Do famines concern us?

Sometimes the best way to learn what we should do is to look at an example of what we should not do. Today we’re going to look at an episode in Joseph’s life that illustrates some behavior that we really should not seek to emulate.

We’re going to start by looking at some verses in Genesis 41 which tell us how Joseph prepared for a famine that was about to come upon the land of Egypt. Then we’ll look at a passage in Genesis 47 and see how Joseph dealt with the famine once it actually arrived. At the end, we’ll talk about what, if anything, we should do when there is a famine somewhere in the world.

This story started when Joseph interpreted a dream for Pharaoh.

Gen. 41:25 ¶ Now Joseph said to Pharaoh, “Pharaoh’s dreams are one and the same; God has told to Pharaoh what He is about to do.

Gen. 41:26 “The seven good cows are seven years; and the seven good ears are seven years; the dreams are one and the same.

Gen. 41:27 “The seven lean and ugly cows that came up after them are seven years, and the seven thin ears scorched by the east wind will be seven years of famine.

Gen. 41:28 “It is as I have spoken to Pharaoh: God has shown to Pharaoh what He is about to do.

Gen. 41:29 “Behold, seven years of great abundance are coming in all the land of Egypt;

Gen. 41:30 and after them seven years of famine will come, and all the abundance will be forgotten in the land of Egypt, and the famine will ravage the land.

Gen. 41:31 “So the abundance will be unknown in the land because of that subsequent famine; for it will be very severe.

So Joseph told Pharaoh that there would be seven years of abundance, followed by seven years of famine. Notice the words “very severe”. This famine was going to be brutal.

Pharaoh believed what Joseph said and he put Joseph in charge of preparing for the famine.

Gen. 41:42 Then Pharaoh took off his signet ring from his hand and put it on Joseph’s hand, and clothed him in garments of fine linen and put the gold necklace around his neck.

Gen. 41:43 He had him ride in his second chariot; and they proclaimed before him, “Bow the knee!” And he set him over all the land of Egypt.

Gen. 41:46 ¶ Now Joseph was thirty years old when he stood before Pharaoh, king of Egypt. And Joseph went out from the presence of Pharaoh and went through all the land of Egypt.

Gen. 41:47 During the seven years of plenty the land brought forth abundantly.

Gen. 41:48 So he [Joseph] gathered all the food of these seven years which occurred in the land of Egypt and placed the food in the cities; he placed in every city the food from its own surrounding fields.

Gen. 41:49 Thus Joseph stored up grain in great abundance like the sand of the sea, until he stopped measuring it, for it was beyond measure.

We are told that Joseph stored up a great abundance of grain. In fact, there was so much grain they could not measure it.

Well, the years of abundance ended after seven years and the seven years of famine started.

Gen. 41:53 ¶ When the seven years of plenty which had been in the land of Egypt came to an end,

Gen. 41:54 and the seven years of famine began to come, just as Joseph had said, then there was famine in all the lands, but in all the land of Egypt there was bread.

Gen. 41:56 When the famine was spread over all the face of the earth, then Joseph opened all the storehouses, and sold to the Egyptians; and the famine was severe in the land of Egypt.

Gen. 41:57 The people of all the earth came to Egypt to buy grain from Joseph, because the famine was severe in all the earth.

Here the Bible tells us that when the famine started, Joseph opened the storehouses and he started selling the grain to the Egyptians. Notice that he sold the grain.

That is all the verses we are going to read from Genesis 41.

Now let’s look at some verses in Genesis 47 that tell us what the famine did to Egypt.

Gen. 47:13 ¶ Now there was no food in all the land, because the famine was very severe, so that the land of Egypt and the land of Canaan languished because of the famine.

Gen. 47:14 Joseph gathered all the money that was found in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan for the grain which they bought, and Joseph brought the money into Pharaoh’s house.

Notice the words “severe” and “languished”. This famine was brutal. Notice that the famine was not just in Egypt, it was also in Canaan.

This is a map of the middle east. The area in this yellow box is Egypt. The area in this box is Canaan. Again, the famine was spread over both areas.

Let’s look again at these verses. Notice that because of the severity of the famine, people were spending all their money to buy food from Joseph. This is even more clear
in the next verse.

Gen. 47:15 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, for why should we die in your presence? For our money is gone.”

Here, the Egyptians plainly told Joseph that they had no more money to buy food.

Gen. 47:16 Then Joseph said, “Give up your livestock, and I will give you [the Egyptians] food for your livestock, since your money is gone.”

Joseph’s answer was for the Egyptians to give up their livestock.

Gen. 47:17 So they [the Egyptians] brought their livestock to Joseph, and Joseph gave them food in exchange for the horses and the flocks and the herds and the donkeys; and he fed them with food in exchange for all their livestock that year.

