Bible Studies on Jacob Lesson 16: Israel and Sons Sojourn in Egypt

Read Genesis 37:2–11, 31–35


The final section of the book of Genesis focuses on the story of the family of Jacob. What became of his children? This is the meaning of Genesis 37:2, where the last major section of Genesis is introduced. We notice again that though Jacob is mentioned in verse 2, the next chapters (Gen. 37–50) focus on Joseph, Judah, and the rest of the sons of Jacob. The inspired spotlight now falls more on the next generation of patriarchs. To be sure, Jacob is still in the story line, but he begins to recede to the background in these chapters.

Israel loves Joseph more (37:2–11)

The story line from Genesis 37 really now switches to Joseph (and Judah). Yet the Joseph story is all part of the account of Jacob (Gen. 37:2). God’s work in Joseph’s heart and life is for His covenant people, to save them all alive.

There are some striking parallels in the household of Jacob and that of his own father Isaac. Isaac had favored Esau while Rebekah had favored Jacob. Jacob had a favorite wife, the beautiful Rachel, and she born a son, Joseph, while the family was still in Paddan-Aram. He is a son of his father’s old age, and Israel loves him more than his other sons. This favoritism does not escape notice by the other sons, Joseph’s half-brothers. Jacob even favors Joseph with a special coat, perhaps one with long sleeves, the kind worn by royal children. Later on, King David’s daughter Tamar will wear a similar kind of garment (see 2 Sam. 13:18). Perhaps Israel (Jacob) is giving out a not so subtle hint that Joseph will be the son to inherit the leadership role in the family after Israel dies, even though he is not the oldest son.

God speaks through Joseph’s dreams, and the dreams are well understood by the members of the family. Joseph will rule. But even father Israel finds it strange that the second dream (the heavenly bodies bowing to Joseph) indicates that the father will also bow down to Joseph. Does the father bow to the son? In verse 10, father Israel asks Joseph, “Will your mother and I and your brothers actually come and bow down to the ground before you?” This gives Israel more to think about: what does this actually mean?

The story is well-known and often told. Joseph goes to check on his brothers, and they first imprison him in a well, and then they sell him to a traveling caravan of merchants who are headed for Egypt. They concoct a story of finding Joseph’s special coat with blood on it. Here is another irony: just as Jacob used goat meat and goat skins to deceive his father Isaac in Genesis 27:5–13, so now Jacob’s sons use goat blood to cause their father Jacob to think that a wild animal attacked and then ate his precious son Joseph.

Jacob had received the “news” of the death of Joseph particularly hard. He refused to allow his children to comfort him. His favorite wife Rachel was dead, and now his favorite son was also dead. In his old age, Jacob experiences tremendous personal pain and heartache. To lose a child, any child, is always a devastating event. But when it is the favorite son of your favorite wife, it was crushing to this poor old man. Jacob does not allow any words or actions of comfort to soften his grief (verses 34–35).

Jacob sends his sons to Egypt (42:1–5, 29–38)

Jacob does not come back into the story until Genesis 42 when his family is becoming really hungry because of famine. Egypt had become the breadbasket for the world following the seven years of abundant harvests. But then famine strikes the Near East, and the land of Canaan is also affected. Jacob sends ten of his sons to buy grain in Egypt. He holds Benjamin back, because “harm might come to him” (Gen. 42:4). The text does not tell us this explicitly, but we readers may wonder if Jacob thinks that the harm may come from his ten sons! After all, Benjamin is the only son left of his beloved wife Rachel. He is willing to have his ten sons risk harm in Egypt, but he is still very protective of Benjamin.

At the end of the chapter Jacob comes back into the account when the brothers retell the story of what had happened in Egypt, especially the fact that the harsh ruler of Egypt demanded that the youngest son come the next time. Jacob’s grief continues. “Everything is against me!” he cries out (verse 36). Yet in fact things were not against him. This will become apparent later on, but, as they say, hindsight is always “20-20.” The perspective of faith is described in Romans 8:28ff. Many things can be against the elect of God, but in Christ, we are “more than conquerors.” Indeed nothing can separate us from the love of God which is ours in Christ Jesus our Lord!

Jacob, however, cannot see this at the end of Genesis 42. In his mind Benjamin is “the only one left” (verse 38). Jacob sees nothing but grief lining his final journey to death (Sheol).

Israel resends his sons to Egypt (43:1–14)

Desperate times call for desperate measures. The famine remains severe for people living in Canaan, including the members of the covenant household of Jacob. In this chapter he is called “Israel” (see Gen. 43:6, 8, 11; 45:28; 46:1,2, 5), but then at Genesis 45:25,26, he is called “Jacob” again. Why is this done?

Israel (once called Jacob!) finally relents and gives permission to send young Benjamin along with the ten brothers to Egypt. How heavy his heart must have been to see him leave on this journey. Jacob is becoming resigned to losing his sons, one after the other: Joseph, then Simeon, and now beloved Benjamin.



Good news revives the heart of Jacob (45:25–28)

Jacob finds the news of Joseph being still alive to be unbelievable! How could something that had been so certain in his mind before— Joseph’s death—now be turned around? The NIV says in Genesis 45:26 that he was stunned; literally, it says that his heart was numb, even “cold.” He went into shock and denial. “Where did my sons get such a crazy, tall tale?” But when the words of his sons cannot convince him, the physical evidence of Egyptian carts eventually persuades him. Israel’s years of mourning and grief give way to joy as he anticipates meeting his beloved son once more before he closes his own eyes in death. When he believes the good news, his heart lives again and is no longer numb or cold.

