Joseph served was a Hyksos.100 This explains, at least in part, why a Pharaoh would be eager to install a Hebrew slave into such a high office. A fellow Palestinian would be trusted more than a native Egyptian. It also explains why the Pharaoh would encourage the immigration of Hebrews from Canaan. They could enhance his political position and be potential allies if and when the Egyptians attempted to regain power.
Later on, when Joseph had long since died and the Hyksos dynasty had been overthrown, the Egyptians were not inclined to feel favorably toward the Israelites, who had collaborated with the Hyksos and had prospered while they had been impoverished. And if another attempt were made to overthrow the throne of Egypt, the Hebrews might well be expected to become allies in such an effort. No wonder they were disliked, distrusted, and dealt with as a serious threat to Egypt’s security:
And Joseph died, and all his brothers and all that generation. But the sons of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly, and multiplied, and became exceedingly mighty, so that the land was filled with them.
Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, “Behold, the people of the sons of Israel are more and mightier than we. Come, let us deal wisely with them, lest they multiply and in the event of war, they also join themselves to those who hate us, and fight against us, and depart from the land.” So they appointed taskmasters over them to afflict them with hard labor. And they built for Pharaoh storage cities, Pithom and Raamses (Exodus 1:6-11).
It might not be going too far to suggest that the initial success of the descendants of Jacob and their later persecution provides us with a prototype of later Jewish persecution. I am not a historian, but I believe this to be evident, for example, in Germany before the second world war. Germany’s economy had suffered greatly, and yet it was evident that those who were the successful bankers and financial giants were the Jews. The Jews then became the scapegoat for all the political woes of the nation and were severely persecuted and oppressed by the Nazi regime.
Principles Pertaining to Prosperity and Poverty
From these verses describing the prosperity of Pharaoh and the people of God several principles which help us to more precisely define the relationship between prosperity, poverty, and political freedom are brought into focus.
(1) Freedom is a privilege, not a right. Americans, due to our heritage as a free people, are inclined to look upon freedom as a right rather than a privilege. But history reminds us that most of the people who have ever lived have not had the privilege of freedom as we know it. Paul, in writing to those who were slaves, said,
Were you called while a slave? Do not worry about it; but if you are able also to become free, rather do that (I Corinthians 7:21).
It was not wrong to be a slave, nor did it prevent one from having a godly testimony (cf. I Peter 2:18-25). Joseph was able as a slave to effectively serve God and man. But freedom is surely preferable, and if it can be obtained we should take advantage of that opportunity.
What concerns me about this generation of Americans is that by assuming freedom to be a right rather than a privilege to be maintained, we will lose the freedom that others died to obtain and maintain. Rights are taken for granted because we assume that they cannot be taken away. Privileges must be earned, and they can easily be lost if neglected. Many American Christians fail to vote or to involve themselves in the political process, and in so doing they endanger the freedoms that are theirs. It was not wrong for Joseph to “enslave” the Egyptians because freedom is not a right, but a privilege.
Slavery, of course, does have the potential for evil and abuse. The history of slavery in America makes this abundantly clear. Let me hasten to say, however, that not all slave owners were harsh and ungodly. As an institution, slavery cannot be broadly and generally condemned, for the Bible never strictly forbids it. Surely, it is not the most desirable status in life. That is why Paul encouraged those who were able to obtain their liberty. Slavery does afford evil men with the opportunity to misuse people and treat them unfairly. Such treatment must always be condemned and resisted, but this kind of abuse is flagrant in every institution, whether it be government, economics, marriage, or family. Power and authority will always be misused by wicked and cruel men, but that does not mean that all power is therefore to be abolished. The French Revolution underscored this in blood.
(2) Prosperity is not a right, but a privilege and a responsibility. In the Old Testament God promised Israel prosperity if they would faithfully obey Him and keep His commandments:
However, there shall be no poor among you, since the LORD will surely bless you in the land which the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, if only you listen obediently to the voice of the LORD your God, to carefully observe all this commandment which I am commanding you today. For the LORD your God shall bless you as He has promised you, and you will lend to many nations, but you will not borrow; and you will rule over many nations, but they will not rule over you” (Deuteronomy 15:4-6).
