When we think of the sovereign hand of God at work, we often see it in big, sweeping moves in the Scripture. We watch the Lord perform miracles to move people from place to place like parting the Red Sea. We see the Lord do mighty works in the hearts of people to bring them to repentance as he did in Nineveh in the days of Jonah. But sometimes the sovereign hand of God is far more subtle.
God had a plan in the Old Testament to grow for himself a nation. God chose Israel, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to be the nation that would carry his promise of blessing for the world. This nation would be a people for the display of the glory of God and for bringing the Messiah into the world through their bloodline.
Part of how God chose to do this was to grow the nation away from the promised land. God would form Israel into a people while in Egypt. But how would God do that without seeing the nation influenced and changed by Egyptian culture and religion? How could God place the nation in an incubator for growth in its infancy?
Genesis 46:33-34 – 33 When Pharaoh calls you and says, ‘What is your occupation?’ 34 you shall say, ‘Your servants have been keepers of livestock from our youth even until now, both we and our fathers,’ in order that you may dwell in the land of Goshen, for every shepherd is an abomination to the Egyptians.”
Joseph, in bringing his brothers into the land, highlights a curious fact for them to know. If the people of Israel refer to themselves as shepherds, they will be placed in the land of Goshen, away from the main culture of Egypt. Why? The Egyptians had developed a prejudice against shepherds. They simply thought of shepherds as gross, nasty people. Thus, if the Israelites were willing to claim that identity, they could have their own space, free from the influence of Egypt. The nation would land in its incubator.
This is a sweet picture of small-scale sovereignty. No person would think that the development of a prejudice against shepherds would be a picture of the mighty hand of God at work. But why not? Why not recognize that this repulsion, this white-collar looking down on the rednecks who keep sheep, is truly the hand of God at work. If the Egyptians do not think of shepherds as yucky, Israel does not have its own place to stay. But since they do, since that particular social prejudice developed, God had exactly the spot where Israel could grow totally free of Egyptian influence, at least for a few centuries. This is God making his plan happen, God being sovereign, God moving a nation, but doing it through a tiny, barely noticeable sovereignty.