Israel Preserved in Egypt

May 12, 2013 / No. 3671

Dear Radio Friends,

Are you a good steward of the resources God has given you? You realize, do you not, that everything in this world belongs to God. Psalm 24 tells us that the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. Whatever we have—possessions, gifts, time—all of it belongs to God, and He has given us the privilege and responsibility of being stewards or caretakers of those things. This means, not simply that we must take good care of these things, but that we must use them in a God-glorifying way, that we press them in the service of the Lord. Which means that stewardship is a spiritual responsibility. Our concern is not merely to be wise in the use of material things, but to use everything in a way that promotes the spiritual well-being of ourselves and others.
In Genesis 47, Joseph, as ruler in the land of Egypt, acts as a wise steward. He is not only a wise steward of the resources of Egypt, but he also takes spiritual care for his family in Egypt. And he does all this in faith, because he has his eye on God, because he believes the promises of God, and because he seeks a heavenly home.
In the middle part of the chapter, verses 13-26, we read about Joseph’s financial stewardship of the resources of Egypt. This is what happens.
During the seven years of prosperity, Joseph had prepared the nation for the coming famine by storing up grain in all the cities of Egypt. He did this through a tax system, in which the people had to give one fifth of what their land produced to him. Pharaoh, thus, became the owner of storehouses of massive amounts of food. Then, when the famine came, and the land produced no food for the people, they came to Joseph to buy their food.
Now it seems that the people themselves were not prepared at all for the famine. They knew it was coming, or at least they had heard about Pharaoh’s dreams and why Joseph was appointed to store up all this grain. But they ignored it. There were only two people in the whole land that took Pharaoh’s dreams seriously, and those were Pharaoh himself, and Joseph. In all their prosperity, the Egyptians had done nothing to prepare for the coming famine.
And so, when the famine comes, for the first year or two, they come with their money to buy grain from Joseph. But soon they run out of money. The next year they come to Joseph, they are hungry, and they say to Joseph, “Give us bread: for why should we die in thy presence? Our money is gone.” Joseph’s reply is, “Give your cattle; and I will give you food for your cattle.” And Joseph gave them bread in exchange for their animals. Instead of just giving them food, he sells it to them on a barter system.
Then the following year they come to him and they say, we have no money, and no cattle to trade. All that we have left is ourselves and our land, which in time of famine is useless. They say to Joseph, “Give us grain, that we may live and not die.” And again, rather than just giving them grain, Joseph trades food for their land and ends up buying all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh, and the people are moved to cities from one end of Egypt to the other.
By this time, the famine was coming to an end, and the land was starting to be productive again, but now it all belonged to Pharaoh, and the people had no seed to plant in the ground. So Joseph, who had the foresight to prepare for this too, gave the people seed to plant in the land, and he made a deal with them. “You may freely use the land that now belongs to Pharaoh, you plant and grow this seed that I give to you, and 80 percent of the produce you can keep to feed yourselves, and the other 20 percent you give, as a tax, to Pharaoh.” And so, post-famine, this is what they did.
Reading this, we might be inclined to criticize Joseph and his management of Egypt during the famine. Some have done this and have labeled Joseph as ruthless and unmerciful, a man who grabbed power for himself and for Pharaoh and who oppressed a helpless people, who took advantage of them when they were in a desperate situation and produced a communist-like state.
But that is not a fair or true evaluation of Joseph’s national economic policies. There are some important biblical principles for financial management that we should draw from what Joseph does, which we can apply personally, and which, if applied nationally, would help immensely. Now, I do not want to enter into an evaluation of the economic problems of our nation and world; maybe you can make some of those applications yourself from what I say.
However, I do want to say this, that the problem with our economy and the economies of the world today is much more than simply poor money management. The problem is that most of the politicians and rulers of today are unbelieving men and women, who do not see themselves as stewards before God in their position and with the resources and decisions they must make. An unbelieving politician is not going to take God into account. He may operate in the interests of the people, or of the nation, or he may operate out of self-interest for power or votes, but unless he or she is a true believer, things will be man-centered, and not God-centered. That gives us reason, too, to pray for kings and those in authority, to pray that God would turn their hearts from unbelief to faith and worship of Him as God alone. Only then can we expect any true answers to our political and economic woes.
And you see, Joseph is that kind of a man. He is a believer. He is not making decisions with the next election in mind, or to win votes and favor from the people. No, he is living as ruler in Egypt, answering to God and to Pharaoh, who is over him. He is being faithful in the position in which God has placed him. And out of that come his economic decisions.
Let me point to a few important principles that motivate Joseph’s behavior here.
First, Joseph acts in the interests of the people; he makes decisions that promote the welfare of the people of Egypt. You will notice, that at the end of the famine the Egyptians do not say, “Joseph, you ruthless and heartless ruler. You’ve plundered our land and left us empty.” No. Instead they say, “You have saved our lives and the lives of our children.” They were not prepared for the famine, but Joseph was, and his preparation saved them. Joseph acted in their interests also when, instead of just giving them handouts, he bartered with them. There was some accountability here. We all know that spoiling a child by giving him everything he wants ruins a child. That is true for grown-up citizens of a nation as well.
