Egyptian Slavery

Before delving into the Exodus story, we need to quickly return to the time of Joseph generations earlier. We tend to approach the story of Joseph in the Bible as one of a great hero who conquered over many tribulations. Sure, many of those tribulations happened because he was an egotistical jerk to his brothers, but we generally see him as a good guy. I’m not disputing that general evaluation but there is one very interesting piece to the story I had never really noticed before recently:

13 There was no food in the land because the famine was so severe. The land of Egypt and the land of Canaan dried up from the famine. 14 Joseph collected all of the silver to be found in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan for the grain, which people came to buy, and he deposited it in Pharaoh’s treasury. 15 The silver from the land of Egypt and from the land of Canaan had been spent, and all of the Egyptians came to Joseph and said, “Give us food. Why should we die before your eyes, just because the silver is gone?”

16 Joseph said, “Give me your livestock, and I will give you food for your livestock if the silver is gone.” 17 So they brought their livestock to Joseph, and Joseph gave them food for the horses, flocks, cattle, and donkeys. He got them through that year with food in exchange for all of their livestock.

18 When that year was over, they came to him the next year and said to him, “We can’t hide from my master that the silver is spent and that we’ve given the livestock to my master. All that’s left for my master is our corpses and our farmland. 19 Why should we die before your eyes, we and our farmland too? Buy us and our farms for food, and we and our farms will be under Pharaoh’s control. Give us seed so that we can stay alive and not die, and so that our farmland won’t become unproductive.” 20 So Joseph bought all of Egypt’s farmland for Pharaoh because every Egyptian sold his field when the famine worsened. So the land became Pharaoh’s. 21 He moved the people to the cities[a] from one end of Egypt to the other. 22 However, he didn’t buy the farmland of the priests because Pharaoh allowed the priests a subsidy, and they were able to eat from the subsidy Pharaoh gave them. Therefore, they didn’t have to sell their farmland.

23 Joseph said to the people, “Since I’ve now purchased you and your farmland for Pharaoh, here’s seed for you. Plant the seed on the land. 24 When the crop comes in, you must give one-fifth to Pharaoh. You may keep four-fifths for yourselves, for planting fields, and for feeding yourselves, those in your households, and your children.”

25 The people said, “You’ve saved our lives. If you wish, we will be Pharaoh’s slaves.” 26 So Joseph made a law that still exists today: Pharaoh receives one-fifth from Egypt’s farmland. Only the priests’ farmland didn’t become Pharaoh’s. (Genesis 27)

I’m not sure how many times I have read Genesis and glossed over this: Joseph was the ultimate slaver. He managed to enslave the entire population other than the priests in less than 7 years. No wonder Pharaoh loved him! Aside from burying his father, this is the last action we see from Joseph before his death, right before the story transitions forward to the Exodus.

This is particularly interesting because of what follows: his family, the Israelites, are enslaved by the Egyptian government. I just read through it again because it made me curious when exactly the Israelites were enslaved. It says in the passage above that everyone – and his fathers and brothers were there at the time – were enslaved, in this share-cropper sense, by Joseph. Does that include Joseph’s family? The usual interpretation I think would be that they weren’t enslaved until later:

8 Now a new king came to power in Egypt who didn’t know Joseph. 9 He said to his people, “The Israelite people are now larger in number and stronger than we are. 10 Come on, let’s be smart and deal with them. Otherwise, they will only grow in number. And if war breaks out, they will join our enemies, fight against us, and then escape from the land.” 11 As a result, the Egyptians put foremen of forced work gangs over the Israelites to harass them with hard work. They had to build storage cities named Pithom and Rameses for Pharaoh.12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they grew and spread, so much so that the Egyptians started to look at the Israelites with disgust and dread. 13 So the Egyptians enslaved the Israelites. 14 They made their lives miserable with hard labor, making mortar and bricks, doing field work, and by forcing them to do all kinds of other cruel work. (Exodus 1)

I could see how we could read this two different ways. Option one: everyone except priests and Joseph’s family were enslaved (as share-croppers) during Joseph’s leadership and Israelites were later enslaved in the even more brutal sense above. Option two: Joseph’s family were included in that the original batch of share-cropper slaves like everyone else, reading the first passage more literally, and then were elevated to a harsher form of slavery later.

Either way, we can draw an important point: Joseph helped create the system that God then had to free the Israelites from. Sure, he also protected his family short-term and made sure they had food. But the acquisition of power and wealth that we see on full display through the oppression of the Israelites was significantly caused by Joseph using his power – the dream interpretation which led to the position of governor – to gather even more power at the expense of others.

In short, we see in Joseph as we see in many places that misusing power often comes back to hurt you and the people you care about.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.

  • stevekimes

    Great point. I’ll have to think on this some more…