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B'resheet/Genesis 47:3 And Pharaoh said to his brothers, "What is your occupation?" And they said to Pharaoh, "Your servants are shepherds of the flock - we and our fathers."
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Here is half of the conversation between Pharaoh and the brothers of Yosef. Yosef had picked five of them - and, of course, there is debate about which five and why - and presented them to Pharaoh. As expected with court protocol, Pharaoh initiates the conversation by asking a question and, as Nahum Sarna points out, "Pharaoh had not yet been told anything about the brothers, so his question is not surprising and was anticipated by Yosef." In the previous chapter, the Torah tells us how Yosef primed his brothers with exact instructions about what they were to say, including this very question and answer but - as the narrator tells us - they didn't comply with the script Yosef had given them. What happened?
Richard Elliott Friedman explains that "Yosef has just told them not to answer Pharaoh that they are shepherds (46:33-34), yet they go ahead and say it! He has told them to say that they are cowherds, not shepherds, because Egyptians disdain shepherds; but they are not willing to misrepresent themselves in this way. Are they right? On the one hand, Pharaoh does permit them to settle and offers them the best of Egypt's land. But on the other hand, Pharaoh stops speaking directly to them. He switches to speaking about them in the third person to Yosef." Let's examine this in a little more detail.
In the briefing, Yosef was very clear: "When Pharaoh summons you and asks, 'What is your occupation?' you shall answer, 'Your servants have been breeders of livestock from the start until now, both we and our fathers'" (B'resheet 46:33-34, NJPS). Yosef uses the words, , a construct that we might translate literally as "men of cattle". David Clines tells us that , an ms noun from the root , "to buy, purchase, acquire, get, gain"1, most frequently refers to "possessions consisting of cattle and livestock". Although breeding and raising livestock is clearly a large part of the business, it also covers the buying and selling of animals and encompasses a mixed range of stock, "usually cows and sheep, but also camels, horses, asses"2 as Moshe will later warn the Pharaoh of his time, "the hand of the L-RD will strike your livestock in the fields - the horses, the asses, the camels, the cattle, and the sheep" (Shemot 9:3, NJPS). In particular, the phrase implies men who own their own cattle, rather than simply working for others.
When the brothers spoke to answer Pharaoh, on the other hand, they used the rather different words in our text: . The word has the usual colloquial meaning "flock", which Clines expands to "small livestock beasts, i.e. sheep and goats."3 Moreover, the phrase , "shepherd of the flock" does not necessarily mean someone who owned their own flock, but may well imply working for a farmer or owner in the same way as Ya'akov did for Laban and Moshe will do for his father-in-law. Lastly, we might have expected , the plural construct form, as the brothers emphasise that "your servants, we and our fathers" are shepherds. Why did they use the singular form? RabbiHirsch proposes that they meant, "we, your servants belong to the cast of shepherds." We - collectively - are shepherds; we all carry out the function of a shepherd.
It seems that shepherds get bad press in Second Temple times. They spend all hours of the night and day, in all types of weather, out on the hills and fringes of the wilderness, looking after sheep. Sheep, in turn, are commonly thought to be one of the most stupid of G-d's creatures: willful, headstrong, oblivious to risk, disobedient and prone to scatter a moment's notice. No wonder Isaiah likened mankind to sheep: "All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned - every one - to his own way" (Isaiah 53:6). By nature of working hands-on with smelly and dirty creatures, shepherds inevitably became like them: smelly and dirty! Scholars suggest that shepherds were among the lowest social classes in biblical israel, often treated as the butt of humour. On the other hand, shepherds were also widely recognised due to their critical value to the wider economy and their essential connection to the temple industry - breeding and raising the sacrificial animals used every day in Jerusalem and sold to pilgrims from a distance who cannot bring their own animals.
More, the biblical heritage of the shepherd is quite impressive. During Moshe's flight from the Egyptian Pharaoh, he watered the sheep being looked after by the seven daughters of the priest of Midian, one of whom he married before sitting out the rest of the Pharaoh's reign as a shepherd so that whenHaShem called him, he was "tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian, [and] drove the flock into the wilderness" (Shemot 3:1, NJPS). The Midrash tells a story of Moshe finding a run-away sheep drinking because it was thirsty and he cared for it so, "G-d said: Because you had mercy in leading the flock ... by your life, you will tend My flock Israel" (Shemot Rabbah 2.2). Moshe learned to lead the people by shepherding Jethro's sheep. David too learned his skills as a leader by looking after his father Jesse's sheep, as the Psalmist tells us: "[HaShem] chose David, His servant, and took him from the sheepfolds. He brought him from minding the nursing ewes to tend His people Jacob, Israel, His very own. He tended them with blameless heart; with skillful hands he led them" (Psalm 78:70-72, NJPS).
