Pharaoh, Flocks and Famine.

He had sent Judah ahead of him to Joseph to show the way before him in Goshen, and they came into the land of Goshen. Then Joseph prepared his chariot and went up to meet Israel his father in Goshen. He presented himself to him and fell on his neck and wept on his neck a good while. Israel said to Joseph, “Now let me die, since I have seen your face and know that you are still alive.” 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,’ in order that you may dwell in the land of Goshen, for every shepherd is an abomination to the Egyptians.”

So Joseph went in and told Pharaoh, “My father and my brothers, with their flocks and herds and all that they possess, have come from the land of Canaan. They are now in the land of Goshen.” And from among his brothers he took five men and presented them to Pharaoh. Pharaoh said to his brothers, “What is your occupation?” And they said to Pharaoh, “Your servants are shepherds, as our fathers were.” They said to Pharaoh, “We have come to sojourn in the land, for there is no pasture for your servants’ flocks, for the famine is severe in the land of Canaan. And now, please let your servants dwell in the land of Goshen.” Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Your father and your brothers have come to you. The land of Egypt is before you. Settle your father and your brothers in the best of the land. Let them settle in the land of Goshen, and if you know any able men among them, put them in charge of my livestock.” – Genesis 46:28-47:6 ESV

Sometimes the stories of the Bible become so familiar to us that they lose their significance and we lose our sense of awe at the display of God’s power found in them. The story of Joseph is a case in point. We have already seen so many examples of God’s sovereign, providential hand at work, predestining Joseph for his role as the savior of God’s people. Time and time again, God has displayed His power and undeniable control over the affairs of men and even the realm of nature. The seven year famine was part of God’s plan, just as much as Joseph’s rise to the second most-powerful position in the land of Egypt. Each and every event connected with this story reveals yet another example of God’s sovereign control over everything and everyone.

As Jacob, his sons and their families arrive in Egypt, and are reunited with Joseph, we are provided with yet another example of God’s providence. Jacob was a shepherd by trade. So were his sons. When Jacob had gone through his self-imposed exile in Paddam-aram, he had been a shepherd, tending the flocks of his uncle, Laban. And he had been good at his job, at one point telling his uncle, “You know how hard I’ve worked for you, and how your flocks and herds have grown under my care. You had little indeed before I came, but your wealth has increased enormously. The Lord has blessed you through everything I’ve done” (Genesis 30:29-30 NLT). Jacob eventually left Laban’s employment, but not before he had a few choice words for his uncle and former boss:

“For twenty years I have been with you, caring for your flocks. In all that time your sheep and goats never miscarried. In all those years I never used a single ram of yours for food. If any were attacked and killed by wild animals, I never showed you the carcass and asked you to reduce the count of your flock. No, I took the loss myself! You made me pay for every stolen animal, whether it was taken in broad daylight or in the dark of night.

“I worked for you through the scorching heat of the day and through cold and sleepless nights. Yes, for twenty years I slaved in your house! I worked for fourteen years earning your two daughters, and then six more years for your flock. And you changed my wages ten times! In fact, if the God of my father had not been on my side—the God of Abraham and the fearsome God of Isaac—you would have sent me away empty-handed. But God has seen your abuse and my hard work. – Genesis 31:38-42 NLT

It had been God who protected Jacob and who increased his wealth – in spite of the efforts of Laban. And it was Jacob who passed on his knowledge of shepherding to his sons. And they too became the owners of great flocks and herds. But then the famine came. Famine and flocks do not go well together. So Jacob and his sons were forced to look for another source of food to provide for their flocks and families. That is what had led them to Egypt in the first place. And now they were returning to Egypt to live, bringing all their flocks and families with them, because there were five more years of famine yet to come. Once again, this had all been a part of God’s divine plan for His people. It had been God who had blessed Jacob with flocks. It had been God who had brought about the famine that had threatened the well-being of Jacob’s flocks. And it was God who had moved the heart of Pharaoh to willingly and graciously accept Jacob and his family and flocks into Egypt, providing for them the best of his land as their possession.

Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Say to your brothers, ‘Do this: Load your animals and go to the land of Canaan! Get your father and your households and come to me! Then I will give you the best land in Egypt and you will eat the best of the land.’ You are also commanded to say, ‘Do this: Take for yourselves wagons from the land of Egypt for your little ones and for your wives. Bring your father and come. Don’t worry about your belongings, for the best of all the land of Egypt will be yours.’” – Genesis 45:17-20 NLT

And when they arrived, that is exactly what happened. They came before Pharaoh, explained their plight and pleaded for his help. Verse four of chapter 47 sums it all up.

