And Pharaoh said unto Joseph, I am Pharaoh, and without thee shall no man lift up his hand or foot in all the land of Egypt . . . And Joseph went out over all the land of Egypt. And Joseph was thirty years old when he stood before Pharaoh king of Egypt. And when he went out from the-presence of Pharaoh; and went throughout all the land of Egypt . . . And Joseph gathered corn as the sand of the sea, very much, until he left numbering; for it was without number (Gen. 41:44, 46, 49).
Someone once asked economist Ludwig von Mises this question: “If you had the legal authority to straighten out the economy, what would you do?” His answer was immediate: “I’d resign.” He made his point: no one should ever be granted such extensive political authority. Any civil government that would lodge such power in one office-holder has already decided against the idea of the free market economy. If such power exists in civil government, the free market cannot survive for long.
Joseph was given such authority and more: “Without thee shall no man lift up his hand or foot in all the land of Egypt.” Yet he did not resign. Was Joseph morally sound before God in holding onto such massive political power? Should he have abdicated?
Was Mises right or was Joseph? Were they both right? How could they both have been right? This leads to two other questions: What is the standard of righteousness for a civil ruler! Is this standard universal over both time and geography? This last question raises two more. Were there two standards of civil righteousness in the Old Covenant: one for pagan nations and one for Israel? Finally, what is the standard today?
Joseph, the Slave-Master
There can be little doubt that Joseph enslaved all the Egyptians except the priests, who were under Pharaoh’s direct protection. First, he served as a tax collector. He began gathering the productivity of the land. “And Joseph gathered corn as the sand of the sea, very much, until he left numbering; for it was without number.” Second, having confiscated a significant percentage of their wealth for seven years — enough to keep them alive during the seven years of famine, plus sell corn to those who came to Egypt — he used the economic crisis produced by the famine to extract everything they owned in exchange for the grain that he had confiscated. He did all this in the name of the Pharaoh. This gigantic wealth transfer took less than two years, once the famine began. The text of Scripture is clear:
And there was no bread in all the land; for the famine was very sore, so that the land of Egypt and all the land of Canaan fainted by reason of the famine. And Joseph gathered up all the money that was found in the land of Egypt, and in the land of Canaan, for the corn which they bought: and Joseph brought the money into Pharaoh’s house. And when money failed in the land of Egypt, and in the land of Canaan, all the Egyptians came unto Joseph, and said, Give us bread: for why should we die in thy presence? for the money faileth. And Joseph said, Give your cattle; and I will give you for your cattle, if money fail. And they brought their cattle unto Joseph: and Joseph gave them bread in exchange for horses, and for the flocks, and for the cattle of the herds, and for the asses: and he fed them with bread for all their cattle for that year.
When that year was ended, they came unto him the second year, and said unto him, We will not hide it from my lord, how that our money is spent; my lord also hath our herds of cattle; there is not ought left in the sight of my lord, but our bodies, and our lands: Wherefore shall we die before thine eyes, both we and our land? buy us and our land for bread, and we and our land will be servants unto Pharaoh: and give us seed, that we may live, and not die, that the land be not desolate. And Joseph bought all the land of Egypt tor Pharaoh; for the Egyptians sold every man his field, because the famine prevailed over them: so the land became Pharaoh’s. And as for the people, he removed them to cities from one end of the borders of Egypt even to the other end thereof. Only the land of the priests bought he not; for the priests had a portion assigned them of Pharaoh, and did eat their portion which Pharaoh gave them: wherefore they sold not their lands.
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