Many times the Scriptures refer to G-d Himself as the Shepherd of Israel: in Psalms and prayers, "You led Your people like a flock in the care of Moshe and Aharon" (Psalm 77:21, NJPS), "He set His people moving like sheep, drove them like a flock in the wilderness" (78:52, NJPS); in prophecy, "Like a shepherd He pastures His flock: He gathers the lambs in His arms and carries them in His bosom; gently He drives the mother sheep" (Isaiah 40:11, NJPS); and in direct speech from G-d, "I Myself will graze My flock, and I Myself will let them lie down - declares the Lord G-D. I will look for the lost, and I will bring back the strayed; I will bandage the injured, and I will sustain the weak; and the fat and healthy ones I will destroy. I will tend them rightly" (Ezekiel 34:15-16, NJPS). G-d also promises that He will give His people good shepherds, "shepherds after my own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding" (Jeremiah 3:15, ESV), one shepherd in particular: "I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd" (Ezekiel 34:23, ESV) adding, "My servant David shall be king over them, and they shall all have one shepherd. They shall walk in my rules and be careful to obey my statutes" (37:24, ESV).
Who is this shepherd to be? In the famous passage that speaks of Messiah being born in Bethlehem, the city of David and the centre of the Second Temple sheep industry, the prophet explains: "he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the L-RD, in the majesty of the name of the L-RD his G-d. And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth. And he shall be their peace" (Micah 5:4-5, ESV). Yeshua proclaimed that He is the shepherd who fulfills all of these passages, when He said, "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep" (John 10:11, ESV) and then went on to lay down His life for the sheep at the cross. Yeshua united the flock of Israel with those called from the nations, so that "there will be one flock, one shepherd" (v. 16, ESV). All G-d's people will be shepherded - look after, cared for, fed, disciple, comforted, healed - by Yeshua.
As Yosef's brothers told Pharaoh, "we are shepherds", so we - Jew and Gentile, members of the Body of Messiah - are shepherds among G-d's people today. Peter makes this clear, firstly by referring to Yeshua as "the Chief Shepherd" (1 Peter 5:4), which implies that there are under-shepherds, responsible to Him for shepherding the flock He places in their care, and secondly by instructing elders and others called to the role of shepherd to "shepherd the flock of G-d that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as G-d would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock" (vv. 2-3, ESV). We are to lead and encourage those whom Yeshua places in our care or influence; we lead them to food and water, we bind up their wounds and defend them - self-sacrificially if necessary - from attack, we pick them up and carry them; everything a shepherd would do for his sheep. Smelly and dirty work sometimes? Certainly, we are talking about people just like you or me, but that is what shepherds do: get their hands dirty for the sake of the flock, to save life and to heal, to feed and to nurture. It is what Yeshua does for us!
1. - David J. A. Clines (ed.) The Concise Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2009), page 397.
2. - Clines, page 241.
3. - Clines, page 372.
Further Study: Zechariah 11:15-17; Matthew 9:36-38; John 10:1-5; Hebrews 13:20-21
Application: Are you being a shepherd to your brothers and sisters in the Body of Messiah, caring for and leading them, teaching and encouraging them, being Yeshua for them at times of need? Speak to the Chief Shepherd to find out how He wants you to minister to those around you and shepherd His flock.
Comment - 10:30 25Dec22 HMW: Excellent study. Thank you.
Comment - 11:23 25Dec22 Bob Blicksilver: Your drash helpfully reminds us that, just as the shammash/servant candle of the Chanukkiah is indispensable for lighting (inspiring) the other candles, Yeshua's shepherds (all disciples) should regularly seek opportunities for inspiring and attending to the needs of the flock, as well as the needs of fellow shepherds.
Comment - 06:26 26Dec22 Theo Bailey: Excellent study material, sincere thanks.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2022
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