The Poverty of the Egyptians

23 11 2009

Although it would be preposterous to consider the Egyptian empire as found in Genesis to be poor, I suggest that the empire and its people have a great potential for poverty. In a dream, Pharaoh sees “seven cows, sleek and fat” come out of the Nile, only to be followed by “seven other cows, ugly and gaunt,” which proceed to eat the healthy ones (Gen 41:1-4, TNIV).  Having been told of the dream (along with another similar dream), Joseph interprets the dreams for Pharaoh: “Seven years of great abundance are coming throughout the land of Egypt, but seven years of famine will follow them. … The abundance in the land will not be remembered, because the famine that follows it will be so severe” (41:29-31).

Given the approaching famine, I suggest that the Egyptians (and indeed the inhabitants of the entire region) ought to be considered as having the potential for poverty because: 1) a famine means a lack of food, which means starvation and death, and 2) a famine is devastating to an agrarian society that depends on the land (i.e., farming and animals).

What is God’s response to the approaching famine? First, God warns Pharaoh about the impending danger through two similar dreams and allows Joseph to interpret the dreams for him.  Second, God sends Joseph to Egypt not only to interpret the dreams, but also to organize the Egyptians to collect food in order to prepare for the famine (41:41-57).  Indeed, Joseph later tells his brothers that though they intended evil by selling him into slavery, that God did it in order to save lives (45:5).  Thus we see God acting proactively – warning and sending help – in order to avert the potential for poverty as much as possible.  (Of course, we can also ask whether it is God who causes the famine – for example, see 41:28 & 32, which seem to indicate this).

Despite the fact that the extreme consequences of the famine are overcome (i.e., we are not told of any widespread starvation and death), there are still consequences. As could be guessed, the rich (the Egyptian rulers) become richer, while the poor (the citizens) become poorer.  It costs the people everything they have in order to survive: first all of their money (47:14), then all of their livestock (47:17), and finally their land and their very selves – they become slaves (47:20-21).  On top of this, following the years of the famine, the people are now also required to give one fifth of their crop to Pharaoh (47:24) – a law that we are told is still enforced at the time of the writing of this story (47:26).

Who is to blame for the poverty and bondage that result from the famine? On the one hand, we could blame Pharaoh and Joseph because they forced the people to give them everything in order to receive food.  On the other hand, they did not cause the famine to take place – they merely took advantage of the situation.  No one caused the famine (except, perhaps God).  We end up in a situation of poverty (and oppression) because of natural events (this is the third famine mentioned in Genesis) and human decision and action.  The poverty could have been avoided, only had Pharaoh and Joseph not taken advantage of the people in their situation.

Which brings us to our world and to our time. How much poverty could be lessened/avoided in our own world if those in power (whether great or small) would refuse to take advantage of those in lesser positions? – globally, nationally, and locally.  What if minimum wage wasn’t below the poverty line?  What if corporations didn’t pay foreign workers absurdly low wages in order to save money?  What if court systems didn’t favor those who could afford better lawyers?  Obviously poverty has to do with more than the strong taking advantage of the weak, but it would help – wouldn’t it? – if they stopped.

Similarly, what if we stopped taking advantage of the earth? True, the famine in Egypt seems to have been a natural (and common) occurrence – but are there ways that we are damaging the earth that can cause similar problems?  After all, there are still many people who make their living off of the land (in this country, but especially in others).  What if we were more careful about what we put in and took out of the ground, the air, and the water?  What if we were more conscientious about our modes of transportation, our types and uses of energy, our water usage, our farming and fishing practices, etc.?  Perhaps we could avoid certain forms of man-made famines and the poverty they produce.

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