Joseph and the Egyptian Ponzi Scheme

For the last several years, I haven’t had the highest opinion of Joseph.  Most writing on the life of Joseph and Genesis drips with honey and can’t wait to sing the endless virtues of Egypt’s agricultural czar.

Sure, they always say he started off as a tattle-tail, quick to report his brothers to his father.  And maybe he wasn’t the wisest of youths, spouting off his dreams like they were about to catch his tongue on fire. But he was young.  Nothing a good dose of humility won’t fix.

The medicine of humility comes, and from then on Joseph is looked on as an angel. Usually. It was refreshing to read a book that brought up some doubts about this typical enthusiasm in Reno’s Genesis commentary, but these treatments are few and far between.

Joseph is obviously a type of Christ, but that doesn’t mean we should read about him with rose-tinted glasses. David is a type of Christ too, and I don’t see anyone trying to explain away his adultery with Bathsheba with clever excuses.  But Joseph’s issues are not the loud, brass band of obvious, in-your-face sin like that of fornication and murder.

His issues are subtle.  The problems of power and cultural chameleonism always are. And a failure to recognize the problems show just how enamored we have become with the trappings of power, and how easily we make an idol of the State.

A Great Story, but…

Granted, when you’re teaching a bunch of 5 year olds about Joseph, its easy to get caught up in the rags to riches part of the story. Its a great story that touches something deep within every human. And how do you even explain the nuances behind the temptations of political power to a child who hasn’t even read The Lord of the Rings?

Joseph’s faults shouldn’t surprise us.  Look at the stock he came from. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the three names God decides to attach to Himself for eternity, all have their serious problems. Joseph’s eventual words to his brothers seems to be the theme behind the second half of Genesis. “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good…” (Genesis 50:20)(ESV) And thank God for that, or else where would any of us be?

Joseph is still a man of obvious faith that we can learn from.  But keep in mind what the Hebrew writer calls attention to when he praises the faith of Joseph:

By faith Joseph, when he died, made mention of the departing of the children of Israel; and gave commandment concerning his bones.

Nothing about his perseverance in prison. Nothing about his steadfast hope while sold into slavery. And, notably, nothing about his role in feeding the entire world. Just a mention about his burial arrangements. This should give us a clue as to what was truly praiseworthy about Joseph, in God’s eyes.

So what are some of these issues, besides the obvious youthful pride?

Cultural Assimilation

As soon as Joseph is raised up, he is married to the daughter of a priest of On (Gen. 41:45), thereby gaining religious acceptance to a group that held enormous sway within Egypt, and later would gain even more power through Joseph’s own machinations. We know that during Israel’s time in Egypt, they served other gods (Josh. 24:14).

Perhaps this alliance was the beginning of this indiscretion? Regardless, we know that Abraham insisted on non-foreign wives for Isaac, and Rebekah did likewise for Jacob. After Sinai, such a marriage would be explicitly forbidden.

In an effort to absolve Joseph of this misstep, many rabbinical writings scramble to craft interpretations that border on fantasy. One even claims that Asenath was really Joseph’s kin, the daughter of Shechem and Dinah (Gen. 34) who eventually ended up being raised by Potiphera in Egypt. The sentiment may also have led to the writing of the apocryphal Joseph and Aseneth that depicts the conversion of Aseneth to the worship of YHWH before Joseph agrees to marry her.

The assimilation continues.  In Genesis 42:23, we see that Joseph needs an interpreter to understand the language of his fathers.  He has forgotten it. The curse of Babel rears its head, signifying that Joseph is currently separate from the  family of promise. Not good.

Unlike Christ, who was faithful to both his divinity and humanity, Joseph cannot be a son of both Jacob and Egypt.  One side inevitably gives way to the other, and it looks like the Egyptian side comes to reign.

Total Fraud and Enslavement

The world is fed on the labor of the Egyptian populace. They give up a fifth of everything they produce during the 7 years of plenty to prepare for the 7 years of famine.  Its a temporary tax.  Or so it was probably sold to the Egyptians.

When the famine hits, Joseph sells grain to anyone who needs it. This makes sense for foreigners who come from other lands.  But what about the Egyptians who filled up the storehouses?  Its their grain after all.  Certainly they are due at least what they put in. But no. Joseph charges them money for their own grain.

Soon the Egyptians run out of money, and begin begging Joseph for food. (Gen. 47:15). Joseph, not without mercy, agrees to give them food for the small price of all of their livestock. But hey, at least they have enough food to live…for a year.

The Egyptians come begging again.  They have no money.  They have no livestock to give in trade.  Desperate, they offer their bodies and their land and Joseph accepts their generous offer. (Gen. 47:18-22).

Except the lands of the priests.  So the only people in Egypt that owned land after this were Pharaoh and the pagan priests.  What a drastic shift in power.

Once again showing mercy (and probably realizing a 100% enslaved population isn’t really that productive), Joseph tells the people to keep tilling the land, do all of the work.  And all they have to do is give back one fifth of their production to Pharaoh. During a debilitating famine.  And beyond.

So much for a “temporary” tax to cover the tough times. Like a good politician, he didn’t let a good disaster go to waste.

Maybe we should rename the Ponzi scheme after Joseph instead?

But thanks be to God, for he works good out of evil. Even our own evil. It was true with the other sons of Jacob.  It was true with Joseph himself.  And it is true with those of us who are in Christ.

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