Now if the Egyptians had nothing to pay, and Joseph just watched them starve, that would be one thing. But that is not what happens. Instead, they have the resources to buy, and so they willingly trade their things for food. Joseph operates a free and open market in which citizens learn financial responsibility. Joseph does this because he realizes that it is debilitating and destructive to the citizenry of any nation if they just sit around and receive food for nothing from the government.
The biblical principles here for finances have to do with personal accountability and work and productivity.
If you get something for nothing, and if you are going to keep on getting something for nothing, you have no vested interest in it, and no sense of responsibility toward or care for that thing. This produces laziness and a sense of entitlement. And then, if you simply sit around, spoon-fed, you lose your ability and desire to be productive at all.
So many today deal with depression and problems of self-esteem and acceptance exactly because they have never done anything productive that has contributed to the life of others or society more generally. Over against this, Ecclesiastes 5:12 says, “The sleep of a laboring man is sweet, whether he eat little or much,” the idea being that productivity and not consumption is what will give man a proper sense of satisfaction. Man has been created to work, not to sit around.
So Joseph handles the situation very wisely. Before the famine, in the years of prosperity, the Egyptians had taken their wealth for granted. Life was so easy. But during the famine they learned to feel the pressure of financial accountability, and when the famine was all done, they went to work to produce their own food by sowing and harvesting from the seed Joseph gave them. He taught them to work, and even in the poverty after they lost all their assets, he put them to work so that they continued to be resourceful and productive. Notice, too, that he treats the people with equality by imposing a flat tax of 20% on all the people, rich and poor alike. He does not create a divide in society, by giving privileges either to the more productive or the less productive. All of them have the same responsibility.
And there is one more thing he does. He plans for the future. A famine can easily decimate, not just an economy, but a people and the land. Joseph plans ahead, so that when the famine is finished, there is still seed ready to be planted and there are people who are ready to get working in agriculture. The result is that the land does not lie waste and become a wilderness.
Now you take all those things into account and you see why the Egyptians said, “You have saved us.” Joseph was given wisdom, from God, to administer Egypt’s affairs so that they survived the famine and continued as a nation. And why did God do that? Was it just so that Egypt could become the bread basket of the world? Was it simply so that this great culture might survive? No, God did it for the sake of His church and people. Egypt became the bosom of God’s people, the place where they would not only survive, but grow into a great nations. God preserved Egypt as the incubator for His people.
Now, I am not exactly sure how Joseph’s economic policies would be implemented nationally today. And, as I said earlier, our problem is not simply financial policies, but unbelieving rulers. A ruler who does not live before God would exploit a situation like the one Joseph had to deal with in Egypt. Later in Egypt’s history, the Pharaohs did abuse and oppress the people. So I am not going to give answers for our nation’s economic woes, except to say that we need to pray for those in authority.
But certainly there are, in this story of Joseph, things for us to learn and apply individually and in our Christian homes and churches. Yes, there ought to be mercy and help for those who are truly in need and who are incapable of meeting their own needs. Paul, in the New Testament, speaks of the deacons helping those who are widows indeed.
But if you find that you do not have enough to meet your needs, and you are capable of work, then rather than having a sense of entitlement for support from others, and rather than becoming a burden to others or to society, you should, as a Christian, have a desire to work and should be busy looking for opportunities to work. We need to realize that God holds us accountable for our finances, and for the use of our time and talents. God does not bless a lazy person who simply expects others to take care of him. That kind of attitude will only produce other problems in your life. One of the best medicines for man is work. God created the ant to work, and he tells us to go to the ant, and learn from him.
So Joseph is a good financial steward in Egypt. But we should see that he also shows himself to be a good spiritual steward in the way that he deals with his own family. As they come into a strange country, Joseph acts responsibly with regard to their spiritual welfare. We have this in the beginning part of chapter 47, where Joseph presents five of his brothers and his father to Pharaoh. Jacob and his family have settled in Canaan, and then Joseph brings these five brothers to Pharaoh. Pharaoh asks them, “What is your occupation?” They answer, “Thy servants are shepherds, both we and our fathers.”
Why do they answer that way? Well, if we look back into the last four verses of the previous chapter, we see that Joseph carefully prepared his brothers to meet with Pharaoh, by telling them exactly what they should say. He told them that when Pharaoh asked of their occupation, they should tell him they were shepherds, because he knew that shepherds were despised by the Egyptians, and because he knew that Pharaoh, because of this, would give them a section of the land for themselves, the land of Goshen. The point is this: Joseph wants his family to be despised and unacceptable to the Egyptians. He gives his brothers this advice so that the Egyptians will isolate them.
