Joseph's Economic Plan
Joseph, great grand-son of Abraham is one of the heroes of the Old Testament. He resisted temptations, interpreted dreams and showed extreme loyalty to his family and God regardless of the circumstances. He saved Egypt and the Israelite people from starvation and he is recognized as part of the “Faith Hall of Fame” in Hebrews chapter eleven. He prophesied Israel’s freedom and he was truly, a servant of God. Let’s take a look at the mighty ways in which Joseph was used and make a close examination of his economic policy.
Joseph’s Early Years
Jacob, Abraham’s grand-son had quite an interesting life. One of his most noted activities was when he “wrestled with God”. He put up quite a fight and would not let his opponent go until he received a blessing (Gen. 32:22-30). Jacob had twelve sons. His eleventh son, Joseph was the first from his wife Rachel. Rachel was Jacob's special wife as he worked fourteen years to become her husband (Gen 27-29). Joseph, therefore, had a special place in Jacob’s heart.
In his latter years Jacob and his seventy direct descendents, not counting his sons wives, left their home town for Egypt (Gen 46). Years later they exited Egypt as a nation of possibly three million. The large amount that Joseph had to do with the formation of the nation Israel has gone largely overlooked.
We pick up the story of Joseph in Genesis chapter thirty seven. When Joseph was about seventeen his father Jacob made him a beautiful richly ornamented robe. When his brothers saw this, they were jealous and “could not speak a kind word to him” (Gen. 37:4). Then Joseph had a dream in which he saw himself and his brothers binding sheaves of grain when suddenly his sheaf rose and stood up, while his brothers sheaves gathered around his and bowed down to it (Gen. 37:5-8). Then, he had another dream. This time he saw the sun, moon and eleven stars bowing down to him (v. 9). Being young and lacking “family etiquette”, he went and told his family about these dreams. To put it mildly, his brothers did not appreciate them. Their jealousy and rage grew stronger and stronger.
A little while later while his ten older brothers were off grazing their father’s flocks, Jacob (whose name God changed to Israel) told Joseph to go and check on his brothers, to see how they were doing, and to report back to him. As his brothers saw their “father’s favorite son” coming in the distance they plotted to kill him. “Here comes that dreamer … come now let’s kill him and throw him into one of those cisterns and say that a ferocious animal devoured him. Then we’ll see what comes of his dreams” they exclaimed (Gen. 37:17-20). Their anger reached a boiling point and they nearly took his life. Except for the intervention of Israel’s first son, Reuben, Joseph was as good as dead.
Early Days in Egypt
Reuben’s plan, though short of killing Joseph was bad enough. The brothers stripped him of his robe and threw him into the cistern; presumably to starve to death. About that time some Midianite traders happened by. Joseph’s brother Judah had the bright idea to sell him instead of let him die. So his brothers pulled him up and he was sold for twenty pieces of silver, an average price for a seventeen year old boy at the time. Joseph’s life was spared. When these Midianites arrived in Egypt they turned around and sold him to Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officials, the captain of the guard. The Lord was with Joseph and he prospered greatly. Potiphar, who was likely a very wealthy individual, saw that Joseph was being blessed and that all his activities were prosperous. Potiphar made Joseph his attendant and entrusted to Joseph’s care everything that he owned.
One day Potiphar’s wife, infatuated with Joseph, attempted to entice him into an adulterous affair with her (Gen. 39:7). This bold action traumatized Joseph. Having deep convictions of loyalty, honor and doing what was right; he absolutely refused. She didn’t give up though and continued to pressure him. As Joseph broke loose of her grasp and fled she managed to maintain hold of his cloak. This was enough for her to shout out a fictitious and trumped up charge of attempted rape. Potiphar was furious when he heard the story and he had Joseph put in jail (Gen. 39:8-10). When you think about it though, this seems to be a pretty light punishment for such a crime against a high ranking Egyptian officials’ spouse. Either Potiphar trusted Joseph more than his wife or we have another example of God’s intervention.
While in prison, Joseph once again showed the light of the Lord. With the help of God he interpreted dreams and was put in charge of all those in the prison.
