The story of Joseph in the Bible is probably one of the first “rags to riches” stories ever told. In it, Joseph is sold into slavery by his jealous brothers. A caravan takes him to Egypt and he is sold to Potiphar, an Egyptian official. False accusations follow him, and eventually he ends up in jail with apparently no hope or prospects of ever being released. But Pharoah has a dream he wants interpreted, and the search for an interpreter leads to Joseph who interprets it for Pharoah. It is Joseph’s spirituality in interpreting the dream that finally saves Joseph.
It may be remembered that Pharoah’s dream was of seven fat cows and seven lean cows, and the lean cows ate the fat cows. Pharoah also saw seven healthy ears of grain and seven scorched ears of grain, and the seven scorched ears of grain ate up the seven healthy ears of grain.
So Joseph interpreted the dream by saying that there would be seven good years followed by seven years of drought and famine. According to the Bible, this actually turned out to be the case. Joseph was allowed to store grain during the good years for the drought, and the people of Egypt were saved by Joseph’s skill in interpreting Pharoah’s dream.
And this is where the story turns ugly – at least for the Egyptians. During the famine, Egypt was selling the grain to all the Egyptians and all the people in the surrounding areas, until finally the people could no longer pay for the grain. It’s a long passage, but an interesting one:
When the money was all spent in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan, all the Egyptians came to Joseph and said, ‘Give us food, for why should we die in your presence? For our money is gone.’ Then Joseph said, ‘Give up your livestock, and I will give you food for your livestock, since your money is gone.’
So they brought their livestock to Joseph, and Joseph gave them food in exchange for the horses and the flocks and the herds and the donkeys; and he fed them with food in exchange for all their livestock that year.
When that year was ended, they came to him the next year and said to him, ‘We will not hide from my lord that our money is all spent, and the cattle are my lord’s. There is nothing left for my lord except our bodies and our lands. ‘Why should we die before your eyes, both we and our land? Buy us and our land for food, and we and our land will be slaves to Pharaoh. So give us seed, that we may live and not die, and that the land may not be desolate.’
So Joseph bought all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh, for every Egyptian sold his field, because the famine was severe upon them. Thus the land became Pharaoh’s.
As for the people, he removed them to the cities from one end of Egypt’s border to the other. Only the land of the priests he did not buy, for the priests had an llotment from Pharaoh, and they lived off the allotment which Pharaoh gave them. Therefore, they did not sell their land.Then Joseph said to the people, ‘Behold, I have today bought you and your land for Pharaoh; now, here is seed for you, and you may sow the land. ‘At the harvest you shall give a fifth to Pharaoh, and four-fifths will be your own for seed of the field and for your food and for those of your households and as food for your little ones.’ So they said, ‘You have saved our lives! Let us find favor in the sight of my lord, and we will be Pharaoh’s slaves.’ (Genesis, chapter 47, verses 15-25)
This passage, in light of the Joseph story, is really quite shocking. Throughout the story of Joseph, we see the rise of an honest, gentle, sensitive young man. But in this passage we see his ability to serve Pharaoh at the expense of the people. But the Bible seems to actually look down at this transaction. I don’t think it is holding up Joseph for any reason here. At least, I believe this is the way the Bible intends this passage to be read. The reason I say this, is because later, when the Israelites invade Canaan (or Palestine), they set up a system of land ownership that is the exact opposite of what we see here in the story of Joseph in Egypt. It is a system of land ownership, divided up into holdings for each tribe and family. It is a permanent system, because if anyone sells his own land, during the year of the Jubilee (which is held every 7 years), the land will revert back to the family owner. So permanent ownership of the land is a unique feature of the Hebrew system. A kind of guarantee of equitable economic relations.
There is no such system of land ownership today. At least not here in the United States. Land can be sold by anyone to anyone for whatever the going price is. With the gap between rich and poor becoming ever greater in our country, we have to be diligent to make sure equitability, justice and fairness win out. And we no longer have a land system to insure such justice. It is our political vigilance which, as an involved public, is our guarantee. (1)
The shocking thing for me about this passage is that it is the type of thing which could happen at any time and in any place – where the people are caught “unawares.” All it takes is a real crisis.
I’m not saying I expect this of the American people, but it’s a question worth asking and thinking about. What would happen in America if some kind of depression took place, some kind of crisis? Would we give up our freedoms and our rights just to put food on our tables? Would we oppress other countries? Would extremist groups become more popular and more powerful? Would interracial tensions increase and erupt into violence? Sometimes just listening and watching what’s on the airwaves these days you almost wonder what Americans would do. What would we do under severe pressure?
In other countries, without the advantages that we have here in America, the challenges must be even greater.
But these things are really happening all the time. In India, for instance, parents send their own daughters into sexual slavery. It’s called “human trafficking,” but it’s really just slavery. (Is slavery making a comeback?) In advanced technological societies like those in America and Europe, we have a system based on consumerism, but, in our contentedness, we seem to have a culture of silent acquiescence, allowing destructive practices in our companies and even our government.
So, in the Bible – for all it’s obvious distance from us, both in time and space – there is this horror story, this unthinkable horror story. Even at the time the Bible was written, it was obvious that people could “en masse” sell their own souls. To me this Biblical passage says simply – beware!
In the end, we all have to be vigilant and work towards a just and equitable world.
And I would say — don’t be afraid of what can happen in a crisis. We will get through it. Our faiths and our understanding will teach us how.
(1) One of my favorite movies is “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Here’s a link to a blog that discusses such a “sellout” as I’m discussing here. But with a better outcome. “Potters” beware.
Also, here’s a link to a McClatchy article on the possibility of a Great Depression (dated 3/17/08 ) – www.mcclatchydc.com/homepage/story/30708.html .