Then Joseph said unto the people, Behold, I have bought you this day and your land for Pharaoh: lo, here is seed for you, and ye shall sow the land.
And it shall come to pass in the increase, that ye shall give the fifth part unto Pharaoh, and four parts shall be your own, for seed of the field, and for your food, and for them of your households, and for food for your little ones.
And they said, Thou hast saved our lives: let us find grace in the sight of my lord, and we will be Pharaoh’s servants.
Almost parenthetically, the Scriptures give to us a brief record of the economic policies which were followed by Joseph in his rule over the land of Egypt. It would appear at first that this portion of Scripture has little to do with the actual manifestation of God’s covenant with His people, having little real spiritual value. We are merely given a bit of historical information revealing some of the strange and rather harsh policies that were followed in the monarchies of old. However, a closer look at this portion of Scripture will reveal that actually the policies followed by Joseph were built upon wisdom and an understanding of human nature; in fact, far more so than are many of the supposedly “enlightened” practices of our day.
We have seen in the past how that during the seven years of plenty in Egypt, Joseph labored faithfully in accord with the revelation made known through dreams unto Pharaoh. Appointed to a position of highest authority, he traveled the length and breadth of the land to make preparations for the famine. Storehouses were built and officers were appointed to care for the storage of food. A 20% tax, by no means excessive, was levied upon all the crops of the land. Even the people were urged by word and example to make preparations for the famine to come. The end result was that food was stored up for the future exceeding the ability of the Egyptians to keep count.
When the years of famine finally came, Joseph at first waited before opening the royal storehouses. Although there were by that time exceedingly large storages on hand, he knew that the famine would be lengthy and care had to be taken in rationing them out that they might last until the end. Only after the privately owned stores were used up and the people began to cry for hunger did Joseph open the government reserves for sale. How long this was after the beginning of the famine, we cannot say for sure. It may well have been two or three years.
Among the first to come to Joseph with dire need were the peoples from other lands. They had not been forewarned of the famine, nor had they had the wisdom of Joseph to guide them, if, indeed, they had even partaken of the years of plenty as abundantly as Egypt. These nations first felt the pinch of the famine and came to Egypt for aid. Neither were they turned away. Although it meant that more stringent measures would have to be followed with the Egyptians, Joseph would not turn away those who were needy. Only one qualification was made, all the food procured had to be paid for. This was one of the fundamental principles upon which Joseph built his policies.
It was not long thereafter that also the Egyptians began to come to Pharaoh and Joseph seeking food. Their reserve supplies had also been used up. By Joseph their needs were in turn supplied, and with the same qualification, for all the food that was received, a price had to be paid. It was not long before all of the money both of Canaan and Egypt had flowed into the coffers of Pharaoh.
It would seem, especially in our day, that this policy was unduly harsh and stringent. By many it might be thought ethically wrong. It is generally expected that the poor both of people and nations should have their needs supplied without charge. This is part of the socialistic bent of thinking so common in the world of today, often spoken of as a product of “Christianity.” Quite naturally it is skeptical and critical of the policies followed by Joseph.
In this modern way of thinking there is one basic misunderstanding concerning the role of a government. It is not the calling of the government to perform works of charity, and ultimately it is impossible for the government to do so. This duty belongs to the church, specifically through the office of the deacons. The deacons are capable of administering true charity because they do so in the name of Christ and accompany it with the admonition and instruction of the Word of God. By this administration of the Word of God, their works of mercy are protected from gross and general misuse. When, therefore, the government seeks to engage itself in works of “charity,” it is incapable of combining it with spiritual instruction; it has no protection from misuse of its work; and, in fact, the work which it performs is not true charity at all. Such work by the government is only an infringement upon the proper sphere of the church. The sad results of this are only too apparent in the world of today. Those who receive “charity” from the state, lacking proper instruction, begin to think of that which they receive as something to which they have a natural right. For it they feel little thankfulness either to God or to man. Being little appreciated, it is little valued and often wasted. More and more men expect and demand of the government that it supply whatever they feel themselves to lack. The government is no longer recognized as a ruler appointed by God; it is rather counted a mere servant of men, to whom no appreciation is owed, to whom no respect need be shown, and whose only function is to satisfy the whimsical desires of men. Saddest of all are the great inroads which this way of thinking has made into the church. People of God are often found more ready to go to the government for aid than to the deacons. For lack of anything better to do, the deacons use their time and efforts as mere financial managers in the church. The benevolent collections, which should be the church’s largest, are but a minor appendage, maintained as a mere matter of form. “For ye have the poor with you always,” has become an enigma within the church. Few seem to realize that this is basically a rejection of the mercies of Christ.
