Joseph secures the people’s land—Genesis 47:18-26

This passage tells us a lot about Joseph. Joseph worked on behalf of both Pharaoh, his boss, and the people, selling them grain when they needed it and faithfully delivering all the profits to Pharaoh. He also exempted the Egyptian priests, following Pharaoh’s expectations. Joseph offers a positive model here. First, he is a worker with integrity, on whom his boss could depend. Second and third, he also is able to help the people in the time of need—and able to do so because he walked with God and understood what God was communicating in Pharaoh’s dreams. Fourth, God cares about feeding hungry people, and Joseph’s role as a public manager was no less important or God-led than more direct preaching ministries would be. And fifth, we see that Joseph also could work respectfully with those who held views different from himself.

Some of these points have come up before, so I will look at just a couple points here. First, what should we make of Joseph allowing the people and their land to belong to Pharaoh? Second, in multicultural and multifaith societies, we can learn from the honorable way that Joseph treats Egypt’s priests.

When Joseph bought the people’s land for Pharaoh (at their desperate request, 47:19), in practice he allowed the people to keep four-fifths of the produce, taking only one fifth for Pharaoh (47:24). Although a tenth was probably more common in that milieu (cf. 14:20; 28:22; 1 Sam 8:15, 17), Joseph had already been exacting a fifth in the time of prosperity, when it was little compared to the abundance (41:34); much of this grain might likewise be invested in their future. (Even today, most Western nations do not consider excessive a 20 percent taxation rate.)

In their own words, Joseph was to buy them and their land so that they and their land would not die (Gen 47:19); they are grateful for their lives being rescued (47:25). The taxation on their yield would not yet take effect anyway, however, since there would be no yield in the short run; Joseph instead gathered the people to the centers where food could be distributed efficiently during the remainder of the famine (47:21).

Today we might view Joseph’s accumulation of wealth for and loyalty to Pharaoh as harmful for later generations of Egyptians, but Joseph had access only to his own generation. He would not have known the long-range behavior of later Pharaohs, and we cannot control what subsequent generations do to our legacy. (Our forebears in many denominations and many nations would be horrified to see what has become of their legacy!) In fact, scholars often argue that Joseph entered Egypt during the Hyksos dynasty; a change in peoples ruling Egypt would obliterate the memory of how Joseph saved the people. Whether Joseph arrived in the Hyksos era or not, Scripture is clear that a ruler arose who did not know Joseph (Exod 1:8). Of course, in light of Christ we would hope for better things than subjecting a nation to Pharaoh; but overall, Joseph’s contribution was probably the most positive one possible in his situation. Had he not preserved the people, there would not have been descendants to oppress.

Joseph’s respectful relationship with the priests (47:22), the daughter of one of whom he had married (41:45; 46:20), offers a noteworthy model for God’s people working in a pluralistic society that welcomes us but includes a range of religious views. Moses married the daughter of a Midianite priest (Exod 2:16, 21; 3:1), in that case with perhaps even more concrete religious results! What God did for Israel ultimately convinced Moses’s already-wise father-in-law that YHWH was the greatest of gods (Exod 18:8-11). (Melchizedek, too, honored the highest God; Gen 14:18.)

Such examples are not limited to the Pentateuch. Daniel, trained in all the learning of the Chaldeans (Dan 1:4) served in a pagan court alongside pagan diviners (2:27-28; 4:7-8). Paul had friends (possibly sponsors) who were Asiarchs (Acts 19:31), members of the same class that produced priests of the imperial cult in Asia Minor. Scripture is clear that believers must not compromise with idolatry (1 Cor 10:7, 14-21; Rev 2:14, 20), even under duress (Dan 3:18; cf. 1:8; 6:10). But this does not mean that we should not associate with nonbelievers who practice it (1 Cor 5:9-10). As he illustrated perhaps most eloquently in the story of the Good Samaritan, our Lord Jesus calls us to love all our neighbors, not just those who agree with us.

Part of our witness as Christians is not just what we say (important as that is), but how we perform our work and serve the people around us.

My Friend the Refugee

Others are better qualified than I to comment on security matters, and this is an older post, but now seems a valuable time to recount the story of two refugees’ experiences. Neither of these two constituted a security threat: they are the stories of my wife and my son.

Racial and ethnic reconciliation

Craig was invited to speak on this at Asbury Seminary Chapel some time ago. This seems a good time (right after Martin Luther King Jr. Day) to post it (29 minutes and 59 seconds) (It’s not my picture on the front but it’s me inside during the sermon).

Scripture challenges racism

Craig was invited to preach and address race issues in a forum with Christena Cleveland of Duke, and also in chapel this past week. This is his 30-minute chapel message, from Ephesians 2:11-22.