An ‘immanuel’ promise in the night (46:1–4)

Once again God, as it were, holds Jacob’s hands and encourages him on the road to Egypt. God speaks His Word so that Israel/Jacob can live and act in peace. Take note of the several parts of God’s word to Israel during that night vision. First, God identifies Himself as the God of his father (cf. Gen. 26:24). The same God is ours today, faithful in all generations of His people

Second, God tells Israel not to be afraid. This same encouragement is often given in the Bible to people who are in a situation where fear is both understandable and present. Israel is about to see his son, he believes, but he is also entering the mighty country of Egypt.

Third, God reminds Israel that he will make him into a great nation. Verses 8-27 tell us that his family is already becoming sizeable! But there is more to come. God will continue to enlarge the covenant family until the word “nation” becomes the more fitting word to describe it.

Fourth, God says—again!— that He will be with Israel. God will accompany Israel and his family as they journey down into Egypt, and He will be with Israel to bring him out again. “God with us” is the meaning of that wonderful name “Immanuel,” one of the comforting names of our Redeemer, Jesus Christ (Matt. 1:22,23). Matthew 28:20 tells that the Lord Jesus, risen from the dead and given universal authority, is with His church until the close of this age. What a comfort we have in the midst of our calling!

Jacob blesses Pharaoh (47:7–12)

Joseph makes the arrangements for his father and brothers to meet Pharaoh, the ruler of Egypt. Remarkably, this aged patriarch Jacob has an audience with Pharaoh. I call it remarkable because the Egyptians believed Pharaoh to be a living god. Twice we read that Jacob “blesses” the Pharaoh (Gen. 47:7, 10). The word we translate as “bless” can be understood as “greet,” but this is still quite an event. Quite a change from the time when Jacob slept out in the open at Bethel with nothing more in his hand than his staff! Now his own son is in charge of the wellbeing of Egypt, and he meets, greets (blesses) Pharaoh! Later on, when the Israelites would leave Egypt and its slavery, the Pharaoh would send them away with the request, “And bless me also” (Exodus 12:32). Pharaoh would be beaten, and he would admit that Israel and Israel’s God was greater than he.

The word of blessing is one of the themes that runs through the book of Genesis. In Genesis 1 God creates the sea creatures and mankind, and then He “blesses” them so that they might be fruitful and abundant. In Genesis 12:1–3 God called Abram from his own family in order to make him a great nation. Whoever blesses Abram and his family would receive blessing. Through Abram’s family the nations of the world would be blessed.

Something of that is seen here. Because of Joseph, Egypt and many starving people receive blessing in the form of food, sustenance.

Pharaoh recognizes this, and he in turn provides blessing to Jacob and his family in the form of the “best of the land,” Goshen, where Jacob and his entire household could settle with their flocks and herds.

Yet the speech of Jacob strikes as somewhat negative. He tells the Pharaoh, “My years have been few and difficult” (verse 9). He enters Egypt at age 130, and he lives another 17 years there before he dies. To us, 130 years are not a few! But have the years of Jacob been difficult? To be sure, everyone’s life has joys and sorrows, ups and downs. What have been Jacob’s particular burdens, and have they outweighed in number and severity the times of joy and prosperity that he has enjoyed?

Israel in Egypt: it sounds ominous! And it would become a serious threat to the covenant family of God later on as the story in Exodus would tell it. But for the moment, God has brought Israel—the man Jacob and his children—to a kind of oasis on the road back to Paradise. They live in the best part of Egypt, but this is only a sojourn, for God’s people do not have an abiding place in Egypt—or in this present world.

Rev. Mark Vander Hart is Associate Professor of Old Testament Studies at Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, Indiana.


Lesson 16: Points to ponder and discuss

1. You may have heard the saying, “The apple does not fall far from the tree.” In what ways do the sons of Jacob show something of the nature of their own father Jacob?

2. Trace the life of Jacob up to the point before the time he learns that Joseph is still alive. It has been a kind of roller-coaster of danger and blessing, times of fear and then faith. What have been the challenges to his faith that he has faced? In what ways has he grown in faith? In what areas of his life does he still need to grow? What difference has the grace of God made in his life?

3. Can you understand Jacob/Israel’s reluctance to believe his sons with most of their stories and explanations of things? When a person stops telling the truth, he becomes suspect in all his words. What do we learn here regarding words and actions of truth and integrity?

4. Why does God appear to Israel at Beersheba in Genesis 46:2ff? When Abram had gone to Egypt in Genesis 12:10ff because of a famine, that was a problem because of Abram’s deception. Later on in Genesis 26:1, 2, there was another famine, and the Lord had not allowed Isaac to go to Egypt. But now it appears that going to Egypt is okay with God. Why? What might account for the difference?

5. Why does the man Jacob become named “Israel” more and more in the story? Could the text be making a subtle and gradual transition to having us think about the nation of Israel? How is the man Jacob giving way to the nation Israel in the progress of redemptive-history?

6. Settling in Goshen was a physical blessing. But is Goshen a good place to live, a fine choice for this large household? What positive qualities does it hold for Israel? What are the potential dangers for these people in Goshen and Egypt? What happens to church people when they lose their focus on their true and abiding home? How can “the best of this earth” become a snare to Christians?