Jacob Takes His Place among the Great

As they approached this fabled land of tombs, Israel sent Judah, his most illustrious representative, ahead to inform Joseph of their arrival. We see the old patriarch, staring out with his eyes now dim with age over the plains of Goshen, waiting for the grand moment. At a distance the sharp young eyes of his grandsons were the first to see the dust stirred up by the pounding hooves of the splendid Egyptian steeds that bore his son’s chariot. Before these Hebrew youths, history at its finest was about to unfold. Standing alone, erect and dignified, the white bearded patriarch waited till the chariot that bore Joseph and Judah, for we imagine the two great brothers together, rolled up. Joseph stepped down like a god, for the story teller is very anxious to let us know that Joseph “appeared to him,” a verb that is used regularly elsewhere for a theophany, or God-appearance. After all, as far as Jacob was concerned, his son died and was resurrected before him now in all splendor as ruler of all Egypt!

Joseph falls on his father’s neck and weeps. We would expect the old man to weep, and there are those who say that this actually was the case, given the ambiguity of the Hebrew here. However, we know in fact that it was Joseph who wept, for Jacob is not the man he was since his recent encounter with the God of his fathers. It is fine for Joseph to weep; it was his proper part to play. As for Jacob, there is a controlled dignity about the man who was for most of his life out of control. The man who once was given to excess in love, hate, and grief, now becomes a man of dignified reserve, stately in his simple, controlled response. He simply says, “I can die now, having seen for myself that you are still alive.” This tranquil nunc dimittis is not based on his own self fulfillment in seeing his son. Rather, he can now die in peace for he has seen God’s higher purpose in all of his suffering. And so it is, our greatest human fear is not ultimately pain, loss, suffering, or even death itself. Our greatest fear is hopelessness, a sense that there is no grand purpose in life above our own concern for mere survival.

Israel’s full greatness is displayed for us when he and five of his sons are summoned to stand before Pharaoh. What a grand scene it must have been to see the one hundred and thirty year old patriarch, leaning on Joseph’s arm, slowly making his way down the great columned hall toward the god of Egypt. There was a dignity about him that commanded attention, for Pharaoh’s respect for the old man is remarkable. Pharaoh is curious about his great age, for he questions him about this. The conversation proceeds like Joseph’s first encounter with Pharaoh in that Jacob and Pharaoh banter back and forth in extended dialogue (cf. Gen. 47:7-10 with Gen. 41:15ff.). Again, this assumes equality. The grand patriarch stands before the Egyptian god with poise and dignity. Jacob now becomes like a god.

Perhaps one of the most touching declarations in the whole of Scripture is Jacob’s own assessment of his life, which forms the centerpiece of this dialogue:

The years of my earthly sojourn are one hundred and thirty; few and hard have been the years of my life. They do not compare with the years of the life of my ancestors during their long sojourn. (47:9)

We have the benefit that Pharaoh did not have, for we know Jacob’s story. Compared to his noble grandfather Abraham and gentle father Isaac, he led a miserable life. Moreover, Jacob knew very well by this time that he had no one else but himself to blame for this. He lived his life under the illusion that he could control and manipulate his way with both God and people. Though genuinely “religious” in that he took spiritual matters very seriously, he still had at least one foot firmly planted in the here and now. This made him a man of strife, for those who have an eye on the earth must protect their interests.

This declaration, or confession, if you will, reveals profound insight. It brings to light the powerful lesson which took Jacob one hundred and thirty years to learn: that he was merely a pilgrim in this “earthly sojourn.” To really grasp that one is merely a pilgrim here on an earthly sojourn is profoundly supernatural. Esau, Jacob’s brother, represents sensual man par excellence; he found his home here. There was a big part of Jacob that wanted to as well, but God wouldn’t let him. From one angle this defines the path of sanctification for many of us. Sanctification is God not letting us have our own way; not letting us have our home here! Sanctification is God working against our natural inclinations to settle in this world and teaching us to be pilgrims. Jacob finally ascends his own ladder, but it does not escape us that he did so in spite of himself. Our ascending the ladder, our sanctification, is as much a matter of grace as our justification and adoption into God’s family. Much of it is done in spite of ourselves!

Notice how the grand old man handles his meeting with Pharaoh. He blesses him at the beginning and blesses him at the end, forming an inclusio around the whole encounter (Gen. 47:7 and 10). He has come to give, not to take. The man who once stole blessings and wrestled them from the Almighty Himself is now showering them left and right. He is a free man─free from self! He has now attained the stature of Abraham, his great ancestor, in bringing blessing to the world. Jacob, the onetime jerk, now takes his place among the great.

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