(For those who wonder: Yes, I know some people don’t think Paul wrote Ephesians. I think he did. Even if you disagree, you can still get good ideas from the sermon. 🙂 )

Conspiracy theory (37 seconds)

After violent attacks by Islamic extremists, crazy people want to blame all Muslims—alienating more Muslims and polarizing things further; and some even crazier people want to blame all people of faith (including Christians), thereby further marginalizing all peace-loving believers as if Islamist radicals and secular radicals are the only voices worth considering. It almost looks like a conspiracy: see 2 Cor 4:4; Eph 6:12.

Saving a Lot: Abram fights slave traders—Genesis 14

While Christian theologians today debate whether God demands pacifism or allows just war, at least in the Old Testament we see one just war that is not explicitly noted to have been carried out at God’s command. This was a war to liberate slaves. (This differs from the battles against the Canaanites, treated elsewhere: Canaanites 1; Canaanites 2; Canaanites 3.)

Enslaving prisoners of war was common practice in antiquity, and typically Sodom’s captured citizens, such as Lot, would have remained slaves for life (Gen 14:10-12). Much of the rest of the narrative is typical. The sorts of confederations of local kings depicted in 14:1-2, 8-9 dominated the fertile crescent in this period.

Chedorlaomer and his allies also had typical reasons for sacking Sodom and its allies. Chedorlaomer had conquered them thirteen years earlier, but now they declared independence from him, withholding tribute. In exacting vengeance, Chedorlaomer strips Sodom and Gomorrah of their goods (14:11), not only compensating for lost tribute but also because warriors on expeditions expected to profit from victories (cf. 14:24). Sodom’s own surviving warriors have fled to the hills (14:10), so the captives from the town are noncombatants such as the town’s women and other residents (14:16), including Abram’s nephew Lot (14:12).

That would have been the end of the story, except for Abram. One person can sometimes make a big difference in history, at least for many people. God had already chosen Abram to make a difference, even in how he would raise his children (18:19). Abram knew that he would be a blessing to the nations (12:3), and one way that he began blessing some peoples was by liberating them from slave traders. (That is why not only the kings who had directly suffered oppression, but also another king from the region, blesses Abram and his God, 14:18-19.) We should consider what ways God might use us in many parts of the world today (not least by combatting modern slavery, including sex trafficking, debt slavery and the like; International Justice Mission is among groups providing resources in this direction).

Abram has allies (14:24), but his own army, consisting of servants or members of his tribe, has 318 men (14:14). Ancient rabbis ingeniously interpreted “318” as the numerical value of Eliezer’s name (15:2), hence claimed that Abram and his steward Eliezer single-handedly defeated the enemy. This interpretation is fanciful; 318 was in fact a good-sized army for this region in this period. Nevertheless, Abram’s army was not simply facing a rival tribe of herders or a single town; he was facing four kings who had already vanquished five other kings. Yet Abram uses a wise strategy, striking his unprepared enemy unexpectedly, at night, from different sides.

God gives Abram’s army the victory (14:14-16). Not only Abram, but also Melchizedek, king of Salem (what was later called Jerusalem), recognizes that God had given Abram the victory. He acknowledges that God “delivered” Abraham’s enemies into his hand (14:20); the cognate noun for this verb appears in the next scene, in 15:1, where God is a “shield” to Abram. The same God who kept him and gave him victory in the battle is the same God who continued to be with him to fulfill his calling and purpose.

Abram gives Melchizedek one-tenth of spoil as an offering to God Most High (14:20c), whose priest Melchizedek was (14:18). Paying a tenth, or a tithe, often to gods, was a common practice in antiquity. Melchizedek’s role in Genesis is similar to that of Jethro in Exodus—someone outside Abraham’s line who yet recognizes the true God. Note the following similarities (borrowed from my Acts commentary on Acts 7):
Melchizedek (Gen 14)// Jethro (Exod 18)
Priest of God Most High (Gen 14:18)// Priest of Midian (Exod 18:1)
Brought bread and wine (Gen 14:18)// Fellowship meal (Exod 18:12)
Blessed be God who helped you against your enemies (Gen 14:20)// Blessed be YHWH who saved you from your enemies (Exod 18:10)

Of course, Melchizedek also acts for God, and it is in that role that Abram pays the tithe to him. Canaanite kings sometimes doubled as priests, and this was certainly true of Melchizedek (Gen 14:18); Psalm 110 even depicts the enthroned heavenly Lord (110:1) as like Melchizedek, a permanent priest-king (110:4), a role ultimately fulfilled by the exalted Lord Messiah (Mark 12:36; Acts 2:34; Heb 5:6).

