The Old Testament story of Joseph and his rule over Egypt during its famine is often used to illustrate that God has a larger plan for your life than you know. But how the different characters in this story reacted to the crisis can teach important lessons about your personal finances as well.
While Joseph sat in an Egyptian prison for a crime he had not committed, Pharaoh received a dream he did not understand. This dream eventually took Joseph out of the prison and landed him in the second most powerful position in Egypt. Joseph was able to interpret the dream, explaining to Pharaoh, “There will come seven years of great plenty throughout all the land of Egypt. After them there will arise seven years of famine, and all the plenty will be forgotten in the land of Egypt; the famine will consume the land” (Gen. 41:28-30 NRSV). As a result of his interpretation and subsequent recommendation, Joseph was put in charge of handling this looming crisis in Egypt.
It may be difficult to unravel what was right or wrong in how Joseph handled this dilemma, but the writer of the book of Genesis puts Joseph in a favorable light throughout the whole event, and nothing is mentioned of the Egyptians being unhappy with the system. The Egyptians say to Joseph, “You have saved our lives; may it please my lord, we will be slaves to Pharaoh” (Gen. 47:25 NRSV). Joseph’s system of taxing 20 percent of the Egyptian’s produce and then selling it back to them when the time came appears to have worked to save them from starvation, despite the fact that the Egyptians were left destitute.
After the famine had finished, the Egyptians were left without any money, cattle, land and had even sold themselves as slaves to the government. Pharaoh’s government, overseen by Joseph, literally owned everything and everyone in Egypt (excepting the priests). Genesis 47:20-21 says, “So Joseph bought all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh. All the Egyptians sold their fields, because the famine was severe upon them; and the land became Pharaoh’s. As for the people, he made slaves of them from one end of Egypt to the other” (NRSV).
The basic idea of Joseph’s plan is an important one to apply to personal finances. Joseph knew a famine was coming, so he purposefully set aside enough food for his country to survive the famine. In the same way, it is important for you to create an emergency fund by setting aside enough money so you or your family will survive a financial crisis when it comes.
An emergency fund is easiest to create during times of plenty, as during the first seven years of this story, and it is intended to sustain you during those times when your figurative crops dry up, you are out of work, or you literally run out of food. Pharaoh’s dream included seven fat cows and seven lean cows, which Joseph interpreted as seven plentiful years and seven years of famine. It may not feel like it, but everyone experiences “fat” years and “lean” years. You should store up money during those fat years to sustain yourself during the lean years, because they will inevitably come.
This brings out the second point that can be drawn from this story. The Egyptians were informed by Joseph they would have an abundance of crops for seven years, then there would be famine. Based on the fact that they came to Joseph begging for food, it appears most did not believe a famine would come or did not believe it would be as bad as Joseph predicted. If they did believe there would be a famine, their time of plenty should have allowed them to create their own emergency stashes even after the heavy tax. This would have allowed them to not have to sell themselves along with everything they owned to the Egyptian government, but rather use the government as a backup to their emergency stashes.
In the same way, people sometimes don’t believe difficult financial times will come. They assume if hard times do come, they can rely on other sources for emergency funding, such as loans, social security or friends and family. While you may be able to get a loan or paycheck advance when a financial hardship arrives, it will leave you worse off in the long term. Like the Egyptians, not preparing for a crisis will cause you to drown yourself in debt and stress.
This story shows a practical way of creating an emergency fund. By setting aside a certain amount of your income each paycheck, such as the 20 percent set aside by Joseph’s system, you will be able to effectively create an emergency fund. It also illustrates the importance of creating an emergency fund in your own life to safeguard against a situation like that of the Egyptians. Just like the Egyptians, you are aware that financial difficulties will arise. It is up to you whether you prepare for them.
This article was originally published Sept. 21, 2017.