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   by Jacob Solomon

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Pharaoh said to Jacob: 'How old are you?'
Jacob said to Pharaoh: 'I have been a sojourner for 130 years. The years of my life have been few and bad. They did not reach the life-spans of my forefathers in the days they were sojourners.' (47:8-9)

The word 'sojourner' means exactly that. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were all sojourners. They never became full residents of any Canaanite city, but remained outsiders. Canaan was, by the way, a nation of city-states, with each city having its own king and established city population living within its walls (c.f. Num. 13:25; Josh. 12:9-24). The Patriarchs' material lifestyle was closer to what we might associate with a successful Bedouin tribal chief - affluent, but always with one's hand on the property (tents, cattle, and flocks) ready to move on at a moment's notice. Hence Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were strangers, and their descendant were promised 'the land of their (the Patriarchs') sojourns' (Ex. 6:4).

Why did Jacob emphasize that he was a sojourner? What was the wisdom of his telling Pharaoh, in effect, that Joseph his viceroy was the descendant of a chain of three personalities of no fixed address? How might that advance the cause of his family as foreigners in Egypt?

Maybe Jacob emphasized that side of his life for the following reasons. Following Rashi (to 47:13), the famine would have been in its second year when Jacob came down to Egypt. Joseph was in a difficult position. On one side, it was his duty as Viceroy to take payment - in cash and kind for the state treasury - in exchange for increasingly scarce food resources. That meant that the population was fed. On the other hand, his situation as a foreigner was precarious with the local population, as he bankrupted most of the population in the process. He had only not taken their movables, but their real estate as well: 'He moved the people from city to city - from one end of Egypt to the other'. (47:21)

It was that side of his own life that he brought to Pharaoh's notice. Far from indulging in self-pity, he was subtly coming to the aid of his son Joseph, as second-in-command of Egypt. Joseph drained - had to drain - the Egyptians of their cash. Jacob used Pharaoh's question as an opportunity to inform him that Joseph's father also knew what it was to 'go without': 'few and bad have been the years of my life' - especially when he fled from Esau and, without cash (c.f. Rashi to 29:13) was utterly dependant on his selfishly exploitative uncle, Laban. Joseph also found himself having to appropriate land. Albeit on Pharaoh's behalf, it was Joseph who would be incurring unpopularity by 'doing the dirty work'. Thus Jacob informed him that Joseph (apart from being a sojourner himself) came from three generations of sojourners… As the people would know that Joseph's family had lived for generations in the same landless conditions he was putting on them, they would be less likely to hate him and his family, as they had 'all been in the same boat…'

Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.

Parashiot from the First, Second, and Third Series may be viewed on the Shema Yisrael web-site:

Also by Jacob Solomon:
From the Prophets on the Haftara

Test Yourself - Questions and Answers


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