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God Tells Joseph to Create a Federal Program

God Tells Joseph to Create a Federal Program

Monday, March 5, 2012 — Week of 2 Lent

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, p. 953)

Psalms 56, 57, [58] (morning) 64, 65 (evening)

Genesis 41:46-57

1 Corinthians 4:8-20(21)

Mark 3:7-19a

[Go to for an online version of the Daily Office including today’s scripture readings.]

I write a column in our regional newspaper, and this email/blog goes out to a varied public. From time to time I comment about political actions that I wish our government would take. I often express a desire that our society organize our economic and political resources on behalf of relief for the poor and vulnerable. I often implore elected officials to act for the creation of a more equitable society, and to urge the promotion of a system of social and economic justice that would create a nation and a world where everyone would have enough, not from charity, but as a product of the way the system is put together. I often see the federal government as an instrument for accomplishing these goals in our nation.

One of the most frequent critiques I receive is that I should not expect government to carry out ideals and programs that are rightly the responsibility of individuals and of the church. I am told that Jesus and the scriptures do not address political or governmental solutions to inequality or economic injustice. I am told that governmental programs are the problem, not the solution. Some conscientious writers tell me that social and economic ills are rightly addressed by individual hearts moved by the Biblical witness and by churches carrying out their mandate for service and outreach. Recently an earnest Christian neighbor emailed to tell me he knows of nowhere in the Bible, in the commandments of God or in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, that support my interpretations about economic justice and security.

Today we have a story of God’s wisdom being exercised through Joseph to create an enormous federal program to organize the agricultural industry in order to prepare for a famine that the federal bureaucrat Joseph predicts. Joseph advises Pharaoh to nationalize a large portion of the surplus production during seven years of plenty and to put the excess grain in government storehouses until the coming time of famine. It is a form of heavy taxation during a windfall in order to provide for the needs of the future. (I think of the inevitable cycles of boom and bust in a capitalistic society, and the resulting spikes of unemployment and insecurity.)

God directs Joseph to provide for the needs of society through wise government, mandating the cooperation of citizens and business for the benefit of all. I think God expects such wise leadership from us today as well.

The powers of government — Pharaoh — can be used for good or for ill. In scripture we have Pharaoh following divine guidance and saving people from famine, including foreigners like Joseph’s estranged family who will come to Egypt for their survival, and we have Pharaoh oppressing God’s people by demanding increased economic productivity that becomes a form of oppression of laborers. God will call Moses to lead an economic protest, boycott and strike against the unjust labor policies that favor the powerful and wealthy over the weak and poor common workers. There is a lot of politics and business happening in these divine concerns.

The prophets regularly addressed the leaders of government and business. They spoke in God’s name on behalf of the creation of a just and righteous social system. Their expectation: that every person would have enough, and that excessive pride and luxury be diminished in a spirit of solidarity with one’s neighbor.

That’s not just politics and economics. That’s your Bible, your religion, and your relationship with God too.


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Lowell Grisham

Thanks for the comments.

I’m also troubled by how the story continues in chapter 47 when Joseph and Pharaoh leverage their grain monopoly in order to gain control over the entire economy, owning the land and indenturing its residents to what is described as slavery. And yet, they protect the seed grain for the farmers, and they exact a 20% tax, allowing the producers to keep 80% of of their product.

In later generations, the demands of the Pharaoh will become oppressive, prompting the Exodus.

For me, the story tells an ambiguous tale that seems authentic. Wise planning and administration from a centralized government has the potential for good. Every human institution is also potentially idolatrous and destructive. Later Paul will make some of the same points talking about the “powers and principalities.”

Lowell Grisham

John B. Chilton

Genesis 41. 47 During the seven years of abundance the land produced plentifully. 48 Joseph collected all the food produced in those seven years of abundance in Egypt and stored it in the cities. In each city he put the food grown in the fields surrounding it.

Is it clear how Joseph collected the food that he stored? Was he buying it from private farmers? If so, that’s wise — you’re encouraging current production and discourage current consumption.

Was he taxing the output of private farmers? If so, that’s not wise — tax something and you get less of it.

Was it from fields owned by the pharaoh to begin with, and if so who worked the fields and were they paid for their labor?

During the famine he’s selling the wheat, that’s clear.

How much better would it have been if Joseph had simply shared his insider information and told everyone that God had foretold of a famine. Then the market would have had the information necessary to respond appropriately.

John Barton III

I have always had problems with this story (or at least a strict reading of it.) To me, it appears that Joseph didn’t set up this program to help those in need but rather to consolidate and increase his power. First, he taxes the grain production during the good times. Then, instead of giving it back to those who paid this tax and who were in need during the bad times, he sells it back them (sort of like making the unemployed paid for food stamps). Then, when the people run out of money, he takes their livestock. When they run out of livestock, he takes their land. When they have no more land, then Joseph “made slaves of them from one end of Egypt to the other.” (Genesis 47:21). Not a very encouraging example of how a “federal program” should operate, but a guess there is a lesson in this interpretation as well.

John Barton

John B. Chilton

If you can point me to a case of nationalization of agriculture that has benefited society I would be grateful. All I can think of are examples of the opposite: USSR, Red China, North Korea, Zimbabwe, the Pilgrims…..

As far as setting aside for the future, markets do a rather good job at that as well. Where they don’t they problem is the lack of property rights, which is to say common ownership. American bison, African elephant, cod. Assignment of property rights does a remarkable job in many cases. The question always needs to be asked if markets aren’t working let’s consider the alternatives: use government to fix the market, or use government to replace the market.

Let’s have some evidence based argument here.


The story makes a strong case for the idea that the Bible addresses the matter of centralized government planning. In this case that planning proved to be the right thing to do for a number of reasons. The story also makes the case that the foresight involved was the result of a private communication between God and Joseph, and further, that Pharaoh found more reasons to trust his vision than not to trust it.

Do you see any problems with putting that in the context of today’s world?

[Editor’s note: Thanks for the comment. Please sign your name next time.]

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