Joseph established it as a law concerning land in Egypt . . . that a fifth of the produce belongs to Pharaoh.
Fictional superhero characters like Superman have amazing strength, awesome special powers, and unwavering commitment to the cause of truth and justice. The characters in the Bible are not superheroes. They are ordinary people who are used by an extraordinary God, and Scripture is not afraid to reveal their flaws.
Unquestionably Joseph possessed great faith and great gifts from God. But our chapter today presents us with a dilemma. Some commentators see Joseph losing his way, taking advantage of the famine to further Pharaoh’s oppression of his people. Others see Joseph as a faithful servant to his master, saving people from starvation through prudent policy. The text itself does not directly address whether Joseph’s actions were good or bad, and this should let us know that we should view this chapter through a different lens than Joseph’s morality.
Joseph’s actions were deeply embedded in a society that we know would come to oppress God’s people. Joseph’s service to Pharaoh and Egypt was within a civilization that in Genesis posed a threat to God’s people (Gen. 12; 26:2). God used the regime in Egypt to provide food for His chosen people, but the Lord never intended His people to leave their promised land forever. Their sojourn in Egypt was intended for only a season.
As Egypt fell into poverty, God’s people prospered (v. 27). The text does not tell us the specifics of how this happened. We know that the “why” is God’s unseen hand of blessing upon His people. Jacob understood this, and knew that true redemption would never come from Egypt. He demanded to be buried in Canaan (vv. 29–30) as a theological statement. It demonstrated his belief in the faithfulness of God to keep His promises to His people.
Apply the Word
All of us are embedded within a society that does not always seek to honor God. We must serve our employers honorably and embrace our civic responsibilities with dignity. Yet we should never be confused about our true Master or the source of our salvation. Our sojourn during this life should keep our eyes fixed on Jesus and the promise of eternal life.