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B'resheet/Genesis 43:1 And the famine was heavy on the land.
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Our text is very short; just three words in biblical Hebrew, yet describes a time of crisis in the Land. According to the story later on (B'resheet 45:6), this is the second year of the seven-year famine of which Pharaoh dreamed andHaShem gave Yosef the interpretation. The seven good years had already been and gone and the known world is locked in famine. Bruce Walkte notes that "the phenomenon and the motif of seven-year famines are well documented in Egyptian and other ANE texts (for example, the prophet Gad asked David, 'Shall a seven-year famine come upon you in the land' (2 Samuel 24:13, NJPS)). However, it was unusual to have drought in both the Levant and Sudan, the source of the Nile on which rainless Lower Egypt in the north depended."FootBoteRef(1) The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery describes famine as "climatic variations that resulted in poor harvests and therefore severe shortages of food for both people and animals."2 We should notice that our text has no verbs; it is a noun sentence, having a noun at each end, an adjective in the middle.
The noun , the famine, comes from the root , to be hungry or, of land, to suffer famine.3 While the verb only appears thirteen times in the Hebrew Bible, the noun is used over a hundred times, sometimes for local times of famine or hunger - such as during a siege, "And there was a great famine in Samaria, as they besieged it, until a donkey's head was sold for eighty shekels of silver, and the fourth part of a kab of dove's dung for five shekels of silver" (2 Kings 6:25, NJPS) - and sometimes on a national or regional basis. Earlier in this parashah, the narrator tells us that "when the famine became severe in the land of Egypt, Yosef laid open all that was within, and rationed out grain to the Egyptians. The famine, however, spread over the whole world" (B'resheet 41:56, NJPS). What started as a national famine spread and covered the whole of the eastern end of the Mediterranean. Let's compare some of the other places where 'famine' is used and consider its effects and consequences.
Starting with Avram, is seems that no sooner had he arrived in Canaan, with his household and entourage from Haran, than famine strikes the Land: "There was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land" (12:10, NJPS). The last phrase of this verse uses very similar words to our text: . This too is a noun sentence, but here the adjective - , 'heavy' or 'severe' - has been placed at the front, followed by the two nouns. This gives the translation emphasis: "for-heavy the-famine in-the-land". Our text has the noun 'famine' at the front with a tipcha disjunctive accent, followed by the adjective and the second noun. This produces the emphasis, "and-the-famine, heavy in-the-land". The first emphasises the heaviness of the famine, the second the over-powering presence of the famine. Another passage also comes in this week's parashah: "So all the world came to Joseph in Egypt to procure rations, for the famine had become severe throughout the world" (41:57, NJPS). Here the last phrase is - although still translated 'severe' as in 12:10, the Hebrew verb has changed to , to become strong, hardened or urgent. Now the effects of the famine are compelling people to take action, to do things they otherwise would not have done.
So we find that "in the days of the judges, there was a famine in the land; and a man of Bethlehem in Judah, with his wife and two sons, went to reside in the country of Moab" (Ruth 1:1). Elimelech and his wife Naomi emigrate across the Jordan, out of the Land to the fields of Moab. Elimelech and his two sons die there, never to return, but Naomi and one of her daughters-in-law return when Naomi hears that "heard that the L-RD had taken note of His people and given them food" (v. 6, NJPS). Famine is seen as one of the ways in which the land disciplines the people who live in it, by which G-d gets the attention of His people who are not walking in His ways. We can see that often within the biblical narrative, famine is a precursor to exile. Through their misconduct or lack of faith, famine affects the people of Israel, so they leave or are forced to leave the Land, ceasing to trust G-d to provide for their needs. Once outside the Land, they become captive and enslaved, helpless without the hand of G-d to remedy their relationship with Him and return to their right place.
The family of Ya'akov left the Land and went down to Egypt, seeking relief from the famine: "They said to Pharaoh, 'We have come to sojourn in the land, for there is no pasture for your servants' flocks, for the famine is severe in the land of Canaan. And now, please let your servants dwell in the land of Goshen'" (B'resheet 47;4, NJPS). There they stay, well beyond the seven-year famine, and become slaves to Pharaoh and have to be rescued by G-d working through Moshe and Aharon. During the time of the kings, the Israelites turned away from G-d, worshiping idols and trusting in the surrounding nations - there was not only a physical famine due to the constant depredations of invading armies, there was a famine of faith and religious integrity. As a result, the Temple was destroyed and the people were sent into exile in Babylon, "in fulfillment of the word of the L-RD spoken by Jeremiah, until the land paid back its sabbaths; as long as it lay desolate it kept sabbath, till seventy years were completed" (2 Chronicles 36:21, NJPS). This was exactly in accordance with the Torah: "the land shall be abandoned by them and enjoy its Sabbaths while it lies desolate without them, and they shall make amends for their iniquity, because they spurned my rules and their soul abhorred My statutes" (Vayikra 26:43, ESV) - a judgement upon the people for their disregard of HaShem and their covenant obligations.
