I’m shifting my schedule by a day this week for this extra post on the Joseph story.
In a recent Food in the Bible post on Exodus 3:7-8 one of the intelligent readers of this blog (if you read my blog I assume you must be above average and good-looking) asked a question about my charcterization of Joseph’s policy to deal with famine as “misguided.” Wasn’t it God’s will for Joseph to interpret the dreams and save the people from famine (including his own family)? If the policy was wrong, then was God wrong? I think it will help to look closely at the text.
First let’s look at what Joseph’s actual plan was for dealing with the famine,
Let Pharaoh proceed to appoint overseers over the land, and take one-fifth of the produce of the land of Egypt during the seven plenteous years. Let them gather all the food of these good years that are coming, and lay up grain under the authority of Pharaoh for food in the cities, and let them keep it. That food shall be a reserve for the land against the seven years of famine that are to befall the land of Egypt, so that the land may not perish through the famine. (41:34-36)
So, take one-fifth of the produce of the land and store it up for the seven bad years. Good idea. What happens when the time comes?
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. (41:48-49)
It says that Joseph stored up all the food. The plan was pretty specific about storing only one-fifth of the produce, so I take the general term “all” to mean that Joseph did not follow this policy. The description of the amount of food is intended to make clear exactly how ridiculous the amount of food he stored was. I will speculate that Joseph took as much food as he could without people dying. So, the people lived a subsistence existence only keeping enough food to survive on.
Why did Joseph do this? We don’t know. Maybe he was worried that one-fifth wouldn’t be enough. Maybe the power got to him. It tends to do that as we see when we turn to the famine years in chapter 47.
Now there was no food in all the land, for the famine was very severe… 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. (47:13a, 14)
Next the Egyptians come asking for more food. So, Joseph asks for their livestock. That goes on for a year until the livestock are all gone. (It’s worth noting here that the livestock and the money are not “all gone.” They are now the property of Pharaoh.) So, the people again ask for food saying, “Buy us and our land in exchange for food…just give us seed, so that we may live and not die.” (47:19). They are forced to sell themselves into slavery and leave themselves landless. Well, now who is going to work the land? The landless slaves of course.
“Now that I have this day bought you and your land for Pharaoh, here is seed for you; so 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” (47:23-24)
Lest we forget, this is in the midst of a famine. The reason they are coming to Joseph is because they have no food and can grow no food. His solution is to take their land and their freedom and tell them to go back to the land they no longer own and try growing some food. Notice that the specific number of one-fifth returns at this point. Now that the people have become landless slaves, Joseph is handing out seeds instead of food (Where did the “sea” of food go?). Now that he’s forcing the people to grow the food he promised them he’s also requiring them to give the one-fifth that was supposed to be collected during the years of abundance, not the years of famine. Joseph says it all with a big smile as if he’s doing them a favor.
So, there are probably a number of ways of interpreting this. 1) You could claim that the whole thing was God’s will. What we perceive as injustice and/or suffering might just be part of God’s bigger plan (i.e. bringing the Hebrew people out of slavery later to create the nation of Israel) 2) You could claim that Joseph’s original policy was God’s will and he botched it because of his own greed, incompetence or both. Or 3) it is not at all clear from the text that Joseph’s policy was given by God at all.
The first option makes light of suffering, injustice and evil and cannot be reconciled with the portrait of YHWH as a God of justice. The second option is fine if you need the plan of action to be ordained by God for some reason, but it seems to me from the text that the policy was Joseph’s idea. It might have worked out better if he had followed through, but he didn’t.
I think the Bible is made up of some passages that describe the way the world should be and some that just describe the way things are. My opinion is that this falls into the latter category.