Joseph and Pharaoh
As the story progresses we understand that Pharaoh had two noteworthy dreams. These dreams troubled him greatly. Not being able to understand them he called for all the magicians and wise men of Egypt. No one was able to interpret the dreams. Then the chief cupbearer, one whose dream Joseph understood and explained while in jail, remembered Joseph and recommended him to Pharaoh as a possible interpreter. Pharaoh, the most powerful man in the known world at the time, quickly summoned Joseph to his side. He told Joseph that he heard it was said that he was able to interpret dreams. Joseph responded by saying that he himself could not, but that God would give Pharaoh the meaning of the dreams, giving full credit where it belongs.
Pharaoh then went on to describe his vision to Joseph. He said that in his dream he was standing on the bank of the Nile River when he saw seven cows come out of the water, fat and healthy. After them he saw seven more cows come up. These were quite different. In fact they were scrawny, lean and ugly. Pharaoh exclaimed that he had never seen such ugly cows in all Egypt (Gen. 41:19). And to top it off, the lean cows ate up the nice, healthy ones. But even after they had eaten the nice looking cows, they still appeared as scrawny and ugly as ever!
In the king of Egypt’s second dream he saw seven full heads of grain growing on a single stalk. Next, seven other heads appeared. These latter heads of grain were withered and thin. Just like before, the thin heads of grain swallowed up the full heads.
Joseph told Pharaoh that the two dreams were one and the same. He said that God had revealed to Pharaoh that the seven good cows as well as the seven good ears of grain represented seven years of good produce, seven years of plenty; while the seven ugly cows and the seven worthless heads of grain stood for seven years of famine. Seven good years of great abundance were coming throughout Egypt to be followed by seven years of famine. Joseph went on to tell Pharaoh that the years of famine would be so severe that the years of great abundance would be long forgotten. He also told Pharaoh that God would not hesitate in bringing this to pass. Joseph’s instructions to Pharaoh are quite interesting and provide for more than just a casual read. Let’s take more than a glance at the recommendations that Jacob’s eleventh son provided.
Joseph’s Plan of Action and Pharaoh’s Response
The first thing Joseph told Pharaoh to do was to put a wise person in charge of the land and to take one fifth of the harvest of Egypt during the seven good years. This person was to see that this twenty percent of the produce was stored in reserve for the bad years. The grain was to be stored in the cities for food. You may wonder why one fifth instead of one seventh. As we will see later Joseph used this extra amount to feed other countries as well. The undertaking seemed very good to Pharaoh and he appointed Joseph to be in charge of this large and audacious venture. Pharaoh knew a good plan when he heard it!
Think of Joseph’s position now. He had been given tremendous authority in the land of Egypt, second in command to the man who was viewed as “god” on earth. Pharaoh said that “only with respect to the throne will I be greater than you” (Gen 41:40) and “I hereby put you in charge of the whole land of Egypt” (verse 41). He put his signet ring on Joseph’s finger, dressed him in robes of fine linen (a reminder of his coat of many colors?), put a gold chain around his neck and had him ride in a chariot as his second-in-command (verses 42-43). Joseph, who was only thirty years old at the time, could have easily obtained a huge case of an over-inflated ego, but that does not seem to be what happened.
As God had predicted through Pharaoh’s vision the seven years of plenty came and went, followed by seven years of famine. There was a shortage of grain in all the lands, but because of the foresight Joseph had received from God there was food stored in Egypt. When the Egyptians began to feel the agony of hunger they cried out to Pharaoh, who directed them to Joseph. Joseph opened the storehouses and sold grain to the Egyptians. In fact, many countries came to Egypt to buy food.
The Plan, as it Begins to Unfold
When the years of famine came upon the land, the people of Egypt had food thanks to Joseph’s careful planning and execution. “When the famine had spread over the whole country, Joseph opened the storehouses and sold grain to the Egyptians … All the countries came to Egypt to buy grain from Joseph …” (Gen. 41:56-57).
Let’s pause here for a second and notice some of the immediate action items that Joseph took.
