The patriarch Joseph was undoubtedly a moral and godly man. He is credited with saving Egypt from a disastrous famine. Because of Pharaoh’s dreams and the interpretation of them which God gave to Joseph, Pharaoh put Joseph in charge of the Egyptian government. In this position, Joseph made arrangements to store grain during seven abundant years, which was later used to help all of Egypt and many people in surrounding countries through the seven years of famine that were coming. Saving for a rainy day is a wise practice in any age.
But that does not mean that everything Joseph did was right and wise. Because he had been put into his position by Pharaoh, Joseph saw himself as a servant of Pharaoh and did what was best for his master. But that does not mean that what he did was good for everyone else.
An often overlooked passage in Genesis 47 reveals that how Joseph distributed the grain during the seven years of famine was not good or wise. The Egyptian government under Joseph had been able to buy up surplus grain very cheaply (or possibly for nothing) during the seven good years. But Joseph then sold that grain back to the Egyptians and other people during the famine, probably at elevated prices. At first, they paid with money. Verse 14 (NIV) says that “Joseph collected all the money that was to be found in Egypt and Canaan in payment for the grain…and he brought it to Pharaoh’s palace.”
The next year, the people again came to Joseph asking for grain. However, having had no income that year due to the famine, they had to admit, “Our money is all gone” (verse 15). Joseph replied. “Then bring your livestock” (verse 16). So, Joseph “gave them food in exchange for their horses, their sheep and goats, their cattle and donkeys.”
The next year, the people came again to ask for grain in order to save themselves from starvation. They said, “Since our money is gone and our livestock belongs to you, there is nothing left for our lord except our bodies and our land” (verse 18). Verses 20-21 describe the result: “So Joseph bought all the land in Egypt for Pharaoh…The land became Pharaoh’s, and Joseph reduced the people to servitude, from one end of Egypt to the other.”
Joseph essentially reduced the Egyptian people to the status of serfs or slaves. This greatly increased the power of the pharaohs, and later pharaohs would use that power to oppress and enslave the people of God. This was an ironic and unintended result brought about by a man who had himself once been enslaved. I am not sure that this is what God had in mind when He gave the dreams to Pharaoh.
Governments are a gift of God and necessary to maintain order in society (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17). They are a necessary evil. Without Pharaoh’s government, the Egyptians would have starved to death. Today, governments do much good. They provide police and fire protection, transportation infrastructure, utilities, health and safety regulations, schools, health care, social assistance, and much more, and for that reason we give them great power. But we should be wary about all power structures because those who have power usually want more. We should be careful about what we ask and expect governments to do because when governments give something, there is usually a price to be paid farther down the road.
There is also a lesson to be learned here about who we put into power and how to consider them once they are in power. In the 16th century, the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther once said that he would rather be ruled by a wise Turk than a foolish Christian. The “Turks” were the Muslim armies that had brutally invaded and enslaved Palestine, the Middle East, Turkey, and parts of Eastern Europe and had only recently been stopped at the gates of Vienna, Austria. Like many of his other statements, this observation by Luther was hyperbole, an exaggeration to make a point. Luther was not really yearning to live under Turkish oppression. The point he was making is that Christians, believers in the true God, remain human. They do not automatically receive wisdom and knowledge because they are believers. (Remember that Solomon had to ask for wisdom.) This means that Christians in power in the state and in the church, even with the best intentions, can make very unwise decisions. Therefore, we should not blindly follow them just because they are Christians. Their policies need to be evaluated on their own merits. Similarly, Christian leaders in church and state should remain humble and open to correction, knowing that they are not infallible. They should recognize that they are human and can be wrong.