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B'resheet/Genesis 47:27 And Israel dwelt in the land of Egypt, in the land of Goshen; and they took possession in her and they were fruitful and they multiplied very much.
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This is a summary of Israel's position and standing in the land of Egypt, some years after Ya'akov brought the whole family down to join Yosef - who is now the Grand Vizier of Egypt, second in command only to Pharaoh - during the years of the great famine. The verb that starts the first half of the verse, , is the Qal 3ms prefix form of the root , to sit or dwell, with a vav-conversive to make it past tense narrative: "And Israel dwelt". The rest of the verbs in the verse - , and - are all plural vav-conversive verbs, "and they ...", a point picked up by Nahum Sarna, who suggests that this "inconsistency is deliberate and the ambiguity intentional: Israel the individual merges with the national entity." Israel came down to Egypt and settled as one, but has now become many.Targum Onkelos emphasises this by changing the last phrase - which echoes the command given to Adam in the Garden, "Be fruitful and multiply" (B'resheet 1:28) to , "and they became numerous and they increased exceedingly." The Rashbam comments that "this verse should really have started the next portion, but the Jewish communities were unhappy to end this portion with Pharaoh's acquisitions," so this verse was retained at the end to balance and maintain Israel's status. In contrast to the Egyptians in the preceding verses - who were reduced to slavery, having sold all their animals and land to Pharaoh in order to buy food from Yosef on which to live - the Israelites have done very well for themselves: they have greatly increased in number, from a family to a nation, and they have become wealthy.
The verb starting the second half of the verse, , is the Nif'al prefix 3mp form of the root . Davidson lists the Qal meanings as "to seize, take or catch", and the Nif'al meaning as "to take or have possession". The English translations all follow this: "they acquired holdings in it" (JPS), "they gained possessions in it" (ESV).Rashi comments, "they bought houses and estates and formed landholdings." Sarna suggests that HaShem's blessing "bestowed on Ya'akov on his return from Haran, 'Be fertile and increase; a nation, yes, an assembly of nations, shall descend from you' (35:11, JPS), and reiterated as he was about to down to Egypt, 'Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make you there into a great nation' (46:3, JPS) is now in the process of being fulfilled." However, the natural passive meaning of the Nif'al voice - "to be caught" - is also available and Rabbi Hirsch makes a telling comment: that Israel "let themselves be gripped by the land." He proposes that this laid the roots of the sin which was later described so vividly in Ezekiel chapter 20.
Moshe warned the people of Israel very clearly about this as he spoke to them on the plains of Moab: "When the L-RD your G-d brings you into the land that He swore to your fathers, Avraham, Yitz'khak, and Ya'akov, to assign to you -- great and flourishing cities that you did not build, houses full of all good things that you did not fill, hewn cisterns that you did not hew, vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant -- and you eat your fill, take heed that you do not forget the L-RD who freed you from the land of Egypt, the house of bondage" (D'varim 6:10-12, JPS). It's a long sentence, but it's all there: being caught or gripped by the land - in this case, even the Land of Israel and all its blessings can act as a snare to take the people's attention away from G-d and from remembering that it is He who has provided everything and that He can (and will) take it all away again. Joshua warns the people again in very similar words, once the conquest of the Land is nearly complete: "I gave you a land on which you had not labored and cities that you had not built, and you dwell in them. You eat the fruit of vineyards and olive orchards that you did not plant" (Joshua 24:13, JPS). "Watch out!" Joshua is telling them, "This is about to be you. You are going to have to make a decision: to focus on serving the L-rd come what may, or trusting in your stuff."
Centuries later, after some of the exiles had returned from Babylon and were gathered in Jerusalem to fast and pray, to separate themselves from the influence of foreigners and to confess their sins, Nehemiah and the priests led the people in confessing that Moshe and Joshua had been right - that Israel had been so caught up with, so taken by, the Land and all its goodness that they turned again God: "And they captured fortified cities and a rich land, and took possession of houses full of all good things, cisterns already hewn, vineyards, olive orchards and fruit trees in abundance. So they ate and were filled and became fat and delighted themselves in your great goodness. Nevertheless, they were disobedient and rebelled against you and cast your law behind their back and killed your prophets, who had warned them in order to turn them back to you, and they committed great blasphemies" (Nehemiah 9:25-26, JPS). Notice again how similar the wording is: it is the plenty of the Land that has seized the people and held them back from serving G-d. Does that mean that the Land is evil or wicked? Not at all, for the Land of Israel is always watched by G-d; it is close to His heart, with Jerusalem its capital the apple of His eye. It is the people who cannot remain faithful to G-d in the presence of such abundance and bounty.
The world in which we live is still undergoing massive changes: many countries are seeing significant financial hardship; people that were rich or well-off are now becoming poor; the poor are becoming even poorer; countries are racked by civil war, ethnic and religious persecution; natural disasters strike seemingly helpless populations with increasing frequency. Rav Sha'ul know something of that instability in his everyday circumstances: "Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches" (2 Corinthians 11:25-28, ESV). And yet, at the same time, there is also plenty of money about - some people seem to be spending as if it is going out of fashion - they either have a very impressive (and scary) line of credit or they must be making money hand over fist. This abundance seems to be aligned with a rather poor sense of judgement concerning morality, behaviour, ethics and real lasting value. We might be tempted to conclude that these people do not know G-d. If they are aware of His commandments, they are ignored or treated with minimal concern. Short term missions workers come back from their trips to the poorer nations of the world with reports of the half-built concrete shells of new hospitals falling into disrepair when the foreign aid dried up, of real poverty and subsistence living among most of the population, while every other mother's son is walking around with a smart-phone surfing the Internet because providing world-wide 4G coverage and the ability to generate mobile 'phone tariff revenue takes priority over healthcare, education and nutrition.
We should be aware of the danger in which we live, pampered and surrounded by unimaginable luxury compared to many in this world. This is a not a call for everyone to follow Yeshua's words to the rich young ruler - "If you are serious about reaching the goal, go and sell your possessions, give to the poor, and you will have riches in heaven. Then come, follow Me!" (Matthew 19:21, CJB) - not only would that be unpopular and largely ignored, it would impoverish those who did hear and respond to no real purpose. Even if everyone who had more than £20,000 pounds to their name sold everything they had and gave it away, it would not be enough to solve third-world debt, eliminate child poverty and provide basic healthcare for everyone on the planet. It is, on the other hand, a call for everyone to be involved in doing something - to take a small part in rectifying the many systemic problems of graft, corruption and inefficiency. We can all pray and write letters. Rav Sha'ul wrote, "I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me" (Philippians 4:11-13, ESV). We can all learn to be content with what we have, to say 'no' to that extra helping of pudding or item of discretionary spending. A lot of small moves add up to more than a few big gestures!
Further Study: Jeremiah 2:31-32; Ezekiel 20:3-9; 1 Corinthians 4:10-13
Application: Where do you stand on abundance? Do you spend everything that is in your wallet and then some, or do you limit your expense and consumption of the world's resources and give sensibly to help give other people some of the benefits that you enjoy and take for granted every day?
© Jonathan Allen, 2016
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