- He stored up the produce in the cities
- He introduced a system of taxation to the Egyptians
- When the citizens needed food it was sold back to them
These first three actions are what saved the Egyptians from starvation or severe suffering at least. It also spared other countries that came to Egypt for food as well. Included among these other peoples were the Israelites, the family of Jacob. The story of how Jacob became involved begins in Genesis chapter forty-two. “When Jacob learned that there was grain in Egypt, he said to his sons, ‘why do you just keep looking at each other?’ He continued, ‘I have heard that there is grain in Egypt. Go down there and buy some for us, so that we may live and not die’” (Gen. 42:1-2). I really don’t think that Jacob wanted to send his sons to Egypt but he had little choice.
Ten of Joseph’s brothers went to buy grain. Jacob didn’t send Benjamin, the youngest son, for fear of what might happen to him. When they arrived in Egypt and came into Joseph’s presence, the ten brothers bowed down, probably stricken with fear. Joseph recognized them as his brothers, although the brothers did not recognize Joseph. You may wonder why they weren’t able to tell that it was their own brother. We need to consider that over twenty years had passed. Also, they had absolutely no expectations of Joseph being Pharaoh’s right-hand man, richly decorated and adorned as they had never seen him before. That they did not notice him as their younger brother is certainly reasonable.
Joseph accused them of being spies coming to an unprotected land. The brothers insisted that was not the case. They said “Your servants were twelve brothers, the sons of one man who lives in Canaan. The youngest is now with our father, and one is no more” (Gen. 42:13). Joseph responded by telling them that to prove they were not spies they needed to come back with their younger sibling. At this point in time the brothers were beginning to feel guilty, believing that they were being punished by God for the way they treated Joseph earlier. Joseph made the ten leave one of the brothers with him and let the rest return. Simeon, was the one who was bound by Joseph and required to stay. Fearful as Simeon probably was, I don’t imagine he was treated badly while the rest of the clan went back home.
As the brothers were getting ready to return, unbeknownst to them, Joseph gave orders to fill their bags with grain and to put the silver back in their sacks. He included provisions for their journey home as well. When they returned to Canaan and told the story to Jacob, he was crushed. The risks involved by letting Benjamin go back with the others were appalling. After incessant pleading from the brothers, and after they had eaten all of the grain that was provided, their father sent them back to buy some more food. He realized that he had run out of options and grudgingly relented to allow Benjamin to go with them.
As they reached Egypt and approached Joseph’s steward they wisely admitted that the silver they brought the first time had somehow been put back in their sacks. They offered to return it plus additional silver for more food. Surprisingly to them, the steward gave a warm response. He told them that their God, the God of their father had provided the treasure in their sacks and that the silver they initially brought had been received. Then he brought Simeon out to them, who to their surprise, had been treated well.
Joseph was away when the brothers arrived the second time. When he came back and met with the eleven they bowed down to give him honor. This may have brought to Joseph’s remembrance the dream he had as a teen-ager when the eleven stars bowed down to him. His brothers told him that his servant Jacob, their father, was still alive. Next, he saw his younger brother Benjamin. Memories of dreams, his childhood, his father and his younger brother probably came upon him in an emotional avalanche. He excused himself to a private room and wept.
Joseph told the steward of the house to once again fill the men’s sacks with as much food as they could carry and to put each man’s silver back. He also told his assistant to put Joseph’s private silver cup in the mouth of Benjamin’s sack. In the morning the eleven were sent away. Not long after they left, Joseph told his steward to go after them and find the silver goblet. Naturally, when the Egyptians caught up to them and found the cup, the sons of Israel were dumbfounded and frightened. Once again they were brought back to Egypt and taken before Joseph.
The second-in-command could no longer control himself. He made all of his attendants leave. He wept so loudly that the Egyptians at a distance could hear him. At last Joseph revealed to his brothers who he was. Now the sons of Israel were really terrified, wondering what kind of treatment could possibly be in store for them. Joseph responded quite different than they expected.
It was not you who sent me here, but God. He made me father [a title of honor] to Pharaoh, lord of his entire household and ruler of all Egypt. Now hurry back to my father and say to him, this is what your son Joseph says: God has made me lord of all Egypt. Come down to me; don’t delay. You shall live in the region of Goshen and be near me – you, your children and grandchildren, your flocks and herds, and all you have. I will provide for you there, because five years of famine are still to come. Otherwise you and your household and all who belong to you will become destitute.” (Gen 45:8-11).
