lamb-leftWhat the Bible Really Says by J. R. Hyland
From Humane Religion

CHAPTER 3 - JOSEPH: The Israelites in Egypt

Most people are familiar with the story of the escape of the Hebrew people from Egypt, where they had been living as slaves. The story of the Exodus has been told and re-told in books and movies that relate the miraculous events that allowed Moses to lead his people out of Egypt, through the wilderness and back to Canaan, their ancestral home.

For three generations, the Patriarch Abraham and his descendants had lived as herdsmen in Canaan. Abraham settled there after leaving his native city of Ur. He raised his family in Canaan as did his son Isaac, and his grandson, Jacob. But in the fourth generation a series of unplanned events resulted in the entire family going to live in Egypt. They stayed there for more than four hundred years and during that time they grew from a small clan to a great number of people who formed the 12 tribes of Israel.

The account of how the Jewish people went to live in Egypt begins in the land of Canaan with the story of Joseph. He was one of the twelve sons born to Jacob and was his father’s favorite. Like many favored children, the self assurance this gave him sometimes manifested itself in less than desirable traits.

Like his forefathers, Jacob was a herdsman and the family business was tending the extensive flocks that kept his sons on the move, always searching for good pasture. Joseph took it upon himself to report back to his father whenever his older brothers, far from parental supervision, neglected their duties. And along with informing on them, Joseph also delighted in telling them about a prophetic dream he had: a dream in which they all bowed down in homage, before him. “Do you think you are going to be a king and rule over us” they demanded.[1]

His self-prophecy of greatness increased his brothers’ resentment and although he was only seventeen years old, they were in no mood to make allowances for the egocentricity of the very young. And his claims of future greatness increased the anger they already felt because of their father’s favoritism. “His brothers saw that their father loved Joseph more than he loved them and they hated their brother.”[2]

They resolved to kill Joseph the next time they were all out in the country-side, pasturing their flocks. But at the last minute they decided to sell him into slavery, instead. They were paid twenty pieces of silver by a passing trade caravan that was on its way to Egypt. They told their father his favorite son had been killed by a wild animal. “Jacob tore his clothes in sorrow and put on sackcloth. He mourned for his son a long time.”[3]

In Egypt, Joseph was sold to Potiphar, captain of Pharaoh’s palace guards. He demonstrated great management skills in running his master’s extensive estate. This made life easier for him and for his owner and eventually “Potiphar turned over everything he had to the care of Joseph and did not concern himself with anything.”[4]

Actually, the captain did concern himself with one of his possessions—his wife. And the Bible reports that because Joseph was “well built and good looking,” she lusted for him. But Joseph was loyal to Potiphar and repeatedly said “no” to her overtures. Angered by this ongoing refusal, she got rid of him by telling Potiphar he tried to rape her. “Joseph’s master was furious and had him arrested and put in the prison where the king’s prisoners were kept, and there he stayed.”[5]

But even in prison the young man’s managerial skills helped make life easier. “The jailer was pleased with him. He put Joseph in charge of all the other prisoners and made him responsible for everything that was done in prison.”[6] It was during this time that two officials from the royal household were imprisoned. Both the king’s cupbearer and his chief baker had managed to offend Pharaoh and they were frantic to know what would become of them. Each had a dream about his ultimate fate and although they knew their dreams were significant, the symbology eluded them. But Joseph had intuitive as well as administrative abilities and was able to interpret their dreams.

There was good news and bad new for the two men. The bad news was that the baker’s dream meant he would soon be executed. His head would be cut off and his decapitated body lashed to a tree. The cupbearer was more fortunate. His dream meant that Pharaoh would forgive him and restore him to service in the royal household. Everything came about just as Joseph predicted. The baker was executed and the cupbearer was released from prison and returned to Pharaoh’s service.

Two years after being restored to favor, the cupbearer had reason to remember Joseph. Pharaoh had a very disturbing dream. He sent for the magicians and all the wise men in his kingdom, but none could give an interpretation that rang true. He was becoming increasingly agitated and the cupbearer knew from past experience how disastrous that anger could be. So it was with relief that he remembered Joseph’s predications about his own release, and the death of the baker. He told Pharaoh about the incident and Joseph was ordered to the palace.

Pharaoh told the young man about his dream. He had seen himself standing beside the Nile River when seven cows, sleek and fat, came to feed. Then, suddenly, there were seven other cows. They were sickly and skinny, yet they devoured the healthy cows. The dream continued and Pharaoh saw a stalk on which there grew seven ears of corn, full and ripe. Then, another stalk grew beside it. The corn on this stalk was withered and dried, yet it devoured the full, ripe corn.

