Monday, July 31, 2017

Joseph - Viceroy of Food

Genesis 42-50

So we usually think of the story of Joseph as the story of
a dysfunctional family,  how dreams and reserves of grain
and forgiveness help them to reunite after 30 years.
and how God can make good out of evil.

Which is a lovely story and a fitting ending to of Genesis,
a book about the first five generations of our ancestors of faith.
But maybe there’s a little more to this story too.

The brothers reunite in chapter 45, but the book goes onto chapter 50
The last five or so chapters take a lot of effort to tell us
how all the Israelites get to settle in Egypt
And the work Joseph continues to do for the Pharaoh.
There’s a little more information than just a great reunion.

So just to remind you what happened last week:
Joseph is in prison, falsely accused of molesting Potiphar’s wife.
While he was there, he interpreted the dream of two of the Pharaoh’s staff
Joseph tells the wine steward, the one who was returned to his job,
to remember him to Pharaoh and get him released.

Today we heard that
Two years pass and the Wine steward has forgotten about Joseph.
Then Pharaoh has a dream about cows and grain.
The basic dream was seven fat cows come out of the Nile river,
then seven emaciated cows come out of the river and eat the fat cows.
Then seven full heads of grain are eaten by seven scrawny heads of grain.

Pharaoh cannot get anyone to tell him what the dream means,
but then the wine steward remembers Joseph from 
two years ago correctly interpreting his dreams.
So Joseph is brought out of prison to Pharaoh.

And Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dreams:
There would be seven years of abundance followed by seven years of famine.
Joseph even has a plan in response to these dreams:
Joseph suggests that the empire take the 7 good years to storehouse grain,
then they will have enough for the times of famine.
Joseph even suggests that someone be put in charge 
of collecting and then distributing the food.
Pharaoh was so impressed with his dream interpreting skills that he appoints Joseph.
So, basically, the story is that  the most powerful leader of the region,
the leader of the strongest empire, the richest man around,
has a nightmare about not having enough
and he decides, with the help of Joseph, to get more.

As Walter Bruggemann, the well known Old Testament theologian says,
it’s the first time in the bible someone said:
“There's not enough. Let's get everything.”

So Joseph is put into power as the viceroy of food,
And Pharaoh’s nightmare is put into policy.
A policy about food: The government would collect 1/5 of
everyone’s crops and then dish it out when the famine comes.
This was a good idea. It actually seems benevolent to all.
But food is a necessity, and when necessities become scarce,
necessities become power.

The plan works like a charm and the empire saves tons of grain.
More than they can count, then when the famine comes,
everyone has to come to the government in order not to starve.

Including Joseph’s brothers from Caanan.

As we heard, after Joseph tests their honesty,
he reveals himself to them and they have a tearful reunion
where Joseph tells them that they will all come live with him in Egypt.

That happens in chapter 45 and then the family saga is mostly over,
But in Chapter 47 there is an important section
which my translation calls “Joseph Centralizes Power in Egypt

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 from one end of Egypt to the other.

After the famine was over
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.

The writer takes a lot of time to detail the slow descent of the
people of Egypt decent into servitude to the powers that be.

Now to our capitalistic eyes, this might look like business as usual.
We have been steeped in a world where government and businesses
use whatever leverage they have to amass wealth and gain power.
But to those people to whom land was life and heritage and a future,
having someone else own your land was an utter disaster

If you owned your land, you could always sell off a portion of it,  to make up for a bad year for the crops,
or rent it out, or let cattle graze on it, or something, with land you had some power.
But without land, when you’re a sharecropper, which is what this is describing,
when your crops don’t provide enough one year, you end up borrowing,
and if no one around you has anything , you end up borrowing from the government
and when those debts piled up in Egypt, the next step was slavery.

We know that from our own countries’ wide spread
history of share cropping after the civil war.

So Joseph is the hero of our story for sure,
we won’t take that away from him.
He’s the Israelite boy who 
made good in the empire.
He saves Egypt the surrounding countries and his family from starvation.
But if we notice, 
after he’s appointed by Pharaoh,
he has no more dreams, 
no more interpretations.
That era is over. He is no longer the dreamer, he is just the viceroy.

The author of the story has done something very tricky here.
The hero of the story is the unwitting puppet of and circumstance and the will of the empire.
He’s  still he’s the hero, but he’s also the author of the consolidation of food,
then all power into the hands of the empire.

He tried to serve two masters:
God’s promise and the empire.
He probably died thinking that he balanced them out.
Jacob and his brothers and all their wives and children
all the Israelites had moved to Egypt and were alive.
But this laid the groundwork for the next chapter 
in the Israelites life and the next chapter of the bible,
which was Slavery in Egypt. 

