Joseph steals the land of Egypt

Before the Egyptians enslaved the Hebrews, Joseph enslaved the Egyptians to Pharaoh.

The Sunday-school version of the story of Joseph and the famine is reasonably well-known: Pharaoh had two dreams, seven lean cows devouring seven fat cows and seven withered ears of gran devouring seven healthy ears. Joseph interpreted that as a prediction of seven years of plenty followed by seven years of dearth, and proposed putting food aside for the lean years. Pharaoh agreed, and put Joseph in charge. That allowed him to feed not only the Egyptians but his own family, coming from Canaan, when the famine hit.

The actual story (Gen. 47) has a somewhat sharper edge. Yes, Joseph, as Pharaoh’s grand vizier, took a fifth of all food production during the seven fat years. But having taken the food – seemingly without payment – he didn’t give it back the Egyptians. (Perhaps he was afraid of their becoming “takers.”) Instead, he sold it back, to the locals as well as to foreigners such as his brothers.

And when the Egyptians ran out of money, he took (on Pharaoh’s behalf) first their livestock and then their land and their persons, converting all of them into Pharaoh’s slaves (avvodim l’Pharaoh). [An avod can be either a slave or a hired worker, but it’s the same word used to describe the later status of the Hebrews: the beginning of the answer to the Four Questions of the Seder is “Avvodim hayyinu l’Pharaoh b’Mitzrayim“: “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.) Having dispossessed the entire population, Joseph then proceeds to uproot it, moving the people “from one end of the country to the other.” All they were left was their mere lives; everything else, Joseph took.

To a modern eye, Joseph looks like rather like a scoundrel and a tyrant. One possible reading of the story would be that Joseph, as the first “court Jew,” incurred the hatred of the Egyptians, later taken out on the Hebrews under a new Pharaoh “who knew not Joseph.” Another would see a double poetic justice: Joseph, having been sold into slavery himself, making slaves of others; and the Hebrews, having been (in the person of Joseph) responsible for the slavery of Egypt to Pharaoh, becoming slaves to Pharaoh themselves.

But it appears that only a modern eye sees the story that way. Readers in post-Exodus Canaan might have seen nothing but a bit of folk-anthropology explaining why, in Egypt, all the land belonged, in principle, to the state, subject to a tax of 20% of the harvest. The story also might have helped drive home the importance of their own customs (Sabbatical and Jubilee) discouraging alienation of land outside the kin-group.

The rabbinic tradition, going all the way back to the Talmud, has nothing but good to say of Joseph, though the trickery of his father Jacob comes in for its share of criticism. Since he’s working for Pharaoh, he does right by making the best deal he can from Pharaoh’s viewpoint. And in the text itself the reaction of the Egyptians is joy rather than hostility: “You have saved our lives! Let us find favor in my lord’s eyes, and we will be slaves to Pharaoh.”

Autres temps, autres moeurs.

Footnote I’m no longer the designated note-taker for the Jacob Hirshleifer-Arthur Rosett Faculty Tanakh Study Group at UCLA, but this comes from our discussion last Tuesday.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

17 thoughts on “Joseph steals the land of Egypt”

  1. We knew it was ancient history because, today, the GOP would be running ads about the evils of the government running a surplus and demand tax cuts, tax cuts, tax cuts until the famine was self-imposed and then they would curse the government for borrowing to keep the people fed. They like the part about everyone becoming slaves though.

  2. He might have over-charged, but surely just giving it back would not have accounted for storage costs, which likely were not inconsiderable even if the grain was “free” from the government’s perspective.

  3. Hmm… so he imposed a tax on food production – and that is stealing? Surely selling food to people is not stealing, is it? Not quite sure of the cause of your approbation.

    1. Not quite sure whether your puzzlement is genuine or sarcastic, but (in the utterly unhistorical story) Joseph uses the power of the state and his own foresight to convert Egypt from a country of free landholders to a country where all the land and all the people are the property of the state and can be moved around at whim.

  4. From a market perspective there was an asymmetry of information. Joseph knew about an upcoming famine seven years before anyone else and rather than share that information so people could prepare themselves for the upcoming lean times he used it for his own (and his investor’s) benefit. He used the power of government to seize an existing surplus but encouraged personal responsibility among the Egyptians by refusing to create a culture of dependency once the crops failed. If the government had just handed out food the people would have only wasted it on beer and bread. Joseph was a conservative hero.

  5. Is there any independent verification of this story, in any manner? It strikes me a the sort of exaggeration that occurs elsewhere in the Bible. E.G. the modern hypothesis that a regional flood was the factual basis behind The Flood.

    1. As I understand it, there isn’t any physical evidence that the Israelites were ever in Egypt, nor did they wander in the desert for 40 years, nor were their enemies drowned in the Red Sea, etc. Archaeologists and historians have combed the desert and the records, but nothing turns up. Still.. they’re quite interesting as stories, and it’s fruitful to imagine what might have led these particular stories to be told.

  6. “The actual story (Gen. 47) has a somewhat sharper edge. Yes, Joseph, as Pharaoh’s grand vizier, took a fifth of all food production during the seven fat years. But having taken the food – seemingly without payment – he didn’t give it back the Egyptians. (Perhaps he was afraid of their becoming “takers.”) Instead, he sold it back, to the locals as well as to foreigners such as his brothers.”

    In 2013 America, most of the population apparently has little idea of how governments works — how taxes are raised and how they are spent — and are perfectly willing to put the most nefarious gloss on what they see. Why should we imagine that things were any different in Ancient Egypt? Even assuming some sort of truth of all the bits of the story, what exactly does “sold” mean? Maybe it means “enter into a contract that you’ll perform labor building pyramids for Pharaoh one day a week for the next year”? Maybe it means some sort of rationing+coupons scheme.
    After all, use some common sense: How exactly is “selling” going to work in the context where your average starving peasant has nothing to sell. You can’t get blood from a stone. And the situations is not really analogous to the Amartya Sen examples of recent history because those relied on a rich outside world to whom to sell the grain. Without easy communications and easy transport, Joseph isn’t going to get rich selling his grain to England, or even to Rome.

    (My personal and non-professional analysis of the sweep of human history is that government is, pretty much always, better than the alternative, but it’s a lot easier to identify with the specific injustice of “this peasant was screwed over by this brutal landlord” than to appreciate counterfactuals like “in the absence of government, this land would have supported about 1/10th as many people, living in much more precarious circumstances”.)

  7. He did not steal any land of Egypt…he helped them to remain alive by integrating the dream. He saved every one’s life. He is the Savior. That is why they like him. He was a wise man. He married an Egyptian woman though. Don’t try to twist history because of the current situation.

  8. Without a lot more information, we can’t really judge. Do we know for certain that people weren’t paid for the surplus food that went into warehouses? Was the price charged for the grain that came out of the warehouses the same as during regular years, or was it whatever the market would bear? Who paid for the cost of building and maintaining the granaries in the first place?

  9. Wow! From reading the above comments, I have learned that parables must be put under the microscopes of economists, historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, and political scientists.

    Pity poor Aesop. I liked it better the other way.

  10. For many years I’ve enjoyed the study group notes, and I hope that they can continue on some basis.

    1. I like them too.

      (Meanwhile, Joseph sounds like Charles Martel; the Germans think he’s a German, the French think he’s a Frenchman, 800 years of official history says he saved Europe from the Arabs although they were his allies five minutes earlier, but the contemporary sources don’t think the battle was much, although they do care intensely about his new heavy cavalry who got land in return for their investment in horseflesh and armour, aka the invention of feudalism.)

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