Then they said to Pharaoh, “We have come to live as temporary residents in the land. There is no pasture for your servants’ flocks because the famine is severe in the land of Canaan. So now, please let your servants live in the land of Goshen.” – Genesis 47:4 NLT

What is truly amazing about this is that Pharaoh, as an Egyptian, hated shepherds. Joseph had even told his brothers to say to Pharaoh, “Your servants have taken care of cattle from our youth until now, both we and our fathers,” and warned them that, “everyone who takes care of sheep is disgusting to the Egyptians” (Genesis 46:34 NLT). And yet here were Hebrew shepherds coming before one of the most powerful men in the world, asking him to provide them with land to care for their flocks. And what did Pharaoh do? He gave them the land of Goshen, the best land in Egypt. Not only that, he employed some of the brothers to care for his own flocks and herds. These events should create in us a sense of awe and wonder at the providential care of God. This had all been His doing. The book of Proverbs reminds us, “The king’s heart is like a stream of water directed by the LORD; he guides it wherever he pleases” (Proverbs 21:12 NLT). Pharaoh’s generous offer had been part of God’s plan, just as much as the famine had been. The unlikely and implausible blend of Pharaoh, flocks and famine was God’s doing. As William Cowper stated so well, “God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform.” An Egyptian Pharaoh, a seven-year famine, and the famished flocks of the people of Israel. What a strange combination. And what a wonderful example of God’s mysterious providence. Which is why Cowper goes on to remind us:

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.

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A Loving Father.

When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more they were called, the more they went away; they kept sacrificing to the Baals and burning offerings to idols. Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk; I took them up by their arms, but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of kindness, with the bands of love, and I became to them as one who eases the yoke on their jaws, and I bent down to them and fed them. – Hosea 11:1-4 ESV

Sometimes, because God is transcendent and invisible to our eyes, we can see Him as distant and difficult to comprehend. After all, He is the creator of the universe. He is all-powerful and all-knowing. He is sinless and perfect in all His ways. So we find it hard to relate to Him. While we speak of His love and rely upon His grace and mercy, it’s not always easy to feel those things in daily life. After all, we can’t experience a hug from God. We have never been able to talk a walk with Him and have Him put His arm on our shoulder to encourage us. There is a sense in which His transcendence makes Him unapproachable and somewhat aloof to us. But God would have us see Him as our Father. In fact, He uses the imagery of fatherhood throughout the Scriptures. And Jesus Himself encouraged His disciples to approach God in prayer with the word, “Our Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:9 ESV).

Here in chapter 11, God addresses the people of Israel as a father would speak to his child. He reminds them of their past and jars their collective memory in order to get them to recall what their relationship with Him used to be like. He had been like a father to them. They had been like a helpless child, trapped in the bonds of slavery in Egypt. They were oppressed. They were crying out in pain and suffering. And God had heard them. When He had called Moses, God had told him, “I have certainly seen the oppression of my people in Egypt. I have heard their cries of distress because of their harsh slave drivers. Yes, I am aware of their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the power of the Egyptians and lead them out of Egypt into their own fertile and spacious land. It is a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:7-8 NLT). And that is exactly what He had done. He had rescued them, set them free and led them to the land of Canaan, just as He had promised to Abraham hundreds of years earlier.

God had shown the people of Israel unconditional love. He had rescued them, not because they deserved it, but because of His love for them. And yet, their response to His love had been to refuse it. The failed to recognize and appreciate the incredible miracle that the God of the universe had chosen to shower His love on them. He had adopted them as His own and yet, they had treated His love with contempt. The prophet Isaiah recorded these indicting words from God against the southern kingdom of Judah.

Listen, O heavens! Pay attention, earth! This is what the Lord says: “The children I raised and cared for have rebelled against me. Even an ox knows its owner, and a donkey recognizes its master’s care—but Israel doesn’t know its master. My people don’t recognize my care for them.” Oh, what a sinful nation they are—loaded down with a burden of guilt. They are evil people, corrupt children who have rejected the Lord. They have despised the Holy One of Israel and turned their backs on him. – Isaiah 1:2-4 NLT

They were corrupt children who had rejected the love of God. And God uses the imagery of a father teaching his child to walk to illustrate just how painful their rejection of Him was. He had held their hand and lovingly, patiently guided their every step. He had walked alongside them, steadying their way and ensuring their safety. And then had inevitably fallen, He had lovingly healed them. Just like any earthly father would have done. It was Jesus who said of His heavenly Father, “Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:9-11 ESV). God is a faithful, loving Father. And yet, Israel, His adopted children, had forsaken Him for false gods. He had “led them with cords of kindness, with the bands of love” (Hosea 11:4 ESV), but they had chosen to reject His love and come out from under His protection. Those cords of kindness and bands of love, portrayed through His holy law, had been intended to provide them with loving protection. Like a father’s rules for his children, God’s law was meant to provide appropriate boundaries and protective guidelines for their lives. But they had repeatedly broken God’s laws. They had seen them as oppressive and overly restrictive. But now they were going to understand what the yoke of oppression was really like. The generation to whom Hosea spoke had long ago forgotten the trials and tribulations their ancestors had gone through in Egypt. Slavery was not something to which they could relate. They had been born free and had enjoyed the privilege of growing up in a powerful, successful nation where problems were few and the blessings of God had been many. But the love of the Father had not been enough to hold their attention or keep them faithful.

