What Egypt Can’t Stand

By James Cornwell

A Reading from Genesis 46:1-7, 28-34

1 So Israel took his journey with all that he had, and came to Beer-sheba, and offered sacrifices to the God of his father Isaac. 2 And God spoke to Israel in visions of the night, and said, “Jacob, Jacob.” And he said, “Here am I.” 3 Then he said, “I am God, the God of your father; do not be afraid to go down to Egypt; for I will there make of you a great nation. 4 I will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up again; and Joseph’s hand shall close your eyes.” 5 Then Jacob set out from Beer-sheba; and the sons of Israel carried Jacob their father, their little ones, and their wives, in the wagons which Pharaoh had sent to carry him. 6 They also took their cattle and their goods, which they had gained in the land of Canaan, and came into Egypt, Jacob and all his offspring with him, 7 his sons, and his sons’ sons with him, his daughters, and his sons’ daughters; all his offspring he brought with him into Egypt.

28 He sent Judah before him to Joseph, to appear before him in Goshen; and they came into the land of Goshen. 29 Then Joseph made ready his chariot and went up to meet Israel his father in Goshen; and he presented himself to him, and fell on his neck, and wept on his neck a good while. 30 Israel said to Joseph, “Now let me die, since I have seen your face and know that you are still alive.” 31 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; 32 and the men are shepherds, for they have been keepers of cattle; and they have brought their flocks, and their herds, and all that they have.’ 33 When Pharaoh calls you, and says, ‘What is your occupation?’ 34 you shall say, ‘Your servants have been keepers of cattle 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.”


Today we see Jacob’s journey with his sons and household into Egypt. At first, he seems hesitant to make the trip, since it would mean mixing with the idolatrous Egyptians, but God appears to him in a vision and tells him to have no fear.

Joseph, it seems, already has a plan for this. He tells Pharoah that his family are all shepherds, and he encourages them to do the same when asked, so that they will be given the good pastureland of Goshen away from the Egyptians, “for,” he shrewdly notes, “every shepherd is an abomination to the Egyptians.”

This phrase is worth pondering further. Egypt is the personification of the greatness of the Bronze Age, a pinnacle of human civilization, wealth, and military might. And the one thing the citizens of this incarnation of rapacious empire cannot stand is a lowly shepherd. Shepherds, recall, were the first to receive word of the birth of Christ from God’s angels, and our Lord referred to himself repeatedly as the Good Shepherd. Thus, even at this early point in the Old Testament, we see enmity placed between Christ and human imperial ambition.

We live in an age filled with different sorts of empires, and, as with the Egyptians in Jacob’s time, there are ways in which the Church can live peacefully and even productively among them. But do not be surprised when hearts turned toward imperial ambitions shut out the followers of the Good Shepherd, or even move to enslave or destroy them, just as Egypt did to the Israelites. Although the circumstances may not be as dramatic as those of Exodus, all of us will be forced, from time to time, to choose between Pharaoh and Christ — between the glorious heights of civilization and the lowly shepherds. When those times come, we must recall that the Good Shepherd is also the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Only then will we be placed in land with fertile ground.

James Cornwell lives and teaches in the Hudson Valley with his wife Sarah and their seven children.

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Today we pray for:

The Diocese of Kitui – The Anglican Church of Kenya
St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church, Winston-Salem, N.C.


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