"And Pharaoh said to his brothers, 'What is your occupation?' And they said to Pharaoh, 'Your servants are shepherds, both we, and our fathers'" Genesis 47:3

V As the strands of the Joseph story draw to a satisfying conclusion, there is an intriguing postscript to his reconciliation with his brothers. Joseph reveals his true identity to them, the family is reunited in Egypt and preparations are made for them to settle there.

Joseph informs Pharaoh that his brothers have come to Egypt with flocks and herds and he chooses five brothers to present to Pharaoh. Joseph instructs the brothers to dissemble if and when Pharaoh asks what their occupation is. He tells them to say that they are breeders of livestock because "all shepherds are abhorrent to Egyptians".

Naturally, Joseph wants to ease their path and help them say the right thing to Pharaoh, so he will welcome them into Egypt. There are many possible explanations as to why shepherds were considered "abhorrent". Perhaps livestock breeders were more useful to Egyptians? Maybe shepherds were despised and derided as poor folk? Was Joseph - despite his superior position in Egyptian society - nervous of the task of integrating his family of shepherds?

Whatever the reason, it seems very odd that despite this clear instruction from Joseph, when Pharaoh asks them what they do, they say that they are shepherds - and have always been so.

If Joseph had been anxious as to Pharaoh's response to their answer, he was mistaken. On the contrary, he offers to employ the brothers to tend his own livestock and offers them good pasture land.

But why didn't Joseph's brothers - vulnerable as they were - obey instructions and describe themselves as livestock breeders instead of shepherds?

I wonder if the brothers simply told the truth because they could no longer lie about anything any more. Joseph and the brothers finally stand broken and revealed in their true identities after multiple deceit and betrayal. When Pharaoh asks "Who are you and what do you do?", they just told him... the truth.

Maureen Kendler

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