No modern political system is perfectly represented in Scripture, let alone discussed. Current debates over government involve aspects of culture that simply did not exist in the ancient world. That said, people often look for biblical examples that at least parallel modern politics. A frequent interest is the philosophy of socialism. A common point of reference for that topic is Genesis 47:13–26. In this passage, Joseph administers a program wherein the Egyptian government distributes food during a famine, as well as seed to be used according to government instructions. This comes with a required tax. The people are grateful for this program, preferring it to starvation (Genesis 47:25).
Depending on one’s view, Joseph’s actions are either consistent with socialism, or contrary to it. Likewise, they are either something to imitate, or a rare circumstance not to be repeated. Joseph’s oversight of Egypt during the famine is relevant to the Bible’s stance on political ideas. However, it’s not definitive. Joseph’s guidance in this passage is neither capitalistic nor socialistic; rather, it’s a combination of both.
Full context is crucial in interpreting the story. Joseph correctly interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams, which predicted seven years of abundance followed by seven years of horrible famine (Genesis 41:29–31). Pharaoh accepted Joseph’s proposal to impose a 20 percent tax on all crops to create a stockpile in preparation for the lean years (Genesis 41:34–36). Joseph was made administrator of this program.
When the famine struck, Joseph sold the stockpiled grain to the starving people. This was given in exchange for their money (Genesis 47:14), then their livestock (Genesis 47:17), then their land and servitude (Genesis 47:18–21). As the land was now owned by the Pharaoh of Egypt, Joseph controlled how it would be used and levied taxes on the resulting crops for the benefit of Pharaoh (Genesis 47:24).
So far as socialism and capitalism are concerned, a few points ought to stand out. Preparation for the famine can be likened to “textbook” socialism. A government-mandated program levied taxes meant to provide for the greater good. That comparison ends when the famine strikes. Joseph does not distribute the tax-collected grain back to the people. Rather, he sells their taxed grain back to them.
Looking at the situation only from the beginning of the famine, Joseph’s actions look like “textbook” capitalism. Pharaoh’s resources include something other people want—in this case, they literally need it to survive. That valuable property is then traded for money, then goods, then land and even indentured service. Of course, the commodity involved was not created by capitalism but by government-mandated taxes.
Some would argue that “real-world” socialism, unlike the theory, always ends up in exactly that scenario. Citizens pay taxes with the promise of future returns, but when a real need arises, the government effectively charges its citizens to get back a small portion of what they paid in.
The post-famine era, as well, reflects elements of government control, but not “textbook” socialism. Joseph’s continuation of the 20 percent tax is not to provide food or service for the people. They are told to live and eat from their 80 percent, while the rest is for Pharaoh, who now owns them and their land (Genesis 47:23–25). Egypt, post-famine, was a people driven into indentured servitude by a disaster and scarce resources. The result was a government in total control; the people no longer had ownership of their own land. That’s not a good look for “socialism,” and it goes right to some of the major concerns people have about that philosophy. It’s not that the government consistently helped people, so they willingly gave over their autonomy. The worse the shortage was, the more dependency the people became on government simply to survive.
On the other hand, Joseph’s leadership was legitimately valuable in getting Egypt through a major crisis. At times, central control and a suspension of “rights” can be justified as reasonable alternatives. One can argue the Egyptian people wound up “less free” than they were, though a likely alternative would have been their being dead.
Making Joseph’s example a positive case for socialism ultimately fails. The Egyptian government’s ability to save people from disaster wasn’t based in a wide set of good policies. It was based on insider information: a miraculous, supernatural prophecy that only one man could interpret. If Joseph hadn’t been given divine warning about the shortage seven years in advance, the government would have been helpless to do anything about it. Critics point out that figureheads of modern socialism are anything but saintly. Even in the case of a good man like Joseph, the following generations who assumed those powers almost immediately turned them into a brutal dictatorship (Exodus 1:8–14).
Support for some aspects of socialism exist in Genesis 47:13–26. This story positively shows how high-level distribution of resources can prevent mass catastrophe. One could argue that Joseph’s example supports socialism by showing an example of how not to do things: resources compiled by taxes being sold back, rather than redistributed.
Criticism of some aspects of socialism also exist in this story, which negatively demonstrates excessive government control and its dire consequences. There is a “be careful what you wish for” element to heavy reliance on government. Others would suggest that Egypt’s example shows how easily—almost inevitably—heavy-handed government in the name of social benefit becomes total government control.
In the strictest sense, Joseph’s example in Genesis 47:13–26 is not socialism, nor does it comment directly on that modern political philosophy. Some elements are relevant to those discussions. However, these must be considered in the proper context.