Joseph told his brothers to bring all of the families of Jacob to Egypt. He offered to give them the best property (Gen. 45:18), the territory of Goshen, and assured them that they would eat off the fat of the land. The tribes of Israel, the descendants of Abraham, were now destined to live in Egypt.
The Famine Continues and Joseph’s Next Actions
When the Israelites moved into Egypt, things were a bit daunting at first. The famine was still very severe. Joseph collected all the money that was in Egypt and Canaan in payment for the grain. Note that the grain that was collected was not given back to the citizens, it was sold to them. Now of course there is some justification in this as it took time and effort to store and secure the produce as it takes money to run any government. When the people’s money was gone, they came back to Joseph pleading for mercy. Joseph then told them to bring him their livestock, their property, in exchange for food. They had no choice.
When the people of Egypt and Canaan ran out of money, all the Egyptians came to Joseph. “Our money is gone!” they cried. “But please give us food, or we will die before your very eyes!” Joseph replied, “Since your money is gone, bring me your livestock. I will give you food in exchange for your livestock.” So they brought their livestock to Joseph in exchange for food. In exchange for their horses, flocks of sheep and goats, herds of cattle, and donkeys, Joseph provided them with food for another year. (Gen. 47:15-17 NLT)
We need to realize how valuable livestock was. It was the equivalent to today’s plants or factories. Livestock produced the products that were in demand such as milk, eggs, meat, fur and skins. And don’t forget transportation! As the people gave up their precious livestock, they became less able to care for themselves and more dependent upon central government. And all the while the Pharaoh became more powerful and wealthy.
What was Next?
Now the Egyptian government controlled all the money, be it silver or gold and they also controlled the factories, the property and the transportation.
But that year ended, and the next year they came again and said, “We cannot hide the truth from you, my lord. Our money is gone, and all our livestock and cattle are yours. We have nothing left to give but our bodies and our land. Why should we die before your very eyes? Buy us and our land in exchange for food; we offer our land and ourselves as slaves for Pharaoh. Just give us grain so we may live and not die, and so the land does not become empty and desolate.” So Joseph bought all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh. All the Egyptians sold him their fields because the famine was so severe, and soon all the land belonged to Pharaoh (Gen. 47:18-20 NLT).
The people were desperate by now. They were offering their precious land, the last of their possessions, as well as themselves. They had to know what was at stake. They had to realize that the offer of their own selves as slaves would be grasped onto. This was their last vestige of freedom but they had no choice. It was their last resort for life. Joseph bought all the land in Egypt for Pharaoh. “The Egyptians, one and all, sold their fields, because the famine was too severe for them” (verse 20 NIV).
We read of Joseph's next move in verse 21: “And as for the people, he removed them to cities from one end of the borders of Egypt even to the other end thereof” (KJV). Clarke’s commentary provides a good explanation: “It is very likely that Joseph was influenced by no political motive in removing the people to the cities, but merely by a motive of humanity and prudence. As the corn was laid up in the cities he found it more convenient to bring them to the place where they might be conveniently fed; each being within the reach of an easy distribution. Thus then the country which could afford no sustenance was abandoned for the time being, that the people might be fed in those places where the provision was deposited.”1
After the famine was over, Joseph reminded the people that he had purchased them and their land for Pharaoh (Gen. 47:23-24). He was now going to give them seed and they were to sow the land with it. When the harvest time came they were to give twenty percent back to Pharaoh as a tax. Joseph put the citizens back to work with the expectation of a return from the land. Although now they were working on the government’s land at the government’s direction. David Jeremiah explains in his book The Coming Economic Armageddon that “all control of every aspect of the peoples economic lives had [now] been consolidated under the power of Pharaoh.”2
So What is the Verdict on Joseph’s Economic Plan?
In reading this past section on the way Joseph handled the economy of Egypt and its subsequent effect on the people you might be left with mixed emotions. Was Joseph a hero or a goat? Was he a friend of the people or a pawn of Pharaoh? Was he doing Gods will or not? These are good questions that deserve further exploration.
Let’s summarize what Joseph did:
1. He stored up the food in the cities, not necessarily where the people lived.
2. When the citizens needed food he sold it back to them.
3. When they ran out of hard currency Joseph traded food for their livestock – their property – their livelihood.
4. When all of their livestock was owned by Pharaoh he traded food for their precious property. Any property owner knows how hard it would be to give up your property.
