Genesis 47

As discussed in relation to Genesis 46, in moving to Egypt the burgeoning to-be nation of Israel begins the process of transforming from an extended family into a multitude that would in turn become tribes, thereafter a federated grouping, and finally a monarchy. This is the history that the Tanakh presents, and while from a critical point of view much of what is relayed seems doubtful (many elements of myth but too what are likely actual events, or at least versions of events) our focus is not — and should not, I would argue, if we are to seek what is applicable from a primarily ethical and/or numinous perspective — there but instead it is on what these stories may be trying to relate: the underlying themes and concepts. In that regard this chapter is quite disturbing.

In verses thirteen through twenty-six it is described how, as the famine gets worse and worse, the Egyptians — and let us remember that these are the masses for whom Joseph has taken on the responsibility for their welfare in his role as vizier — first give whatever money they may have had (and we must imagine an impoverished population, as was the case for nearly the whole of every ancient society) over to Joseph in payment for the rations they were receiving. These, it will further be recalled, are sourced from the stored grain that Joseph had previously collected from these same people, during the earlier years of plenty. They were the farmers whose land had given what they were now being sold; perhaps this is simply the way of things in a market economy (then or now), but nowhere do we read that Joseph had paid for the agricultural yield. In 41.47-49 it states that Joseph “gathered” it and “put in each city the grain of the fields around it”, culminating with verse forty-nine: “So Joseph collected produce in very large quantity, like the sands of the sea, until he ceased to measure it, for it could not be measured.” Joseph’s foresight and administrative skills are on display, and in the context of the story we can think that the starving recipients would have been grateful regardless, but this does not seem quite fair. This is not where it ends.

Following the exhaustion of their wealth the populace is next forced to surrender their livestock, again in exchange for the same reposited fruit of the land that was sourced from their own fields. Finally, as the famine continues and everyone’s suffering only increases, the people once more come before Joseph and pronounce:

47.19: “‘Let us not perish before your [Joseph’s] eyes, both we and our land. Take us and our land in exchange for bread, and we with our land will be serfs to Pharaoh; provide the seed, that we may live and not die, and that the land may not become a waste.’”

In this way the entirety of the nation’s acreage (excepting, as is related in verse twenty-two, the priests’, which remained theirs) and its general — i.e. non-elite, non-upper class — natural-born inhabitants all became the property of the state, a condition that politically meant everything and everyone concentrated into the hands of the sovereign: Pharaoh. Joseph declares that henceforth a fifth of what comes from the fields will be a tithe to the government while the remainder is for the people (verse twenty-four), which on the face of things does seem somewhat generous on balance, but in the case of subsistence farming (which we can think this certainly would have been, as again such has been the norm for most of the world throughout our human saga) a percentage of that amount may well have proved extremely burdensome. Finally, what is even more chilling is that the lines (verse twenty-seven) which conclude this process of gradual enslavement seem to either imply, or even to baldly state if read in the most plain sense, that Jacob and his family were exempt from all that their hosts endured: “Thus Israel settled in the country of Egypt, in the region of Goshen; they acquired holdings in it, and were fertile and increased greatly.” During the period when the Egyptians lost their wealth, their husbanded animals, their land, and their very selves, it would appear that through the connection to Joseph the familial clan of Jacob not only avoided the same but actually gained what everyone else was losing. This situation is recorded to reverse in the next book of Exodus, but if there is any actual history to what is being told in this chapter then it is little wonder that resentment would have built up on the part of the Egyptians. Although we have heretofore discerned much from a reading of the Joseph story on the level of individual development and interpersonal relations, this portion details a frightening attitude of us/them that, thankfully, we have learned to recognize as terribly unjust.

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