Joseph and the Egyptian Slaves

canstockphoto16057912In most ancient literature, the heroes tend to be very good, with few flaws, while the villains tend to be very bad with few redeeming qualities.

Not so in the Bible. Jesus’ disciples are good guys with major flaws—Judas’s betrayal, Peter’s denial, Thomas’s doubting. Paul is a former murderer. David, a man after God’s own heart, was an adulterer, a murderer, a liar, and in many ways a failure as a father.

The obvious exception is Jesus, but a close second in my mind has always been Joseph. He always seemed to me to be as flawless as a person could be.

Sure, he was a bit of a prima donna as a kid—the spoiled baby of the family, Daddy’s favorite who knew it and flaunted it in front of his older brothers.

He was not only Jacob’s favorite, however, but it is clear that he was God’s favorite as well. He comes across as a gifted kid who is only stating the facts, and it ain’t bragging if it’s the truth. He actually had the dream about his brothers bowing down to him; it might have been naïve for him to think he could just tell them the dream and not think that they might be resentful of him, but it’s not exactly sinful.

At every turn Joseph’s life is charmed, even when things go against him. Sold into slavery and purchased by Potiphar, his God-given skill vaults him to the top position in Potiphar’s household.

Thrown in prison by the machinations of Potiphar’s wife, his ability to interpret dreams lands him in Pharaoh’s court.

Having accurately predicted seven years of abundance followed by seven years of famine, he is appointed director of the famine-relief project, reporting directly to the king. In all of Pharaoh’s court none is more powerful than Joseph except Pharaoh himself.

And when given a chance to get revenge on his brothers, he passes. He forgives them. What a guy!

There is a section of the Joseph narrative, however, that commentators usually gloss over, and it reveals a chink in the armor. It’s found in Genesis 47:13-26.

During the seven years of abundance, Joseph supervised the gathering of 1/5 of each harvest from the Egyptian people. It was their grain, but Joseph guarded against the people using or selling the excess and having nothing left to get them through the famine they didn’t know was coming. It was a good plan.

Then the famine hit Egypt and the surrounding countries, and when the people of Egypt come to Joseph to get the grain he took from them, he doesn’t just give it to them—he sells it to them.

It was their grain in the first place, but he makes them pay for it. And when they don’t have any money left, he makes them give him their livestock.

When their livestock is gone, the people have no choice but to offer themselves to him as slaves. Better to eat as a slave than to starve as a free person. Joseph accepts their offer; he takes their land, and they become slaves to Pharaoh.

While on the surface this appears to be a tribute to Joseph’s ingenuity as an administrator in Pharaoh’s court, the biblical reader sees a darker side to Joseph’s actions. We know what’s coming—we know that soon, Joseph will die and that there will arise a Pharaoh who did not know Joseph who would enslave the Hebrews who had grown numerous in the land.

This story is a warning about the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few, about the exploitation of the common person and the enslavement that ensues when the poor simply need food.

And it’s a foreshadowing of the excessive wealth of Solomon, who took from the common people and enslaved them for his building projects, actions which led to civil war and the division of God’s kingdom.

It’s a contemporary warning as well. Great wealth and power corrupts even the best, most godly of people as well as the best, most godly of nations. Invariably the ones that suffer the most are those who are just trying to survive.

And even if we ourselves are currently somewhere between those two economic extremes, there is little doubt which of the two we would choose. Most of us would agree with the well-known saying, “I’ve been poor and I’ve been rich. Rich is better.”

But we should always remember that there always arises a Pharaoh who does not know Joseph, and we could become the ones forced to make bricks.

Image from CanStockPhoto

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