I mentioned before that Genesis 47:13-26 might extend the courtier tale told in chapters 40-41. A courtier tale in Egypt involved someone lowly and disadvantaged rising to the top rungs of leadership in Egypt. Chapters 40-41 detail the rise of Joseph. Now, in chapter 47, we get a description of Joseph’s public service in saving Egypt from the famine.
The politics of this interests me. What Joseph did was to nationalize, or purchase for Pharaoh, all the agricultural land in Egypt. Contrast this to what happened when King Ahab tried to buy a vineyard from Naboth (1 Kings 21). Naboth refused to sell to the king and Jezebel had Naboth lynched. Clearly the story in Kings sympathized with Naboth’s refusal to give the royal house special rights to the land.
In the Bible we see different attitudes about the power of the central government. The Joseph story reflects the attitude that the central government can do great good and can be the salvation of the people. Samuel’s speech in 1 Samuel 8 warns against having a king at all: “He will take your best fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants” (1 Samuel 8: 14).
So was the central government a savior or a grave threat?
On the one hand, the Hebrews opted to see the Davidic dynasty and the government at Jerusalem as a good thing. You would have to say that the overall Zionism of the Bible supports that. But there is also a strong anti-central-government thread running through the writings. Royal power got out of hand under Solomon. It was part of the reason for the divided kingdom. The royal bureaucracy was suspect, especially about land policy. Micah cries out against “princes of the house of Israel” who
“confiscate the fields they desire,
and seize the houses they want.
They defraud people of their homes,
and deprive people of the land they have inherited” (Micah 2:2 NET Bible).
Micah, who seems to have been a village elder, probably represents the “people of the land.” These had long been active in the politics of Judah and seem to have represented the limited-government party (the source in 1 and 2 Samuel that includes Samuel’s speech in chapter 8 was called in old commentaries “the republican source”).
But the story of Joseph’s service to Pharaoh obviously does not come from this tradition. Instead, I would argue that it may have come from the palace. It is possible that the Wisdom Literature in the Hebrew Bible represents literature that originally served to educate young men who entered the king’s civil service.
I do not know when the story of Joseph was written down, but you could certainly imagine something like this being written in the court of Solomon. There is no hint of the concerns about land-seizure that Samuel, Kings, and Micah raise. Rather, the all-powerful state serves as benefactor to the people.