I just finished reading Genesis (finally), and, well, check this out.
Joseph, the favorite son of Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham, is a hero of the faith—at least, that’s the common assumption. And I certainly agree, to an extent. But when I was reading the story this weekend, I paid particular attention to the economic stuff going on behind the larger narrative of Joseph’s reconciliation with his brothers. Francis Watson showed me this in his book Text, Church, and World, but this was the first time I encountered the text for myself and noticed it.
A little background: Joseph’s eleven brothers sell him to some people going to Egypt because they’re jealous of his wicked-awesome jacket his dad gave him. Joseph gains favor under Pharaoh because of his ability to interpret dreams; eventually Pharaoh gives him power over all of Egypt. Pharaoh has some crazy dreams, which Joseph interprets: Egypt will have seven years of plenty, then seven years of famine. Joseph concocts a plan to save up grain during the years of plenty so that they’ll have food during the famine.
If you pull out the story of Joseph’s management of Egypt’s famine from the rest of the narrative, you get this:
Joseph was thirty years old when he entered the service of Pharaoh king of Egypt. And Joseph went out from the presence of Pharaoh, and went through all the land of Egypt. During the seven plenteous years the earth produced abundantly. He gathered up all the food of the seven years when there was plenty in the land of Egypt, and stored up food in the cities; he stored up in every city the food from the fields around it. So Joseph stored up grain in such abundance—like the sand of the sea—that he stopped measuring it; it was beyond measure. (41:46-49)
Joseph seems to be making a pretty smart move: he gathers up food during the first seven years so they can get through the next seven. But dig deeper: all the food? What did people eat during that time? And why was all of it stored in the cities, when most people probably lived in the countryside—especially those actually farming the food? Things start to look a little more suspicious. Isn’t that called hoarding? But read on:
The seven years of plenty that prevailed in the land of Egypt came to an end; and the seven years of famine began to come, just as Joseph had said. There was famine in every country, but throughout the land of Egypt there was bread. When all the land of Egypt was famished, the people cried to Pharaoh for bread. Pharaoh said to all the Egyptians, ‘Go to Joseph; what he says to you, do.’ And since the famine had spread over all the land, Joseph opened all the storehouses, and sold to the Egyptians, for the famine was severe in the land of Egypt. Moreover, all the world came to Joseph in Egypt to buy grain, because the famine became severe throughout the world. (41:53-47)
So the famine begins, and Joseph sells to the Egyptians grain that he had never paid for. That sounds like extortion. The text repeats, here and elsewhere in the narrative, that the famine was severe in the land, and that people were very hungry. The famine was severe, but why should the people be hungry? After all, didn’t he have so much grain—like the sand of the sea—that he had stopped keeping track?
Now there was no food in all the land, for the famine was very severe. The land of Egypt and the land of Canaan languished because of the famine. Joseph collected all the money to be found in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan, in exchange for the grain that they bought; and Joseph brought the money into Pharaoh’s house. When the money from the land of Egypt and from the land of Canaan was spent, all the Egyptians came to Joseph, and said, ‘Give us food! Why should we die before your eyes? For our money is gone.’ And Joseph answered, ‘Give me your livestock, and I will give you food in exchange for your livestock, if your money is gone.’ So they brought their livestock to Joseph; and Joseph gave them food in exchange for the horses, the flocks, the herds, and the donkeys. That year he supplied them with food in exchange for all their livestock. When that year was ended, they came to him the following year, and said to him, ‘We cannot hide from my lord that our money is all spent; and the herds of cattle are my lord’s. There is nothing left in the sight of my lord but our bodies and our lands. Shall we die before your eyes, both we and our land? Buy us and our land in exchange for food. We with our land will become slaves to Pharaoh; just give us seed, so that we may live and not die, and that the land may not become desolate.’
Turns out Joseph didn’t save the grain in the first seven years so that all of Egypt would be spared the effects of the famine, but rather so he could extort the whole population to gain political power. First, he collects all of the grain produced in the famine in urban storehouses. Then, he sells back to the people what he had taken from them for free, with their trust. Then, when they run out of money, he spares them from starving by taking their cattle. Then, when they are out of cattle, he buys their land and their bodies in exchange for the food they produced:
So Joseph bought all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh. All the Egyptians sold their fields, because the famine was severe upon them; and the land became Pharaoh’s. As for the people, he made slaves of them from one end of Egypt to the other. Only the land of the priests he did not buy; for the priests had a fixed allowance from Pharaoh, and lived on the allowance that Pharaoh gave them; therefore they did not sell their land. Then Joseph said to the people, ‘Now that I have this day bought you and your land for Pharaoh, here is seed for you; sow the land. And at the harvests you shall give one-fifth to Pharaoh, and four-fifths shall be your own, as seed for the field and as food for yourselves and your households, and as food for your little ones.’ They said, ‘You have saved our lives; may it please my lord, we will be slaves to Pharaoh.’
So, who’s the hero of this story? Joseph is, in one sense, because he saves his family, as the rest of the narrative shows. But interwoven with that story—a moving, emotional, dramatic tale of forgiveness and reconciliation—is this other Joseph, who is, well, not exactly a role model. A shrewd politician who gains power at the expense of thousands of Egyptians. Nice.
What’s fascinating to me is, it’s not like the people putting the Bible together didn’t notice any of this. They weren’t idiots. The question we have to ask is, why did they see fit to combine these two stories together, to depict their ancestors not as righteous heroes or purebred conquerors, but as morally ambiguous? A little good, a little bad. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are all the same way. Yet these are the people that the Israelites claim as their progenitors, “heroes” of their faith.
Biblical studies. Not as simple as you think. Someday, maybe, I’ll come up with this kind of stuff on my own.