Although some of the times of famine recorded in the Bible are not connected with moral or spiritual lapse, it is clear that others are dramatically associated with breaking the covenant, so that the relief of the famine can be directly related to the willingness of the people to repent and seek HaShem. An example of the former is the famine during the days of Claudius - "[One of the prophets] named Agabus stood up and foretold by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over all the world (this took place in the days of Claudius)" (Acts 11:28, ESV) - while an example of the latter is surely the famine announced by Elijah to King Ahab because "Ahab did more to vex the L-RD, the God of Israel, than all the kings of Israel who preceded him" (1 Kings 16:33, NJPS). In a time of disobedience, falling away, disrespect of G-d and the worshiping of idols, famine is one of the strongest warnings that G-d can give and is followed by exile.
Amos, one of the earliest of the 'written' prophets, spoke to the northern kingdom of Israel and warned them of the disaster that was coming upon them for the many ways in which they ignored or broke His covenant with them. Only a few years later, they were invaded, defeated by and taken into forced exile by the Assyrians - from which they never returned. Amos said to the people, "A time is coming -- declares my L-rd G-D -- when I will send a famine upon the land: not a hunger for bread or a thirst for water, but for hearing the words of the L-RD. Men shall wander from sea to sea and from north to east to seek the word of the L-RD, but they shall not find it" (Amos 8:11-12, NJPS). Perhaps we can see that same situation arising in our modern world today, where G-d is ignored, His words are twisted, changed and re-arranged to say - sometimes - the opposite of what the original said, and even those who say that they are believers disobey His covenant and encourage others to do likewise. We should be preparing for a time of exile, when although not geographically displaced, the disciples of Yeshua will find themselves in exile from a world that does not want to know, speaks a different language and rejects our values and traditions.
On the other hand, in the midst of exile, we have Rav Sha'ul's words to encourage us. Writing to the congregations in Rome, he asked them, "Who shall separate us from the love of Messiah? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?" (Romans 8:35, ESV). Do you see famine in his list? Famine is a current physical reality for many people today, not just in the third world. But famine cannot separate us from Yeshua and from His love for us. Neither can tribulation, distress, persecution, nakedness, danger or the sword. All of these afflict people today, but G-d's love is stronger than any (or all) of them. Paul concludes: "I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of G-d in Messiah Yeshua our Lord" (vv. 38-39, ESV). And he should know, since he suffered many of these things in his ministry in the first century, spreading the gospel around the Roman empire, finally being martyred in Rome.
In these days, when we sense the famine - the famine of which Amos speaks, the famine of the word of G-d in our lands - heavy on the land and see the approach of exile each day, how will we respond? Will we flee to a place of supposed safety, or will we stand firm in our land, come what may, to give testimony to the word and works of our G-d and His Son Yeshua?
1. - Bruce K. Waltke with Cathi J. Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), page 536.
2. - Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, Tremper Longman III (eds.), Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1998), page 267.
3. - David J. A. Clines (ed.) The Concise Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2009), page 425.
Further Study: 1 Kings 8:37-39; Psalm 33:18-22; Ezekiel 14:13-14; Romans 8:35-39
Application: When faced with a challenge, do you run away, batten down the hatches and self-isolate, or face the challenge and refuse to back down? G-d is looking for people who will stand on the truth of His word and declare that truth so that everyone may hear. Will you hear His call today?
Comment - 10:02 28Nov21 Tim: This is a most important, dare I say "prophetic(?)", drash. I have been much exercised this last couple of years by the methodology of divine action highlighted in Torah, not least in dramatic sections of Leviticus 26 applied to God's paradigm nation, and wondering how that applies to a nation like ours that has had a legal system founded on the Word of God since Alfred the Great but has dramatically abandoned this foundation and the God of Israel over the last century - especially in my lifetime.
Comment - 10:08 28Nov21 Joshua VanTine: A "heavy" and "overpowering" drash with massive prophetic undertones for where the talmid, disciples of Moshiach Yeshua HaNotzri find themselves today. The potentially emunah,faith suffocating list of trials in Romans 8 to extinguish His light in our lives is here and the next few years will only see the intensity increase as we move to Agenda 2030. Baruch HaShem! We can choose to stand and shine ever brighter, with shalom and simcha in Moshiach Yeshua. May we be found prepared and with a abundance of oil for our lamps for the coming night!
Comment - 09:42 01Dec21 Janet Gray: Amein, Josh and Jonathan. Interesting arena for open discussions on faith are "The Stand in The Park" gatherings. Admittedly there is a mixture of views but the fact is there are individual men and women who will discuss the Bible and Yeshua in a fresh and positive way. In a time where street evangelization is almost banned Our Heavenly Father is making His Name known, Halleluyah. Praying Isaiah 40:5.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2021
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