I'm listening through the Bible again this year. I'm following the ESV Chronological plan. (Here's the link to Justin Taylor's blog with the links to all the podcasts and instructions.) Something struck me as I was listening to it.
I've often wondered how in the world the people of Egypt were able to store up enough food in the good 7 years to last the bad 7. I realized as I listened, they didn't. Take a look:
19 Why should we die before your eyes, both we and our land? Buy us and our land for food, and we with our land will be servants to Pharaoh. And give us seed that we may live and not die, and that the land may not be desolate.”
24 And at the harvests you shall give a fifth to Pharaoh, and four fifths shall be your own, as seed for the field and as food for yourselves and your households, and as food for your little ones.”
It wasn't that the famine eliminated all of the food, but rather that the famine reduced the agricultural production of Egypt (Canaan too). The reduction was such that there was enough to eat for a time, but there wasn't enough to replant for the next year. The land still provided, but the people had to consume all of it to survive. It was from the stockpile that Joseph had made that the seed for the next year had to come.
What did this create? It allowed Pharaoh to take ownership of the private lands of Egypt. Many people gave themselves to slavery to the King of the land. It's likely that this was lived out not in a bitter slavery, but rather in an exchange of labor for the sake of the Pharaoh's projects. It's more of a forced/mandatory labor, especially during the non-agricultural times. Also established was a long-lasting taxation system. It was a flat tax: 20% of the harvest.
What is the warning here? First of all, there's a warning to prepare for disaster. It is, however, sometimes impossible to be totally prepared. You might try, but there are some things you can't be ready for. Second, be cautious in how you accept help. Do you wonder if any Egyptian farmer wondered, 20 years after the famine is over, whether or not he could have found a better way to handle the situation? When he had to leave his family for a few months to handle his forced labor, when he was separating the produce of the land he worked 1 for Pharaoh, 4 for my family (and realize, out of the 4 had to come the seed to plant next year)?
There's also a warning about how we help people. Pharaoh, in truth, wanted his people kept alive, but he wasn't really interested in them. He needed labor, food for his people, and an army. Whether it came from sharecroppers or landowners didn't matter much to him. In fact, the light of history shows that landowners tend to fight a little harder against government control they don't like, so Pharaoh's better off with the sharecroppers on land he owns. When we help people, we need to consider their own best interests as well as our own. It's ok to encourage people to either repay the help or to ask them to "pay it forward" to someone else in need, but don't get carried away. The Egyptians would have more than paid back Pharaoh after 20% during the famine and another 20% for about 5 years afterward. Don't help people just to strengthen your own power.
A thought when looking at this: why did the people have to go Pharaoh? Because he was the only centralized figure to go to. Do you think that if small bands of farmers had gotten together and worked with just each other they might have saved their freedom? Saved their land and their lives? I think so. I think we see here why we need to be in relationships with each other that extend beyond our daily "hi, how are you?" "fine" normality. We need to work on relying on each other. And being reliable to each other. If not, we'll someday face the same crisis the Egyptians faced. And we'll lose the same things they did: freedom, future, and financial independence.
Note: this also one of the oldest known examples of "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help." It was scary then, too.