“Few and Unpleasant” – The Years of Jacob

Jacob before Pharaoh

After Joseph revealed his identity to his brothers, Pharaoh gave permission and provided the necessary resources to move Jacob and the rest of the family to Egypt (Genesis 45:16-23). When they arrived, Joseph introduced his father to Pharaoh.

Then Joseph brought his father Jacob and presented him to Pharaoh; and Jacob blessed Pharaoh. Pharaoh said to Jacob, ‘How many years have you lived?’ So Jacob said to Pharaoh, ‘The years of my sojourning are one hundred and thirty; few and unpleasant have been the years of my life, nor have they attained the years that my fathers lived during the days of their sojourning.’ And Jacob blessed Pharaoh, and went out from his presence” (Genesis 47:7-10).

The fact that only one statement from Pharaoh to Jacob is recorded – the question about the patriarch’s age – is significant. Pharaoh looked upon the elder Jacob as one to be admired for his longevity. Besides this, Pharaoh would have already known that he was blessed by the number of sons that he had. Pharaoh’s initial response indicated that he believed that Jacob’s life was one that most would desire.

Jacob told Pharaoh that he was one hundred and thirty years old. He would live another seventeen years in Egypt before he died (Genesis 47:28). Yet he described his years as “few.” This could partly be due to the fact that the patriarchs who came before him lived longer – Isaac lived one hundred eighty years (Genesis 35:28) and Abraham lived one hundred seventy-five years (Genesis 25:7). But besides this, the reality for all men is that life is short no matter how many years they live. We are “just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away” (James 4:14). Though Pharaoh may have looked up to Jacob for his long life, in the great scheme of things, Jacob’s years were “few.” The same is true for us as well.

In addition to describing his years as “few,” Jacob also called them “unpleasant.” Pharaoh saw Jacob as one who must have had a great life since he lived so long. The reality was that Jacob’s life was filled with hardship. Notice some of the trials that Jacob had to endure in his life:

  • Sibling rivalry – The struggle between Jacob and his brother Esau began before they were born (Genesis 25:22). After Jacob deceived his father and obtained the blessing, Esau planned to kill him (Genesis 27:1-41). The psalmist wrote, “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity!” (Psalm 133:1). Jacob did not get to experience this blessing as he grew up.
  • A deceptive father-in-law – When he agreed with Laban to marry his daughter Rachel, Laban deceived Jacob and tricked him into marrying Rachel’s sister Leah instead (Genesis 29:18-25). While Jacob worked for Laban – for Leah, Rachel, and his flocks – his father-in-law “cheated [him] and changed [his] wages ten times” (Genesis 31:7).
  • An idolatrous wife – After being deceived into marrying Leah, Jacob was able to take Rachel as a wife also (Genesis 29:27-28). “He loved Rachel more than Leah” (Genesis 29:30), yet it turned out that Rachel was not the best choice. When Jacob and his family fled from Laban, Rachel “stole the household idols” (Genesis 31:19). He would discover these later when God commanded them to “put away the foreign gods” which were in their possession (Genesis 35:2-4). It is interesting that Leah, not Rachel, was the one buried in the family burial plot at Machpelah (Genesis 49:31). The record states that Jacob preferred Joseph, not because he was Rachel’s son, but because “he was the son of his old age” (Genesis 37:3). Though it took some time, Jacob’s relationship with his idolatrous wife Rachel was eventually strained. God’s people are warned: “Do not be bound together with unbelievers” (2 Corinthians 6:14). The wife that Jacob preferred for so long turned out to be given to idolatry just as her father was.
  • Wicked sons – Jacob’s firstborn, Reuben, had sexual relations with his father’s concubine (Genesis 35:22). Simeon and Levi deceived and slaughtered the men of Shechem, thus threatening the safety of Jacob among the people of the land (Genesis 34:25-30). Judah convinced his brothers to sell Joseph into slavery (Genesis 37:26-28). Referring to one who refuses to follow the ways of God, Solomon wrote, “A foolish son is a grief to his father” (Proverbs 17:25). Jacob was grieved by the wickedness of his sons.
  • The loss of a child – Though Joseph was not killed by his brothers, Jacob had been led to believe that he had been (Genesis 37:31-33). Therefore, his grief was just as real as if Joseph had actually been killed. “So Jacob tore his clothes, and put sackcloth on his loins and mourned for his son many days. Then all his sons and all his daughters arose to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted” (Genesis 37:34-35).
  • Strife at home – This was a regular problem throughout the life of Jacob. He experienced a rivalry with his brother Esau (Genesis 27:1-41), contention between his wives (Genesis 30:1-2, 14-16), and the contempt of his sons against one of their brothers (Genesis 37:2-4). The wise man wrote, “Better is a dish of vegetables where love is than a fattened ox served with hatred” (Proverbs 15:17). The picture we get of Jacob’s home life contains more hatred than love.
  • Constant wandering – When Jacob spoke with Pharaoh, he referred to his life as his “sojourning” (Genesis 47:9). Like his father and grandfather, he lived as a pilgrim in the land of promise. The end of his life was spent away from the land in Egypt.

Many of the hardships Jacob faced were consequences for his own faults. Some, however, simply happened to him through no fault of his own. The record of Jacob’s life – as well as the rest of the Old Testament – was “written for our instruction” (Romans 15:4). His example is there to remind us of the importance of doing what is right so that we might avoid unnecessary hardships and learn how to deal appropriately with all of the challenges we face.

Our years will be few (James 4:14). At times they will be unpleasant (Job 14:1; 1 Peter 4:12). We must not focus so much on the disappointments of this life that we forget to prepare for life after death. Let us serve God faithfully in the time that we have so that after our “few and unpleasant” years on the earth are over, we can look forward to eternal and perfectly blessed years in heaven.

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  1. Andy,

    You always do a nice job with your articles. I found this one especially engaging. Permission to “borrow?” haha

  2. Thanks, Devin. Absolutely, feel free to borrow these anytime.