The Israelites were all settled in the Empire of Egypt
and the power was consolidated in the Pharaoh’s hands.
There were lots of Israelites and the New Pharaoh
feared they would get too powerful

Walter Bruggemann writes:
Slavery happens in the Old Testament because the
strong ones work a monopoly over the weak ones
and eventually exercise over their bodies.
And the slaves are grateful for it.
The slavery of Egypt happen because of a manipulation
of the economy in the interest of a concentration of
wealth and power for the few
at the expense of community.”

Now I’m not sure if Joseph could have done differently.
There was a famine. Without his dream interpretation,
without his strategy and leadership, the people may have starved.
Or maybe the people could have saved 1/5 of their 
food themselves and not had to go to the government.
Or maybe they would have migrated elsewhere.
Or maybe they would have expanded their crops or looked for new sources of food.
Or maybe the empire could have given out the necessity to the people without taking everything they had.

And Pharaoh’s fear was not just fear for himself,
but all the people he was responsible for.
But fear made into policy, hurts the people.

Joseph made a choice that seemed to be in the best interest of the people.
And in taking sliver, then livestock, then land, then their labor, then their bodies.
He served the best interest of Egypt and the pharaoh that he was working for.
But we can’t deny that it was detrimental to the Israelites and to the other Egyptians.
And the people gave into it eagerly and willingly.

This is a complicated story and scenario
that this first book of the bible sets out.
A dilemma that all humanity has had to face.
A rock and a hard place that we are still put in between in this world.

Today, we mostly don’t deal with grain and livestock,
we don’t deal with Pharaohs taking our farms and cattle.

But we do deal with the reality of mega companies
that amass wealth and power and exploit workers and manipulate our economy.
These companies are part of everyone’s lives, we can’t avoid them
We live in a world and an economy created by them.

Take Walmart for insistence.  
I’ve been there. You’ve been there.
Some of us work there, or have worked there.
Most middle class and poor Americans have been there.

When a Walmart shows up in a small town,
it’s often seen as a savior providing jobs where there were none.

And Walmart is the largest givers of in-kind gifts to food banks
around the country which is wonderful they claim to have given
1.3 billion dollars in grants and contributions in 2014,
which s astonishing.

But their low wages force many of their employees
to go to those food pantries to survive  and use other services.

Forbes magazine estimated that Walmart, through its employees
 cost taxpayers  6.2 billion dollars a year in public assistance.
And then almost 17% of all food stamp sales in the country are spent at Walmart
so the money goes back into their profits.
And Walmart has consistently fought mandatory wage hikes in California,
actually choosing to close stores rather than pay the wages.
And they’ve fought employees unionizing  in their stores at every turn.
And Walmart’s business model is to compete harshly with other local businesses creating a monopoly in many towns.
Walmart’s profit for 2016 was 17 billion dollars.

It’s more complicated than silver and livestock, but it’s the same premise.
Accumulation of wealth and then power.
The fear of scarcity is put into policy
a few people benefit  and most people suffer.

And Walmart isn’t the only one, but large companies like this
set the tone for the economy and the nation,
and the people have no choice but to become beholden to it.

And the disassociation between the powerful and the poor
is an ongoing theme in bible
Even  in 500 BC or whenever the book of Genesis was written,
they could see this growing division between God’s promise of plenty for all,
and the world’s tendency to take it away and keep it for a few.

The book of Genesis starts with a liturgy of abundance:
a beautiful 6 day procession of the fruit of all creation:
plants, animals, birds, fish, all placed at the feet of humans.
enough for everyone to enjoy and live and thrive,
and there is even a day of rest thrown in.

And the book ends with the already rich and powerful having a nightmare of scarcity
and then that nightmare becoming policy.
Genesis presents this dichotomy that humanity will continue to face to this day:

When times are bad,
Do we trust in God’s abundance, or do we give into the nightmare of scarcity?
Do we trust in the promise, or do we act on the fear?
Do we trust in God, or do we follow the empire?

And this story I think asks an even deeper question:
Can we choose? Do we have a choice?
Could Joseph have chosen a better way?
Or were his hands tied by fate and reality?
Will the people of God always be consumed by the wants of the empire?
or Will God’s way ever be our way?
Like any good story, Genesis doesn’t give a clear answer.
It only poses more deeper questions for us to ask ourselves.

The opening book of the bible is a complicated story of
birth and death, scandal, betrayal, and promise.
From Abraham and Sarah, all the way to Joseph and Pharaoh.
It follows one families’ struggle to be faithful to the promises of God.
As confusing and weird as those stories are
their stories are our stories and they tell us the same
thing they have told faithful people through the ages:

Even though we are dysfunctional people and we live in a dysfunctional world,
the one God, who created us out of nothing will never leave us,
and it might take a long time,
but God will make good out of evil.

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