I began this series with the idea that even most Christians have been overly judgmental toward Bible heroes. It’s always easier to judge people than to spend whatever time it may take to understand them. While there’s no need to whitewash anyone’s character, we can often defend the Scriptures and glorify God by explaining their actions within the cultural and historic context.
I’ve been guilty of wrongfully judging Bible characters on countless occasions. For example, even though I’ve always appreciated Joseph’s virtues, and how he saved many people from starvation, I had some doubts about how he dealt with the Egyptians in Genesis 47…
- Joseph sold grain at what must have been very high prices to starving people.
- He mercilessly took all their property and land for the pharaoh, as we read here: “So Joseph bought all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh, for all the Egyptians sold their fields, because the famine was severe on them… As for the people, he made servants of them from one end of Egypt to the other” (Gen: 47:20-21).
- It appears that Joseph didn’t enact religious reforms. Instead, the pharaoh showed favoritism to Egypt’s priests by letting them keep their land.
- In an apparent double standard, the Hebrews received free land, but the Egyptians (excluding their priests) lost all their property and became the pharaoh’s slaves. Apart from Joseph, the Hebrews had done nothing to deserve this generous gift.
- As so often happens when reading the Old Testament, I couldn’t help but wonder about God’s role and purposes in all of this. Perhaps you share some similar concerns.
I’m pleased to say that, as a result of having studied these issues in more detail, I can fully respond to them in this post. After reading this, I hope you’ll realize how easy, yet how very wrong it is to judge a biblical figure, not to mention the Lord Himself, based on circumstantial evidence that, as cultural outsiders, we often misinterpret.
Was Joseph a
The Bible makes much of the fact that the Egyptians enslaved the Hebrews. However, prior to that, Joseph had enslaved the Egyptians. At least, some Bible translations describe the Egyptians as having become “slaves” (Gen. 47:19, 25 NASB, NRSV). Most of the others use the word “servants.”
Americans tend to associate the word “slave” with black slavery in the South. This was a system in which slaves were treated as mere property or “chattel.” However, the context shows that the Egyptians didn’t become chattel slaves. Joseph and the pharaoh may not have conceived of forcing anyone into chattel slavery, even though the people had offered themselves along with the land. Instead, they established a sharecropping system. That is, they let the people farm the land in exchange for a percentage of the produce—20 percent annually. This is much less than the property and income taxes that we pay today. In addition to paying for palaces and temples, taxes or equivalent labor went toward the military, roads, and irrigation canals.
I used to wonder whether Joseph was some kind of early communist. Communism was a 19th century invention, so I know that makes this question somewhat rhetorical. Even so, since the pharaoh came to own nearly everything and everyone, the situation reminded me of communism.
If we bring modern economic theories into this, Joseph was arguably more of a capitalist than a communist. Capitalism is very much about recognizing opportunities and risking capital by investing it in projects that can bring a substantial return in the future. Joseph and the pharaoh both took a risk by taxing the people to store enormous quantities of grain. It would be easy for us to say they had no doubts, and therefore didn’t take any risk. The point is that both men could likely have been dethroned if there had been no famine.
Any Egyptian farmer could have chosen to set aside some of the enormous crop yields from the seven years of plenty, simply by burying it under the sand. However, it seems that almost nobody had believed in Joseph’s prophecy.
Today, most of us find it unthinkable that any government should be allowed to own everything. However, in ancient times, a benevolent tyranny could be a good form of government. A well-managed government could promote the public welfare by using tax money to provide security, and to fund beneficial, large-scale projects. This could include warfare, and the collection of tribute from other nations. Joseph’s story gives us an example of how the pharaoh prospered, not through war, but by providing food for people throughout the region.
We would be equally mistaken if we were to associate this situation with totalitarianism. A totalitarian state requires modern technology, especially surveillance technology. In ancient times, nobody would have dreamed of controlling every facet of a society.
Obviously, this story had nothing to do with either communism or totalitarianism. If anything, it should serve as a warning that there’s more than one route to tyranny. Again, however , I don’t think this was a tyrannical regime, though the situation could conceivably have gone in that direction.
Incidentally, modern-day capitalists have no reason to be dissatisfied with the biblical narrative. God allowed the pharaoh to acquire all the land, but favored private land ownership for His children. Centuries later, in accordance with the Law of Moses, the Israelites parceled out the land of Canaan by families instead of letting a central government own it. In fact, Israel had no central government during the time of the judges.
Joseph Selling Wheat to the People by Bartholomeus Breenbergh, 1598-1657 (Wikimedia Commons)
Obviously, grain prices must have risen to very high levels since Joseph was able to buy all the livestock, the land, and even the people themselves. Again, the people weren’t treated as mere property, even though in a legal sense, they had been purchased.
A price rise would have been unavoidable. After all, free market principles dictate that the price of any scarce item in high demand must rise in order to avoid shortages. Moreover, these weren’t merely the latest high tech gadgets, but food that those people needed to survive. Since Joseph didn’t let people starve, he must have distributed the grain not only to wealthy people (who would likely have bought it all if given the chance), but also on the basis of need.
