The Law of Unforeseen Circumstances: Joseph, Pharaoh and Bad Decisions (Genesis 47:13-26)

Bourgeois_Joseph_recognized_by_his_brothersSo Joseph, the guy with the technicolour dreamcoat, has become right-hand man to the Pharoah. He’s been through slavery, imprisonment, false accusations and estrangement from his screwed up family, but now he’s the second most powerful man in the kingdom.

It’s not plain sailing, even at this point. There’s famine in the region, but thanks to his gift of prophetic dreams, Joseph has seen this coming. So he uses a seven year window to store up grain so that there’ll be surplus when the famine hits. Perfectly sensible plan.

Unfortunately, this is where things start to go wrong.

In a humane world, famine relief would be distributed fairly. But Joseph doesn’t live in a particularly humane world, so when the starving Egyptians come to him for help, he gets them to buy grain.

But then, when the money’s gone, and the people are still starving, Joseph takes their land in exchange for more grain.

And then, when Joseph’s passed all that land to Pharaoh, and the famine is still raging, Joseph takes the people’s labour in exchange for food. Sounds a bit like slavery.

And with all this he’s consolidating Pharaoh’s power and making sure a despot remains on the throne.

The story of Joseph is a much-loved Sunday School lesson – after all, kids enjoy colouring in his coat. But we never take about this bit, the bit where the hero of the story exploits a starving population to make money for his boss. And yes, in doing so Joseph saves the lives of his family, who also settle in Egypt, but did that really require the rest of the population being forced into servitude?

The story doesn’t end here, of course; flick forward a few pages and we’re in the Book of Exodus and the Israelites have become too numerous for the new Pharaoh, so he takes the matter into hand and puts those Israelites into slavery.

Now, this is the context of Israel’s big biblical story – liberation from Egypt, God busting them out of slavery. It’s baked deep into the scriptures. And yet one of the patriarchs helped get them into that mess in the first place. It’s hard to know what to do with this – the Bible has a habit of presenting its heroes with feet of clay (or, as Homer Simpson once said “Talk about a preachy book! Everyone’s a sinner…Except this guy…”), but that really pulls the rug from under the average Sunday School curriculum.

But there’s an eternal lesson here. Actions have consequences, often unforeseen. What seems to be a smart, pragmatic plan at the time can turn out to have awful ramifications. Bad things happen as the result of the best of intentions; when you’re trying to prop up a despot, REALLY bad things can happen. And generations further down the line have to deal with the mess.

But of course, the Bible is an ancient book, and couldn’t possibly have relevance for how we approach geopolitics today.


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