There are many different philosophies when it comes to government. Even in the Bible, God permitted several different forms of government: monarchies (David and the Kings), theocracies (Moses and the prophets), aristocracies (early Israel tribal leaders), gerontocracies (early church elders), kritarchies (Judges), and more. Within these different forms of government are policies regarding taxation, rule of law, the authority of the government vs the free will of the people, and many more subjects that are still being discussed today (especially in light of our current political climate).
When examining the different forms of government in the Bible, it is important to remember a wonderful Bible Study Principle, which states: “description doesn’t equal prescription.” That is to say, just because something is described in the Bible does not mean that it is prescribed for all believers everywhere to obey. For instance, much of the Bible describes the monarchy that ruled Israel, but that does not mean that all believers must live under an earthly monarchy today.
All of this is important to note before we read today’s scripture passage. This Scripture describes how Joseph practically established taxation in Egypt and how, under Joseph’s leadership, all Egyptians willingly submitted themselves as servants of Pharaoh. In a time of crisis, Joseph exercised his godly wisdom to the great advantage of Pharaoh, and helped develop a system of government that would lead to Egypt becoming the most powerful nation on the planet. But, nowhere in this description of ancient government do we find a prescription for our government today.
Please read Genesis 47:13-26.
God had warned Pharaoh that this time of famine was coming through two dreams. God also blessed Pharaoh with the knowledge that Joseph could interpret these dreams. Through the wisdom that God gave Joseph, Pharaoh was able to use this warning to his great advantage. This scripture describes how Joseph used Pharaoh’s God-given dreams to prepare for the famine. When the famine came and every other Egyptian was in want, Joseph used the principle of supply and demand to his incredible benefit: he was able to sell grain, just plain old grain, in exchange for money, livestock, land, and even people’s own freedom.
He then established a system of taxation, whereby the government owned the land, the grain, and the people, but permitted the people to work the land on their own initiative and keep 80% of what they harvested each year. Presumably, those Egyptians who worked harder and profited more would be able to buy more for themselves and their families, but they would always be servants of the government and under its authority. They would always be slaves to whatever system of taxation the government established without any recourse of their own.
For some people today, the idea of only being taxed one fifth, or 20% of their income seems wonderful. For others, it seems outrageous. Our system today is radically different than the one Joseph established in Egypt. It is easy to focus on the system of government and wonder what God was doing. Is that the form of government we should have today? Should that affect my presidential vote? How would it affect my vote?
But these aren’t the questions that we should be asking about this passage, because that’s not what this passage is about. Joseph used the wisdom that God had given him to profit incredibly in the situation he was in. While he insisted that the people sell him everything, he did show them mercy by only requiring a fifth of their future harvests, instead of, say, half, or more.
You can agree with Joseph’s strategy or not. You can agree with his sense of mercy or not. But you cannot look at this description and say that it is a prescription for our form of government today. That is not what God intended when giving us this Scripture. Instead, use it as motivation to use the gifts that God has given you, just like Joseph did.
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