From the beginning of Joseph’s adventures in Egypt, we see an underlying belief that the Lord will prosper those who are righteous, specifically Joseph and anyone who listens to him. Based on his cultural understandings and upbringing, Joseph tried to always do what he believed was right. Joseph’s righteousness made him greater than all, over and over. Joseph’s story is the first time we see this kind of thinking in such a blatant way, and it sets up the rest of the narrative. This is what is often referred as a “prosperity gospel”, which is actually no gospel at all, because as we’ll see it is distinctly not good news.
The micro-story of storing up 7 years of corn is fine by itself, but within the context of this broader narrative you start to see problems. First, in the way Joseph treats his brothers as have-nots. In time, he seemingly repents of this, and invites all of those dwelling with his father to come to Egypt and inherit the land of Goshen where he can take care of them.
Eventually though, bread was running out for everyone, both those outside of Egypt and those within. Not even what Joseph had stored was holding out. Then comes chapter 47.
It’s hard to flesh out the exact details, but it appears Joseph gathered all the money that they were collecting from the corn they were selling and stored it in Pharoah’s stores. The money failed throughout the entire land and the people began to trade everything they had to Joseph for bread. This went on and on until there was nothing left.
At this point Joseph takes the money and buys up all the lands for cheap. He moves everyone off of their inherited lands and appoints them portions of what are now Pharaoh’s lands and gives them seeds and makes them work the land. He institutes a 20% tax on everything they do.
Not long after that Israel dies. I believe this is a transformative moment for Joseph. He gets a procession together and carries his father back to Canaan. Upon his return to Egypt, his brothers tell him that his father had always wanted to know that his children were reconciled. Joseph seems to realize that his dealings with his family weren’t entirely pure, and he mourns.
He sees the subjection he’s placed upon the people, even with the best of intentions, and finally sees that he’s been setting himself up as a God in the eyes of the people. It is here he truly repents, but it’s too late for his family. Joseph prays that God will fix his wrongs, and that one day his family will be able to bring his bones up out of Egypt with them when they are finally delivered.
End of Genesis. But once Joseph was dead, other taskmasters increased the burdens upon the Israelites even beyond the lopsided economy and burdensome taxes. Now it was downright abuse. Moses comes, and as a young man, couldn’t handle the injustice. He premeditates the murder of an Egyptian who was fighting with a Hebrew, full on plans it out, and then tries to hide the evidence. (Which, by the way, would not be the last time Moses uses murder to try to deal with his anger. See Exodus 32:26–28.)
Just a couple days later Moses sees two Hebrews fight with each other, and he confronts them. One of them says, “What are you going to do, Moses? Kill us like you killed the Egyptian?” Moses gets very nervous because he knows that somehow people know about the murder. Pharaoh finds out and wants Moses dead, so Moses runs away. Totally different from the Prince of Egypt movie I love so much.
From there you have countless murders and tons of oppression and abuse committed at the hands of the Israelites, all to take back what they thought was theirs in Canaan. Tens of thousands of collateral damage deaths and rapes before they even get to Canaan. And all under this same narrative that started with Joseph… if we do what we think God wants us to do, right or wrong, then he will bless us with exactly what we want. “Prosperity gospel”. The entire Torah and its Law is a story of how this line of thinking doesn’t work. And the Prophets that follow lament it all. Egypt, Canaan, and Babylon have taught the people nothing.
This is why Christ’s entry into the world at the time he did was so critical. They needed a way out of the cycle. A new way of seeing. A way to understand that the only way to live is to emulate the real nature of God, and to do that, you must first see the nature of God. This is what Christ teaches the people in his Sermon on the Mount. We learn from Christ that righteousness is not about performances and sacraments, but righteousness is learning to have a right relationship with God and with others, even all of creation. He releases us from the bondage of checklist discipleship and initiates us into the kingdom of God. It is in this kingdom where we know that we earn nothing, and are motivated to loving action by our own desires to be like our loving Father.
And now we today must decide for ourselves. Will we follow Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses? Or will we follow Christ? This is why we must be very careful to not teach Joseph’s actions as divinely sanctioned eternal truths, because I believe even Joseph himself would be the first to say it’s a slippery slope, and that perhaps taking no thought for the morrow as Christ taught is the only way to find true safety for our souls. Like the early Christians, we will see that Christ’s way is The Way.