From 1845 to 1849, Ireland experienced what became known as the Great Famine
. A potato blight wiped out the crop most people depended on for both food and wages, absentee landlords allowed high rents to be collected for squalid living conditions, and high taxes made other available food such as bread too expensive. Some one million people starved to death, and another million emigrated from their home country. In four years, the population declined by nearly 25 percent.
The famine throughout Egypt and Canaan was particularly severe (v. 13). Under Joseph’s administration, the Egyptian government had collected a surplus of food during the seven good years. This surplus came from a 20 percent tax, along with purchases of excess grain (41:34–35). Now Joesph had to sell the grain back to the people in order to sustain them for the duration of the famine.
The people negotiated with Joseph and agreed first to sell their livestock, then their land, and finally they became Debt Slaves
(vv. 16–19). This shows the true depth of the famine and how desperate people were. Their situation was essentially that of a sharecropper, agreeing to give 20 percent of their crop yield to Pharaoh. This was the same as the tax during the years of plenty, but the difference now was that technically Pharaoh owned the land.
This arrangement allowed lives to be spared even during the years of dire famine. People were grateful to Joseph for this provision: “You have saved our lives” (v. 25). In fact, as Pharaoh’s debt slaves, their food supply was now Pharaoh’s responsibility. In a summary comment, the narrator notes that the situation in Egypt is the same in his day (v. 26). The land still belonged to Pharaoh.