Jacob And Pharaoh: A Brief Encounter

Jacob and Pharaoh's brief interaction over Jacob's age raises many questions about the complex relationship between the two.

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Provided by the Union for Reform Judaism, the central body of Reform Judaism in North America.

Parashah Overview

  • Judah pleads with Joseph to free Benjamin and offers himself as a replacement. (44:18-34)

  • Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and forgives them for selling him into slavery. (45:1-15)

  • Although the famine still rages, Pharaoh invites Joseph's family to "live off the fat of the land." (45:16-24)

  • Jacob learns that Joseph is still alive and, with God's blessing, goes to Egypt. (45:25-46:33)

  • Pharaoh permits Joseph's family to settle in Goshen. Pharaoh then meets with Jacob. (47:1-12)

  • With the famine increasing, Joseph designs a plan for the Egyptians to trade their livestock and land for food. The Israelites thrive in Egypt. (47:13-27)

Focal Point

Joseph then brought his father Jacob and presented him to Pharaoh; and Jacob blessed Pharaoh. Pharaoh asked Jacob, "How many are the days of the years of your life?" And Jacob answered Pharaoh, "The days of the years of my sojourn [on earth] are 130 years. Few and hard have been the days of the years of my life, and they have not attained the life spans of my fathers during the days of their sojourns." Then Jacob blessed Pharaoh and left Pharaoh's presence" (Genesis 47:7-10).

Your Guide

Was this encounter between Pharaoh and Jacob a meeting of equals?

Why did Pharaoh ask Jacob his age, and what emotions seem to be underlying Jacob's response?

Why doesn't Pharaoh respond to Jacob's confessional outpouring?

What is the significance of the wording "days of the years" as opposed to just "years?"

What do you imagine was the content of Jacob's blessing to Pharaoh upon his arrival and departure?

By the Way…

"How many are the days of the years of your life?" This was asked wonderingly, such old age as Jacob reached being rare in Egypt. And since Jacob looked older than his years, the wonder was even greater (Sforno on Genesis 47:8 in his Commentary on the Torah).

It is only with a few select people that each day is full of importance and is considered by them as having a special meaning. A really true human being does not live years, but days…. Thus Pharaoh, too, says here: "How many are the days of the years of your life?" And in putting the question "How old are you?" in these words, he reveals the deep impression the dignified behavior of Jacob has made on him (Samson Raphael Hirsch on Genesis 47:8-9 in his translation of The Pentateuch, volume 1, 1959).

Our Sages tell us that when Jacob came to Egypt, the land was blessed by his presence and the famine ended. When Pharaoh saw that Jacob was so old, he was afraid that Jacob might not live much longer and that when he died, the blessing might cease. Jacob understood Pharaoh's intention and answered wisely that while he was indeed 130 years old, he was still much younger than his fathers [were when they died], and it was the troubles he had experienced that made him look so old (Sha-agat Aryeh on Genesis 47:9 in Torah Gems, volume 1, p. 332).

[Integrity] is the accrued assurance of [one's] proclivity for order and meaning--an experience that conveys some world order and spiritual sense, no matter how dearly it is paid for. It is the acceptance of one's one and only life cycle as something that had to be, and that, by necessity, permitted no substitutions; it thus means a new, a different love of one's parents. The lack or loss of this accrued ego integration is signified by the fear of death: the one and only life cycle is not accepted as the ultimate of life. Despair expresses the feeling that the time is now short, too short for the attempt to start another life and to try out alternate roads to integrity (Erik Erikson, The Eight Ages of Man, in which he characterizes the final stage of life as a struggle between "ego integrity and despair").

Do not go gentle into that good night, / Old age should burn and rave at close of day; / Rage, rage against the dying of the light (Dylan Thomas, "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night").

One can only imagine that Pharaoh, who was accustomed to being viewed as a god, was brought uncomfortably close to being reminded that he, too, was of flesh. Surely Jacob would have been able to read on Pharaoh's face the desire for him to quickly exit from this audience, and so he lets Pharaoh off the hook by blessing him and leaving. Thus ends Israel's first and only meeting with Egypt on an equal footing. From then on, the House of Israel would look upon Egypt only from a high station or from a low station--or glancing backward from the road as it flees toward its own Land (Joel Rosenberg, "Alternate Paths to Integrity: On Old Age in the Hebrew Bible" in A Heart of Wisdom, edited by Susan Berrin).

Og [Pharaoh's servant] would not believe his own eyes; he thought Abraham was standing before him, so close was the resemblance between Jacob and his progenitor. [The midrash assumes that this is the same Pharaoh whom Abraham encountered in Genesis 12.] Then Pharaoh asked about Jacob's age, to find out whether he actually was Jacob and not Abraham (Midrash HaGadol I, 692-3, as cited in Louis Ginzberg's The Legends of the Jews, volume 2, page 123).

On seeing kings of Israel, one says: "Blessed be the One who has imparted glory to those that fear God." On seeing non-Jewish kings, one says: "Blessed be the One who has imparted glory to God's creatures" (Talmud, B'rachot 58a).

And with what blessing did he bless him? That the Nile should rise to his feet (Rashi on Genesis 47:10).

Long live the king; long live the king! (II Samuel 16:16).

Your Guide

Which explanation for Pharaoh's question is the most plausible to you?

Which of the texts do you think best explains Jacob's response?

Where would you place Jacob on the scale between the two poles of ego integrity and despair, per Erikson?

How do Rosenberg and the Sha-agat Aryeh illuminate Pharaoh's character?

Take note of the fact that Jacob lived for another 17 years beyond this episode. (His final days are recounted in Genesis 47:28-50:14.) Did Jacob go "gently" or did he "rage against the dying of the light?"

Compare and contrast the three statements from B'rachot 58a, Rashi, and II Samuel that our tradition offers as possible blessings to Pharaoh.

How is Jacob and Pharaoh's encounter relevant to current world events?

D'var Torah

This brief encounter between Pharaoh, the ruler of Egypt, and Jacob, the spiritual patriarch of a fledgling tribe of nomads, raises a number of questions about power and spiritual leadership. How did these two leaders size each other up, and what did each intuitively understand about the other's authority and influence?

Was Pharaoh's question about Jacob's age an insulting attempt to control an old man, or was he looking to Jacob for spiritual advice and wisdom? Consider whether Jacob's revelation about his age was a calculated political move to assuage Pharaoh's fears or the confessional banter of a man expressing his own fears.

Were the blessings that Jacob offered Pharaoh upon his arrival and departure his own one-upmanship of a man who was considered a half-god, or were they a genuine spiritual offering? If theirs was a meeting of equals, as Rosenberg suggests, was there substance to their interchange, or was it a lost opportunity?

While we can't answer these questions definitively, pondering them offers us insight into the psychological and political complexities inherent in Jacob and Pharaoh's meeting and, by extension, in all human encounters.

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Rabbi Pamela Wax

Rabbi Pamela Wax is the assistant director of the URJ Department of Adult Jewish Growth.