5. He moved the citizens to central locations and reduced them to servitude.
6. He introduced a system of ongoing taxation.
By themselves, these sound like pretty tough assessments. But what else did Joseph do?
1. He spared the nation Egypt from starvation or severe suffering.
2. He did the same for the tribes of Israel and other nations.
3. He relocated Jacob and his family to the best portion of Egypt.
4. Storing food in central locations and moving the citizens to the cities may seem like a harsh thing to do, but we need to realize that starvation was at stake. By consolidating the food and the population, a much more efficient means of distribution was possible. It was much easier for the people to obtain the food locally than having to travel what in some cases would have been great distances.
5. He saved the people from the wrath of Pharaoh. What do you think Pharaoh would have done in time of famine if there not been a plan in place such as Joseph’s? I can imagine that anyone who had food may have been killed or severely tortured to give it up to Pharaoh and his officials.
6. This twenty percent tax rate was probably not considered excessive. During the seven years of plenty “the land produced bumper crops” (Gen. 41:47 NLT). This made enough provisions for Egypt plus neighboring lands.
Initiating a system of taxation may not seem to be a pleasant thing to do but we need to consider the circumstances. At least three advantages were produced by this:
- A tax kept Pharaoh and his soldiers from decimating families or communities in their desire for food, money or property.
- A flat tax rate provided an equitable system of paying for governmental expenses. Everyone paid the same amount.
- This gave the government of Pharaoh a good way of estimating income from year to year. If this tax rate was upheld the powers that be would tend not to go on wild spending sprees and demand whatever they wanted from the citizens.
7. Joseph preserved the family from which the Messiah was to be born.
8. He moved the people of Israel into the right spot where God, many years later would show his power in a way that could not be denied to a great multitude of people and provide lessons for all generations.
9. He certainly did a great deal to support his boss, the Pharaoh. At the same time he was not overly abusive to the citizens. We see no record of slaughter or other gross abuse of power, which he certainly could have used.
10. Governmental rule, in this context and in this time, does not appear to be taken as an evil thing. It seems that the people were grateful for the treatment and care that Joseph provided.
11. With the limited means of communication and transportation available it appears as if Joseph’s plan was the best alternative under the time and circumstances.
What About the Long Term?
Was this a good long-term solution? I think that it is made clear throughout the pages of the Bible that slavery is not God’s plan for mankind. He went to great lengths to free the nation Israel from the slavery that had overtaken them at the time of the Exodus. The message of Jesus throughout the New Testament is one of freedom. Jesus treated the poor, women and the afflicted very well. He loved those who were thought of as less than ordinary people and treated them with kindness and compassion. In Matthew 8:2-3 we read “suddenly, a man with leprosy approached him and knelt before him. ‘Lord’, the man said, ‘if you are willing, you can heal me and make me clean’. Jesus reached out and touched him. ‘I am willing’, he said. ‘Be healed!’ Andinstantly the leprosy disappeared.” Jesus reached out to this man with leprosy, a terrible stigma in the first century, touched him and healed him. He went throughout Galilee teaching and healing every disease and sickness among the people. Jesus did not want people to be slaves to other men, the system or the government. In the long run, slavery and total governmental control are not the optimal solutions.
But once again, what about Joseph’s actions? Joseph seems to have brought governmental control and slavery upon the people and yet he is proclaimed as a hero in Hebrews 11. Joseph did what he had to do to save the citizens, Egyptians as well as Israelites. This may have been the only way that the nation could have been spared from famine, rampant disease, suffering and the power of Pharaoh and his henchmen. After the famine was over, Joseph started giving back to the people. Genesis 47:23-26 tells us Joseph gave the people seed to plant so that they could start their own crops and harvest once again. According to the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus, Joseph was “a man of admirable values, and conducting all his affairs by the rules of reason; and used his authority with moderation, which was the cause of his so great admiration among the Egyptians.”3
Conditions After Joseph
Joseph lived 110 years. That would have been 66 years after the famine ceased. We read that “In time, Joseph and all of his brothers died, ending that entire generation. But their descendants, the Israelites, had many children and grandchildren. In fact, they multiplied so greatly that they became extremely powerful and filled the land” (Exod. 1:6-7 NLT).