But God also made it clear that while this was His promise, this ideal would never be fully realized:
For the poor will never cease to be in the land; therefore I command you, saying, “You shall freely open your hand to your brother, to your needy and poor in your land” (Deuteronomy 15:11).
In the book of Proverbs it is oft repeated that prosperity is the result of diligence, while poverty is the result of idleness:
Poor is he who works with a negligent hand, But the hand of the diligent makes rich (Proverbs 10:4; cf. 12:27; 13:4; 14:23; etc.).
This is a maxim, however, and not an inviolable promise.
In the New Testament, prosperity is not proof of either piety (Luke 6:24) or carnality (Matthew 27:57), but a matter of calling, toward which the poor and the prosperous must have the right perspective:
But let the brother of humble circumstances glory in his high position; and let the rich man glory in his humiliation, because like flowering grass he will pass away. For the sun rises with a scorching wind, and withers the grass; and its flower falls off, and the beauty of its appearance is destroyed; so too the rich man in the midst of his pursuits will fade away (James 1:9-11).
With either poverty or prosperity we must learn the secret of contentment:
I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me (Philippians 4:12-13).
But godliness actually is a means of great gain, when accompanied by contentment (I Timothy 6:6).
Wealth is to be employed in ministry to others (I Timothy 6:17-19). Poverty does not prohibit a genuine desire to minister (cf. I Kings 17:8-16; Mark 12:41-44; II Corinthians 8:1-5), while prosperity provides greater opportunity and greater responsibility (I Timothy 6:17-19; cf. Matthew 13:12; Luke 12: 47-48).
(3) In the Bible, poverty is not viewed as an intrinsic evil that must be abolished. Just as the institution of slavery was tolerated, so poverty is also. It is not a pleasant state, but neither is it an intolerable one (cf. Philippians 4:12-13). Our Lord became poor so that we might be made rich (II Corinthians 8:9), and so also the apostle Paul experienced poverty (II Corinthians 6:4-5, etc.). Jesus said,
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you shall be satisfied (Luke 6:20-21).
He also said, “for the poor you always have with now; …” (John 12:8).
Wealth, actual or desired, is evil when it receives an undue amount of our thought and concern (Matthew 6:24-34), when it is given excess importance (Luke 16:10-11,14), when it is wrongfully gained (Luke 3:13-14), selfishly stored up (Matthew 6:19-21; Luke 12:13-21), or sinfully squandered (Luke l5:11ff.; James 5:5). It is evil if we find our security in it (Matthew 19:16-22; I Timothy 6:17). But poverty is likewise evil if it is the result of lack of consideration or responsibility (I Timothy 5:8) or lack of diligence (II Thessalonians 3:6-15). Poverty, like prosperity, is neither good nor evil, except as we view it and use it.
(4) The problem of poverty cannot be solved simplistically. The simple solution to the problem of the famine in Egypt, we suppose, would have been for Joseph to open up the granaries of Egypt and give the grain to the Egyptians. The question then becomes, “On what basis should the grain be given out?” How would you feel about the fellow who drove up in his new Rolls Royce and asked you to “fill er up” with grain? Welfare is never quite so simple as it first seems. In some scriptures we are told to give to those in need:
He who is generous will be blessed, For he gives some of his food to the poor (Proverbs 22:9).
He who gives to the poor will never want, But he who shuts his eyes will have many curses (Proverbs 28:27).
In other scriptures we are told to lend to the poor, but not at interest:
‘Now in case a countryman of yours becomes poor and his means with regard to you falter, then you are to sustain him, like a stranger or a sojourner, that he may live with you. Do not take usurious interest from him, but revere your God, that your countryman may live with you. You shall not give him your silver at interest, nor your food for gain (Leviticus 25:35-37).
Elsewhere, in Proverbs 11:26 we are told,
He who withholds grain, the people will curse him, But blessing will be on the head of him who sells it.
Another Proverb says,
A worker’s appetite works for him, For his hunger urges him on (Proverbs 16:26).
And still elsewhere Paul instructs us,
For even when we were with you, we used to give you this order: If anyone will not work, neither let him eat (II Thessalonians 3:10).
