Joseph – A story of exploitation

When I was a young Christian, whenever I heard the story of Joseph I sympathised with him, feeling sorry for Joseph for the bad treatment he received from his brothers and all the other bad things that happened to him.  I rejoiced when thanks to God he came up on top until he was the second most powerful man of Egypt and  I wept with him when he reconciled himself with his family.  What a beautiful story.

I’m not a Christian anymore but I still had great sympathy for him until I started to think more about modern politics and how the West, especially the US, is justifying many atrocities in the name of their God or Civilisation. Rethinking the story of Joseph in the light of modern politics I came to realise that much of what is wrong with the world today has its root in the same thinking that was behind the writing of the Joseph story.

Most of us in the west have heard the story of Joseph.  The youngest of twelve brothers, spoilt by his parents, his mother making him a many coloured coat which made his brothers very jealous. He has visions of grandeur that one day his brothers and parents will all bow down to him.  After another one of those visions which Joseph can’t help but tell them gloatingly, the brothers say, enough is enough, and throw him into a ditch and sell him off to some caravan traders.

Joseph is taken to Egypt where he is being sold to a rich official called Potiphar.  Having a good hand at business he rises quickly in the ranks and ends up managing the whole of Potiphar’s household.  It doesn’t take long when they eye of the official’s wife falls on Joseph and she tries to seduce him – of course, how else could it have been, wasn’t it Eve who seduced Adam.

Potiphar finds out about the affair, he sees Joseph running out of his wife’s room naked.  “It’s not what it looks like” Joseph says, nevertheless he’s thrown into prison.

In prison he also quickly rose through the ranks, so good were his management skills that even the guards let him run the place.   During his stay Joseph made some powerful friends and through them ended up having an audience with the king thanks to his skills as a dream interpreter.  One day the king had a bad dream and nobody in his whole kingdom could interpret it apart from Joseph. Of course it might have helped that the interpretation turned out to be very advantageous to the king.

Through the dream God gave inside trading info to Joseph.  He told him that for seven years the country will prosper followed by seven years of drought.  The king of course was pleased and put Joseph in charge of the land to oversee a project to build storehouses in preparation for the drought.   A tax was levied on the people to give up twenty percent of their harvest so that it could be stored in the newly built store houses.

After the seven prosperous years the drought arrived.  Harvest after harvest failed and the people were forced to beg for food which Joseph provided in return for money.  When the people had no more money they had to give up their livestock and when that run out they gave their land in return for food.  For seven years the people kept on selling everything they owned until nothing was left but to sell themselves as slaves.  They had no choice if they wanted to survive.

So Joseph bought all the land in Egypt for Pharaoh. The Egyptians, one and all, sold their fields, because the famine was too severe for them. The land became Pharaoh’s, 21 and Joseph reduced the people to servitude,[c] from one end of Egypt to the other. (Gen 47:20)

The king was extremely pleased of course and rewarded Joseph and his family highly who, after they reconciled, were allowed to settle in the land of Goshen.

So praiseworthy were the actions of Joseph that they were eternalised in the bible and dished out as a prime example of how a good Jew or Christian should conduct himself.  A good Jew or a good Christian is one whom God blesses no matter what situation he finds himself.  It is the sign of godliness when the power is given into one’s hand to exploit the poor.  We even can quote Jesus himself for that:

“Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him” (Math 4:25)

Joseph is a prime example for Capitalism.  This biblical story is one of the foundation stones to justify the exploitation of the poor by the rich.  The story tells us not to sympathise with the Egyptian common people who have lost everything in those seven years and of whom possible many starved to death. Instead we are to sympathise with Joseph and admire his cleverness in reducing a once proud people into destitution and servitude.

What actually happened?

1.  Joseph made all people to give up one fifth of the peoples harvest to be stored in storehouses.

2. When the drought came, Joseph sold the harvest back to the people.

3. Once the people had lost everything, including all their land, they are allowed to work the land.

4. Because the land now belongs to the king they have to pay one fifth to the king from then on each year as tax.


The king asks one fifth of the harvest on the basis that he owns the land as payment for being allowed to use it.  On what basis did he ask one fifth of the harvest before he owned it?

Given that the justification at the end of the story for the 20% tax is because the land was owned by the king, wouldn’t that prove that the actions of Joseph were actually unlawful by this rule?   Joseph had no right to sell the harvest back to the people because it legally was still owned by the people as no payment was given in return for it when he stored it up.

What a wonderful story this could have been if instead of enriching oneself on the back of the poor Joseph would have used the insider trading info to help the people and bring them through the hard times without robbing them in the process.  What an example of compassion that could have been.  


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