commodity or covenant?

One of my favorite people from the Bible is Joseph the son of Jacob.  As a child I thought his story was entertaining, and now as an adult I draw a lot of inspiration from his life.  In a few weeks, I’ll be talking about Joseph and some other Biblical people at a retreat for middle school students in New Hope Presbytery.

What inspires me about him?  Joseph started out as a young person with a lot of potential and possibly an attitude problem.  Along the way his life and potential were almost snuffed out several times.  He wound up a slave and vassal (a prisoner, even) in the empire of Eygpt, living in a sort of personal and cultural exile.  God gave Pharoah a prophetic dream, and Joseph used the power of that dream to save thousands of people from starvation.  Instead of a rags-to-riches story, his is a sassy-to-savior story.

Yet I did not realize all the implications of Joseph’s story until a few weeks ago, when Dr. Walter Brueggemann spoke at ECU.  Dr. Brueggemann described for the audience the ancient Egyptian culture as we see it depicted in Scripture, and its effects on its backbone, the slaves and laborers.  He talked about the nonstop work and consumption which took place in Pharoah’s domain:  ceaseless building projects, no Sabbath, luxurious lifestyles for those at the top of the food chain.  In that system, everything and everyone was a commodity to be consumed.

He talked about the new system God gave the Hebrew people on Sinai.  In that system, everything was based on covenant. Some would have more than others, but everyone was accountable to one another, and as long as there were crops in the fields no one went hungry.

Joseph’s gift to his master is a little glimpse of that covenant system.  Based on Pharoah’s dreams, Joseph foretells seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine.  He advises Pharoah to save up food for the people, and to appoint an overseer for this food bank program.  Pharoah gives that job to Joseph.

What impresses me is this:  first, Joseph has concern for the welfare of a people who have enslaved and imprisoned him.  Second, he thinks of a solution that gives responsibility and reward to everyone.  Through his system, everyone has a role and no one has to depend on charity when the lean times come.  No one is an expendable commodity in Joseph’s setup.  Third, even though he is working for “the man,” he creates a temporary vision of a better way.  He works within the existing structure to create something new.

Dr. Brueggemann compared the old commodity-based system of Egypt to our situation today, and asked the audience if we could come around and re-create our lives based on God’s covenant.  I know it’s fashionable on the college campus to bemoan empire, capitalism, the huge influence of the United States, et cetera. My question (and I am thinking of a way to ask this to the middle school students) is, can we be more like Joseph?  Can we work within our system to provide people with daily work and daily bread?

The students to whom I’ll be speaking are growing up in an era of economic stimulus, and a lot of debate over the consumption we have taken for granted.  Some even say that today’s workers between age 35 and 45 are destined to be less well off than their parents and grandparents when they reach adulthood. (Some of the parents of the young people I’ll be addressing are in this age group; see this article from on Generation X’s economic prospects.)  The economic future of the parents of middle school students seems uncertain, and who knows what the students themselves will face?  I hope that each student who hears my little talk on Joseph will grow up to have a vocation and a way to provide for himself/herself with dignity.

Note 12/14/11:  I neglected to spell out here that in Joseph’s famine relief scheme, people had to trade their land for bread.  The story of Joseph and how he dealt with the famine have intrigued me for a long time, and I find myself revisiting it given the various “Occupy” movements around the country.  I still admire Joseph, though.  I’m not sure how many choices he had.  Since his time, people have come up with a lot of creative ways to finance charity.  Today we face problems with getting food across oceans and continents, and a trade-off is usually involved.  Maybe the believer’s call is to look for ways to let God work within the system and hopefully change it.

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