Joseph: any economic plan will do

By Guy Brandon 29 Jun 2015

Joseph, overseer of pharoah's granaries by Lawrence Alma Tadema

Very little about the Joseph story is quite what it seems on the surface. We tend to take most of our popular knowledge about him from the Sunday School and musical versions of Genesis 37-47, focusing heavily on Joseph’s sartorial flair at the expense of his intuitive grasp of Keynesian economics and central planning that seem uncanny for one who has grown up counting nothing more complicated than sheep.

To deal with the elephant in the room at the start, it wasn’t a coat of many colours. The Hebrew is probably best translated as ‘long-sleeved robe’. Dipping it in blood and sending it back to Jacob after selling him into slavery with the Ishmaelites was as much an act of Schadenfreude as it was false evidence of his death. ‘Where you’re going, you’ll need short sleeves.’

But Joseph wasn’t the kind of man to let that sort of inconvenience keep him down. He was an operator, like his father Jacob, from whom he’d presumably learned a few tricks. Joseph knew how to use his God-given talents to leverage a situation – to rise from slavery to a position of prominence in Potiphar’s household, to escape from prison after a setback, and to use the opportunity presented by the cupbearer’s belated recollection to present himself as a candidate to be the second most powerful man in the region.

Joseph wasn’t the first Semite to end up in Egypt, by any stretch. He was one of thousands of the ‘Hyksos’ – waves of Canaanite peoples who flowed into the country from across the region starting in the 18th century BC, prompted by Egypt’s thriving economy and open-door immigration policy. Neither was he the only one to end up in a position of power. Egypt was full of influential foreigners. But Joseph did have a knack for opportunism.

Exactly what happens in the years of plenty and famine isn’t entirely clear, though the broad strokes are there. Joseph is given knowledge by God of a coming crop failure – perhaps a freak of nature, perhaps part of a broader seasonal cycle. Either way, he grabs the opportunity with both hands, benefitting himself, the Egyptians, Pharaoh and his family in the process. He does so with God’s inspiration and, apparently, blessing. And yet there are serious long-term consequences of his actions, for the Egyptians and for his own descendants.

Soviet-type economic planning

Joseph’s measures seem sensible enough, on the face of it. He organises a one-fifth levy on the Egyptians’ harvests and has the grain deposited in store cities, to be used ‘during the seven years of famine that will come upon Egypt, so that the country may not be ruined by the famine’ (Genesis 41:34-36). All well and good, but like the best manifestos the most important details have been left out.

The 20 percent tax is something new to the Egyptians – not welcome, but a necessary evil under the circumstances, and they have grain to spare anyway. However, the grain is not given as handouts during the years of famine. The Egyptians willingly buy their own confiscated grain with their savings, thereby paying twice (41:55-56).

What happens next is strange. Joseph stores up the silver in Pharaoh’s palace (Genesis 47:13-15). Not just some of the money: ‘Joseph collected all the silver that was to be found in Egypt and Canaan…’ (italics mine). Is this hyperbole? Perhaps not. Verse 15 contains the phrase, vayyitôm hakkesef, ‘[When] the money ran out’. The end of the verse has the phrase, ’âfes kesef, ‘money failed’, ‘money reached its limits’.

p3 Egyptian coinJoseph did not recirculate the money into the Egyptian economy; he hoarded it in Pharaoh’s palace. There was a sharp reduction in the money supply and in the velocity of money. It would have caused crippling deflation and stagnation, compounding whatever natural slowdown had already occurred in the famine. Perhaps Joseph didn’t really know what he was doing. Alternatively, he knew exactly what he was doing. The result would have been a dramatic failure of the Egyptian economy that was already experiencing serious problems.[1]

Instead of taking the modern-day strategy of borrowing and investing his way out of recession, Joseph does precisely the opposite. The Egyptians, in dire straits, sell their livestock, their land and ultimately themselves to pay for food. They are willing slaves (47:19). Like a game of chess, Joseph takes possession of almost the whole board (aside from the priest’s land) with a few astute moves. The Hebrew text of 47:21 states that he ‘moved the people into cities’, displacing them from their former homes, to work the land on Pharaoh’s behalf, and continuing to pay him 20 percent of the harvest in perpetuity.

