Joseph and the Egyptian Ponzi Scheme

For the last several years, I haven’t had the highest opinion of Joseph.  Most writing on the life of Joseph and Genesis drips with honey and can’t wait to sing the endless virtues of Egypt’s agricultural czar.

Sure, they always say he started off as a tattle-tail, quick to report his brothers to his father.  And maybe he wasn’t the wisest of youths, spouting off his dreams like they were about to catch his tongue on fire. But he was young.  Nothing a good dose of humility won’t fix.

The medicine of humility comes, and from then on Joseph is looked on as an angel. Usually. It was refreshing to read a book that brought up some doubts about this typical enthusiasm in Reno’s Genesis commentary, but these treatments are few and far between.

Joseph is obviously a type of Christ, but that doesn’t mean we should read about him with rose-tinted glasses. David is a type of Christ too, and I don’t see anyone trying to explain away his adultery with Bathsheba with clever excuses.  But Joseph’s issues are not the loud, brass band of obvious, in-your-face sin like that of fornication and murder.

His issues are subtle.  The problems of power and cultural chameleonism always are. And a failure to recognize the problems show just how enamored we have become with the trappings of power, and how easily we make an idol of the State.

A Great Story, but…

Granted, when you’re teaching a bunch of 5 year olds about Joseph, its easy to get caught up in the rags to riches part of the story. Its a great story that touches something deep within every human. And how do you even explain the nuances behind the temptations of political power to a child who hasn’t even read The Lord of the Rings?

Joseph’s faults shouldn’t surprise us.  Look at the stock he came from. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the three names God decides to attach to Himself for eternity, all have their serious problems. Joseph’s eventual words to his brothers seems to be the theme behind the second half of Genesis. “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good…” (Genesis 50:20)(ESV) And thank God for that, or else where would any of us be?

Joseph is still a man of obvious faith that we can learn from.  But keep in mind what the Hebrew writer calls attention to when he praises the faith of Joseph:

By faith Joseph, when he died, made mention of the departing of the children of Israel; and gave commandment concerning his bones.

Nothing about his perseverance in prison. Nothing about his steadfast hope while sold into slavery. And, notably, nothing about his role in feeding the entire world. Just a mention about his burial arrangements. This should give us a clue as to what was truly praiseworthy about Joseph, in God’s eyes.

So what are some of these issues, besides the obvious youthful pride?

Cultural Assimilation

As soon as Joseph is raised up, he is married to the daughter of a priest of On (Gen. 41:45), thereby gaining religious acceptance to a group that held enormous sway within Egypt, and later would gain even more power through Joseph’s own machinations. We know that during Israel’s time in Egypt, they served other gods (Josh. 24:14).

Perhaps this alliance was the beginning of this indiscretion? Regardless, we know that Abraham insisted on non-foreign wives for Isaac, and Rebekah did likewise for Jacob. After Sinai, such a marriage would be explicitly forbidden.

In an effort to absolve Joseph of this misstep, many rabbinical writings scramble to craft interpretations that border on fantasy. One even claims that Asenath was really Joseph’s kin, the daughter of Shechem and Dinah (Gen. 34) who eventually ended up being raised by Potiphera in Egypt. The sentiment may also have led to the writing of the apocryphal Joseph and Aseneth that depicts the conversion of Aseneth to the worship of YHWH before Joseph agrees to marry her.

The assimilation continues.  In Genesis 42:23, we see that Joseph needs an interpreter to understand the language of his fathers.  He has forgotten it. The curse of Babel rears its head, signifying that Joseph is currently separate from the  family of promise. Not good.

Unlike Christ, who was faithful to both his divinity and humanity, Joseph cannot be a son of both Jacob and Egypt.  One side inevitably gives way to the other, and it looks like the Egyptian side comes to reign.

Total Fraud and Enslavement

The world is fed on the labor of the Egyptian populace. They give up a fifth of everything they produce during the 7 years of plenty to prepare for the 7 years of famine.  Its a temporary tax.  Or so it was probably sold to the Egyptians.

When the famine hits, Joseph sells grain to anyone who needs it. This makes sense for foreigners who come from other lands.  But what about the Egyptians who filled up the storehouses?  Its their grain after all.  Certainly they are due at least what they put in. But no. Joseph charges them money for their own grain.

Soon the Egyptians run out of money, and begin begging Joseph for food. (Gen. 47:15). Joseph, not without mercy, agrees to give them food for the small price of all of their livestock. But hey, at least they have enough food to live…for a year.

The Egyptians come begging again.  They have no money.  They have no livestock to give in trade.  Desperate, they offer their bodies and their land and Joseph accepts their generous offer. (Gen. 47:18-22).

Except the lands of the priests.  So the only people in Egypt that owned land after this were Pharaoh and the pagan priests.  What a drastic shift in power.

Once again showing mercy (and probably realizing a 100% enslaved population isn’t really that productive), Joseph tells the people to keep tilling the land, do all of the work.  And all they have to do is give back one fifth of their production to Pharaoh. During a debilitating famine.  And beyond.

So much for a “temporary” tax to cover the tough times. Like a good politician, he didn’t let a good disaster go to waste.

Maybe we should rename the Ponzi scheme after Joseph instead?

But thanks be to God, for he works good out of evil. Even our own evil. It was true with the other sons of Jacob.  It was true with Joseph himself.  And it is true with those of us who are in Christ.

