13 There was no food, however, in the whole region because the famine was severe; both Egypt and Canaan wasted away because of the famine.14 Joseph collected all the money that was to be found in Egypt and Canaan in payment for the grain they were buying, and he brought it to Pharaoh’s palace. 15 When the money of the people of Egypt and Canaan was gone, all Egypt came to Joseph and said, “Give us food. Why should we die before your eyes? Our money is all gone.”
16 “Then bring your livestock,” said Joseph. “I will sell you food in exchange for your livestock, since your money is gone.” 17 So they brought their livestock to Joseph, and he gave them food in exchange for their horses, their sheep and goats, their cattle and donkeys. And he brought them through that year with food in exchange for all their livestock.
18 When that year was over, they came to him the following year and said, “We cannot hide from our lord the fact that since our money is gone and our livestock belongs to you, there is nothing left for our lord except our bodies and our land. 19 Why should we perish before your eyes—we and our land as well? Buy us and our land in exchange for food, and we with our land will be in bondage to Pharaoh. Give us seed so that we may live and not die, and that the land may not become desolate.”
20 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, from one end of Egypt to the other. 22 However, he did not buy the land of the priests, because they received a regular allotment from Pharaoh and had food enough from the allotment Pharaoh gave them. That is why they did not sell their land.
23 Joseph said to the people, “Now that I have bought you and your land today for Pharaoh, here is seed for you so you can plant the ground.24 But when the crop comes in, give a fifth of it to Pharaoh. The other four-fifths you may keep as seed for the fields and as food for yourselves and your households and your children.”
25 “You have saved our lives,” they said. “May we find favor in the eyes of our lord; we will be in bondage to Pharaoh.”
26 So Joseph established it as a law concerning land in Egypt—still in force today—that a fifth of the produce belongs to Pharaoh. It was only the land of the priests that did not become Pharaoh’s.
(Genesis 47:13-26 NIV)
In our last time together, Joseph introduced his family to Pharaoh. Joseph brought his father and a few of his brothers to meet the king. After the introductions, Joseph settled his family in the land of Goshen, where they earned a living as shepherds.
As we pick up today’s story, we see Joseph is back at his job, running the country during a five-year famine. In verses 13-15, Moses reminds us that the famine was across both Egypt and Canaan. If Jacob and his family would have stayed in Canaan, they would have been destitute, as the famine wiped out everyone’s financial resources.
When the Egyptians’ money was all spent on buying grain, the people came back to Joseph and demanded food so they did not starve to death. Joseph wisely did not give them food as a handout. Rather, he gave them food in exchange for their livestock.
After that year had passed, the Egyptians came back and demanded food again. This time, they approached Joseph with a little more humility. Since their money and livestock were gone, all they had left was their land and themselves. Joseph did not turn them away; instead, he exchanged food for their land and their servitude.
Since the Pharaoh now owned everything, Joseph gave the people seed to plant crops. At harvest time, they were to give Pharaoh one fifth (20%) of the crop, and they could keep four fifths (80%) as theirs. Verse 25 tells us that the people were grateful for Joseph’s compassionate arrangement, as they would have starved to death otherwise.
Moses notes that the only group that did not sell their land was the Egyptian priests, as they were given an allocation of food from Pharaoh. Moses also notes that Joseph’s 20%/80% crop share arrangement was still in effect in his day, many centuries later.
It is interesting that historians seem divided over Joseph’s plan. Detractors claim that Joseph was opportunistic and greedy, taking everything from the people and reducing their way of life to being servants of Pharaoh. Supporters claim that Joseph was being compassionate by giving the people the ability to exchange what they had (money, livestock, land, themselves) for what they needed (food).
Personally, I am supportive of Joseph’s plan. He did not let people starve to death, and he allowed them to retain their homes and families. He also made a provision for them to keep 80% of their crop, so they had incentive to work hard and keep the majority of their crop to meet their own needs.
May we see God’s hand in this plan. The Lord had predicted that this famine would not only wipe out the country’s reserves, but also their memory of former “good times”. Through Joseph, the Lord preserved an entire nation and caused that nation to be grateful for their blessings through hard times.
May we thank God in both times of plenty and in hard times. He is our life-giver and sustainer through all of life’s ups and downs.