The Complexity of Pain and the Plight of the Sojourn

by Matt LaMaster September 1, 2016

"...my years have been few and evil..." Genesis 47:9 

This does not sit well with us. We want resolution. We want pain washed away. We want hope, we want joy, we want conclusion. Maybe that's why we don't tell this story. I have never heard a sermon on this text; you probably have not either. But let us learn what this tale would teach us. 

The two were antithetical. Pharaoh was arguably the world’s most powerful man. Primarily due to Joseph’s machinations, Pharaoh’s might exponentiated both inside his own realm and outside of it. He was at his height - stable, wealthy, and respected. 

The other is known as the man who wrestled God. We like theologies of glory. "He strived with God and won." Jacob, Israel, the heir of the patriarchs. Son of Isaac, grandson of Abraham. The crafty brother of Esau. 

We tend to forget that Jacob's primary vocation was “refugee.” He knew more pain than joy. As common as his shepherd's crook was his sword. Jacob spent more of his years depressed than peaceful. This was a man who could only dream of Shalom. It is his dreams we remember, not often his life. 

Let us number his sorrows: 

1. Since birth, he lived in strife with Esau (Gen 26:23-26). 

2. His mother manipulated him to steal his brother's blessings in a tug-o-war of love (Gen 27). 

3. He endured his distant father’s decrepidity before he left Canaan (Gen 27). 

4. Esau’s wives brought sorrow to his parents (Gen 26:34-35). 

5. He fled from his brother for fear of his life (Gen 27:45). 

6. No reconciliation is articulated between he and his father, no restoration of he to his mother: only funeral dirges (Gen 35:29). 

7. He fell in love with a woman, only to be deceived by her father into marrying the sister (Gen 29:1-30). 

8. He labored seven years twice to marry Rachel (Gen 29:1-30). 

9. Afterwards, the sisters were in constant conflict over him, vying for his affections with their slaves, their bodies, and their children (Gen 29:31-24). 

10. For twenty years he endured employment by his father-in-law, who changed his wages ten times (not commensurate with inflation, we assume!) (Gen 31:7). 

11. After he left, Laban pursued Jacob with the sword (Gen 31:22-24). 

12. Anxiety and insecurity led up to his reunion with Esau and a certain aloofness followed (Gen 32-33). 

13. His daughter, Dinah, was kidnapped and raped. To restore her, his sons put his life in danger by razing the perpetrator’s city (Gen 34). 

14. His son seduced his concubine (Gen 35:22). 

15. As soon as he had built a home (Gen 33:17-18), God called him to move (Gen 35:1. 

16. Rachel died before they settled (Gen 35:16-21). 

17. He fought the Amorites in mountain warfare (Gen 48:22). 

18. His favorite son Jacob was ostracized by his brothers, and he believed, torn to pieces by the terrors of the wilderness. He wept and refused to be comforted (Gen 37:1-36). 

19. As an old man, his estate was endangered by a devastating famine (Gen 42). 

20. His son was taken from him by a foreigner in exchange for food (Gen 42:12-17). 

21. This same man required to see the remaining son of Rachel for more food (Gen 43). 

22. After Joseph’s revelation, his family trudged from the land of his inheritance into exile, there his days were ended (Gen 46). 

Jacob's blessings never came apart from his trials; it is the double hand of God on his life. 

Pharaoh was powerful, Jacob was weak. Pharaoh was steady, Jacob was a sojourner. Pharaoh was a mighty commander, Jacob was a refugee. 

Is it any wonder that when this powerful monarch met this decrepit father, Jacob told him, "The days of the years of my sojourning are 130 years. Few and evil have been the days of the years of my life, and they have not attained to the days of the years of the life of my fathers in the days of their sojourning"? What was the cause of his pain? Is there one answer? All the answers run towards Genesis 3 like tributaries to a river. Jacob was affected by total depravity, both his own and others' as well. 

Jacob's story tells us pain is complex, not simple. The hurts which time can inflict over 130 years is overwhelming in breadth and depth. Why would anyone want to live as long as Jacob? His life was a complex one. One of frustration, of mourning, of restlessness. This is the plight of the sojourn. Grief is like a blanket over many years of tears. Do not think to unravel it quickly. 

What happens when they meet? Does Jacob honor Pharaoh? Does Jacob prostrate himself or thank him? 

The text is clear in telling us that Jacob blessed Pharaoh twice (47:8,10). This emphasis has meaning. The greater blessed the lesser. Melchizedek blessed Abraham. Abraham blessed Isaac. Isaac blessed Jacob. Jacob blessed Joseph. 

Why is the nomad Jacob considered greater than the powerful Pharaoh? 

The book of Hebrews gives us a clue:

"And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect." (Hebrews 11:39-40)

Jacob was a sojourner, expecting of Abraham's God what God had promised - the covenant, the land, the Messiah. Jacob was not satisfied with what life gave to him, because a story like his almost demanded a better resolution, a better conclusion, a better end. 

This Israel was altogether nothing and everything like the Israel to come. For like his father Jacob, Jesus of Nazareth was a sojourn, numbered among the pitiful, taking the full treatment of pain this world offers. And as Jacob ended his plight in Egypt, the Prince of Life ended his journey in death. Blessed are the sojourns, for they are like their Savior. 

But God drew forth Christ from the grave, like one does water at a well. This is the end of Jacob’s sojourning. This is the hope we share with Jacob. Hope is like honey on the tongue for the hurting. In this hope, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and all those who follow, will bow the knee and worship, forever and ever. There, they - and we together with them - will find rest. 

A version of this post originally appeared on thinkcredo.org.