December 15, 2006

Genesis 46-47: Power corrupts

Today's reading is Genesis 46-47 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers Jacob's arrival in Egypt; a brief genealogy of Jacob's sons and grandsons; the presentation of Jacob and his sons to the Pharaoh; and Joseph's behaviour during the years of famine.

As the musical sings, "poor, poor Joseph." It's easy to pity Joseph. After all, he was dealt a few bad hands in his life: he was nearly killed and then sold into slavery by his brothers, he was framed by his master's wife and imprisoned, he was left in prison for over two years, although innocent of any crime... it's a sad story.

Of course, it would be easy to feel bad for Joseph if he wasn't such a harsh man when he finally comes to power. Once he's securely Pharaoh's second-in-command, he seems to become twisted by his own importance.

I've already written about Joseph's treatment of his siblings. In short, he's not very nice. He deals harshly with them, frames them for theft, and throws them into prison. Surely this isn't the sort of familial behaviour the Bible wants to encourage, is it?

There are people who will defend Joseph's actions against his brothers. For one thing, they might say, Joseph's brothers started it. They were the ones that sold him into slavery. They were the ones that nearly murdered him. Joseph is just getting revenge on them for all the things they did to him. Furthermore, Joseph does eventually reveal himself to his brothers and forgive them. Indeed, he gives them some of the best land in all of Egypt.

These arguments are valid. We can probably forgive Joseph his treatment of his brothers. It is much more difficult, however, to forgive his treatment of his Egyptian subjects.

We remember that Joseph is in his position of high power because he predicted the years of famine would come after the years of plenty (Gen. 41:25-36). The years of famine weren't a surprise, they were the exact reason Joseph was in command in the first place. His sole job was to prepare for the famine.

Joseph did prepare during the years of plenty. In Gen. 41:48-49, we read that he stored the abundance of food during the seven plentiful years. He had so many stores of food that he stopped keeping records. There was just too much! And, initially, Egypt was well off during the famine (Gen. 41:56-57).

Here's where the trouble starts. We find out (Gen. 41:56) that Joseph was selling grain to the Egyptians. Not giving, but selling. We don't read whether Joseph bought that grain in the first place. If he did, and he was selling it back at the same price he bought it, perhaps we put the blame on the Egyptians for squandering their money in the intervening years. This is, of course, assuming Joseph told them the famine was coming. If he hadn't, they would have had no reason to save the money from their grain sales. Years will just continue to be plentiful, they may have thought.

If, however, Joseph did not buy the grain from the Egyptians, but took it from them, or if he sold the grain at higher prices than he bought it, he now begins upon a much darker path. If this is the case, he is effectively doing what many banks today do: charging people to use their own property.

It gets worse in today's reading, Gen. 47:13-26.

Here we learn that even Egypt is feeling the effects of the famine. Joseph, in selling back all the grain, effectively bankrupted the country. Gen. 47:14 tells us that there was no money left in all of Egypt, because Joseph had taken it all. No problem, says Joseph, give me your cattle instead of money. So Joseph proceeds to collect all the livestock in Egypt, as well as all the money. (Gen. 47:17)

Did I mention that all this occurred within one year?

The next year, the Egyptians find themselves in the same situation: hungry. Only this time, they don't have money or cattle. How are they going to buy grain now? Before Joseph has time to suggest anything, they offer him their land and their bodies. Essentially, they agree to become servants to Pharaoh. (Gen. 47:18-19) Joseph thinks this is perfectly acceptable. He buys up all the land in Egypt for Pharaoh, and places all the people in a state of servitude. (Gen. 47:20-1) To reflect the new ownership of the land, he exacts a 20% tax on all the grain that is grown throughout Egypt. (Gen. 47:23-26) The only people who escape Joseph's exploitation are the priests, because they received their allotment directly from Pharaoh. (Gen. 47:22, 26)

How do the people of Egypt react to these actions? After all, it's their grain in the storehouses: they put it there! And now they've sold everything, their money, their cattle, their land, and even their own lives, to Joseph. How do they react to this exploitation? They thank Joseph for saving their lives! (Gen. 47:25) Does this seem wrong to anyone but me?

Of course, Joseph's family is not subject to the famine. Joseph sets them up with the best land in all Egypt, Goshen, where they live very well. (Gen. 47:27) If I were the Egyptians, I'd be a bit annoyed at this situation, too. We can almost imagine that this spawned the first anti-semitic "Jews control everything" rumours, except this time the rumours were true. Jews (specifically Joseph) did control everything: all the grain, all the money, all the cattle, and all the land in Egypt. Pharaoh doesn't seem too concerned about Joseph's behaviour.

As for me, I sometimes wonder how the banks treat us today. They could probably learn a lot from Joseph.


Chuck Sowers said...

Wow I was studying this week for a lesson on this section of scripture (came across your blog)- see link below for a different take. It is amazing how the same scripture can produce 2 constrasting views. We have been studying Genesis for over 2 years in Bible Study on Sunday mornings.

Chuck Sowers said...

Oh Yeah
Check out the next book of the Bible - specifically Exodus 1:6-11