A Commentary by John Stott

Stephen’s defence – (ii) Joseph (7:9-16).

We note at once that, if Mesopotamia was the surprising context in which God appeared to Abraham (7:2). Egypt was the equally surprising scene of God’s dealings with Joseph. Six times in seven verses Stephen repeats the word ‘Egypt’, as if to make sure that his hearers have grasped its significance. This was the ‘country not their own’ in which Abraham’s descendants would be strangers and slaves for 400 years (6), and it was owing to the patriarchs’ jealousy of their younger brother Joseph that the migration took place (9). Though Joseph was now a foreigner and a slave in Egypt, however, *God was with him* (9). In consequence, God *rescued him from all his troubles* (the ‘troubles’ being a euphemism for his unjust imprisonment by Potiphar), and *gave* him *wisdom* (especially to interpret dreams), so that he gained *the goodwill of Pharaoh* and was promoted to be *ruler over Egypt* (10).

God was not only with Joseph but also with all his family, for he saved them from starvation during the famine (11). The venue for this divine deliverance was Egypt too. Stephen outlines the three visits to Egypt paid by Joseph’s brothers, the first to get grain (12), the second when Joseph made himself known to them (13), and the third when they brought their father Jacob with them, together with their wives and children, making *seventy-five in all* (14). This is the number given in the LXX translation of Genesis 46:27 and Exodus 1:5, although the Hebrew text in both verses has seventy, the discrepancy being probably due to whether Joseph’s sons are included in the total or not. It is difficult for us to imagine, and indeed Stephen does not mention, how traumatic this descent into Egypt must have been to Jacob. He surely knew that in an earlier famine the Lord had specifically forbidden his father Isaac to ‘go down to Egypt’, telling him instead to remain in the promised land. (Gen.26:1ff). Did this ban include Jacob too? It was doubtless to allay Jacob’s qualms that at Beersheba, near the border between Canaan and Egypt, God told him in a night vision not to be afraid to ‘go down to Egypt’, for he would go down with him, bless him there and ultimately bring him back (Gen.46:1ff; cf. 28:10ff.). So *Jacob went down to Egypt* (15). And there he and his sons died, far from the promised land, to which they never returned. Only *their bodies were brought back* to be buried (16).

There were two patriarchal burial grounds in Canaan. The first was the field and cave of Machpelah near Hebron, which Abraham bought from Ephron the Hittite (Gen.23); the second was a plot of ground near Shechem, which Jacob bought from the sons of Hamor (Gen.33:18-20). Some commentators have made fun of Stephen (or Luke) for confusing these, since he speaks of Abraham buying the Shecham tomb, instead of Jacob. But it is antecedently unlikely that Stephen, with his intimate knowledge of the Old Testament, would have made this mistake. It is better to conclude either that Jacob bought the Shechem burial ground in Abraham’s name, since he was still alive at the time, or that, in giving an omnibus account of the burial of all the patriarchs, Stephen deliberately conflated the two sites, since Jacob was buried at his own request in the field of Machpelah (Gen.47:29-30; 49:29-33; 50:12-14), whereas Joseph’s bones were buried many years later at Shechem. (Gen.50:26; Jos.24:32).


Tomorrow: (iii) Moses (Acts 7:17-43).

The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Acts. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.