What does Genesis chapter 47 mean?The last several chapters explained how Joseph, Jacob's son by Rachel (Genesis 46:19), came to bring his family to live in Egypt. Genesis 47 begins with Joseph's family appearing before Pharaoh at court in a formal audience. Joseph selects five of his brothers to represent the family. When Pharaoh asks them their occupations, they reply as Joseph had coached them. They describe themselves as lifelong shepherds, and they formally ask Pharaoh that they be allowed to settle in the fertile region of Goshen. This is an interesting choice, as Joseph has noted that Egyptians generally look down on herdsmen (Genesis 46:34). His motives may be both practical and spiritual. By making it clear that the entire family is involved in shepherding, he lessens suspicion from Egyptians that these immigrants will displace them from work. Spiritually, living somewhere separate from most other Egyptians would help to preserve Israel's commitment to God (Genesis 47:1–4).
Instead of answering the brothers directly, Pharaoh addresses Joseph, granting him the authority to grant his brothers' request. This is both an honor to Joseph and an act of wisdom by Egypt's ruler. This establishes that Jacob's family is there under Joseph's care—Joseph is their patron, not the Pharaoh himself. Pharaoh does, however, command Joseph to settle his family in Goshen and to put some of them in charge of managing his own livestock (Genesis 47:5–6).
Next, Pharaoh receives Joseph's aged father Jacob. Jacob, who may have needed assistance to stand before Pharaoh, blesses him. Pharaoh asks Jacob's age, and Jacob describes his 130 years as a sojourner as "few and evil." Despite his bleak attitude, Jacob's conversation with Pharaoh is relatively casual and mutually respectful. Jacob's blessing on Pharaoh is well-received and would have been deeply appreciated (Genesis 47:7–10).
Joseph has received from Pharaoh the exact outcome he desired. He settles his family securely and with Pharaoh's full blessing in the land of Goshen. There, he begins to provide to them a regular allotment of food for each person. This will be a crucial part of Israel's stability and prosperity, which will only grow in the coming centuries (Exodus 1:5–7). This is a confirmation of Joseph's prior understanding (Genesis 45:5–8) that God was responsible for the events of his life (Genesis 47:11–12).
Meanwhile, the intense regional famine continues. Joseph, on Pharaoh's behalf, has been selling food to the people of Egypt and Canaan during that time (Genesis 41:55–57). Soon, however, the people run out of money. Joseph does not plan to starve them if they can't pay. Rather, Joseph offers to provide food for another year in exchange for livestock owned by the people. With no other option, the people agree to sell their cattle and other animals to Joseph in exchange for food. This might have been something like a mortgage, where the people physically kept the animals, but they were ultimately owned and controlled by Pharaoh's household (Genesis 47:13–17).
When the next year arrives, the people return to Joseph fully aware they have nothing to trade for food. Their only remaining possessions are their land and themselves. To survive, the people propose to offer up those very things. Joseph, representing Pharaoh, agrees. Joseph explains to the people that their servanthood will work much like a permanent mortgage. This form of indentured servitude was extremely common in the ancient world, and was fundamentally different from the harsh slavery experienced later by Israel (Exodus 1:8–14). The Egyptians will continue to work as they have done, paying to Pharaoh twenty percent of each year's harvest from this point on. They will keep eighty percent for themselves. The people are grateful to Joseph for saving their lives, even at the cost of their full freedom (Genesis 47:18–22).
Unlike everyday Egyptians, Jacob's family continues to grow and prosper. Since they are provided with food from Joseph, they can hold on to their cash, livestock, and even the land they now own in Egypt. As most citizens lose what they own, the growing number of Israelites prosper and continue to add to their numbers, providing more evidence of the blessing of God (Genesis 47:23–27).
Despite his pessimism, Jacob lives another seventeen years in Egypt, under the care and protection of his son. As time passes, Jacob eventually prepares for his own death. He asks Joseph to swear to take his body back to Canaan. This involves an ancient custom implying that the promise was being made not only to Jacob, but to all his descendants. His desire is to be buried with the bodies of Abraham and Isaac. Joseph, who will make good on his promise (Genesis 50:12–14), agrees to follow his father's wishes (Genesis 47:28–31).