Notice the word “all”. Exchanging their livestock for food got them through a year, but then they had no more livestock left to sell in exchange for more food the next year.

Gen. 47:18 When that year was ended, they [the Egyptians] came to him [Joseph] the next year and said to him, “We will not hide from my lord that our money is all spent, and the cattle are my lord’s. There is nothing left for my lord except our bodies and our lands.

Gen. 47:19 “Why should we [the Egyptians] die before your [Joseph’s] eyes, both we and our land? Buy us and our land for food, and we and our land will be slaves to Pharaoh. So give us seed, that we may live and not die, and that the land may not be desolate.”

At this point the Egyptians were so desperate that they offered to become slaves in exchange for food. As we continue reading, we will see that that is indeed what happened.

Gen. 47:20 ¶ So Joseph bought all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh, for every Egyptian sold his field, because the famine was severe upon them. Thus the land became Pharaoh’s.

Gen. 47:21 As for the people, he removed them to the cities from one end of Egypt’s border to the other.

Gen. 47:22 Only the land of the priests he [Joseph] did not buy, for the priests had an allotment from Pharaoh, and they lived off the allotment which Pharaoh gave them. Therefore, they did not sell their land.

Gen. 47:23 Then Joseph said to the people, “Behold, I have today bought you and your land for Pharaoh; now, here is seed for you, and you may sow the land.

Gen. 47:24 “At the harvest you [the Egyptians] shall give a fifth to Pharaoh, and four-fifths shall be your own for seed of the field and for your food and for those of your households and as food for your little ones.”

Gen. 47:25 So they [the Egyptians] said, “You [Joseph] have saved our lives! Let us find favor in the sight of my lord, and we will be Pharaoh’s slaves.”

Gen. 47:26 Joseph made it a statute concerning the land of Egypt valid to this day, that Pharaoh should have the fifth; only the land of the priests did not become Pharaoh’s.

Let’s look again at the big picture. Joseph knew a famine was coming, so he stored up a great abundance of grain. When the famine came it was very severe, and the Egyptians became desperate. Since Joseph had control of all the grain that existed, he had a monopoly and was able to charge whatever price he wanted; thus, the Egyptians ran out of money and Pharaoh took possession of all the land of Egypt and all the Egyptians became his slaves. Furthermore, the Egyptians were so desperate that they thanked Joseph for saving their lives, even though they were now slaves.

What can we learn from this? The Egyptians were at Joseph’s mercy and he used his monopoly to enrich the court of Pharaoh. Is it okay for us to do that? What should we as a society do if there is a famine somewhere in the world and we have food? Should we make the starving people buy our food even if it means taking every possession they have, including their bodies?

Before I answer that, let me point out that this story illustrates that desperate people do desperate things. The Egyptians were so desperate, they sold themselves into slavery. Whenever there is a famine, people get desperate and when people get desperate, they become vulnerable to oppression.

So what should we do? First of all, there is a proverb to consider.

Prov. 22:16 He who oppresses the poor to make more for himself Or who gives to the rich, will only come to poverty.

This is not a command, it is a proverb, and a proverb is not necessarily true all the time. However, this proverb clearly advises us not to oppress the poor in order to make ourselves rich. In other words, if there is a famine and people are desperate, that is not a time to take advantage of them and make ourselves rich. In addition to that proverb, there is also a command for us to consider. It is found in 1 Timothy.

1Tim. 6:17 ¶ Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy.

1Tim. 6:18 Instruct them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share,

1Tim. 6:19 storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is life indeed.

Let’s talk about the concept of rich. Rich is a relative term. An upper middle class American is poor compared to a billionaire; however, he is very wealthy compared to folks living on welfare. Furthermore, while people living on welfare are poor by American standards, they are rich compared to many people around the world who are barely able to scrounge up enough food to eat each day.

Now look at the phrase “be generous and ready to share”. This tells us that if there is a famine somewhere in our world today and we as a society have food to share, then we should be willing to share our food generously.

Let me close by clarifying one thing. The Bible does not tell us what God thought of Joseph’s actions, and the verses in Proverbs and 1 Timothy were written years after
Joseph’s death; so I am not criticizing Joseph. Instead, I am using Joseph to illustrate what we should not do.

Yes, Joseph helped the people of Egypt get through the famine, but he also used the severe famine and people’s desperation to take ownership of all the money, people, and possessions of Egypt. When we help, we should not take ownership of all possessions because that is the opposite of being generous.

When people are starving, they are desperate and vulnerable, and we need to help them without taking advantage of them. Instead of taking advantage, we need to be willing to find a way to help them without enriching ourselves.

“Scripture quotations taken from the NASB.”