This is the situation 400 years later, on the eve of the Exodus: a highly centralised Egypt, with Pharaoh all-powerful, presiding over an enslaved population. Joseph enslaves the Egyptians; some time later, a new Pharaoh sees the threat of the large number of free Israelites and enslaves them too (Exodus 1). More accurately, the ‘slavery’ of the Egyptians is really a kind of bonded servitude, but the Israelites are treated far more harshly and genuinely enslaved, worked ruthlessly by slave masters.

God’s role

Joseph’s actions had profound long-term implications. God gave him revelations in his dreams about future events, but was he aware of the full impact of what he was doing? His management of the economy and centralisation paved the way for the Exodus, 400 years later. He could have tried to convince the people to save grain for themselves, though he probably would have been unsuccessful. In any case, the seven years of plenty must have seemed like a sustained economic boom, doubtless accompanied by the same kind of irrational optimism that accompanies every bubble: the good times will never end! All the same, it is perplexing to consider that the nature of Israel’s laws on land, debt and government – designed to be diametrically opposed to Egypt’s – might have been forged in the circumstances brought about by the nation’s patriarch, Joseph. Where was God in this?

Firstly, God is present throughout the Joseph story. God foretold the Israelites’ enslavement to Abraham in Genesis 15, long before Joseph was born. There is a thread that then runs from Jacob’s favouritism into the famine in Egypt and through the next several hundred years of enslavement, Exodus and settlement, right through into the very culture and character of Israel.

Secondly, God is unquestionably with Joseph personally. God gave Joseph supernatural knowledge. Joseph, moreover, is a godly man. He refuses to sleep with Potiphar’s wife (39:9). In Potiphar’s house and in prison, ‘The Lord was with him’ (39:2, 21). When Joseph reveals himself to his terrified brothers, he acknowledges that God sent him to Egypt and made him ‘father to Pharaoh’, rather than blaming them (45:5-9). Joseph’s actions can’t be explained by any character flaws – as, perhaps, we might with the various schemes of his father Jacob ‘the heel’. Joseph acts in an extremely shrewd way, but he does so with God’s blessing.

Thirdly, there is still room for human agency and sin in the story. A later Pharaoh chooses to enslave the Israelites. He chooses to kill the Israelite boys, and he chooses not to acknowledge Yahweh in Exodus 5. Similarly, Joseph chooses to reconcile with his brothers and he chooses to have them settled in Goshen (46:31-47:12).

From one financial crisis to another

The Joseph story raises plenty of questions for us, both in our personal lives and as we collectively move forwards from the financial crisis that started in 2007/8.

John Adams, the second President of the United States, said, ‘There are two ways to conquer and enslave a country. One is by the sword. The other is by debt.’ The Egyptians felt they had no choice but to buy grain (their own grain) to survive. There was no revolution or even protest: it seems they gladly and voluntarily entered Pharaoh’s service and gave up everything they owned in return for security. But there were unintended consequences of their compliance: 400 years later they were still farming the land their ancestors had sold to Pharaoh and paying him 20 percent of their harvests (47:26).

For us, there is a direct parallel in the financial crisis. The bank bailouts of 2008 were presented as a fait accompli. Taxpayers’ money was mismanaged and we had to pay for it, whilst the wealthy benefited hugely and inequality has increased. We still have no idea what the long-term effects of the financial crisis will be – economically, politically and socially – though we may have some idea of the direction of travel.

  • What are the warnings for us from the Joseph story, and what can we learn from this about our own response to personal/national debt and financial crisis?

There are many imperfect circumstances faced by the characters in this narrative: Jacob’s favouritism, Joseph’s captivity, the famine, and ultimately the Egyptians’ and then the Israelites’ different forms of enslavement.

  • What does the arc of scripture, from Jacob through to the Exodus, teach us about God’s sovereignty?

Joseph was born into a life of privilege but experienced a dramatic fall from grace. He lost everything he had – twice – before the cup-bearer remembered him and had him brought before Pharaoh.

  • What do we learn about the nature of opportunity from the way that Joseph seizes the chances given to him? Does the way he approaches life change the way we view circumstances we might consider unwelcome or beneath us?


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