At Morning Prayer at present, we’ve been reading through the story of Joseph, he of technicolour dream coat fame, who interpreted Pharaoh’s nightmares as predicting seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. Joseph found himself prime minister of Egypt, storing seven years’ surplus, to sell over the following seven years of austerity. In this way, he saved his own family from starvation, bringing them from their home Canaan — for the famine was across the entire region — to settle in Egypt.
Today, we reached chapter 47. Deep into the famine years comes a point where the Egyptians run out of money to buy back grain; so, Joseph sells it to them in exchange for their livestock. A year later, and with the end of famine not yet in sight, they have nothing to give in exchange for grain except their land and their very selves, as slaves.
And so, in this way, all the livestock, the land, and the population of Egypt come into Pharaoh’s possession. The entire population are now slaves; with the exception of the priests of the gods of Egypt, of whom Joseph’s own father-in-law was pre-eminent.
Turn over a few pages, and past living memory, from Genesis into Exodus, and the scene is set for the particular persecution of the Israelites — a subset of slaves within the slave population; the Pharaoh turning one group of his slaves against another — and the stand-off between Yahweh, god of the Israelites, and the pantheon of Egyptian gods, fought over ten epic plague battles.
In other words, Joseph’s actions, which in the short- and medium-term saved both his birth- and adopted-nations, sowed the seeds for the misery of both.
An awareness of history (by which I mean the subjective stories we tell of the past, with all their interpretation and counter-interpretation) enables us to see that our actions always have impact, seen and unseen, intended and unintended, for good and evil — impact that will fall on others long after we are gone.
This should not paralyse us into inaction, but should cause us to act with greater humility.