In my last post we saw how Joseph began to fulfill his own promise as a leader. He also began to fulfill the promise that was made to him in chapter 37. Just as he had seen his sheaf of grain raised upright so many years before, Joseph has been promoted. He equits himself well in his first seven years, but they were the easy years, the times when leadership is a joy.
Then comes the famine. While individuals and nations quickly experience shortage, Egypt and Joseph himself have bread as a result of good planning.
There are a number of ways to view Joseph’s plan over the next seven years, and some economists are quite critical. It is informative to view his actions from a modern lens, but it is also perilous because we can only judge by the details the narrator provides us. So much of the data that impacted Joseph’s calculations has been lost to history. A full debrief simply isn’t possible. We’ll focus instead on the leadership aspects, acknowledging that leadership often involves making the best guess possible in the moment with the information, experience and guidance we have and then moving forward, whether it was the right decision or not. Historians and leadership students will have centuries to second-guess our decisions.
Let’s look at how Joseph leads in times of adversity.
1. He is a loyal servant to Pharaoh
Yes, Joseph uses the crisis to increase Pharaoh’s wealth beyond imagination and consolidate Pharaoh’s power. By Genesis 47:20-21, Pharaoh will own ALL of the land and the people of Egypt. Joseph allows the people to sell their land and enter into servitude (Theology of Work). He also takes the wealth of all surrounding countries (Gen 41:57) and likely leverages their dependency to Pharaoh’s advantage. This loyalty does not go unnoticed; he’s in Pharaoh’s debt when he finally calls in a favour.
2. He empowers the needy by requiring payment
Joseph uses an economic philosophy of empowerment, as seen in the way he treats the Egyptians. Dr. Leong Tien Fock puts it this way:
Instead of distributing the grain as “free handouts,” he made the people buy it. And when their money ran out, they had to give their livestock, and finally even themselves and their land, in exchange for grain…. What Joseph did was apply an economic principle implied in Old Testament laws, that is, free or unconditional handouts can do more harm than good (cf. Payne 1998). For instance, farmers were forbidden to harvest the corners of their field so that the needy could come and glean and thus support themselves (Leviticus 19:9-10). It was not a free handout as they had to work with their hands. What this means is that there must be room in an economy to empower the needy who are able-bodied to support themselves (cf. Carlson-Thies 1999: 474-76). Cases like one-off handouts to people who have just suffered a calamity are not the same as giving on-going handouts to people who can work.
3. He rearranges the fabric of society
Joseph intentionally holds the money back, keeping it from being re-circulated into the local economy. Some have criticized this move, saying it is nothing short of intentional, government-sponsored deflation in the midst of a natural calamity. Eventually the money collapses (Gen 47:14-15). Surely Joseph’s lessons in economics as he ran an estate didn’t prepare him for economics at this scale, and he doesn’t have the benefit of sophisticated study in the field that we do, or the long list of economic case studies available to economics students today. Does Joseph know what he is doing? Does he realize the full impact? As Carl Teichrib points out, Joseph ends up consolidating property under the state, and the citizens literally become slaves in their own country (Gen 47:20-21). Genesis 47:26 says Joseph creates lasting statutes in Egypt out of this time of scarcity.
4. He does not take advantage of the people’s powerlessness
“Was Joseph being tyrannical in thus “enslaving” the Egyptians?” asks Dr. Tien Fock. Certainly Pharaoh gives Joseph enormous latitude in dealing with the crisis.
To understand a narrative we are dependent on the narrator. In the first part of the narrative, he portrays Joseph as a God-fearing man. And he tells us that the Egyptians themselves asked to be “slaves of Pharaoh” (Genesis 47:19). Also, in Genesis 47:25 he tells us that they “do not regard Joseph as a tyrant but as a savior” (Waltke 2001: 591). In view of possible famines, this economic reform was actually beneficial to them, “for now their food supply was Pharaoh’s responsibility” (Wenham 1994: 449). (Tien Fock)
The evidence is that he does not change the tax rate. After buying all the people of Egypt, he keeps the tax rate at 20% (Gen 47:24). Dr. Leong Tien Fock says, “the beneficial economic reform required a “corporate tax” of just 20%, which was low compared to the average of more than 33% in that part of the ancient world (Waltke 2001: 591).” Then Joseph provides the people with seed to sow on the land they now work as tenants or sharecroppers. The result is that he keeps many people alive (Gen 50:20).
As he does this, he provides for two distinct religious groups. First, the land of the priests remains their own, and Joseph administrates distribution of a fixed allowance. Second, he provides for his family (Gen 47:12, 50:21), setting apart the land of Goshen in the land of Rameses, the prime grazing land which Pharaoh describes as “the best of the land of Egypt” and “the fat of the land” (Gen 45:18). This is a great example of religious freedom; a God-follower in a political office fights to protect both the pagan religious figures and the Hebrew God-followers.
5. On the other hand, he creates clear advantages for Israel
While Egypt struggles, the people of Israel thrive. While all Egypt steadily moves into poverty and slavery, the Israelites have rising employment as they keep the royal livestock—which eventually includes all the herds of Egypt (Gen 47:6,18). Israel “acquired property there and were fruitful and increased greatly in number” (Gen 47:27). Here God begins to make them “into a great nation” (Gen 46:3).
However, there’s foreshadowing in this summary from the psalmist: “The Lord made his people very fruitful; he made them too numerous for their foes” (Ps 105:24-25). In fostering such disparity, Joseph creates the foundation for the future oppression depicted in Exodus 1, when a new Pharaoh arises who fears the power of this nation living within his nation. God turned their hearts “to hate his people, to conspire against his servants.” (Ps 105:25).
To build a nation, or to build a leader, God uses both times of abundance and favour, and times of trial and oppression. The mix of hot and cold, good and bad, forge a character and an identity that God can use to accomplish his purposes. Joseph has emerged from his period of trial and thrives in his new period of influence. He wants to forget all his father’s house (Gen 41:51). But now they will all come spilling back into his life. They will provide the perfect contrast to see the work God has done in Joseph.