We have a wide range of responsibilities to the poor because there are a wide variety of reasons for poverty. To those who are willfully poor, that is, those who will not work, we have no obligation but to rebuke them. We must allow their hunger to prod them into activity. For those who are temporarily without funds, we should loan them money with the expectation of being paid back, but not with interest. Others who are completely helpless should be given what they need with no thought of repayment. And for some of those in Old Testament times, the faithful Israelites were not only to buy their goods, but purchase them as a servant (Leviticus 25:39ff.)
Two primary goals should be fixed in our mind regarding charity that really benefits the recipient: First, it should seek to preserve the dignity of the needy; and second, it should promote the diligence of the needy. In Old Testament times the able-bodied who were in need were provided for by leaving sufficient food for them to glean:
Now when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very corners of your field, neither shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest (Leviticus 19:9; cf. 23:22).
Thus we find Ruth gleaning in the field of Boaz (Ruth 2:2ff.). In our time, we are sometimes encouraged to harvest the grain for the poor, thresh and grind it, bake it and deliver it hot and buttered. The dignity of the destitute demands that they be allowed to work for what they get if at all possible. Love must be exercised in “real knowledge and discernment” (Philippians 1:9). Sentimentality may make us feel good at the expense of the poor. Wisdom seeks to help the poor in such a way as to maintain their personal dignity and encourage continued diligence on their part to be released from their economic dependence on others. Those widows in the New Testament who were totally cared for by the church were a very small and select group, while the rest were cared for short term or by their families (I Timothy 5:3-16). Deadbeats deserve only discipline (II Thessalonians 3).
(5) The accumulation of wealth is frequently the means of helping the poor. Lest we come down too hard on Joseph for his actions, let me remind you that if Joseph had not accumulated that large supply of grain, Egypt would have perished. Some Christians feel that it is altogether wrong to accumulate money for any reason. Personally, I do not agree. I understand our Lord to forbid the accumulation of wealth for the purpose of finding in it a false security or for lavishing upon ourselves the luxuries wealth will provide (Matthew 6:19ff.; James 4:3; 5:1-6).
Saving is not always condemned:
In the house of the wise are stores of choice food and oil, but a foolish man devours all he has (Proverbs 21:20, NIV).
Unfortunately, Acts 4:34-35 has frequently been misunderstood in this regard:
For there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales, and lay them at the apostles’ feet; and they would be distributed to each, as any had need.
Some think that all of the houses and lands belonging to the believers in Jerusalem were sold at one time and that the proceeds were pooled in one pot to be distributed by the apostles. Such was not the case. For one thing, this would have caused the property values to plummet, reducing the effectiveness of these gifts. But the verb “would sell” is imperfect, implying that this was done from time to time or whenever serious needs arose. Thus, houses were owned privately until such time as needs arose that were so great someone was led to sell their property and give the proceeds to the apostles to meet these needs.
Don’t you see that it was the ownership of these houses and lands which made possible the charity of the New Testament church? Had these Christians concluded, as some do today, that it is wrong to accumulate wealth in any form, including homes or land, there would have been no means of helping others. This same matter of saving up in order to be able to meet needs is addressed by the apostle Paul:
Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I directed the churches of Galatia, so do you also. On the first day of every week let each one of you put aside and save, as he may prosper, that no collections be made when I come (I Corinthians 16:1-2).
Especially for those who do not have great resources, saving up provides greater opportunity to minister to those in need.
(6) God’s provision for His people does not require times of national economic prosperity. Israel prospered in Egypt’s darkest hours. Israel was provided for in abundance while many others did without. There are and will always be prophets of doom who warn us of financial disaster ahead. (And, frankly, I am inclined to agree with them. I think financial hard times may be around the corner.) But let us not panic at the thought. If God could care for His people in times of famine, He can care for us in times of great disaster, too. God’s ability to provide for His own does not depend upon the Dow-Jones averages. We should prepare to minister to others by setting aside money. Let us be careful to avoid the one extreme of hoarding up and the other of using up everything that comes our way.
Now He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food, will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness; you will be enriched in everything for all liberality, which through us is producing thanksgiving to God (II Corinthians 9:10-11).