And Joseph does this because he wants to protect his family, spiritually. He knows the pressures that will come on them in Egypt. He has lived under those pressures in Potiphar’s house, in prison, and now in a position of prominence. He is married into one of the elite priest families of the false religion of Egypt. Hehas been pressured to and tempted to immorality. He has been invited to join the Egyptians in their idolatrous worship. Joseph lives at the heart of one of the most worldly kingdoms of his day, with all its culture and splendor. He knows the difficulty of maintaining a good testimony in the midst of all these pressures. Yes, Joseph has been strong, he has resisted these temptations for decades now. He, like Moses after him, has chosen to be identified with the people of God, rather than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season. But Joseph knows what his family will be up against and he knows his own brothers and their spiritual vulnerability. They do not need to be exposed to Egypt. They do not need to be in the heart of this godless culture. They need to be a separate people, distinct.
And so, when the brothers appear before Pharaoh, following Joseph’s advice, they plead guilty to being in this occupation that is socially unacceptable in Egypt. And because they are Joseph’s brothers, Pharaoh treats them very kindly, and gives them the land of Goshen to dwell in. On top of this, he employs them to take care of his cattle—perhaps the cattle that Joseph was buying from the Egyptians, in exchange for food.
You will remember that Jacob was nervous about bringing his family down to Egypt. He was fearful that God’s people would lose their identity and be swallowed up in Egypt. Now God answers that fear, through the spiritual insight of Joseph, and through their isolation in the land of Goshen.
Today, the passion of too many Christians is to become as much like the world as they can, to get as close to the world as possible, without getting burned. Churchgoers want to participate in every aspect of our godless culture, and believe that what makes them Christian is that they go to church. Sadly, there is no real difference between their lives and the lives of the unbelievers around them. Why does this happen? Well, it is because too often we want the acceptance of the world. We ask, How can we become more acceptable in this world? Many churches adopt this mentality in their worship and evangelism too. “Let’s adopt the trends and morals of our culture, and then we’ll be more acceptable.” And you know, it does nothing to win the world or help society. Instead, it simply drags the church down, until they are swallowed up in a godless culture.
Joseph comes at this from exactly the opposite direction. Not, how can God’s people become more accepted in Egyptian culture, but what will make the Egyptians despise us, so that we can live separately? There is a very important message here for us amidst all the pressures and temptations of the modern world in which we live. There are things that the Bible teaches and that Christians believe, things in the lives of true Christians, that will be offensive to the world. We should not be ashamed of those things. In fact, those things become a kind of protection from the influences of society.
God’s people are called to live a life of spiritual separation from the world. There are things in this world that we simply should not participate in. We may be despised for that, but that is okay. We are standing with God on our side. I think of the sexual permissiveness and immorality of our culture. Or of what goes for entertainment today. James says that pure religion is to keep yourself unspotted from the world. If you participate, if you try to get as close as possible, and think it will not hurt you spiritually, you are wrong. Sin always brings death.
So that is the warning and calling here. Israel’s separation meant that they were preserved as God’s people, and they were prepared to enter the promised land of Canaan. You see, that was really Joseph’s motivation here. He had in mind the promise of God to preserve His people, to make of them a great nation, and to bring them back to the land of Canaan where they would wait for the Messiah. Joseph, and Jacob his father too, saw themselves as pilgrims and strangers here in the earth who were looking for a heavenly city. Here, they were simply passing through.
That comes out in this chapter, in Jacob’s appearance before Pharaoh, and then also at the end of the chapter in Jacob’s request that he be buried in Canaan after he died, a request that Joseph himself repeats in chapter 50.
When Jacob comes before Pharaoh, he is asked, “How old are you?” And Jacob, who had reached the amazing age of 130, answers, “Few and evil have the days of the years of my life been, and have not attained unto the days of the years of the life of my fathers in the days of their pilgrimage.” Notice, he calls life here in the earth a pilgrimage, and he means by that that he did not view this life as an end in itself, and he did not find the purpose for living here in this world. We are just passing through this world, to our true home, which is in heaven with the Lord. And the days of this life, though they may be filled with evil and trouble, are few compared with the days that we will live with the Lord in eternity.
So Jacob says, bury me in Canaan. What was Canaan? It was the land of promise, which was a biblical picture of heaven to come. And when Jacob and Joseph asked to be buried in Canaan, they were saying, God is going to keep His promise to bring Israel back to the promised land, and there He will send the Messiah, through whom is our salvation and our entrance into the heavenly Canaan.
In faith, Joseph acted in Egypt. He lived before God, and because of this he was a faithful steward of finances and was responsible spiritually.
May God give us that same faith and faithfulness.

Father, we are so thankful for the account of Joseph’s life in Scripture. Every time we look at it, there is more for us to learn. And it helps us, too, to see how living by faith in this world has an impact also on our daily lives. Bless us in this week we pray. Amen.