When we fail to recognize God’s love, His fatherly care and protective presence in our lives, we find it easy to walk away from Him. Like the prodigal son who only saw his father as a source of financial blessing, we can overlook and take for granted our heavenly Father’s unceasing, undeserved love, care and protection. We can end up wanting what we can get from Him more than we want Him. We can treat Him as some kind of genie in a bottle, obligated to grant our wishes and fulfill our every self-centered desire. But God would have us realize just how much He loves us. The apostle John reminds us, “See how very much our Father loves us, for he calls us his children, and that is what we are!” (1 John 3:1 NLT). And God demonstrated just how much He loved us in a powerful and very costly manner. “But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners” (Romans 5:8 ESV). The Father’s love for His children is real. It is boundless and tireless. It is patient and unceasing. And Paul would have us come to grips with the startling reality that nothing can separate us from God’s love. “If God is for us, who can ever be against us? Since he did not spare even his own Son but gave him up for us all, won’t he also give us everything else? Who dares accuse us whom God has chosen for his own? No one—for God himself has given us right standing with himself” (Romans 8:31-33 NLT).

Too Heavy Too Handle.

How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! If I would count them, they are more than the sand. I awake, and I am still with you. – Psalm 139:17-18 ESV

Psalm 139.

David is blown away with God. The very fact that God created him and knows everything about him was just too much for him. He uses a Hebrew word, yaqar to describe his feelings. It can mean to “be valuable, be precious, be costly”. But it can also be used metaphorically to mean “be heavy” or “hard to understand”. It is the same word used in the book of Daniel when the king asked his magicians to tell him his dream and his meaning. Their response was, “The thing that the king asks is difficult, and no one can show it to the king except the gods, whose dwelling is not with flesh” (Daniel 2:11 ESV). Given the context, it would seem that David is saying that God’s thoughts regarding him are too heavy or difficult for him to comprehend. Remember, David has been speaking of God’s creation of him, how He knew David before he was even formed in the womb. God already knew the day of his birth and the length of his life – long before his conception. God was aware of David’s thoughts – even before they came out of his mouth as words. All of this was too much for David to get his head around. He said, “How vast is the sum of them!” He could have gone on forever, recounting even more amazing facts regarding God and His intimate involvement in his life.

David seems to say that when he goes to bed, he falls asleep thinking about about it and when he wakes up, there’s still more. The word translated, “I am still with you” is `owd  and it means “a going round, continuance” (Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance). It can simply mean “more”. In other words, David says he wakes up in the morning and there is even more to be amazed about regarding God’s thoughts for him. It reminds me of another psalm of David where he writes, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” (Psalm 8:3-4 ESV). Even Job, in his suffering, said to God, “What is man, that you make so much of him, and that you set your heart on him, visit him every morning and test him every moment?” (Job 7:17-18 ESV). The very idea that God takes notice of us, created us, cares for us, never takes His eyes off of us, and loves us, should astound us. To think that the God of the universe gives me a second thought at all should blow me away as it did David. As David has already acknowledged, “You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar” (Psalm 139:2 ESV). God is not some distant, disconnected deity who has no knowledge about or interest in His creation. He cares. In fact, He loves us so much that He sent His Son to die for us. He knows our weaknesses. He fully understands our inability to live up to His righteous standards. He is fully aware that we are incapable of not sinning. So He provided a way for us to be made right with Him that is not based on our own human effort, but on the death of His own Son. God knows us. And in spite of that, He still loves us. He knows our thoughts, even when we think we have kept them hidden. And yet, He is still willing to forgive us of those thoughts, if we will simply confess them to Him. He sees everything we do – the good, the bad, the ugly – and is still willing to show us mercy and extend to us His grace. That truly is amazing.

To think that God even gives me a second thought should leave me astounded. How easy it is for me to live my life thinking that all I say, think and do is done is obscurity. I am just one among billions. I am virtually unknown and little more than a blip on the radar screen of life. I can easily conclude that my contribution to life is inconsequential and of little value. But God, the one who created me, knows me, cares for me, watches over me, thinks about me, loves me enough to discipline me, and gave His Son to die for me. That’s heavy. That’s mind-boggling. But what a great reminder from the pen of David. I need to constantly consider the fact that I am known and loved by God. I must never forget that He made me – just as I am. As David said, He “formed my inward parts” and “knitted me together in my mother’s womb”. He made me for a reason. He saved me, not because of anything I had done to deserve it, but simply because He loved me. He is constantly transforming me into the likeness of His Son. He never takes His eyes off of me. He holds me in His hands. He protects me, provides for me, guides me and disciplines me. And He always knows what is best for me. Hard to believe? No doubt about it. But my disbelief won’t do anything but rob me of the joy of knowing just how much my God loves me. “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:6-7 ESV).