Thursday, May 30, 2013

Genesis: Joseph and the Invention of Serfdom

Phew! The Joseph story seems to go on longer than it appears to have any right to. I keep expecting it to end, and then it doesn’t. It’s amazing how little of this stuff actually stuck in my mind from prior readings. I wonder how it is that God’s words aren’t so brilliant that, once read, they burn themselves indelibly in my mind as a continuous inspiration.

But to get back to the story, we last left off where Joseph had just revealed himself to his brothers. They, of course, were terrified that this guy (who’s effectively the lord of all of Egypt, plus the guy in charge of all the grain supplies in all the world) will have it in for them. But he reassures them that what they did to him was just God’s way of getting him to Egypt so that he could save scads of lives with his grain scheme, and therefore it was actually a good thing so he’s not mad at them. I think this may be the first explicit formulation of the “God is so good that even when bad shit happens it’s really something good that you just didn’t realize at the time” argument.

So after reassuring his brothers, Joseph tells them to go back to their father and tell him about how wonderful he’s doing. Also, they should all move to Egypt where he will use his position to make sure they get all the best land in Goshen. When Pharaoh hears about this, he goes one better and tells Joseph to also send wagons for them to use to transport their households back to Egypt, and donkeys laden with “all the best things of Egypt” as gifts.

So the brothers go home to tell Israel/Jacob about Joseph. At first he doesn’t believe, but the scads of gifts sway him and he packs up his household to travel to Egypt. On the way, God appears to him in “visions of the night” (dreams) to tell him not to be afraid to go into Egypt because he will make Israel into a great nation there and eventually bring them out.

Then there are about twenty mind-numbing verses dedicated to listing all of Jacob’s descendants who came with him from Canaan to Egypt. And as usual, while it’s occasionally mentioned that daughters exist, only the sons are named.

Jacob comes to Goshen, and Joseph goes out to meet him. Big tearful reunion. Then Joseph tells them to make sure people know they’re shepherds so they’ll be allowed to stay in Goshen because shepherds are an abomination to Egyptians. I wasn’t sure what the hell that was about, so I looked it up. Apparently the explanation is that since Egyptians considered shepherds outcasts, they wouldn’t want them coming any deeper into Egypt than they had to. Which suited Joseph just fine, since Goshen was pretty good pasture land anyway. Joseph then got a bunch of his family jobs tending to Pharaoh’s personal livestock. The whole family also got a free ration of food from the grain stores Joseph was running (God’s chosen people as immigrants living on the government dole!).

Meanwhile, the famine continued. Over the next years, Joseph bled the people of Egypt of all of their money in exchange for food (literally, the Bible says that all the money in all of Egypt and Canaan was paid to into Pharaoh’s house for food). Once all the money was gone, Joseph then had people give him their livestock to avoid starvation. Finally, when Pharaoh owned all the livestock and all the money, we get to this passage:

“Gen 47:18 And when that year was ended, they came and said to him ‘We will not hide from my lord that our money is all spent. The herds of livestock are our lord’s. There is nothing left in the sight of my lord but our bodies and our land. 19 Why 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’ 20 So Joseph bought all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh, for all the Egyptians sold their fields, because the famine was severe in them. The land became Pharaoh’s. 21 As for the people, he made servants of them from one end of Egypt to the other.”

Did I say the Joseph story was about someone who was rewarded for behaving decently? Time for that retraction I mentioned in the previous post. OK, sure, he forgave his brothers and helped out his family. But in case you missed it, he just turned all the free landowners in all of Egypt into penniless, landless serfs! And he did it in exchange for the very food he was doling out to his own family for fucking free!

This is not insignificant douchebaggery. This is the impoverishment and enslavement of an entire people for personal gain (also, a part of the story that I don’t recall being taught in Sunday school). From a certain point of view, one could see the upcoming oppression of the Jews as just the Egyptians returning the fucking favor. Not that I’m saying it’s justified – propagation of your ancestors’ animosities is a shitty way to conduct a life and a society.

OK, so let’s get on to the end of the Joseph story (and with it, the book of Genesis).

So Joseph sets a statute that all the newly made serfs must pay a fifth of anything the land produces to Pharaoh (since they don’t really own any of it anyway). Years pass, and eventually it comes time for Israel/Jacob to die.

Jacob has Joseph bring his two sons to him, and declares that they should be considered as his own sons when it comes to their inheritance. He then gives them his blessing, and for no stated reason (and over Joseph’s objections) he places the younger one ahead of the older. Then Jacob calls in the rest of his sons to bless them as well. In doing so he strips Reuben of his firstborn status (for nailing with one of his concubines), and also demotes Simeon and Levi because of all the killing they did over Dinah’s rape. He elevates Judah to head of the pack (and, as we recall, Judah is kind of an asshole, so this doesn’t really speak all that well of Israel’s judgment). Anyhow, the descendants of each of the twelve brothers became the twelve tribes of Israel.

After giving his blessings, Jacob died. Then after a forty day embalming process (seriously?!) and seventy days of mourning, a huge procession took his body back to Canaan to bury him in the cave where Abraham had been buried. There’s a reiteration of the argument that the evil Joseph’s brothers did was really good, because God used it for good by bringing Joseph to Egypt to save all these lives (albeit in a vastly diminished quality of life, but that part isn’t mentioned in the argument).

Joseph lived to 110, and on his death bed made his brothers promise that when God took their people out of Egypt they would take his bones with them. Then he died, and Genesis is finally done.

So Genesis gets us from the creation of the world up through the establishment of the twelve tribes of Israel. Next we’ll get into Exodus, which will cover the Hebrews descent into slavery and oppression in Egypt, followed by invading Canaan to become enslavers and oppressors in their own right. Stay tuned!

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