The Irony of Joseph’s Slaves – reducing people to poverty is never good

In moving from Genesis to Exodus, a reader might note some irony. This particular narrative thread starts with Joseph and finds its ironic twist in the time of Moses.

Joseph’s Slave Experience

In Genesis 37, Joseph’s brother had had about enough of him. He’s their father’s favorite, he’s been acting superior, and told them he dreamed they would all bow down to him one day. They sold their little brother to Midianite merchants traveling in a caravan through Canaan to Egypt, but it could have been worse. The brothers’ original plan was to kill him.

Joseph did all right in Egypt, at least as far as being a slave went. God blessed him with the ability to carry out his duties well so his slave-master gave him more responsibility. He was too good at his job, though, because being in charge meant coming to the attention of his master’s wife, who wanted to bed Joseph. He refused and she accused him of attempted rape. The slave-master threw Joseph in prison. (Genesis 39.)

Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife, Guido Reni ca. 1630 (Wikipedia)

Again, Joseph carried out his duties well and the prison warden put Joseph in charge of the place. Eventually, Joseph came to the attention of Pharaoh, king of Egypt, who released Joseph from prison and appointed him prime minister. Joseph – able by God’s grace to interpret a dream Pharaoh had – then guided Egypt through seven years of bountiful harvest in preparation for seven years of famine. In the seven bountiful years, Joseph collected grain from the farmers and landowners. In the second seven years, he sold it back to them. (Genesis 41.) The Bible doesn’t say Joseph paid them for it in the first place. Just that he made them pay for it when they wanted some back.

Joseph reconciled with his brothers when they traveled to Egypt to buy grain, since the famine was hitting them hard in Canaan as well, and gave them good land in the north of Egypt to tend their flocks of sheep. (Genesis 42-46.) As for the Egyptians who grew all that grain Joseph collected, they started running out of money with which to buy it back. So Joseph had the people trade their livestock for grain. When the people ran out of animals, they traded their land to Joseph for grain. Eventually, the people sold themselves in order to keep from starving to death.

So 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. The land became Pharaoh’s, and Joseph reduced the people to servitude, from one end of Egypt to the other. (Genesis 47:20-21.)

Time passed.

Now Joseph and all his brothers and all that generation died, but the Israelites were exceedingly fruitful; they multiplied greatly, increased in numbers and became so numerous that the land was filled with them.

Then a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt. “Look,” he said to his people, “the Israelites have become far 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, fight against us and leave the country.”

So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor, and they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh. (Exodus 1:6-11.)

Israel in Egypt, Edward Poynter 1867 (Wikipedia)

Irony in Action

Joseph’s family reaped what he sowed.

  • Joseph – who had himself been sold into slavery – took advantage of the bountiful harvest and subsequent famine to enslave all Egypt to Pharaoh. Now Pharaoh enslaved all the Israelites after they became a threat through their prosperity and numbers.
  • Joseph stored the grain collected from the Egyptians. Now Pharaoh’s slave-masters forced the Israelites to build store cities for the Egyptian king.

It took God intervening once again to rescue his people.

The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God. God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob. So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them. (Exodus 2:23-25.)

Joseph was long dead, and God chose to use Moses this time.

The Lord said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey … .

And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.” (Exodus 3:7-10.)

In a reversal of fortune:

  • The Egyptians suffered loss of livestock and grain (among other disasters) reminiscent of the transfer of all their grain and livestock to Joseph’s keeping years earlier. (Exodus 6-11.)
  • Eventually Pharaoh released the Israelites, opposite to the enslavement of the Egyptians under the administration of Joseph. (Exodus 12.)
  • God originally brought the Israelites to Egypt to avoid famine in Canaan, and was  sending them back to Canaan with the promise that it is now a land flowing with milk and honey. (Exodus 3.)

This is a history filled with twists and turns worthy of a novelist’s plot. What is one conclusion (among many) a reader can draw from this narrative?

God works through different people in different way – Joseph, Moses, the two different Pharaohs – but apparently is not averse to a little irony along the way.

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8 Responses to The Irony of Joseph’s Slaves – reducing people to poverty is never good

  1. mkubo2013 says:

    Interesting to see you point out something I heard many years ago from another person.

    That person thought Joseph really shouldn’t be hailed as the hero of the story for doing just what you described – taking advantage of people who had no other choice.

    • Tim says:

      He’s not a leader I’d want my kids to emulate, that’s for sure. Then again, maybe the way he handled it was what everyone expected from their government back then.

      • mkubo2013 says:

        I seem to recall in my childhood conservative/fundamentalist church, Joseph was taught as something like a Christ figure… Which now I realize is only possible to do by glossing over and hiding his many faults.

  2. Jeannie Prinsen says:

    So interesting, Tim. We so often hold up Joseph and other Biblical “heroes” as paragons of virtue, but most of them did some pretty questionable things.

  3. Anu Riley says:

    Really informative post! Tons to think about. I’m sorry to admit that I haven’t perused Genesis in way too long. I’m not informed enough to comment about Joseph in full context as you did.

    To be honest, I was shocked @ those verse that brought up his “questionable tactics.” You’re on point with the irony shown by his life.

    The readings or sermons about Joseph (that I was privy to) tended to put a “period” on the end the his story when he reconciled with his brothers—-and of course that wonderful line about how what was intended for evil, God used for good—–to save an entire nation from starvation.

    Seems that whole part about him eventually enslaving Egypt was “bleeped” over, until we read about Pharaoh enslaving the Israelites—and being guilty of forgetting all that Joseph had done for his nation at one time.

    The Word says “Joseph reduced the people to servitude,” so I am led to believe that this was not a mutual agreement that the Egyptians consented to. Sounds very forced, and very oppressive.

    It got me thinking FOR SURE how we “edit” people in history, whether in the secular or spiritual realm. You wrote a wonderful post about all the “photo shopping” that goes on around us. No doubt we do the same for people who out of sight (as in no longer alive), but are not far from our minds.

    I started thinking about David—-how the Lord would say “for the sake of My servant David.” That might lead to assumptions that God Himself “glossed” over parts of David that aren’t so attractive, or else how could He bring Himself to speak so highly of him?

    David’s reign as king was plagued with scandal after scandal. If David had been a non-Biblical king, I wonder how secular history would have remembered him. An abuser of power, a lousy father, a womanizer—-a poor, small town shepherd with visions of grandeur that went horribly wrong?

    More often I’ve seen David’s life edited and re-edited to fit a certain narrative, and not the other way around. But in doing that, we’ve created a person that didn’t really exist, and trying to “sell” him as if he did. We are creating an image of what we wanted him to be, not as he really is.

    We have no business doing that. We’ve “dressed” David up to fit a mold that he doesn’t fit into.

    It might take me a bit of time to absorb the “irony” about Joseph. It really is startling to read how he enslaved an entire nation, when he of all people should have been aware of such a bitter and cruel existence.

    I’m reading the Psalms, and previously read Proverbs—-and it’s FULL of ironies. The wicked man sets a trap for the righteous, but ironically he is taken down by his own trap (that is just one example). Basically: what goes around, comes around (take that with a grain of salt; that is not an across the board statement! If that were so, we’d all be doomed).

    What’s most fascinating is how the Lord intervened in of all this, as you pointed out. Nothing gets by Him, so He saw all that irony as it was being lived out, in real time. We almost never have that experience. Only as time passes by do we get a real glimpse of how the pieces of the past fit together, and even then don’t think we always have the full picture. History is written and spoken about mostly in hindsight for us, but not for Him. Everything is out in the open in His eyes!

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