Joseph: Savior of the People or CEO of the first Empire?

 

Remember the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis? You might be familiar with it as the story of Joseph and the Technicolor Dream Coat.

It begins with Joseph, one of twelve brothers, being singled out as a favorite of their father Jacob by being given a fancy coat, commonly described as a coat of many colours. Joseph tells his brothers about the dreams he has. In these dreams, Joseph will be great and the brothers will all bow down to him. You can imagine how popular Joseph is with his siblings.

The brothers are out together and they beat Joseph up, throw him into a dry well and then sell him into slavery. Joseph ends up in Egypt where he works for Potiphar. He is accused of seducing Potiphar’s wife and ends up in jail. He continues interpreting dreams until, one day, Pharaoh has a dream that no one can interpret. Someone remembers Joseph. He interprets Pharaoh’s dream and announces that there will be seven years of plenty and then then seven years of famine.

Pharaoh gives Joseph the task of managing the country during this crisis. Joseph gathers all the grain and stores it. During the famine Joseph’s family comes to Egypt looking for food and the family is reunited.

And then we pick up the story from Genesis 47:13-26

The famine is severe and the people are starving. We often associate famine with drought or some other natural disaster. Famine simply means to be hungry. The Hebrew consistently translates as hunger and does not say anything about how the hunger came to be. There is a time before the hunger when the people have much food. It is during this time that Joseph and Pharaoh gather the grain. Taking the grain means that there is no food for humans, no food for livestock, no grain for planting. Of course the people will be hungry. Their sustenance is now owned by the Pharaoh.

The people go to Joseph for food and so Joseph sells their food that they had already grown back to them. The people are left with no money. The next year, the people ask for food and so all the livestock is exchanged for grain. The next year the people come and ask for food and Joseph takes all the land and the people become slaves—peasant farmers—so that they can survive.

We had a lively conversation about this at Bible study this week. If it weren’t for Joseph everyone would have starved. He did a good thing for the people and ensured their survival. Everyone had enough.

In the process of saving the people Pharaoh, and presumably Joseph, become very wealthy. They own everything while most people have nothing except their survival.

Did Joseph do the right thing here? Could he have responded to the crisis differently and still kept everyone alive? Most commentaries on this passage either breeze over it without much depth or they justify Joseph and lift him up as an example.[1]

When we read this at Bible study, for some of us there was a sense of outrage that Joseph stole the livestock and the land. For others there was a sense of equitable sharing. It raises questions about whether the end justifies the means. It also raises questions about whether or not the famine was actually created as a way for Pharaoh to gain control of the land.

This is the first example of an empire recorded in the Bible and yet we can see parallels with our own time. Thinking about Africa as a continent, we know that many countries established independence from European control following World War II.  At the same time industrialization increased, there was an increase in access to education and healthcare, increase in life expectancy and literacy rates. Then came what were called structural adjustment programs which encouraged privatization of economies and public services. Multinational corporations and financial institutions barred government subsidies to agriculture and investment in social infrastructure, tariff barriers were removed on imports and multinationals were able to access natural resources and local labour at cheap costs because the people had few options.[2] Is this really any different than what happens in the story of Joseph?

People are going along and living their lives. Development seems to be happening in Africa, there is access to education and healthcare and then a change in policy means that the basics of life are in jeopardy. Multinationals and international finance organizations are able to justify their involvement on the grounds that they are providing jobs and hope to people who would otherwise be without. What is forgotten is that many people wouldn’t be in so much need if it weren’t for their policy and involvement in the first place.

All of us benefit from the work that these multinationals do….cheap access to many grocery items that wouldn’t otherwise be accessible, much of our technology contains “conflict minerals” which come from parts of the world where there is conflict and human rights abuses.[3] It might seem like these policies and practices are beyond our control and yet we benefit from these actives. Multinationals and other international finance organizations are able maintain their practices because we benefit and are not vocal in speaking against the practices of oppression. The people of Egypt who sold their livestock and their land to Joseph and Pharaoh didn’t have many choices and were focused on their survival. But there must have been a whole structure in place and many people that worked for Joseph that would allow him to buy everything. These people may have benefitted from jobs that gave them extra security or prosperity. Maybe they were threatened or coerced by Joseph. The structure that allowed people’s livelihood to be confiscated benefitted someone else. 

Where do we see ourselves in this story? Are we the ones who are near death and looking for someone to rescue us? Are we the ones who benefit from concentrating the world’s resources in the hands of a few? Are we the ones who use our leadership to take the resources for ourselves?

I see myself as someone who benefits from the current system. In the grand scheme of the world’s wealth, I am wealthy. Just to put this in perspective I found a website[4] which allows you to calculate where you fall for income on world scale. I come out as being in the top 2.2% of the wealthiest people. In Joseph’s system, I would have been one of the people working to gather the grain and livestock and pass it over to Joseph and pharaoh and I’m sure I would have gotten paid something to do that work.

I’m not telling you all this to depress you or create despair. I want to take us back to Joseph’s dreams. Joseph, a poor shepherd dreamed of greatness. There was absolutely no reason why he should be any greater than anyone else but that’s what he dreamed. What do you dream? Do you dream of being great? Do you dream of being wealthy or famous? Do you dream of a world where the wealth is shared? Do you dream of a world where everyone has enough? Joseph dared to dream and his dream became a reality. Do you dare to dream of a world where everyone eats? Do you dare to dream of a world where everyone has medical care and access to education? There is no reason why these dreams for a better world shouldn’t become reality. There is no reason that Joseph’s dream of greatness became real and the dream of a better world remains a dream.

Dare to dream…Dare to imagine… As individuals our dreams become dreams for ourselves. As a community of faith our dreams become a dream for the world. We cannot make our dreams for the world a reality by ourselves. We need to join with each other in this faith community and other places to dream and live in a better world. Dare to live the dream of a better world into reality.

[1]. For examples see http://www.unionchurch.com/archive/032600.html and https://bible.org/seriespage/proper-perspective-poverty-and-prosperity-genesis-4713-31

[2]. Firose Manji, “New Media, New Truths, New Lies: Popular Struggles in Africa and the Media” pg 22 of CODERSIA Bulletin, Nos 3 & 4, 2013, http://www.codesria.org/spip.php?article1898&lang=en

 [3]. For more details see http://www.sourceintelligence.com/what-are-conflict-minerals and http://www.dailyfinance.com/2011/12/07/the-ugly-truth-about-the-materials-in-your-cellphone/

 [4]. Giving what we can. http://www.givingwhatwecan.org/get-involved/how-rich-am-i

 

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