Joseph and the Famine

We are all familiar with the Genesis story of Joseph, sold into slavery by his jealous brothers. Ultimately, Joseph occupies a high position as governorin Pharaoh’s kingdom in Egypt and is put in charge of feeding the people during the famine.

We tend to look positively on Joseph (perhaps at least in part because of our sympathy for how he was treated by his brothers), and he was certainly a competent administrator. Because our first Mass readings today and in the coming days focus on Joseph’s meeting and reconciliation with his brothers, the Lectionary skips some of the details of how Joseph handled the need of the people for food during the famine.

Walter Brueggemann, in his book Journey to the Common Good, talks in somewhat less than glowing terms about Joseph’s handling of the situation. He writes

Joseph…commits himself to Pharaoh’s food policy. The royal policy is to accomplish a food monopoly. In that ancient world as in any contemporary world, food is a weapon and a tool of control…

The peasants, having no food of their own, come to Joseph, now a high-ranking Egypian, and pay their money in exchange for food, so that the centralized government of Pharaoh achieves even greater wealth. After the money is all taken, the peasants come again and ask for food. This time Jospeh, on behalf of Pharaoh, takes their cattle, which Karl Marx would have termed their “means of production.” In the next year, the third year, the peasants still need food. But they have no money and they have no livestock. In the third year they gladly surrender their freedom in exchange for food…

Slavery in the Old Testament happens because the strong ones work a monopoly over the weak ones, and eventually exercise control over their bodies.

As Brueggemann observes we focus on the exodus deliverance, but “do not take notice that slavery occurred by the manipulation of the economy in the interest of a concentration of wealth and power for the few at the expense of the community.”

There is certainly a lesson for us in that!