Mercy, Human Nature, and Joseph's Famine Relief Policy

Often in teaching on mercy, I emphasize the church's role, be it the individual Christian, a congregation, or a denomination. But is there a legitimate place for the government to help the poor? Let's consider the Biblical character of Joseph as a case study. For Joseph helped Egypt plan and prepare for seven years of famine as described in Genesis 47:13-27. What do we learn?

Some commentators have criticized the taxing of 20% of the crops over seven years of plenty to prepare for the famine. Joseph's actions have been viewed as excessive government bureaucracy, heavy taxation, and the centralization of power. After all, some argue, as the famine persisted eventually the people of Egypt became indentured as they were required to farm their land for Pharaoh. Was Joseph really being merciful? Some certainly do not think so.

In his commentary on Genesis, James Boice references a book by John T. Brink called Joseph in Egypt and His Managed National Economy. Brink goes so far as to charge Joseph of being an unscrupulous, power-grabbing man. Beyond the charge of dictatorship, he accuses Joseph of actually causing the famine by employing his centrally-managed economy before it. He then says that Joseph committed a “great wickedness and sin against God to impoverish, dispossess and enslave” the Egyptians. Brinks is not alone among commentators who see pride and power gripping Joseph. The Bible, which often shows the weakness of God’s people, does not immediately require that we see Joseph favorably here.

So what does a faithful study and interpretation of Joseph's actions show? If we come to this passage looking at it with our modern eyes, we might conclude as above. We could look condescendingly and anachronistically upon this story, seeing everything in a twenty-first century, individualistic, democracy-is-the-answer-to-all-human-ills American way. However, a careful study shows quite the opposite, that Joseph is truly caring for the people here.

Let’s look at the famine as it progresses through four stages. The facts do show Joseph acting in a tough and what can be considered a shrewd manner.

  1. In Genesis 47:14, when the people run out of food, Joseph sells the starving people grain. Already we should note that he is not giving the people the grain, but selling it to them to the point he collects all the money in Egypt.

  2. After receiving all the people's money, they then bring all their livestock – horse, cattle, sheep, and donkeys (47:15-17) - in order to receive food.

  3. After taking all their their livestock, listen to what these poor people say in verses 18-19.

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.”

Joseph does buy them and their land (20), and moves them into cities (21).

  1. Yet Joseph is still not done. He in effect took the special famine-preparation tax and made it permanent, establishing from that time on to take one-fifth of the farming production for Pharaoh (47:23-27).

In the days of Samuel, people wanted a king, and he warned them of the hardship that the king would take a tenth. Here Joseph is requiring twice that! In our modern times, where governments appear to give free food, housing, and healthcare to people, we can understand why some might view Joseph here as unscrupulous. Was Brinks right about Joseph?

We must see Joseph's actions in their true context. This famine was very severe, with the word describing it meaning "extremely heavy." The Egyptians, and the surrounding nations, woke up every day with the famine hanging over the people. They were weighed down, with every waking thought being “there is no food." Again, James Boice, who helped me to sort through this account, said that as we think about the inhabitants of the world at this time we need to "see emaciated, pencil-thin children with bloated bellies.”

So again, when we hear Joseph took their land and indentured the people, we are tempted to think of a dictatorship. Yet note there is nothing forceful about Joseph's actions. The idea for the people to be servants was the peoples’, not Joseph’s (see 47:19). Joseph moving the people off the land into cities was so that the food was more easily distributed. The subsequent return to the land was not enslaving them, but more like a protective feudal system. When an individual has had a longterm disaster and economic shock, often it is merciful to give him a structured system where over time he can regain his footing. How much more might a nation need this when facing such a disaster! The Lord in the days of Moses implemented a similar system to deal with poverty (Lev 29:35f; Ex 21:5). One certainly should not accuse the Almighty of cruelty.

In Genesis 47:17, the text says that Joseph “fed them with food.” The Hebrew could be translated “he led them as a shepherd.” The word to feed (נָהַל) is the same word used twice in Psalm 23 of the shepherd who “leads beside quiet waters” and “guides in the path of righteousness.” Joseph brought the nations through this devastation like a shepherd. He did not enslave Egypt; it would be future Pharoahs that would do that. Rather, he wisely shepherded them through their distress, and showed he truly understood human nature. Had he simply given them food, he would have denied the people's dignity as those made in the image of God with a capacity to work, would have created longterm dependency on the government, and led them into further poverty and lack of productivity. Instead, even the people recognize his goodness to them when they say in verse 25, “You have saved our lives! Let us find favor in the sight of my lord. We want to be slaves.” When people are led by a truly benevolent ruler, they gladly subject themselves to him.

With these thoughts in mind, listen to J.G. Vos.

While the present writer has no sympathy with the idea of a government-controlled ‘planned economy’ as a matter of general economic policy, it would seem that, in times of dire emergency and national crisis such as the years of famine on Egypt, central planning and control by a firm hand may be absolutely necessary.”

Vos then gives us a chuckle: “It was the good fortune of Egypt, in the providence of God, to have had a truly wise and competent man at the head of this emergency program, instead of a stupid, blundering bureaucrat who would have occasioned greater evils than he sought to remedy.”

As proof of this point, are we in the modern world really more successful in dealing with poverty or catastrophe? Remember Hurricane Katrina in 2005? Recall the uproar over our government’s inability to prepare the people for the hurricane and then care for them in its aftermath? One of the responses was to seek to give free housing, free clothing, and even free credit cards to the people suffering. What were the results? Another disaster! The New York Times on June 26, 2006, showed a picture of 10,000 empty mobile homes in an airfield in Hope, Arkansas, that the government had to pay $250,000 per month to rent! The Times reported that 1100 prison inmates collected over $10 million in claims. It was estimated that up to $2 billion ended up in fraud and waste. As Pastor Ted Donnelly describes government's workings often, “The world has wrapped our chains in lovely pink velvet so that we do not know they are there.”

The famine could have destroyed the ancient world, but instead God through Joseph cared for it with a wise, firm hand. While the Egyptians were aided generally, God’s people were watched over in a special way. For Joseph also arranged the following during this time. “Now Israel lived in the land of Egypt, in Goshen, and they acquired property in it and were fruitful and became very numerous” (47:27). Like the Christ he typified, Joseph was as good as dead yet raised up to sit as Pharaoh’s right hand man. From that position he ruled over the earth at that time by showing benevolence to all but especially blessing God’s own people. In so doing, God gave us in Joseph a reminder that real mercy, whether coming from an individual in more regular situations or through a government whose land is in crisis, should employ wisdom in dealing with sinful mankind and do true good to all men, but especially to the household of God.

Barry York

Barry York

Sinner by Nature - Saved by Grace. Husband of Miriam - Grateful for Privilege. Father of Six - Blessed by God. Professor at RPTS - Serve with Thankfulness.

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