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.

Eternal Life Will Renew

“Christ triumphs over death in the body of his flesh, which is renewed and reclothed rather than transcended and left behind. Thus the figure of Joseph raised by Pharaoh from the depths of prison clarifies a fundamental truth about God’s promise of new life in Christ: eternal life will renew rather than cancel or leave behind our created nature.” (Reno, Genesis, p. 262)

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)

 

Isaac Blesses Jacob Without Being Tricked

At the beginning of Genesis 28, Isaac finally blesses Jacob without having to be tricked, but still after being prodded by his dutiful wife.

And Isaac called Jacob, and blessed him, and charged him, and said unto him, Thou shalt not take a wife of the daughters of Canaan. Arise, go to Padanaram, to the house of Bethuel thy mother’s father; and take thee a wife from thence of the daughers of Laban thy mother’s brother. And God Almighty bless thee, and make thee fruitful, and multiply thee, that thou mayest be a multitude of people; And give thee the blessing of Abraham, to thee, and to thy seed with thee; that thou mayest inherit the land wherein thou art a stranger, which God gave unto Abraham.” (Gen. 28:1-4)

We have a reiteration of the promise coupled with the same “foreigner” or “stranger” language. The patriarchs must first be pilgrims in the promised land before they can inherit it, and this is our context for the New Testament use of similar language regarding the Christian’s current state.

Pilgrims in the Promised Land…Just a Passing Through?

It is appropriate that Abraham, the father of our faith, should be listed in Hebrews 11 not just once, but twice. The writer gives more words only to Moses. The first time deals with Abraham’s call to leave his father’s house.

By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went. By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange country, dwelling in tabernacles with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise: For he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God. (Heb 11:8-10)

Abraham was a sojourner.  A pilgrim. More than that, he was a sojourner in a land that God promised him, and since God promised him, he knew that, in a sense, it belonged to him already. God blessed him so much that the Hittites called him a mighty prince (Gen. 23:5), powerful rulers sought to make alliances with him and his offspring (Gen 21:22,23), and he defeats an alliance of five kings with only 318 men (Gen 14:15). Not bad for a sojourner.

Not bad, at least, when compared with the kind of sojourner we normally assume the New Testament writers are talking about, especially when referring to Christians. Peter tells us to “pass the time of your sojourning here” (1 Peter 1:17) and then again saying “I beseech you as strangers and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul” (1 Peter 2:11).

A whole tradition has grown from the idea of being a pilgrim or alien of the world, sharpened by Paul’s language of citizenship, and colored with Greek and gnostic philosophy in the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th centuries. It can be summed up nicely in the song “This World is Not My Home.”

This world is not my home, I’m just a passing through.

In essence, our true home is in the heavenly realm, and someday, we will finally leave this wicked, corrupt world and be able to return home.  Our pilgrimage will be over. The rest of the world can literally go to Hell.

But is this the picture we get? Is this really what being a pilgrim in the world means?

Was Abraham, the first sojourner of faith and the context for the New Testament use of these terms, just a passing through the promised land?

To ask the question is to answer it. Abraham even performs a symbolic act of staking his claim in the land of Canaan.  He buys a field from one of the Hittites to bury Sarah, and then his own bones are laid to rest in the same tomb.  The conquest didn’t start with Joshua.  It started with Abraham after the death of his wife.

Abraham is a pilgrim in the promised land, which means he is called a pilgrim in his own land.  And he knows it.

How does this relate to the children of the promise today?

First, we must realize that just as Abraham buying a plot of land was a symbolic act of conquest, the later conquest of the promised land by the Israelites was also a symbolic act of something greater.

For the promise, that he should be the heir of the world, was not to Abraham, or to his seed, through the law, but through the righteousness of faith. (Rom. 4:13)

Abraham was not just promised Canaan.  He was promised that all of the nations through him would be blessed, and according to Paul, this means that he would inherit the world.

And we are inheritors of the same promise.

And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. (Gal 3:29)

Christ himself says that the meek will inherit the earth. How much time have we spent explaining away the plain sense of this beatitude, when the plain sense fits so well with the promise of Abraham?

Christ has risen.  All authority has been given to him in heaven and on earth (Matt. 28:18). The new order has been established, God has named his king, and his king will rule at his right hand until all of his enemies bow in homage (Psalm 110:1). And what is the domain of the king?

Ask of me, and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession. (Psalm 2:8)

Through Christ, the promise of Abraham will come to fruition. We are pilgrims now in the promised land, heirs of the promise.  But that means we are the advance guard, building wells and establishing alters like Abraham our father, knowing that we wander in our inheritance. For he “hast made us unto our God kings and priests: and we shall reign on the earth” (Rev. 5:10). Creation itself longs for the final victory.

For the creation waits with eager longing forthe revealing of the sons of God. For the creationwas subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know thatthe whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. (Rom. 8:21-22, ESV)

As someone once said, the world is not God’s Vietnam.  He is not scrambling to bring the troops home from a theater of war that is crumbling, in some kind of strategic retreat.

Pilgrimages of the people of God don’t end with a whimper and a sigh.  They don’t end with a rescue.

They end in conquest. They end in victory.

“That God may be all in all.” Amen.

What about you? Have you viewed the call to be a sojourner in this world as a call to simply “hold down the fort?” Do you believe the promises that “the Father has sent the Son as Savior of the world”(1 Jn. 4:14)?