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In Genesis 50:4-5 (ESV):

And when the days of weeping for him were past, Joseph spoke to the household of Pharaoh, saying, “If now I have found favor in your eyes, please speak in the ears of Pharaoh, saying, ‘My father made me swear, saying, “I am about to die: in my tomb that I hewed out for myself in the land of Canaan, there shall you bury me.” Now therefore, let me please go up and bury my father. Then I will return.’”

In Genesis 41, we see that Joseph is second only to Pharaoh

You shall be over my house, and all my people shall order themselves as you command. Only as regards the throne will I be greater than you.

In Genesis 45, we see that Joseph is "chief counselor", "confidant" or "authority" to Pharaoh. Link: What did Joseph mean that he was a father to Pharaoh?

So why did Joseph ask the household of Pharaoh to speak to Pharaoh on his behalf in Genesis 50? (i.e. why didn't Joseph just speak directly to Pharaoh)

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Genesis 41:29 Seven years of great abundance are coming throughout the land of Egypt, 30 but seven years of famine will follow them.

Joseph was extremely useful to Pharoah during the 7 years and plenty and the 7 years of famine, so he was the 2nd in command after only Pharoah. However, it was some years after the end of the famine that Jacob died.

Genesis 47:28

Jacob lived in Egypt seventeen years, and the years of his life were a hundred and forty-seven.

In the end, Joseph was a foreigner in Egpyt. Genesis 50:4-5 shows his gradual decline in power. Particularly he lost direct access to Pharoah.

It got much worse in Exodus 1:

6 Now Joseph and all his brothers and all that generation died, 7but the Israelites were exceedingly fruitful; they multiplied greatly, increased in numbers and became so numerous that the land was filled with them.

8Then a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt. 9“Look,” he said to his people, “the Israelites have become far too numerous for us. 10Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country.”

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Joseph was 30 years of age when God enabled him to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams with regard to the seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. Pharaoh then placed Joseph in charge of his palace and the whole land of Egypt. Joseph was second-in-command to Pharaoh (Genesis 41:41-44).

Later, Jacob is brought to Egypt and, at age 130, was presented by Joseph to Pharaoh (Genesis 47:9). At this point in time, Joseph enjoys the favour of Pharaoh who grants the best part of the land, the district of Rameses, to Joseph’s family (Genesis 47:11). After Jacob dies Joseph directs the physicians in his service to embalm his father in preparation for the journey to Canaan.

And the Egyptians mourned for him seventy days (Genesis 50:3).

That’s interesting. It wasn’t just Joseph and his family who mourned the death of Jacob. So did the Egyptians! Clearly, Joseph still commanded respect and was still in a place of privilege and authority.

Why, then, did Joseph not speak directly to Pharaoh with his request? Why did he ask those in Pharaoh’s court to plead for him? The Bible does not answer that question. Any suggestions as to why events unfolded in the way they are described in Genesis chapter 50 would be speculative. Perhaps, though, there is a clue in verse 4 where Joseph asks his representatives to say to Pharaoh, “If I have found favour in your eyes...”

Protocol and diplomacy are evident here. Joseph had the wisdom to get others in Pharaoh’s court to plead his case. That, of course, is purely my own opinion and is speculative.

After granting permission for Joseph to bury his father in Canaan we have further evidence of the high regard in which Pharaoh and his court held Joseph:

So Joseph went up to bury his father. All Pharaoh’s officials accompanied him – the dignitaries of his court and all the dignitaries of Egypt... Chariots and horsemen also went up with him. It was a very large company (Genesis 50:7-9).

That was a right royal send-off! Also, we must never forget that many years earlier, while Joseph languished in prison for a crime he did not commit,

The LORD was with Joseph, and gave him success in whatever he did (Genesis 39:23).

In all things, God is Sovereign and Joseph had finally learned humility before God:

Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:19-20).

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To understand the political dynamics of Joseph (and his house) with respect to Pharoah, it's good to know the background and what was driving this dynamic.

In Gen 45, Pharoah is in a weakened position of authority, which is why he turns to Joseph. Joseph advises Pharoah to execute a plan that will turn Egypt into a centrally controlled slave society with Pharoah and his household having profound control over everything.

The idea is that during the years of plenty, Pharoah will tax the people and collect food, and then during the years of famine, the food will be sold back to the people in exchange first for their possessions, then for their land, and finally for their freedom.

Here "slave society" needs to be understood properly. It was not like colonial-era West Indies slavery where people lived in slave quarters on a plantation, had no possessions, and were kept in chains. Rather they were subject to periods of forced labor, they could have their own possessions but had to rent agricultural land from Pharoah, no freedom of movement, heavy taxation, and there was incredible control of all economic activity (e.g. price controls, occupations required licenses, etc).

This was the transformation of Egyptian society orchestrated by Joseph in accordance to Pharoah's wishes. Indeed, from the historical record we can view middle kingdom Egypt as an immensely centralized society especially in comparison with its peers. I recommend this great youtube video, which even though it covers Egypt in a much later period (Pompey) it does cover many aspects of what it means for Pharoah to own the country in an enjoyable way. A direct source for corvee labor and taxation in the middle kingdom period is here.

Going back to Genesis, obviously Pharoah liked Joseph's proposal, and in order to execute it, gave Joseph great authority and granted special privileges to his household.

But the consequences of this centralization project were that

  1. Pharoah greatly increased his power and didn't need Joseph anymore

  2. Over time, the special exemptions given to Joseph's household were withdrawn and they were treated as slaves like everyone else, themselves victims of Joseph's far reaching vision.

It is for this reason that in Gen 50, long after the enslavement of Egypt, Joseph needs to ask Pharoah's household to speak for him - he is now on the outside of a vast and powerful bureaucracy that he created, so this is a foreshadowing of the loss of special privileges and exemptions for his descendents, which by the time of Exodus was complete.

This must be viewed as part of a recurring theme in the old testament, where something drives one of the patriarchs into Egypt, they engage in some kind of deception against the natives ("She is my sister!"), and it usually backfires, but then the LORD intervenes, saves the day, takes them out of egypt, and they leave with some Egyptian wealth to boot, hopefully after having learned a lesson.

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  • +1 for highlighting the political context and the centralisation of power in Genesis 47. I noticed the last recorded time of Joseph speaking directly to Pharaoh is at the start of Gen 47, before Joseph executes the centralisation project in the second half of the chapter
    – whiskey92
    Feb 15 at 5:05
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Quite frankly, it appears to me that for all of Joseph's power he's still regarded as a risk: he's very useful for Pharaoh, but is always suspected of potentially running away, should the opportunity present itself. Therefore, Pharaoh would be reluctant to let him leave Egypt. In a sense, he's still a prisoner. The large company given him for the burial might be a great honor, but it's also there to ensure that he returns as promised. It might be that for Joseph to ask Pharaoh personally for leave to go would be considered a humiliation; it might also be that if he did it personally and was refused his entire status would be at risk. So perhaps he feels it's better for him to work through intermediaries.

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