19th century illustration of Joseph before the Pharaoh.
Biblical history,  Houseful of Chaos Press,  politics

A Biblical Story of the Concentration of Wealth During a Disaster

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Today I find myself thinking about a story in Genesis 47:13 – 26. It is the story of a famine in Egypt. I’ll share the text from the Bible, and then I’ll write my commentary underneath it.

13There was no food, however, in the whole region because the famine was severe; both Egypt and Canaan wasted away because of the famine. 14Joseph collected all the money that was to be found in Egypt and Canaan in payment for the grain they were buying, and he brought it to Pharaoh’s palace. 15When the money of the people of Egypt and Canaan was gone, all Egypt came to Joseph and said, “Give us food. Why should we die before your eyes? Our money is all gone.”

16“Then bring your livestock,” said Joseph. “I will sell you food in exchange for your livestock, since your money is gone.” 17So they brought their livestock to Joseph, and he gave them food in exchange for their horses, their sheep and goats, their cattle and donkeys. And he brought them through that year with food in exchange for all their livestock.

18When that year was over, they came to him the following year and said, “We cannot hide from our lord the fact that since our money is gone and our livestock belongs to you, there is nothing left for our lord except our bodies and our land. 19Why should we perish before your eyes—we and our land as well? Buy us and our land in exchange for food, and we with our land will be in bondage to Pharaoh. Give us seed so that we may live and not die, and that the land may not become desolate.”

20So Joseph bought all the land in Egypt for Pharaoh. The Egyptians, one and all, sold their fields, because the famine was too severe for them. The land became Pharaoh’s, 21and Joseph reduced the people to servitude, from one end of Egypt to the other. 22However, he did not buy the land of the priests, because they received a regular allotment from Pharaoh and had food enough from the allotment Pharaoh gave them. That is why they did not sell their land.

23Joseph said to the people, “Now that I have bought you and your land today for Pharaoh, here is seed for you so you can plant the ground. 24But when the crop comes in, give a fifth of it to Pharaoh. The other four-fifths you may keep as seed for the fields and as food for yourselves and your households and your children.”

25“You have saved our lives,” they said. “May we find favor in the eyes of our lord; we will be in bondage to Pharaoh.”

26So Joseph established it as a law concerning land in Egypt—still in force today—that a fifth of the produce belongs to Pharaoh. It was only the land of the priests that did not become Pharaoh’s.

This section comes squeezed in between two parts of a story about the patriarch Jacob and his family coming to be reunited with his son Joseph, and for the most part it seems to be overlooked. People focus on the reunification of a family, rather than note the impoverishment of the people of Egypt.

Yet the story seems so wrong. Joseph and the Pharaoh collected up food beforehand. There’s no mention of them buying the food from the people, only gathering it, so presumably it was a form of taxation. Then they sell back to the people what they have taken, instead of simply giving it.

I find myself thinking about this story today. I think about it in the context of a pandemic, when many people are out of work. Small businesses are closing, and the wealthy owners of a few companies are watching as their profits soar. To what extent are we like the people during the famine time, selling all our community wealth to Amazon and a few other places to survive the pandemic? Would it be wrong instead to demand that the governments provide basic incomes for the duration of the pandemic?

The Bible doesn’t necessarily approve of the concentration of wealth. There’s other passages that talk about ensuring that debts must be forgiven and land must be returned to the people who owned them. The idea of returning land one has purchased to the person one purchased it from seems strange in our modern context because we have multiple reasons why we might sell a house, many being for happy reasons. However, in an ancient context the land is the family inheritance, sold only in desperation and times of famine. Thus Leviticus 25 urges that every fiftieth year all debts be forgiven and land be returned. (Only houses in walled cities are exempt from this, and thus able to be sold in a more modern sense.)

The Bible wasn’t the only ancient source to promote debt relief. In other ancient texts kings of Assyria and Babylon promised relief from debt when they took the throne and after famines. There seemed to be recognition that famines required debt relief measures or else people would end up fleeing the area to avoid being enslaved by their creditors. It was better the king forgive the debts than face that.

Interesting there was an exception in some of the ancient debt relief orders. If a person went into debt to embark on a trade mission – borrowing money to buy supplies – that debt was not forgiven. It makes sense, in a way. Debt for commercial purposes, to expand one’s wealth, was treated differently than the debt one went into in order to buy food.

The Biblical debt forgiveness is different than the Assyrian and Babylonian debt relief because it was scheduled and predictable. Knowing when the debt relief was to come, people might be hesitant to purchase land or give loans. Leviticus 25:14 – 17 urges people not to cheat one another but adjust the price for the number of years remaining before the next Jubilee. It probably helps the creditors knowing when the next debt relief will be, but it also reduces the value people can borrow. We do not know if the Biblical debt relief policies were ever put into practice.

I just hope politicians around the world can get their act together now to help prevent the concentration of wealth in the hands of the Pharaoh, or well, whatever big corporations are grabbing up the wealth.

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One Comment

  • A Kisaragi Colour

    “There’s no mention of them buying the food from the people, only gathering it, so presumably it was a form of taxation.”

    Another possibility is that it was gathered from the lands the Pharaoh owned already. Essentially taking the gamble that storing food before the lean years would allow them to reap a bigger profit than selling it each year. Normally, in Egypt this is a poor bet to place as the harvests are very predictable. It would have also strained the pharaoh’s finances to go through with this. There is a certain degree of poetic justice in that a society that condoned and practiced slavery had their condition moved one step closer to that reality.

    But you are right that this is a very over-looked passage. I’ve read through Genesis at least three times and I could not recall this section.

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