Genesis 42: A look at famine…

My Bible study today focused on the topic of famine throughout God’s word. Honestly, living in America and never really being in need of anything, it’s hard to relate to a concept of famine. Unfortunately there are people throughout the world who understand all to well what famine is like, so I thought it interesting to get a Biblical perspective of this topic.

Famine is defined on as “extreme and general scarcity of food, as in a country or a large geographical area; extreme hunger; starvation.” This lines up exactly with what I saw in my study today. In Genesis 41, when Pharaoh has the dreams about the 7 years of plenty and the 7 years of famine, Joseph helps Egypt store food to prepare for the famine. And in 2 Kings 25, it tells the story of how Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, encamped his army around Jerusalem and put siege to the city.  From other books I’ve read and stuff I’ve seen on TV, this means that nothing is allowed in or out of the city, including food or water. It’s a tactic used to wear your enemy down so that they either give up or are so weak that they are easily defeated.  In this particular story, the siege apparently lasted about 18 months (from the 10th day of the 10th month of the 9th year of Zedekiah’s reign, to the 9th day of the fourth month of the 11th year of his reign). That is a long time to go without any imports of food or water, and you know that they weren’t able to grow much (if any) food inside the city walls. So they lived off of what they had with them, and this apparently lasted only about 18 months.  Verse 3 says “By the ninth day of the fourth month the famine in the city had become so severe that there was no food for the people to eat.”  So these passages tell me that famine is a general lack of food – perhaps you already understood that, but I always just associated famine with something bad and not anything in particular, so it was a good lesson for me.

Famines are pretty common occurrences in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament. Abraham lived through a famine that was so severe he had to move to Egypt to live through it (Genesis 12). His son Isaac also lived through a famine, and had to get help from Abimelech, king of Gerar (Genesis 26). There were also famines later on in David’s time (2 Samuel 21) and in Solomon’s time (2 Chronicles 6), and both prayed to God seeking relief. In the New Testament, Jesus warned of famines as part of the end times judgments (Luke 21), and his disciple John saw famines as one of the judgments poured out on earth in his vision of the end times (Revelation 6).  So what spiritual truths can I learn about famines by reading these accounts of famines throughout the Bible?  Here are some of the points I got from my study:

  • Famines can be acts of God. In Leviticus 26:19-20, God tells the people that if they disobey his law, “I will break down your stubborn pride and make the sky above you like iron and the ground beneath you like bronze. Your strength will be spent in vain, because your soil will not yield its crops, nor will the trees of the land yield their fruit.”  And in Isaiah 3:1 it says “See now, the Lord, the LORD Almighty, is about to take from Jerusalem and Judah both supply and support: all supplies of food and all supplies of water.” Both of these examples are purposeful acts of God.  What I will not say is that all famines are acts of God – I truly believe that some bad things that happen on earth are simply the results of bad human choices, acts of Satan, or are just random. It’s dangerous to attribute a disaster to any one of these things without a little evidence to back it up.
  • A famine caused by God is a judgment for disobedience. In Ezekiel 13:13 God says “…if a country sins against me by being unfaithful and I stretch out my hand against it to cut off its food supply and send famine upon it and kill its men and their animals…,” telling me that the reasoning behind the famine was a judgment for the people’s unfaithfulness to God. In Jeremiah 14:10-12, God tells Jeremiah “This is what the LORD says about this people: ‘They greatly love to wander; they do not restrain their feet. So the LORD does not accept them; he will now remember their wickedness and punish them for their sins.’  Then the LORD said to me, ‘Do not pray for the well-being of this people. Although they fast, I will not listen to their cry; though they offer burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Instead, I will destroy them with the sword, famine and plague.’ ” (emphasis added).  God can choose to use disaster as a corrective tool to help people see their place in the order of things. God is the all-powerful creator of everything, and sovereign ruler over the entire universe. When people do not respect that and revere Him, He has the right to correct them as He sees fit.
  • Famines caused by God will not overtake the blameless. Although God may choose to correct humankind through famine or other kinds of disasters, the Bible clearly states that He will not allow famine to overtake those who are blameless in His eyes. In the earlier passage quoted from Ezekiel 13:13, God said that due to their unfaithfulness He would send famine upon their land, but he mentions that “if these three men—Noah, Daniel and Job—were in it, they could save only themselves by their righteousness…” This tells me that those seen as righteous in God’s eyes would be saved from the famine. In Psalm 33:18-19 it says “But the eyes of the LORD are on those who fear him, on those whose hope is in his unfailing love, to deliver them from death and keep them alive in famine.”  And in Psalm 37:18-19 it says “The days of the blameless are known to the LORD, and their inheritance will endure forever. In times of disaster they will not wither; in days of famine they will enjoy plenty.”
  • Sometimes we have to trust that God will prepare us for, instead of delivering us from, disaster. I believe God has the power to do whatever He chooses, but I also believe He has the wisdom to whatever is best. This means that sometimes God may choose NOT to calm the storm we are riding out.  As I heard someone once say – sometimes God calms the storm, and sometimes He calms the sailor. In the case of the famine in Joseph’s time, it was very severe throughout much of that area – including Egypt and Canaan. Jacob was a man of God, as was Joseph. They both could have prayed that the famine would abate and that God would deliver them from their starvation, and maybe they did. But God didn’t stop the famine – instead He chose to prepare them by giving Pharaoh his dreams, placing Joseph in the position to interpret those dreams and gain a place of power in Egypt, then helping all of Egypt and even his family in Canaan to prepare for the disaster. From our viewpoint, it may seem easier for God to just put a stop to the bad things on earth, but from an eternal perspective, and especially from an all-knowing and all-wise perspective (which only belongs to God), perhaps at times some good can come from something that we see as bad.

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Filed under Bible Study, Genesis

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