Torah Portion Vayigash
Genesis 44:18 - 47:27
This year we will be going through the Torah portion cycle with a short teachings under 30 minutes each. Included in this post are the Haftarah portion and the Echoes Through Scriptures from previous years.
In Vayigash, we will investigate the language of fatherhood, equality, and rulership. We will also look at what causes Joseph to reveal himself to his brothers and what exactly slavery is in the Bible.
Shalom! This is the eleventh portion in the Haftarah cycle where we will be discussing who the house of Judah and the house of Joseph are and the importance of the word echad found in this passage with relation to these two houses. This year we will be spending approximately one hour on each of the Haftarah portions and investigating them from their historical setting and their ancient Near Eastern context as well as making connections back to the Torah Portion. I pray that you will enjoy these teachings!
In Vayigash, we will look at the relational language between Joseph and Pharaoh and how this informs us better of how to understand such language in the Apostolic Writings. We will also look into the connection between Judah's actions that prompted Joseph to reveal himself and how this is connected to Yeshua on the cross.
That We May Live and Not Die...
Genesis 44:18 - 47:27
The seven-year famine has struck and it is just as severe as Joseph foretold, people are unable to grow crops and have become afraid that they will soon die of starvation. For those of us living in developed countries, it is hard to imagine such a condition and what such a condition could drive a person to do. Yet the situation we read about in Genesis 47:13-20 was not an uncommon one on an individual level. Sometimes a family would fall into hard times and would not produce enough crops to feed themselves. This would often be compounded by other surrounding folks going through scarcity which meant no one was able to help the destitute family. They would begin by using any money they had to purchase food and when that ran out they would begin to sell their possessions. Like the Egyptians in this Torah portion, they would begin by selling livestock and then their land. Finally, face the threat of starvation they would sell themselves and their families into slavery. YHWH recognized this harsh reality of life and rather than forbidding slavery, He heavily regulated it in the Torah. Often today, self-proclaimed pundits criticize the Torah’s allowance of slavery without even attempting to understand the complex social-economic system of slavery in the ancient Near East. Social systems always have a vulnerability for abuse and the system of slavery in the ancient Near East was no exception, but there are many people in today’s welfare system who suffer just as much abuse by being degraded into the entitlement mindset which is so immobilizing that they are never able to rise above poverty.
In order to understand the Biblical usage of the Hebrew word ebed (“slave” or “servant”), we must consider its usage in the Scriptures as well as the ancient Near Eastern culture. The same word used to describe the Egyptian’s selling themselves into serfdom in this Torah portion is used to later describe Israel’s harsh enslavement by the Egyptians, of Eliezer who was to become the heir of Abram’s household (Gen 15:1-3), of Israel’s relationship with Moses (Num 32:25), of David’s position relative to the Philistine king Achish (1 Sam 28:2), and of our relationship to YHWH and Yeshua. Considering the varied usage of this term, VanGemeren concludes, “it is best to understand the עֶבֶד as one who is dependent on another and accordingly carries out his will or acts for his benefit, rather than emphasizing other commonalties such as the great difference in status, the exclusivity of the relationship, or belonging to another.” Thus ebed is a legal term defining the relationship between two entities (persons, governments, or deity). Genesis 47:21-26 defines the relationship of Egyptian slavery as the people are to live in cities but will be given seed which they can sow in the land, however they must give 20% of their crop yield to Pharaoh. Slavery is thereby defined as living in a city and paying a 20% income tax and the people’s response is “you have saved our lives!” In our modern world, many people own no land and pay similar or higher income tax yet we do not use the legal terminology of “slavery” to define this relationship between ourselves and the government, even though the system is the same! Interestingly, this passage ends by stating that the statute made by Joseph concerning the 20% tax upon the land of Egypt remains in place to this very day (Gen 47:22). As Genesis serves as a historical background and contextual frame of reference to the book of Exodus, the implication is that the Israelites should compare Pharaoh’s 20% tax system to YHWH’s 10% tithe system since YHWH is giving them land and seed just as the Egyptians were given and rejoice at the great mercies of the God of Israel. Even this 20% tax would have been thought to be a just taxation since the standard set by Hammurabi’s laws was a 33% interest rate for loans of grain. Thus even in this, Joseph shows himself to be man of great justice.
Slavery in the ancient Near East did bring salvation to those at risk of starvation, but it was also a system which was prone to abuse by the wealthy elite. We have to look no further than the next few Torah portions to see how the Egyptian Pharaoh who did not acknowledge Joseph became very abusive in his enslavement of the Hebrews. What made a difference in the system of slavery was the slave’s hierarchical position in the economy and society. In the Torah, slaves are legally protected against abuse. Their master may punish them but if he kills the slave during punishment, he will suffer vengeance (Ex 21:20-21), if their master was treating them harshly, they could run away and were not allowed to be returned to the abusive master (Deut 23:15), and they were to only serve for a maximum of seven years and when they went out they were to be well supplied with livestock, grain, and wine so that they would not fall back into slavery quickly (Deut 15:13-15). In many of the other nations, slaves had no such rights. If they ran away from an abusive master, they must be returned. In Nuzi (Assyria), debt slavery was widespread and enslavement was allowed to last up to 50 years. The harsh enslavement wasn’t simply as bad as forced labor and loss of personal freedom, it was a permanent domination of the person forcing them to live in a general state of dishonor; it was a “social death” that in many cases could not be escaped from. This was abuse of the system and was understood as unjust even in pagan nations, yet many scholars of the ancient Near East have noted that only in the Torah are there laws which provide protection against such abuse. Israel, having lived through the horrors of the abuse of this social-economical system, is constantly reminded to treat the slaves as well as others who are at a weakened social status in the same respectful manner which they would treat any other citizen of the kingdom of God.
 Willem VanGemeren, ed., New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1997), 1184.
 Robert Gnuse, “Debt, Debtor,” ed. Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2006–2009), 76.
 Muhammad A. Dandamayev, “Slavery: Ancient Near East,” ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 59
 J. Albert Harrill, “Slavery,” ed. Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2006–2009), 300.
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