Pride of Ownership

Proverbs 14:4 teaches a lot in it’s brilliant phrasing, but the main warning is against being boastful about the wrong things.

Where there are no oxen, the manger is clean, but abundant crops come by the strength of the ox. (ESV)

If someone ignores the strength of a few oxen, just because they don’t want to clean up the corresponding mess, they have their priorities wrong. Mangers are meant to get dirty, to smell like animals.  That’s their purpose.  A clean manger is a wasted manger, and pointing to it in justification is foolishness.

What are some modern day mangers?

  1. Houses – A house that doesn’t need to be cleaned is a wasted house, and the owners miss out on abundant fruit.  The house is never “lived in” by the resident family, or the doors are never open to others in hospitality.  Perhaps some of the furniture is still covered in cellophane wrap. The carpets almost never need to be cleaned. There are rooms that no one is allowed to enter. The kids are shooed outside at the earliest convenience. There are so many coasters covering the tables that you can’t see the wood underneath.
  2. Vehicles –  The whole point of a car is to get passengers from one point on the map to another, not to show off how great the upholstery looks. Would you brag about how the tread on the tires you bought 7 years ago shows no sign of wear? And if someone, somewhere, would be crazy enough to be impressed by unused tires, you probably shouldn’t be making eye contact with them.

 

There is a certain pride of ownership that is needed.  After all, the manger needs to be cleaned.  Its not left to wallow in the filth of the oxen. But the pride of ownership isn’t the point of ownership.  Always be asking why God gave this blessing to you.

What are some other modern day mangers, in the context of this proverb? What else is it warning against?

Don’t Worry About the Donkeys

The second time Joseph’s brothers go to Egypt to buy grain, they are sent to Joseph’s house. This causes some comedic (to me, at least) dialog among themselves.

And the men were afraid because they were brought to Joseph’s house, and they said, “It is because of the money, which was replaced in our sacks the first time, that we are brought in, so that he may assault us and fall upon us to make us servants and seize our donkeys.” (Gen. 43:18)(ESV)

They are worried about their donkeys.  While they were certainly important and would allow them to carry back more grain than they could carry by themselves, its a strange bookend to their list of worst case scenarios.  If they were assaulted and made into slaves, their pack animals would be as useful as a blind man’s pair of contact lenses.

“Reuben, what if they beat us and we become slaves?!”

“Not sure, Levi. I only hope the donkeys will come out of it alright. As long as they’re OK, we’ll be OK.”

Levi nods his head. “Yes, I hope the God of our fathers grants the donkeys safe passage through this situation. Everything rests on them!”

But what actually happens?

The brothers are welcomed.  They are pampered.  Their feet are washed and they feast with the second most powerful man in Egypt (or the world), drinking and being merry. And the donkeys they were so worried about are fed and taken care of.

This is one of those mirrors in Scripture that show us ourselves in high resolution.

In fear and doubt, we hold on to garbage scraps, not realizing that God has a feast prepared for us if only we would throw the scraps away. Scraps have no place at the table of God.

Or we cling to the worn, dirty rags covering our bodies.  God is ready to dress us in royal robes and place a crown upon our head, and we ask “But what about my rags?” How pathetic we must look.

And yet he loves us. Not only that, he wants to flood us with blessings.

In Luke 18:18-30, after the rich ruler goes away sorrowful because he has many possessions, Peter boasts on behalf of all the disciples: “Lo, we have left all, and followed thee.” We have done what this ruler did not do.  Aren’t we special?

And Jesus answers him:  “Verily I say unto you, There is no man that hath left house, or parents, or brethren, or wife, or children, for the kingdom of God’s sake, Who shall not receive manifold more in this present time, and in the world to come life everlasting.” Stop bragging.  You are simply trading for treasure that is worth many times more than what you are giving up.  What you gave up is nothing in comparison to what you will receive.

Paul seems to echo this in Phil. 3:8

I count all things [but] loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them [but] dung, that I may win Christ

We need to realize that, when we worry and cling to the things in this life for security – our houses, our savings accounts, our investment portfolios, our jobs, our government, our youth, western medicine – we are clinging to dung. We need to release our tight grips, before the grip becomes reality in true rigor mortis.

But when we relax our grip, we will be blessed beyond our wildest dreams.  God even tells us to test him in this:

Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house, and prove me now herewith, saith the LORD of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it. (Mal. 3:10)

Like Joseph’s brothers, we are okay with being slaves just as long as nothing happens to our donkeys. God is ready replace your scraps with feasting, your rags with robes,  and your sorrow with joy.

So let go of your scraps and rags. And don’t worry about the donkeys.

And he said unto his disciples, Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat; neither for the body, what ye shall put on. The life is more than meat, and the body is more than raiment. Consider the ravens: for they neither sow nor reap; which neither have storehouse nor barn; and God feedeth them: how much more are ye better than the fowls? And which of you with taking thought can add to his stature one cubit? If ye then be not able to do that thing which is least, why take ye thought for the rest? Consider the lilies how they grow: they toil not, they spin not; and yet I say unto you, that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. If then God so clothe the grass, which is to day in the field, and to morrow is cast into the oven; how much more will he clothe you, O ye of little faith? And seek not ye what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink, neither be ye of doubtful mind. For all these things do the nations of the world seek after: and your Father knoweth that ye have need of these things. But rather seek ye the kingdom of God; and all these things shall be added unto you. (Luke 12:22-31)