Welcome back to my study/review of Genesis. If you missed the previous parts of this study, you can find them HERE.
23 Then Joseph said to the people, “Behold, I have this day bought you and your land for Pharaoh. Now here is seed for you, and you shall sow the land. 24 And at the harvests you shall give a fifth to Pharaoh, and four fifths shall be your own, as seed for the field and as food for yourselves and your households, and as food for your little ones.” 25 And they said, “You have saved our lives; may it please my lord, we will be servants to Pharaoh.” 26 So Joseph made it a statute concerning the land of Egypt, and it stands to this day, that Pharaoh should have the fifth; the land of the priests alone did not become Pharaoh’s.
These verses describe a reconfiguring of the Egyptian economy and society. Pharaoh takes possession of the land, Joseph conscripts the people to become farmers, and then a rent / taxation system is created. From Ellicott’s Bible Commentary:
(23) Lo, here is seed for you.—As Joseph would give them seed wherewith to sow their fields only when the famine was nearly over, these arrangements seem to have been completed shortly before the end of the seventh year; and then, with seed it would be necessary also to supply them with oxen to plough the soil, and swine wherewith to trample in the seed (Rawlinson, Egypt, i. 76). A fifth part of the produce would be a very moderate rent, especially as there were no rates or taxes to be paid. The whole expenses of the State had to be defrayed from this rent.
The note classifies the system of the people giving to Pharaoh, a fifth, as rent, likely because they are no longer owners of the land. The Pulpit Commentaries adds to this point:
Then Joseph said unto the people, Behold, I have bought you this day and your land for Pharaoh: lo, here is seed for you, and ye shall sow the land. This proves the time to have been the last year of the famine; and since the people obtained seed from the viceroy, it is reasonable to suppose that they would also have their cattle restored to them to enable them to till the ground. And it shall come to pass in the increase, that ye shall give the fifth part unto Pharaoh, and four parts shall be your own, for seed of the field, and for your food, and for them of your households, and for food for your little ones. This verse is a sufficient refutation of the oft-preferred charge that Joseph had despoiled the Egyptians of their liberties, and converted a free people into a horde of abject slaves. Slave-owners are not usually content with a tax of only twenty percent on the gross revenues of their estates. Nor does it seem reasonable to allege that this was an exorbitant demand on the part either of Joseph or of Pharaoh. If in the seven years of plenty the people could afford to part with a fifth part of their produce, might not an improved system of agriculture enable them, under the new regulations, to pay as much as that in the shape of rent, and with quite as much ease? At all events the people themselves did not consider that they were being subjected to any harsh or unjust exaction.
The Pulpit Commentaries also argues in defense of the new system. Were the Egyptian people made into abject slaves, as some might argue? It would seem that this is an overstatement. On the other hand, it is inarguable that the people went from land owners to renters, and from people who kept the entirety of their labor to a people required by law to part with a fifth of their earnings.
On the other hand, it is also inarguable that they would have starved to death without Pharaoh’s grain stores. Continuing on with Ellicott:
(25) Thou hast saved our lives.—The people were more than satisfied with Joseph’s regulations; and if he had made them dependent upon the Pharaoh, apparently he had broken the yoke of the smaller lords, the hereditary princes of the districts into which Egypt was parcelled out; and they were more likely to be well-treated by the ruler of the whole land than by men of inferior rank. On these hereditary principalities at the period of the twelfth dynasty, see Maspero, Hist. Anc, p. 121.
At least at the outset, the people of Egypt kept in mind the context of the changed arrangement and they were pleased by it. The note also points out that the people may have been happy with the arrangement because they merely traded their overseers. They went from submitting to smaller lords and hereditary princes to the Pharaoh directly. Continuing on to the end of this section with The Pulpit Commentaries:
And Joseph made it a law over the land of Egypt unto this day (i.e. the day of the narrator), that Pharaoh should have the fifth part; except the land of the priests only, which became not Pharaoh’s. The account here given of the land tenure in Egypt, viz.,
(1) that after the time of Joseph the kings of Egypt became lords paramount of the soil,
(2) that the only free landholders in the country were the members of the priestly caste, and
(3) that the population generally occupied their farms at the uniform fixed rent of one fifth of their yearly produce, is abundantly corroborated by the statements of Herodotus, that Sesostris divided the soil of Egypt among the inhabitants, “assigning square plots of equal size to all, and obtaining his chief revenue from the rent which the holders were required to pay him year by year; of Diodorus Siculus (1. 73), that the land in Egypt belonged either to the priests, to the king, or to the military order; and of Strabo, that the peasants were not landowners, but occupiers of ratable land; as also by the monuments, which represent the king, priests, and warriors alone as having landed property (Wilkinson, Ken). Dr. Robinson quotes a modern parallel to this act of Joseph’s, which both illustrates its nature and by way of contrast exhibits its clemency. Up to the middle of the present century the people of Egypt had been the owners as well as tillers of the soil. “By a single decree the Pasha (Mohammed Ali) declared himself to be the sole owner of all lands in Egypt; and the people of course became at once-only his tenants at will, or rather his slaves.” “The modern Pharaoh made no exceptions, and stripped the mosques and other religious and charitable institutions of their landed endowments as mercilessly as the rest. Joseph gave the people seed to sow, and required for the king only a fifth of the produce, leaving four-fifths to them as their own; but now, though seed is in like manner given out, yet every village is compelled to cultivate two-thirds of its lands with corn and other articles for the Pasha, and also to render back to him, in the form of taxes and exactions in kind, a large proportion of the produce remaining after” (‘Biblical Researches,’ 1.42).
The comment above provides ancient corroboration of the Genesis text and contrasts the events here with a more modern parallel.
Now the stage is mostly set for the events we will see taking place in Exodus. However, before Genesis ends, we will see Jacob prophetically bless his twelve sons, as well as Joseph’s two sons, before dying.