What does Genesis 47:4 mean?Joseph's brothers are being interviewed by the Pharaoh of Egypt. He has already invited Jacob's large family to relocate to Egypt with all they own to survive the famine in the land (Genesis 45:16–20). In the previous verse, Pharaoh asked the question about their occupation, the question Joseph had discussed with them (Genesis 46:31–34). They responded with the practiced answer, declaring themselves to be lifelong shepherds (Genesis 47:1–3).
Now they continue with a formal request to be allowed to settle in the land of Goshen. They explain why they are making this request: The famine in Canaan is severe. They have no viable place to pasture their flocks. This is one possible reason Joseph had them mention shepherding to Egypt's ruler, despite it being a distasteful profession to Egyptians. Such a request would encourage Pharaoh to settle Israel separately from the rest of his subjects, maintaining them as a unique people.
Joseph's brothers describe themselves as "sojourners," meaning travelers and immigrants, and as Pharaoh's servants. This begins to fulfill the exact prophesy given to Abraham about his descendants in Genesis 15:13: "Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years."
What Joseph and his family cannot know is this act of great kindness by Pharaoh will eventually result in the centuries-long enslavement of their people. For the moment, however, Pharaoh's positive response to their request will mean the difference between life and death for the family.