Abram went on this mission to rescue Lot, not to collect spoil for himself. His servants naturally used some of the food for themselves, but Abram refuses to claim any of the loot, merely recouping that food as a cost of the mission and allowing his allies to take their share (Gen 14:24). Ancient ethics demanded reciprocity, and Sodom’s king, Bera, is happy to get back even his subjects, while allowing Abram to keep the spoil. Bera doesn’t want to be in Abram’s debt (14:21), but Abram succeeds at remaining his benefactor (14:22-24), allowing only the concessions just mentioned (14:24). Such concessions allow Sodom’s king to retain his honor, but Bera should nevertheless remain grateful to Abram, and to Lot, for whose sake Abram rescued the people. This kindness makes Sodom’s later treatment of Abram’s nephew, Lot (19:9), appear all the more heinous.

(This is part of a series of studies on Genesis; see e.g., Sodom; floodcreation; fall; God’s favor.)

No way to treat guests—Genesis 19

Two angels came to Sodom to test its morality (Gen 18:20-22). They arrived in evening, when hospitality would be most needed and also when the greatest dangers might await. Lot was sitting in the gate area of the city (19:1), a place where elders and other respected members of the community could hear and decide cases (Deut 22:15; 25:7; Josh 20:4; Ruth 4:11; Prov 31:23; Zech 8:16). This may be one reason why Lot’s detractors will accuse him of acting like a judge even though he is a newcomer (Gen 19:9)—not knowing that they will soon face the true “judge of the whole world” (18:25).

Hospitality was a highly regarded virtue in the ancient Near East, and in this chapter Lot, like his uncle Abraham in the previous chapter, proves hospitable to travelers. Initially, the visitors politely decline his hospitality (19:2), but Lot insists, which was the hospitable thing to do (19:3; cf. Luke 24:28-29). He has undoubtedly lived in Sodom long enough to understand that leaving these visitors in the city square (Gen 19:2) at the mercy of Sodom’s night life would mean their savage treatment and possibly their death.

Lot’s hospitality here offers a stark contrast to the attempt of other residents of Sodom to gang-rape Lot’s guests—guests that Lot must now protect against his fellow citizens. (On Lot’s bad choice of moving to Sodom to begin with, see Both Abraham (18:3-8) and, in this passage, Lot gave hospitality to angels (Heb 13:2). Visitors were a special privilege for Abraham out in the wilderness, but they now posed a danger for Lot.

For standing against gang-raping guests, Lot is accused of setting himself up as a judge (19:9), not unlike the complaints of some people today that anyone who points out their misbehavior is “judgmental.” (Some people are judgmental, but some other people just don’t like to be corrected.) But, as noted above, that Lot was earlier sitting in the city’s “gate” area (19:1) suggests that he may have been in fact functioning as one of the local elders who helped resolve cases in the gates.

Was all of Sodom really bad? From a general theological standpoint, at least, yes (18:32; 19:4). At the same time, clearly not all of Sodom literally gathered at the door to demand the opportunity to rape Lot’s guests; his sons-in-law, for example, were presumably not there (19:15). In any case, no one had the right to complain about God’s judgment. It was only God’s kindness shown through Abram on Lot’s account that rescued most of the people of Sodom earlier. Their lives have been extended, and yet they have continued sinning, even against God’s own agents. Ultimately we cannot complain about judgment, whether corporately or individually, because we owe our very lives to God to begin with. If we are abusing our own lives and harming others, God is not unjust to eventually say, “Enough!”

At the same time, while not everybody in Sodom literally tried to rape the visitors, no one but Lot offered them a place to stay or risked his life to protect them. When Lot defends foreigners, the abusers remind him that he came as an alien or foreigner himself; by protecting the strangers, he has become identified with their cause and made himself a target. When God says that he will protect the city if he finds even ten “righteous” persons there (Gen 18:24-32), he is not defining “righteousness” as simply not raping people or simply not mistreating foreigners or others who are defenseless in one’s land. God expects a genuinely righteous person to do more than shake our heads sadly at those who practice injustice. God expects us to actively help those who are being treated unjustly, to protect them even at the risk of our local reputation or our safety (19:9).

This passage offers many lessons. It reminds us of the importance of welcoming and protecting visitors in our land. It may also teach us about immigrants, including about the prejudice that recent settlers such as Lot face. It reminds us that people who are sinning often do not like to be corrected, and decry instead the justice of those with the audacity to challenge their behavior. It reminds us that God favors those who stand for justice for the oppressed, including those facing sexual abuse, even when we place ourselves at risk for doing so. In context, it also reminds us that God’s judgments are just; God has shown mercy and given us the opportunity for life, but those who continue in wickedness neglect his mercy until it is too late.