Joseph, although he undoubtedly engaged in works of mercy as an individual believer, saw no place for the free disbursement of goods as an officer in the government of Pharaoh. For each sack of grain that was purchased, the proper price had to be paid. Upon this Joseph insisted until the money of the people was completely used up. And, though this might seem harsh, the results were beneficial. No man, having purchased his bread with his own money, could think lightly of what he ate. All food was counted precious and was used sparingly. Frugality became the rule of the day, and such was necessary if the stores of Egypt were to last. The people had never experienced any other treatment from their government and did not complain or rebel.
Once the people’s money was gone, however, they were perplexed for they did not know what they could use for the purchase of more food. Soon they came to Joseph with their problem, and he gave to them the answer, “Give your cattle; and I will give you for your cattle, if money fail.” Gradually the people began to bring their horses and flocks and cattle and asses in exchange for bread. Nonetheless the cattle were not taken out of the hands of the people. Although in name the cattle now belonged to Pharaoh, they were left with the people. Thus they received the individual care that they needed and the people were able to continue to use them profitably for labor, milk, clothing, etc.
Another year passed by and also the Egyptians’ cattle were spent. The famine was drawing to its close with only a year or two to go. The storehouses of Egypt were running low. By this time the people had learned that they were not to receive food without themselves bearing the responsibility. They recognized this as being just. It was with a suggestion of their own that the people now approached Joseph. “We will not hide it from my lord, how that our money is spent; my lord also hath our herds of cattle; there is not ought left in the sight of my lord, but our bodies, and our lands; Wherefore shall we die before thine eyes, both we and our land? buy us and our land for bread, and we and our land will be servants unto Pharaoh: and give us seed, that we may live, and not die, that the land be not desolate.” This suggestion manifests the complete confidence which the people had that Joseph would use them aright.
The famine by this time was evidently very severe, and the supplies of Egypt were beginning to run low. It became necessary for Joseph to maintain utmost efficiency in the distribution of grain. For this purpose he gathered all of the people into the cities where the distribution and use of all food might be watched with the greatest of care. To this the people could not object, for they had sold themselves to Pharaoh.
Finally the time came when the seven years were past and the famine was over. Joseph sent the people back to their land and gave them the last of the reserve supplies to sow their fields. Only one restriction was imposed upon the Egyptians, henceforth 20% of the total product of their labors would be given unto Pharaoh in tax. The response of the people goes far in revealing the successfulness of his venture. “Thou hast saved our lives,” they said, “Let us find grace in the sight of my lord, and we will be Pharaoh’s servants.”
As harsh as Joseph’s terms might seem to have been, his efforts were exceedingly successful. By taxing the Egyptians 20% through seven years of plenty, he was able to store up provisions to maintain Egypt and many other nations through seven years of dire famine. By requiring complete payment for all food disbursed, he was able to prevent waste and foolish extravagance during the early years of the famine. Although he took the very land and bodies of the people in payment, he never used this right to needlessly oppress the people. Even after the people all belonged to Pharaoh, the highest tax which was required of them was 20%, no larger than that prior to the famine and small compared to the countless taxes prevalent in the world today. The total effect was that Joseph saved the lives of the people, maintained their morale through a trying period, and in the end re-affirmed their responsibilities to their monarch. This all was in addition to the more important result of saving the children of Israel from death, and from the contamination of Canaan into which they had been falling.
In this all we should note that there were two groups of people that were exempted from the policies of Joseph.
The one group that was not required to pay for its food consisted of the priests of Egypt. These were heathen priests and Godless men. We might question the propriety of extending them this favor. However, it was Pharaoh and not Joseph who assigned to them this favor. Although we have maintained in the past that Pharaoh was undoubtedly a believer, we should not suppose that he immediately had enough boldness to withstand the customs of the land. Further it might be questioned whether such would have been desirable, lest some would have pretended to turn to God not out of conviction but for earthly gain.
The other group which was given its food was Joseph’s family. Their needs were provided as a gift in recognition of the services of Joseph. This was necessary. It was of utmost importance that the children of Israel should never be sold in slavery to another nation forfeiting their right to freedom. They had to be left free, that at the proper time they might have full right to return to their promised land.