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High interest loans: Genesis 47

We've safely moved Jacob and family on down into Egypt, and Pharaoh has allotted them space in the land of Goshen. He's even offered jobs for the most capable among them to handle Pharaoh's livestock. It would seem that the purpose of this narrative section has come to end with the opening portions of Genesis 47 (link).

It doesn't end there, though. We zoom back out from the focus on Joseph and his family and take a look at the overall situation in Egypt. We see that the famine goes on throughout Egypt and Canaan. We see further that there's a price to be paid for food, and that price is not cheap.

First, Genesis 47:14 shows that Joseph gathered all of the money of the people in exchange for food in the opening portion of the famine. All of this went into the treasuries of Pharaoh. The economy of the time was non-monetary, so we're probably looking at rough gold, silver, and other precious items, or specific finished goods made of these materials. It's not cash, though.

Then, when the money's gone, the people trade their livestock for food in Genesis 47:17. This includes both 'cattle' which would have food value and horses and donkeys that are work animals. In essence, the people sign over the deeds to the animals, receive food as payment, and then some of them are made responsible for caring for those animals. Which now belong to Pharaoh.

Finally, the people agree to sell themselves into Pharaoh's service in exchange for food. More precisely, they sell their land to Pharaoh and with it, their freedom goes: the land, the source of their survival, is no longer theirs. With the land go the people, and it all belongs to Pharaoh now. The people work the land for Pharaoh and get to keep 80% of the crops and have to pay the king 20%.

Does that ratio sound familiar? Throughout the seven years of plenty, Pharaoh had exacted a tax of one-fifth the produce of the land. I checked with some experts, and one-fifth=20%. This one-fifth was the source of the food the people were buying from Joseph. Pharaoh had taxed it from them, and now they are being enslaved to get back what the king had taken. The one-fifth to guard their survival during the good years now becomes their permanent tax rate to the king.

A few observations on this situation:

1. If it gets collected as a tax, it's gone. You don't have a share of the tax money, it's not yours anymore. It's the government's. That's why it's critical to influence the government to take as little as possible and to spend what they get well, because it's not coming back. When you need it later, it's going to have strings on it.

2. Take a look at Genesis 47:25. That's a tough verse for me, because it cuts against nearly all of my American instincts. The decision of the Egyptian people is that it is better to live as slaves of Pharaoh then to die of starvation. Is there a time that survival is more crucial than freedom? My heart says no, but then there's verse 24: their little ones didn't have food either. What would I do to feed my kids? Better honorable service with a future hope than dishonorable actions, right?

I'm not sure I like either option, but those seemed to be all that was available to the Egyptian people. Meanwhile, Joseph's family is dwelling in Goshen, fed by his allotment, and they are acquiring property: apparently, some of the Egyptians are selling to the family instead of to Pharaoh.

However you slice it, though, this is a land where times are bad. And because times are bad, people are desperate. People are desperate, but they lack community in seeking their own survival and instead have to rely on a king who is driven by his own self-interest. In the end, the king has it all.

What about now? What about you? What about us? Are we considering the chaos that's possible? Are we going to solve those problems together or risk the alternative: that he who has the gold will make the rules?

While we have choices, we need to make good ones. Choices that strengthen our future and help us care for the good of us all.


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