Vayiggash–Volunteered slavery

[The Egyptian farmers say to Joseph] “‘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.’ So Joseph gained possession of all the farmland of Egypt for Pharaoh.”  (Gen. 47:19-20)

Joseph thus becomes the agent of Egypt’s program of centralization of power and ownership.

A number of modern commentators defend Joseph’s actions by placing them “in the context of the ancient near Eastern world, by whose norms Joseph emerges here as a shrewd, successful, and highly admirable administrator.” Perhaps.  But the arrangement here seems not too distant from the forced labor in the service of the state that the Israelites will be subject to after Joseph’s death. So I find Joseph’s actions troubling, and I wonder if the writer of the story did as well.

We have just survived an election campaign in which the specter of excessive state power was raised on both the right and left. This story illustrates both the need for a strong state and the abuse of its power. On the one hand, the centralized food relief campaign got Egypt through the seven years of famine. On the other hand, we see the state commandeering the farmers’ surplus grain during the seven years of plenty and then selling it back to the people who grew it at the price of their land and their freedom.

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