When we continue with the story of the Israelites after Joseph’s death in Exodus 1:8 we find a totally different scenario. There were approximately two hundred years between the time the famine ended and the Exodus and a new king "who did not know about Joseph" (Exod. 1:8) came to power. The verb “know” (yada – Hebrew) is often used to signify “acknowledge” or “approve”.4 This king apparently disapproved of the governmental structure that Joseph had established. He was fearful of the Israelites who had become a great nation (Exo. 1:10). Clarke’s commentary provides additional insight as follows: “It has been conjectured that Pharaoh had probably his eye on the oppressions which Egypt had suffered under the shepherd–kings, who for a long series of years had, according to Manetho [an Egyptian historian who lived during the 3rd century B.C.], governed the land with extreme cruelty. As the Israelites were of the same occupation, (viz., shepherds,) the jealous, cruel king found it easy to attribute to them the same motives; taking it for granted that they were only waiting for a favorable opportunity to join the enemies of Egypt, and so overrun the whole land.”5
This new king put slave masters over the Israelites to oppress them with forced labor. We see no record of Joseph doing this. This Pharaoh said to his people “the Israelites have become much too numerous for us. Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies” (Exod. 1:9-10 NIV). The Hebrew people were forced to work terribly hard. The Interpreters Bible Commentary explains the phrase “deal shrewdly” as follows: “deal shrewdly indicates cunning rather than wisdom and visualizes exploitation of the Hebrews which would break their spirit and reduce their numbers through hardship.”6 Some writers (including Josephus) think that besides the cities the Israelites built (verse 11) they also built the pyramids.
There can be no question that Egypt at the time of the Exodus was quite different from Egypt during the time of Joseph. One of the last recorded acts of Joseph was, after the famine had ceased, that of giving seed back to the people so they could start their crops and lives over again. Granted, I don’t think that slavery is God’s preference. The Pharaoh’s after Joseph could have kept things moving in the path that Joseph had started of giving freedom back to the people. They obviously chose not to. The kings had a choice to make, whether to give more back to the citizens of the country or to take more. They chose to take more. It didn’t have to be that way. We cannot attribute the conditions the Israelites were under at the time of the Exodus to Joseph.
The conduct of Joseph has been criticized by some and praised by others. Most (including myself) feel that Joseph’s actions were divine appointments from God and that he did all he could do to promote fairness and equity during the time and under the circumstances. He was an honored servant, trustworthy in his doings, fair and upright. He saved nations from total disaster; he preserved the line of his family and the lineage of our Savior. Quoting once again from Clarke’s commentary, “His conduct as the prime minister of Pharaoh was powerfully indicative of a deep and consummate politician, who had high notions of prerogative, which led him to use every prudent means to aggrandize his master, and at the same time to do what he judged best on the whole for the people he governed.”7 In my opinion there can be no question that Joseph was a servant of the Most High God and carried out his duties faithfully.
1. Adam Clarkes Commentary on the Bible, note on Genesis 47, http://www.godrules.net/library/clarke/clarkegen47.htm, accessed 12/24/2010.
2. David Jeremiah, The Coming Economic Armageddon, New York, NY, FaithWords, Hatchette Book Group, 2010, 92.
3. Flavius Josephus, William Whiston, Paul L. Maier; The New Complete Works of Josephus, Book 2, Chapter 8, http://books.google.com/books?id=pTY4kBRIVQYC&pg=PA165&lpg=PA165&dq=josephus+exodus+1&source=bl&ots=ZfmXyNcHRM&sig=
7&ved=0CEsQ6AEwBg#v=onepage&q=josephus%20exodus%201&f=false, accessed 12/26/2010.
4. Abingdon's Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, Yada (#3045), Hebrew and Chaldee Dictionary, Madison, NJ; Abingdon Press, 1983.
5. Clarkes Commentary, note on Exodus 1, http://www.godrules.net/library/clarke/clarkegen47.htm, accessed 12/26/2010.
6. Charles M. Laymon - editor, The Interpreters Commentary on the Bible, Nashville, TN, Abingdon Press, 1971
7. Clarkes Commentary, Genesis 50:26 note.
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