Joseph immediately knew what the dream meant. He told Pharaoh it symbolized seven years of plentiful harvest that Egypt would enjoy. During those years, the grain would overflow the storehouses and the people and cattle would prosper; but after that would come seven years of terrible famine.

Pharaoh and all his court accepted this interpretation and if the matter had ended there, Joseph would have been given a suitable reward and released from prison. But the young man, who had administered Potiphar’s extensive holdings and the bureau-cratic structure of the royal prison, had an organizational plan for Egypt as well as a vision of what was to come. He told Pharaoh how to prepare for the hard times ahead.

“Choose a man who is intelligent and wise to govern the land of Egypt…take action and impose a tax of one-fifth during the seven years of plenty. (Supervisors) will collect all food produced during these good years that are coming. They will store the corn in Pharaoh’s name and place the food in the towns and hold it there. This food will serve as a reserve for the land during the seven years of famine and so the land will not be destroyed by the famine.”[7]

This plan impressed Pharaoh so much that he chose Joseph as the man to put it into effect. He told him “It is obvious that you have greater wisdom and insight than anyone else. I will put you in charge of my country and all my people will obey your orders. Your authority will be second only to mine. I now appoint you governor over all Egypt. The King removed from his finger the ring engraved with the royal seal and put it on Joseph’s finger. He put a fine linen robe on him and placed a gold chain around his neck. He gave him the second royal chariot to ride in and his guard of honor went ahead of him and cried out, “Make way! Make way.”[8]

Joseph was thirty years old when Pharaoh appointed him to rule the land and along with all the trappings of royalty he was given Asenath, daughter of the high priest of Heliopolis, as his bride.[9]  It was a marriage that gave him an unassailable position among the socially elite and powerful.

As he had predicted, there were seven years of bountiful harvest but in the eighth year the land was blighted and there was widespread famine. The famine was not confined to Egypt. It spread north and east, affecting all of Canaan where Joseph’s father and brothers still lived. But unlike the Egyptians, those who lived in Canaan were not prepared for the devastation.

During the second year of famine, Joseph’s brothers watched the people and animals around them dying of starvation. Like many other Canaanites, they knew that if they were to survive they would have to make the long journey to Egypt to buy grain for their families. They had no idea that Joseph was still alive, much less that he ruled Egypt for Pharaoh. They returned home with their food supplies, but the next year they had to return again for more grain. It was during this second trip that Joseph revealed himself to them.

The brothers were frightened when he told them who he was. They thought he would retaliate for what they had done to him so many years before. But Joseph was glad to see them and told them the famine would last four more years. They went back to Canaan, gathered their extended family together and headed south. And so it came about that all the descendants of Abraham and Sarah went to live in Egypt.

They settled in the land and Joseph provided for all their needs. They were well fed and cared for while many around them struggled to survive. They lived prosperously on the large acreage of land that Pharaoh deeded to them. The land they were given was in the fertile delta area of the Nile, where crops and livestock could easily flourish. In this setting, the Hebrews grew in numbers and in wealth. But during the years that the sons of Israel prospered, the native Egyptians had been systematically reduced to slavery.

The Pharaoh, who appointed Joseph as grand vizier, was not an Egyptian. He was part of the Hyksos dynasty that had conquered Egypt circa 1780 B.C. The Hysksos were a Semitic people who had thundered out of the North, conquering the land before them with the superior weapons they had developed. They ruled Egypt for many generations and the native Egyptians had adapted to life under their alien rule. There was a respectful coexistence between the people and the Hyksos Pharaoh, and he had no intention of doing anything that would cause an uprising or precipitate a coup. But Pharaoh did covet more land and money for himself and for those he favored.

He could not risk arbitrarily seizing the possessions of the Egyptians, but extortion was another thing. It was Joseph who devised a scheme to extort their property and their money. It was Joseph who used his highly developed gifts to defraud the native Egyptians of their possessions.

His plan depended on the tragedy of the famine for its success. During the seven years of plenty, Joseph imposed a twenty percent tax on all the grain the Egyptians produced. It was this grain that filled the storehouses in preparation for the lean times to come. The landowners cooperated with this method of taxation, trusting that it would benefit them during the years of famine. But when it came time for them to reap the benefits of their cooperation, they found their trust had been violated. They would have to pay very dearly to receive the food they had produced. In fact, it would cost them everything they had.

The Bible records that during the first year of famine “Joseph accumulated all the money there was to be found in the land of Egyptin return for the grain which men were buying, and he brought the money to Pharaoh’s palace.”[10]  The price the people had to pay to buy back their own grain was set so high that within a year, everyone had spent all the money they had.

