Joseph: Evidence for Good Government & Taxes – or a Special Event?
A common Biblical claim to support government as “good” and taxes “necessary” is the story of Joseph. We find the bulk of the narrative in Genesis 39 – 45. Of key importance to this study is the nature of Joseph’s rule. As you will find with rulers who are “God-ordained,” they were not elected to the office by popular vote (sorry to those who feel “led” to be a politician). Joseph gets to be in the Pharaoh’s presence through a series of unfortunate events, starting with being sold into slavery by his brothers (Gen. 37). Joseph winds up living with Pharaoh’s captain of the body-guard Potipher, but is eventually tossed into prison because he is framed by Potipher’s wife – a woman wildly turned on by Joseph’s swag (see Gen 39:12). After a time of making headway with the chief jailer (Gen. 39:22), Joseph gets called to interpret a dream the Pharaoh has in Genesis Chapter 40.
God gives Joseph a special revelation to interpret Pharaoh’s symbolic dream (Gen 41:16). The dream meant that Egypt would have 7 years of plenty (food) and then 7 years of famine. (Mind you, this is a dream, not science, and Joseph’s interpretation was a direct revelation from God, not from the EPA.) Upon Joseph’s interpretation, the king is excited. Joseph suggests taking up 1/5 of the people’s produce during the 7 years of abundance to save for sale during the harsh years. (Gen. 41:34-35). The King sees Joseph’s wisdom and appoints him second in command over the entire kingdom (Gen. 41:40).
It is here where the conundrum begins – Is this story an approval for government and an approval for taxation?
Let’s start with the first part:
Joseph’s position was certainly needed for such a time. God used him to make sure the Egyptians and surrounding peoples would not starve and die because of the famine (Gen. 50:20). God planned Joseph’s arrival to make sure Israel was taken care of in tough times (and to teach his brothers a lesson – Gen. 44). This is not some wholesale approval for government, but rather a provision for the integrity of the Jewish people. As is later seen, Israel’s descendants become captive to a future Egyptian Pharaoh while staying there (it’s how we get Moses saying “LET MY PEOPLE GO!”) So while Joseph’s government role was important, it did not result in a continued Theocracy. The next Pharaoh starts throwing babies into the river (Exodus 1:22), reminding us why the only semi-decent rulers are the ones who exist under God’s direct rule.
The taxation element is also a fascinating aspect.
Joseph does suggest to the Pharaoh to take (forcibly) 1/5 of the total produce from the good years to prepare for the bad. While the advice was sage, we (today) lack the special circumstances under which Joseph carried out these provisions. First, God was revealing future information divinely. This type of working really seems to only fall within a Theocracy where God provides privileged information. In modern times, the government can’t even prepare for the weather (see Katrina), let alone what “stores” need to be made. Clearly, this event is a matter of supernatural consequence, not human speculation.
Some will try to say that the grain storage is a prime example of why taxation is acceptable because “God commanded it.” The problem is that it was not actually commanded by God to be done this way. It was Joseph who recommended taking 1/5 of the people’s grain for storage – not God. God only gave a symbolic dream about what was to happen, not what to do about it. (See Gen. 41:1-37). So it isn’t God who says “Take forcibly from the people 1/5 of the grain,” it is Joseph.
What else could we expect though?
Joseph was only second in command and “free market economics” was probably not too keen with the Pharaoh who was still top dog. As we can see in later books (Exodus, for example), freedom of persons and property is not a priority for Pharaohs. Joseph was likely making a wise decision for the circumstances he was under (an Egyptian dictatorship – a “god-king”). Joseph (not God) did end up making the 1/5 taking a permanent statute (Gen.47:26), but this should not be taken as a positive economic theory if one continues reading the Biblical history. In Exodus we see how the riches of the Pharaoh are then used to appoint more overseers to afflict the Israelites with hard labor (Exodus 1:11-14). So while the taking had its place within the limited context of the famine, the benefits of a man used by God are quickly undone by the next ruler (who somehow always seems to be greedier than the last).
What we should take away from this is that God will use people in many situations for His glory. While Joseph did make governmental decisions, they were not commanded directly by God. Given this, we should judge his actions and the government structure in the context of history to decide its wisdom. The divine appointment (theocracy) and dream (special revelation) should distinguish Joseph’s rule and decisions from how we think about government today.