The Legal Immigration of Joseph’s Family to Egypt

I’ve been reading through James K. Hoffmeier’s interesting study, The Immigration Crisis: Immigrants, Aliens, and the Bible, and came across an interesting overlap with my study of the Joseph stories (which is currently on the back burner until I resume preaching in June).  This book is an effort to consider biblical material relevant to the modern day debate about immigration:

Given the national debate on immigration that has been ongoing in America for some years now and has spilled over into the church, I was surprised that little serious study of relevant biblical data has occurred that might address the ethical and legal questions surrounding the illegal immigrant.

Pg. 17

In light of this dearth of secondary literature, Hoffmeier intends for his book to be a starting point for considering what, if anything, the Bible has to say that is relevant to the current political debate.

My intent with this post is not to get political.  With a book like this, however, politics is inevitable.  But I did find Hoffmeier’s description of the arrival of Jacob and his family to be quite interesting and informative about this biblical event and its socio-historical background:

At the end of the book of Genesis, Jacob’s family immigrated to Egypt during a time of famine (Gen. 46-47).  Several statements in the narratives are quite instructive, giving us details about the process by which this clan was able to come and sojourn in Egypt.

First, as just noted, Joseph, who already lived in Egypt and was a high-ranking official in the court of Pharaoh, received permission to bring his father Jacob to Egypt along with the rest of the extended family.  In fact, Pharaoh offered them the land of Goshen, the most verdant area in the northeastern Delta, as a place to graze their flocks and herds (Gen. 45:16-18).  Second, upon their arrival in Egypt, Joseph presented his family to his boss (Gen. 47:1-2).  Five of the brothers stepped forward with a request: “We have come to live here in a while, because the famine is severe in Canaan and your servants’ flocks have no pasture. So now, please let your servants settle in Goshen” (47:4). Once again we find that the Hebrew ancestors left one land in which they were sojourning (viz., Canaan) and went to another to sojourn. The phrase “live for a while” is the verb gwr, “sojourn,” followed by “settle” or “reside” (yashav).  Together these two verbs appear as an alternative to the previously discussed idiom ger wetoshav, which means “resident alien.”  This combination of words was found together in Genesis 23 when Abraham described his legal status in Hebron as a legal alien.  Now in a new land, and even though invited to live in Egypt by Pharaoh himself, the brothers felt compelled to ask formally for permission to settle as resident aliens with their droves.  The king granted the request: “Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘Your father and your brothers have come to you, and the land of Egypt is before you; settle your father and your brothers in the best part of the land'” (47:5-6).

Here also we see that the Hebrew immigrants sought and received permission to enter a foreign land, in this case from the king himself! When the brothers address the monarch, not surprisingly they did so showing deference and respect as the request included “please.”  One can plainly see that Pharaoh asked about their occupation (47:3), and throughout the paragraph of Genesis 47:1-6 there are repeated references to the flocks and herds of the family of Jacob.  Evidently the king did not want a group of people entering Egypt to become financially and economically dependent on the governmental resources, as Gordon Wenham cogently observes: “the insistence that they have brought their livestock with them shows that they do not intend to be a burden to the state, but that they do need suitable pastureland.”  Typically, as is still the practice in the Middle East today, the sheep and goats of pastoralists were welcomed into farmers’ fields to eat the stubble and roots left after the harvest.  With their flocks and herds grazing the rich lands and ample waters of the Delta, the Hebrews were able to live a good life in Egypt.

Pgs. 55-56

I will be interested to see what Hoffmeier ultimately advises Christians about the “immigration crisis,” and how (hermeneutically) he does so.  I’ve always appreciate his work, however, and his own experience as a refugee, a resident-alien, and an immigrant (as well as that of his family) is certain to make this a fascinating read!

R. Andrew Compton
Christ Reformed Church (URCNA)
Anaheim, CA