“When all the money in Egypt was spent, the Egyptians came to Joseph and said, “Give us food! Don’t let us die. Do something! Our money is all gone.”[11] Joseph assured them that they did not have to die—all they had to do was turn over all their horses, sheep, cattle and donkeys in return for some bread. So that year Joseph “supplied them with food in exchange for all their livestock.”[12]

By the next year of famine, the people no longer had any money, horses, cattle or sheep. They had only the parched land that could not produce any food for them to eat. To avoid starvation they exchanged all their land for bread. “Thus Joseph acquired all the land in Egypt for Pharaoh, since one by one the Egyptians sold their estates, so hard pressed were they by the famine, and the whole country passed into Pharaoh’s possession.”[13]

The people had lost all their money, livestock and land. Then they suffered the final indignity. The Bible reports that “Joseph made slaves of the people from one end of Egypt to the other.”[14] And as the Egyptian population was systematically reduced to poverty and slavery, Joseph and his family accumulated great wealth and extensive land holdings. Their wealth and power remained intact for many generations. “The sons of Israel were fruitful and grew in numbers greatly; they increased and grew so immensely powerful that they filled the land.”[15]

The Egyptian people, still subject to Hyksos rule, could do nothing to stop this expanding Hebrew presence. But like any exploited people, they seethed with resentment against those who had deprived them of their land and their autonomy. And they waited for the day when they could regain control of their own country.

Eventually, it came to pass. The Semitic Hyksos rulers were finally overthrown and driven out of Egypt. It was to be a triumphal era for the Egyptians and a disaster for the Israelites. The new Pharaoh represented them as a subversive element; a people who would be anxious to have another foreign power rule again in Egypt. He told his people: “The sons of Israel have become so numerous and strong that they are a threat to us. We must be prudent and take steps against their increasing any further, or if war should break out, they might add to the number of our enemies.”[16]

With this as his justification, Pharaoh reduced the Hebrew people to slavery. They were deprived of their lands and their wealth, just as their ancestors had once deprived the Egyptians of their possessions. The terrible hardships that the Hebrews eventually endured in Egypt were part of the legacy that Joseph left them.[17] Until he was thirty years old, the story of Joseph is the story of a young man overcoming terrible adversity; of a gifted administrator who behaved morally and ethically. There is nothing to prepare the Bible reader for the kind of corruption that marked his reign as Grand Vizier of Egypt: his ruthless policies led to the poverty, enslavement and death of innumerable people. Joseph sowed the seeds of suffering in Egypt and his descendants reaped the bitter harvest.

Joseph’s story is a powerful morality tale, warning of the ways in which power can corrupt. But even those ministers and scholars who use the scriptures as a moral guide never speak of the way in which he abused the native Egyptians. According to the Religiously Correct version, Joseph went from glory to glory unsullied by the power and wealth he amassed.

Although clearly explained in the Bible, both Christians and Jews ignore the events that toppled the Hebrew people from a pinnacle of favor and wealth in their adopted land, leaving them deprived and in servitude. The biblical facts are ignored because they jeopardize the human insistence that in a conflict with outsiders, only the group they favor behaves in a moral, ethical or godly manner. It is the good-guy/bad-guy explanation of conflict and it ignores any evidence that the reality may be a bad-guy/bad-guy scenario.

Both the Hebrews and the Egyptians exploited each other when they were in a position to do so. Both groups abused the power they had in a way that guaranteed anger, bitterness and a desire for retaliation. The Bible can tell its readers what happened in times past, but it cannot force them to accept the facts it presents.

[1]  Genesis 37:8    TEV

[2] Genesis 37:3,4  TEV

[3] Genesis 37:34       TEV

[4]  Genesis 39:6         TEV

[5]  Genesis 39:19,20  TEV

[6]  Genesis 39:21,22  TEV

[7]  Genesis  41:33-36  JB

[8]   Genesis  41:39-43  TEV

[9]  This woman, whom the Egyptians considered to be a descendant of the goddess Neit, became the mother of Manasseh and Ephraim and matriarch of the tribes of Israel that bore those names.

[10]  Genesis  47:14  TEV

[11]  Genesis  47:15  TEV

[12]  Genesis  47:17  TEV

[13]  Genesis  47:20   TEV

[14]  Genesis  47:21    TEV

[15]  Exodus   1:7        TEV

[16]  Exodus  1:9, 10  TEV

[17]  There is much scholarly debate regarding the length of time that the Israelites remained in Egypt. They range from a claim that it was about 240 years, to a belief that it was closer to 450 years.

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