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.