Joseph’s family moves to Egypt. The consequences of decisions and actions we make often lie far in the future, beyond our knowing. Israel moved because of the promise of food and God’s blessing. Would they have moved if they had foreseen the possibility of slavery? Would the larger story of God’s redemptive work make it worthwhile? It has God’s blessing; that is, God will preserve God’s people and fulfill the promise to make them a great nation. As we move through the uncertainties of life, we can find comfort that God’s redemptive purpose will ultimately determine the meaning of lesser events.
Genesis 46:31-47:12 - Settling in Goshen
It is a testament of Joseph’s power that they move before they are introduced to Pharaoh. We have the intersection of two very different cultures. Remember Joseph shaved his head when he went before Pharaoh. Shaving heads was likely a clear marker between Egyptians and everyone else. Also remember that the Egyptians detested eating with Hebrews. We aren’t sure why. In this passage, Joseph tells his family to be opaque as to their shepherding, as Egyptians look down on shepherds as Egyptians cannot stand shepherds (46:33). Were nomadic shepherds a threat to the stable Egyptian agrarian economy? One wonders how these differences contributed to the slavery that described in Exodus.
Still it appears that they settle in good land, and their needs are taken care of. And Joseph has the power to make it happen.
Genesis 47:13-26 – Joseph enslaves the Egyptians
Yes. You read that correctly. This passage tells how Joseph and Pharaoh fared after they stored grain during the “fat” years. When the famine hit Pharaoh, the grain market cornered. Pharaoh had Joseph leverage his monopoly to buy all the land, so that, “The land became Pharaoh’s and the people became slaves from one end of Egypt to the other”(Genesis 47:20b-21).
When people no longer owned land (the means of production), they were vulnerable. Some people were forced into cities. Others became sharecroppers. And Joseph has his fingerprints all over it.
This episode connects to a prominent theme that runs through the Bible that connects ownership and freedom. Leviticus 25 mandates a year of Jubilee every 50 years, allowing people to return to the lands of their inheritance that their parents or grandparents may have lost during the intervening years. These laws prevented what Pharaoh did from happening in Israel; that is, it prevented the wealthy from consolidating too much territory and ensured that, over time, the land would remain relatively equally distributed among free individuals and tribes. The justification for these laws rested on God’s insistence, “the land is mine” (Leviticus 25:23).
These land laws (and the egalitarianism they protected) lie behind every discussion of land in the Bible. They lie behind directives to leave a portion of the harvest in the fields for the poor to glean (Leviticus 23:22, Deuteronomy 24: 20,21). They lie behind restrictions that prohibit daughters who possess land from marrying outside the tribe (Numbers 36). They are the reason Naboth refused to sell his vineyard and why Elijah condemned of Ahab for taking it (I Kings 21). They undergird prophetic denunciations of those who “join house to house and field to field” (Isaiah 5.8). They inspired prophetic visions of land redistribution that would allow everyone is to live under “his or her own vine and fig tree” (Isaiah 36:13, Micah 4:4). They lie behind the complaint arising from the children of Israel who had recently returned from exile in Babylon: that they were losing their land during another famine and being sold into slavery and forced into prostitution (Nehemiah 5). These laws provide the background for Joseph and Mary’s going to Bethlehem for the census (Luke 2) and Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55).
Eric Nelson in his book, The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought, notes that Reformed thinkers took the Bible seriously and that they drew on this strand of Biblical thinking to challenge European agrarian laws. These texts were why the founders thought that some economic equality was important for democracy and led them to fear that an aristocracy would arise.
Let us be clear: Biblical texts that mandate land redistribution are not interested in eliminating ownership like the Marxists. Indeed, if Pharaoh was the government, the consolidation of his landholdings provides a cautionary tale. Rather, these texts are interested in ensuring that ownership was justly and broadly distributed among the people. It guaranteed that everyone would enjoy the fruits of their labor and live in sufficiency. By regularly redistributing the land, the laws of jubilee prevented preventing intergenerational poverty from developing into a permanent underclass or caste system. It forestalled the development of the sort of two-tier citizenship we see in most ancient (and some modern) societies. It did not foster dependency, but empowered people. In contrast to slavery, owning land encouraged virtues of stewardship and initiative. What this means for today I have yet to fully work out.