rethinking bible “heroes”: joseph the imperial henchman

Sometimes when we read the Bible we impose our own worldviews and values on the text.

One area in which this is apparent is that of “Bible heroes.” Are these people all we crack them up to be?

In the space of a few posts (maybe consecutive, maybe not, I haven’t thought about it yet) I’m going to explore some of the characters in the Bible who may have been misunderstood, for better or for worse.


No, I am not talking about the stepfather of Jesus.

The son of Jacob’s story can be found in the later chapters of Genesis. He is often esteemed as a great man of God, someone to be imitated. Joseph, it is said, overcame great hardship, even his own attempted murder and imprisonment, only to be put into a position of great authority in Egypt by God:

So it was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. (Genesis 45:8)

But Wes Howard-Brook reminds us of the possibility that Joseph is not correctly reading the signs of the times.* Indeed Joseph by this point has become completely enmeshed in Egypt having married an Egyptian and living in every feasible way as an Egyptian.

In light of Israel’s history with Egypt should the reader of Genesis not be alarmed? What was the author trying to say about Joseph?

What becomes clear in Genesis 47 is that Joseph has come to (ab)use his authority for evil. The boy who arguably started out as good, albeit cocky (cf. Genesis 37:5-11!), has become a henchman for an oppressive empire:

13Now there was no food in all the land, for the famine was very severe, so that the land of Egypt and the land of Canaan languished by reason of the famine. 14 And Joseph gathered up all the money that was found in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan, in exchange for the grain that they bought. And Joseph brought the money into Pharaoh’s house. 15And when the money was all spent in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan, all the Egyptians came to Joseph and said, “Give us food. Why should we die before your eyes? For our money is gone.” 16And Joseph answered, “Give your livestock, and I will give you food in exchange for your livestock, if your money is gone.” 17So they brought their livestock to Joseph, and Joseph gave them food in exchange for the horses, the flocks, the herds, and the donkeys. He supplied them with food in exchange for all their livestock that year. 18And when that year was ended, they came to him the following year and said to him, “We will not hide from my lord that our money is all spent. The herds of livestock are my lord’s. There is nothing left in the sight of my lord but our bodies and our land. 19Why 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.”

20So Joseph bought all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh, for all the Egyptians sold their fields, because the famine was severe on them. The land became Pharaoh’s. 21As for the people, he made servants of them from one end of Egypt to the other. 22 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.

23Then Joseph said to the people, “Behold, I have this day bought you and your land for Pharaoh. Now here is seed for you, and you shall sow the land. 24And 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.” 25And they said, “You have saved our lives; may it please my lord, we will be servants to Pharaoh.” 26So 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. (Genesis 47:13-26)

According to this passage Joseph uses his authority over the national supply of food to extort money, resources and land from the population, eventually driving them into slavery under the imperial hierarchy.

This is certainly consistent with the statement just two verses earlier which reports that Joseph settles his family in Egypt “as Pharaoh had commanded.” (Genesis 47:11). Joseph is no longer listening to the voice of YHWH – he is now subservient to Pharaoh.

Could it be that Joseph, in submitting the Egyptian population to servitude, started the ball rolling on the terrible situation of slavery endured later by the Israelites?

While the answer is unclear, surely episodes like this should get us thinking about the “biblical” perspectives many of us have taken for granted. If the above subversion is correct then perhaps our veneration of Joseph speaks powerfully to our propensity to equally venerate imperial power.

Apparently letting the Bible speak for itself is not so easy, particularly when our ears are filled with the white noise of empire.


* Wes Howard-Brook, “Come Out, My People!”, (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2010), 88.

Posted on November 9, 2011, in Biblical Studies, Old Testament and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Great piece, Matt.

    And yep – I think you’re spot on. I expect there’s more to the story (Joseph being such a central part of Jewish thinking for so long), but this is certainly a side that we rarely think about.

    I’ve always seen Joseph as being pretty much like all of us who live in rich countries: exploiting the poor, gathering wealth and not thinking too much about it. As it dawns on him that the poor people in front of him are actually his family, initially he pretends he’s not one of them. Eventually he can’t contain himself and he breaks down (Gen 42:24).

    As your piece shows that realisation obviously doesn’t change him much (going on to extort everyone’s money, land and freedom) but I have found it a helpful image of the cross-roads that we all face: when I realise that Jesus (my brother) calls the exploited poor of the world his family (Matt 25:40), it is a horrific realisation, often accompanied with tears and denial. But in the end, I need to choose where I give my loyalty and whose family I want to be part of.

  1. Pingback: rethinking bible “heroes”: how wise was solomon? « life.remixed

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