Musings about the Joseph Story

I’m doing the One Year Bible readings (works great on my Nook), and am just finishing Genesis.

We’ve all heard countless sermons about Joseph’s miraculous rise to the Number Two spot in Egypt. But I’ve never heard a sermon from Genesis 47, which tells how he carried out his job during the famine years.

By this time, his family has settled in Egypt, in the land of Goshen–the best land in Egypt. I imagine other families were expelled from Goshen to make room for Jacob’s clan and all their herds. That probably made some people mad, people capable of holding multi-generational grudges (not unlike today’s Palestinians).

(By the way–I wonder if Joseph and the brothers ever told Jacob what had really happened. About Joseph being sold into slavery, rather than being killed by an animal. I’ll bet they agreed, “Hey, Dad’s an old man. He can’t handle hearing this,” and that Jacob never learned the true story.)

Anyway, when the 7 years of famine struck (after the 7 good years), Joseph had enough food stored up to feed the Egyptian people. But he didn’t just give it away. No, he made them pay for it. Even though they had already grown it.

First, Joseph took their money, until they didn’t have any more to give. Then he took their livestock as payment, until, as the Bible says, Pharoah owned all the horses, sheep, donkeys, goats, and cattle in the land. When they had no more livestock to trade for food, he took their land. The people, understandably, freely gave up everything to get food. When they had no more assets to give, they gave themselves as slaves.

In the end, Joseph had pretty much nationalized the whole Egyptian economy. He controlled the food supply, owned every piece of land, owned all the livestock, and owned the very people as slaves. Everything now belonged to Pharoah. And Joseph had made it happen.

Throughout this, God’s direction is never mentioned, nor did Joseph give glory to God in any way. The reason, I’m sure, is that God didn’t want anythng to do with it. That’s not the way God wants people to govern.

Again, I’ve never, not once, heard a sermon even mention this. Kind of hard to explain to kids, how this is the same guy with the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

But consider Joseph’s dilemma. With his family in the land, Joseph lost much of his own freedom. He couldn’t act out of principle. Not anymore. Because if he displeased Pharoah in any way, not only might his own life be forfeit (like that poor baker’s), but so might the lives of all of his family. He had to protect them, and that meant doing whatever it took to appease Pharoah.

I imagine this weighed heavily on Joseph. He knew that, when he was out of the picture, his family–whom he had brought to Egypt, and sheltered, and provided for–would be in grave danger. That’s why he talked to them about returning to Canaan once he was gone.

Exodus tell us that a king “who knew not Joseph” came to power. Maybe some of this king’s friends or relatives were among those former Goshen-dwellers whom the Israelites displaced, and they wanted revenge. Exodus 1 says enemies engaged in fear-mongering about these immigrants, saying they were becoming too numerous and might help overtake the country (sounds like Americans talking about Hispanic or Muslim immigrants). And fear worked. Whereas the whole rest of Egypt had been enslaved under Joseph, now the Jews–Joseph’s people–became slaves. Payback.

Just some interesting musing about the potential backstory.

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3 Comments to Musings about the Joseph Story

  1. Very interesting thoughts, Steve. I’ve briefly wondered about the mercenary aspects of those last 7 years, but didn’t really research (or ponder) God NOT having anything to do with it. I just figured that, like the way Potipher prospered under Joseph’s management, this is what happened to Egypt. Goes to show, we only skim the surface of God’s word in our reading and study. Thanks!

  2. david Atherton

    Interesting. “All scripture is given by inspiration and is profitable for doctrine, teaching, reproof….” We also know a lot of things in the Bible are there for our instruction. Sometimes the example is so we do good and other times it is so we do not do bad.

    This is an area where I can recall being angry about the line if I recall where he moved people around the country from one side to the other.

    It is absolutely true that you can absord a certain amount of foreign influence but too much will overwhelm the existing people. I think Geronimo wrote a treatsie on this.

    Thanks for a great article Steve.

  3. Rand Fennig

    Steve, This is way late but I was just perusing some of your writings when I came across this article. This has also troubled me but thanks to your piece I started thinking about it a bit differently. What if we look at this from the perspective of faith? Presumably Pharaoh’s dream and Joseph’s interpretation was well known throughout the land. If it had not been known it would have been really hard to sell a 20% tax even for Pharaoh. If that assumption is true then people had a choice for seven years; they could eat, drink and be merry and complain about taxes or they could tighten their belts and live on half their income and be set for the hard times coming. Their decision was really based on what they believed.

    There is also a cautionary tale here. How many of us think that Social Security will fail? How many take steps for ourselves if it does? I can easily imagine our government doing exactly what Joseph did. Say someone reaches retirement with some assets, say a couple of hundred thousand, but not enough to see them through retirement, the deal could be you give us your assets and we will pay your pension. That is already what happens with Medicaid for long-term end of life care.

    Anyway thanks for the thought provoker.

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