Joseph the Greedy Opportunist?

“You’ve saved our lives. If you wish, we will be Pharaoh’s slaves.” – Genesis 47:25

The story of Joseph is truly a remarkable one.  He’s sold into slavery by his brothers, falsely accused and unjustly imprisoned, only to become the second most powerful man in Egypt. It is also a moving story of forgiveness and God’s redemptive purposes, despite the actions of evil men.

And then there is the rest of the story.


Joseph Before Pharaoh, James Tissot

Joseph’s family survives a 7 year famine, and so does Egypt.  But Genesis 47 would not have us see Joseph as a benevolent savior, and we would be outraged if the Red Cross or the Salvation Army followed Joseph’s blueprint for hunger relief.

Instead, Joseph comes across looking like a greedy opportunist:

  • Egypt sells grain to desperate people facing starvation – this is not a relief effort.  Egypt has cornered the market on grain, so can sell it for whatever price they want.
  • When the money dries up, Egypt accepts livestock for payment, further diminishing private property.
  • As the famine persists, Egyptians are forced to purchase grain with their land.  Egypt gives them seed to plant after the famine, and Pharaoh would get 1/5th of whatever they grew on his lands. That’s a high taxation rate in any society.

The result of Joseph’s policies: The Israelites were tax exempt and kept their lands. Egyptians were now serfs, and Pharaoh was Lord of the Manor. Hardly what we would call a just society.

While the Joseph story is inspiring, there is a lesson we often miss. Genesis 47 is an ancient example of how powerful governments can seek more power during times of crisis.

About Corey Sharpe

Where do we get our beliefs? Three theological perspectives have significantly shaped my Christian identity: Evangelicalism, the early Methodist tradition and liberation theology. From my coming to faith in a Baptist church and throughout my education in a Baptist school and college, I was nurtured by convictions that emphasized a spiritual rebirth, a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and the centrality of the Bible. Even when I disagree with certain aspects of evangelicalism, it has deeply influenced my sense of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. My seminary studies spawned my interest in early Methodism, particularly its approach to spiritual formation. Its leaders were convinced that only a foundation of doctrine and discipline would lead to a meaningful transformation of the heart and mind. In other words, having the mind of Christ enables me to be more like Christ. Life in a suburban culture obscures the increasing gap between the poor and rich, as well as the Bible’s close identification with the poor. My doctoral work in socio-cultural context exposed me to liberation theology, which helps me see redemptive history as a history of oppressed groups, written from the perspective of the powerless, about a God who is actively involved with the poor in their struggles. I am now the pastor at Huntingtown United Methodist Church in Calvert County, Maryland. Together my wife and I are raising 4 young theologians.
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1 Response to Joseph the Greedy Opportunist?

  1. Ann Denbow Simmons says:

    The old axiom, “Everyone pays his/her own way” was typical of the ancient world society in this period of time, but it is very rare in our welfare state. In reality, all the land of Egypt actually belonged to Pharaoh anyway, with the exception of the land that had been allocated to the priest. The story of Joseph reveals him as human and like so many individuals today he was both loyal and kind but it seems they were played in different aspects between his life and his job.
    “While the Joseph story is inspiring, there is a lesson we often miss. Genesis 47 is an ancient example of how powerful governments can seek more power during times of crisis.” Is this not what we are facing today with our own government.
    The people of Egypt relinquished three things to Pharaoh – money, property, and survive. What have many people in the US relinquished in order to survive.

    I often wonder if it was Josephs actions and this part of the story that caused him not to be remembered or reverend as a Biblical hero with Abraham and Jacob?
    Have a blessed evening

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