We can learn more about Joseph’s character by examining the Bible text, which we Christians should accept at face value. There, we find that the Egyptians themselves came up with the idea of selling their land for food and becoming the pharaoh’s servants:
Why should we die before your eyes, both we and our land? Buy us and our land for food, and we with our land will be servants to Pharaoh. And give us seed that we may live and not die, and that the land may not be desolate.” (Gen. 47:19 ESV)
After Joseph had done this, the Egyptians said to him, “You have saved our lives; may it please my lord, we will be servants to Pharaoh.” (47:25 ESV)
Joseph continued to enjoy a good reputation among the Egyptians. They didn’t enslave the Hebrew people until after they had forgotten Joseph (Ex. 1:8-11).
Did God Apply a Double Standard?
This question comes up because, whereas the Egyptians lost their land under Joseph and the pharaoh, the Hebrews happily gained land for the taking in Egypt. This story has been taken out of context to misrepresent Joseph as a schemer. Hatemongers have even tried to justify negative stereotypes about Jews by describing this as a typical Jewish takeover of a government. Critics have further denounced the Israelites’ (and the Old Testament God’s) lack of respect for Canaanite lives and property rights when they invaded Canaan.
The primary answer to this question is that the God Who permitted and/or commanded these things has the right to deal with people as He chooses. If only we could always satisfied with this answer, right? But it’s also good to ask questions and seek answers…
Briefly stated, the Canaanites’ problem was sin. God respected their property rights so much that He waited several centuries before calling His people to invade Canaan. Their sins had to reach what God had described as their “full measure” (Gen. 15:16).
As for the Egyptians, again, though we’re appalled at the idea of a government owning all the land, this ended up costing the Egyptians a tax of only 20 percent of their produce. No doubt, most farmers today would readily accept a similar offer from a landowner. I’d jump at the opportunity, if only to avoid other taxes!
After each Israelite family received land in Canaan, they were expected to pay tithes and offerings according to the Law. It’s been estimated that this came to about 23 percent of total household income. Thus, in modern economic terms, the “capitalist” Israelites may have paid a greater portion of their income than the “communist” Egyptians!
The Egyptians became the pharaoh’s servants, but they obviously had some freedom or they couldn’t have enslaved the Hebrews. Later, the Israelites were also allowed to make servants or become servants of their own people (Ex. 21). Even Jacob had served his uncle Laban for twenty years. For that matter, anyone who works for an employer today is comparable to a servant.
The Egyptians’ tax would have gone mainly to the ruling class, the priests, and the military. The pharaoh arguably deserved considerable wealth since he had risked his job and reputation, if not his own grain, to save his people.
Whereas the bulk of Egypt’s wealth went to the pharaoh, much of Israel’s wealth went to God through the offerings. Israel’s tithes also supported the priests, the poor, and the family itself—for a vacation (Deut. 14:24-27). The tithes and offerings weren’t compulsory, or at least not in the same manner as the Egyptians’ tax collection.
These different ways in which the Egyptians and Israelites collected and spent their extra income were a reflection of their differing belief systems and values. Of the two, God supported the system that He instituted from Mount Sinai.
Without question, the overall “balance sheet” comes out in favor of the Hebrews. Joseph saved the Egyptians and the neighboring people from starvation. The Egyptians returned this favor by enslaving the Hebrews for centuries, until God forcibly freed them.
Was the Pharaoh an Idolater?
Even though Joseph’s friend the pharaoh chose to exempt the Egyptian priests’ land from being confiscated in exchange for grain, it doesn’t necessarily mean he worshipped the Egyptian gods. It may be that he didn’t want to get into a power struggle with the priests and their followers, which he could easily have lost.
What’s most important is that this pharaoh honored Joseph and Jacob, and that he gave land to the Hebrews. He believed in Joseph’s interpretation of his dreams, which Joseph told him had come from God. This is more evidence of faith than what most Christians can show today.
The Art of Compromise
If any of us still have a problem with Joseph, perhaps it’s because we see him and the pharaoh as having been overly tolerant or compliant. They let the Egyptians have the economic system they volunteered for. As bad as that looks, they didn’t violate anyone’s human rights by treating them as property. They didn’t force Joseph’s religion on anyone, but permitted religious freedom for both the Egyptians and the Hebrews. Clearly, any Egyptians who might have feared a theocracy of Yahweh would have been mistaken.
Incidentally, this wasn’t an isolated circumstance in which God respected human free will. We can find a more explicit example of divine tolerance in Moses’ allowance of divorce (Mt. 19:8, cf. Mal. 2:16).
Those were times of ignorance, but God expects more from people today, based on the knowledge we have (Acts 17:30-31). Even so, I think Joseph’s example of tolerant rule in a mostly secular state has relevance for Christians today.
We’ve just learned about some important differences between the ancient Hebrew and Egyptian economies and governments. In part 8, we’ll find out what are, or at least should be some important differences between Christians and non-Christians today. Before moving on, please post any questions or comments below.