As for the people, he made slaves of them from one end of Egypt to the other. Only the land of the priests he did not buy; for the priests had a fixed allowance from Pharaoh, and lived on the allowance that Pharaoh gave them; therefore they did not sell their land. Then Joseph said to the people, “Now that I have this day bought you and your land for Pharaoh, here is seed for you; sow the land. And at the harvests you shall give one-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.” They said, “You have saved our lives; may it please my lord, we will be slaves to Pharaoh.” So Joseph made it a statute concerning the land of Egypt, and it stands to this day, that Pharaoh should have the fifth. The land of the priests alone did not become Pharaoh’s.
There used to be a company directory called “Who owns whom?” In ancient Egypt, there could have been an entry: “Owner: Pharaoh – Owned: every person.”
What do we think of this story? It meant that everyone had food to eat now and seed to plant to grow food for the future. The people’s prayer ‘Give us, each day, the food that we need’ was answered. But at what cost? And at whose cost? As I write, we are hearing the news of the collapse of the huge construction and services company Carillion, and I heard a discussion between two young people about the relative merits of Capitalism and Communism. Neither of them argued very well, sadly. Whenever we talk about these great systems, we tend to see only how corrupt human beings wreck them. Which system was operating under Pharaoh and Joseph? I can imagine two residents of Joseph’s Egypt discussing the question: ‘So, the state owns us now, body and soul.’ ‘Yes, but at least we are sure to eat! With Pyramid Construction and Agriculture Inc., we could be starving!’ Were Joseph’s food policies benign dictatorship or tyranny?
These are huge questions. As individual Christians, can we hope to influence governments and multi-national companies? Well, surely, we must answer ‘yes’, otherwise we are just pawns, to be pushed around. God has given each of us a brain and intellect. The least we can do is to understand the questions, inform ourselves of what is happening. Who owns us? Jesus said “What does it profit a person to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” The word translated ‘life’ is ‘psuche’ – which could mean ‘soul’ or ‘essential self’ – much more than just ‘physical life’. Who does the ‘essential you’ belong to?
Lord of ALL, may those who have power in the world use it benignly, so as to ensure that every human being flourishes. May we use our wealth and intellects to ensure those in power are held to account. Amen
The Rev’d Peter Rand is a retired URC minister and a member of Trinity Church, Bedlington