Jacob Prepares for His Death
Jacob, who seemed to be dying for years, lived longer than he expected. But as he approached his death, we can see that his prosperity in Egypt did not change his priorities:
And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years; so the length of Jacob’s life was one hundred and forty-seven years. When the time for Israel to die drew near, he called his son Joseph and said to him, “Please, if I have found favor in your sight, place now your hand under my thigh and deal with me in kindness and faithfulness. Please do not bury me in Egypt, but when I lie down with my fathers, you shall carry me out of Egypt and bury me in their burial place.” And he said, “I will do as you have said.” And he said, “Swear to me.” So he swore to him. Then Israel bowed in worship at the head of the bed (Genesis 47:28-31).
How easy it would have been for prosperity to rearrange Jacob’s priorities. After living in a land that was irrigated and relatively free from famine, who would wish to return to Canaan where God must supply rain, contingent upon the obedience of His people:
… for the land, into which you are entering to possess it, is not like the land of Egypt from which you came, where you used to sow your seed and water it with your foot like a vegetable garden. But the land into which you are about to cross to possess it, a land of hills and valleys, drinks water from the rain of heaven, a land for which the LORD your God cares; the eyes of the LORD your God are always on it, from the beginning even to the end of the year (Deuteronomy 11:10-12).
Knowing that the day of his departure drew near, Jacob purposed to make his death a testimony to his faith and a stimulus to the faith and obedience of his descendants. Jacob urged Joseph, his most trusted son, to swear a solemn oath promising that he would not bury his father in Egypt, but in Canaan in the cave of Machpelah with his forefathers. This would serve as a reminder to his descendants that Egypt was not home, but only a place to sojourn until God brought them back “home” to Canaan, the land of promise.
Having been assured of his request, Jacob bowed in worship on the head of his staff.101 It is this incident, coupled with the blessing of Joseph’s sons in chapter 49, which the writer to the Hebrews cites as evidence of the faith of Jacob:
By faith Jacob, as he was dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, and worshipped, leaning on the top of his staff (Hebrews 11:21).
Little wonder, for this is surely the high point of Jacob’s spiritual life. For the first time, Jacob has ceased striving to do something for God and simply stopped to worship and adore Him. I believe that worship is the highest calling of the saint and one of God’s primary purposes for saving men:
But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. God is spirit; and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth (John 4:23-24).
Two observations remain. First, we are obliged to protect the rights of the poor:
The righteous is concerned for the rights of the poor, The wicked does not understand such concern (Proverbs 29:7).
While neither freedom nor prosperity are the rights of the poor, life is the right of all. Recently the “Right to Life” movement has focused our attention on the rights of the unborn. While we need to seriously consider the rights of the unborn and the matter of abortion, we dare not neglect the right to life of those who are born and who are dying of starvation and neglect. The righteous cannot overlook the dire needs of those who are dying in our world since we as a nation have more than sufficient means to preserve life.
And if there is a right to physical life, how much more should we be concerned about the right to hear the good news of the offer of spiritual life. It is my conviction that some of the material wealth that is ours is given for the purpose of propagating the gospel of Jesus Christ to those who have not yet heard.
Second, I must remind you, as one of our congregation reminded me, that Joseph asked no more of the Egyptians than God has required of those who will be eternally saved. The Egyptians valued their physical salvation so much that they gave up their money, their material goods, and even themselves to Joseph. These are the terms which God has laid down for men to have eternal life: unconditional surrender. We must come to the point of realizing that our condition is terminal, that we are facing death. And we must place our entire future in the hands of Jesus Christ just as the Egyptians trusted in Joseph. We must surrender every element of self-sufficiency, everything of value, and rely solely upon Jesus Christ, who has died upon the cross of Calvary for our salvation. He offers to us all the riches of heaven if we only trust in Him completely. May God enable you to trust in Him for your salvation.
Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If any one wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake shall find it. For what will a man be profited, if he gains the whole world, and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Matthew 16:24-26).
101 “The MT has bed (mitta), but the LXX (used in Heb. 11:21) interpreted the same Hebrew consonants to represent matteh, ‘staff.’ While both versions have ‘bed’ at 48:2, the present occasion tells of Jacob before his last illness (cf. 48:1), and ‘staff’ may well be the right meaning. It would be an appropriate object to mention, as the symbol of his pilgrimage (cf. his grateful words in 32:10), worthy of the prominence it receives in the New Testament passage.” Derek Kidner, Genesis: An Introduction and Commentary (Chicago: Inter-Varsity Press, 1967), p. 212.