“What-Bible-is-he-reading?” Dep’t

Rick Perry mangles the Book of Genesis.

Rick Perry:

I think we’re going through those difficult economic times for a purpose, to bring us back to those Biblical principles of you know, you don’t spend all the money. You work hard for those six years and you put up that seventh year in the warehouse to take you through the hard times. And not spending all of our money. Not asking for Pharaoh to give everything to everybody and to take care of folks because at the end of the day, it’s slavery. We become slaves to government.

One thing we can be sure of: the world wasn’t cheated of a great preacher when Rick Perry decided to take up politics instead. For one thing, the preacher is supposed to keep reasonably close to his text.

Now, hear the word of the Lord!

Gen. 41:

15: And Pharaoh said unto Joseph, I have dreamed a dream, and there is none that can interpret it: and I have heard say of thee, that thou canst understand a dream to interpret it.
16: And Joseph answered Pharaoh, saying, It is not in me: God shall give Pharaoh an answer of peace.
17: And Pharaoh said unto Joseph, In my dream, behold, I stood upon the bank of the river:
18: And, behold, there came up out of the river seven kine, fatfleshed and well favoured; and they fed in a meadow:
19: And, behold, seven other kine came up after them, poor and very ill favoured and leanfleshed, such as I never saw in all the land of Egypt for badness:
20: And the lean and the ill favoured kine did eat up the first seven fat kine:
21: And when they had eaten them up, it could not be known that they had eaten them; but they were still ill favoured, as at the beginning. So I awoke.
22: And I saw in my dream, and, behold, seven ears came up in one stalk, full and good:
23: And, behold, seven ears, withered, thin, and blasted with the east wind, sprung up after them:
24: And the thin ears devoured the seven good ears: and I told this unto the magicians; but there was none that could declare it to me.
25: And Joseph said unto Pharaoh, The dream of Pharaoh is one: God hath shewed Pharaoh what he is about to do.
26: The seven good kine are seven years; and the seven good ears are seven years: the dream is one.
27: And the seven thin and ill favoured kine that came up after them are seven years; and the seven empty ears blasted with the east wind shall be seven years of famine.
28: This is the thing which I have spoken unto Pharaoh: What God is about to do he sheweth unto Pharaoh.
29: Behold, there come seven years of great plenty throughout all the land of Egypt:
30: And there shall arise after them seven years of famine; and all the plenty shall be forgotten in the land of Egypt; and the famine shall consume the land;
31: And the plenty shall not be known in the land by reason of that famine following; for it shall be very grievous.
32: And for that the dream was doubled unto Pharaoh twice; it is because the thing is established by God, and God will shortly bring it to pass.
33: Now therefore let Pharaoh look out a man discreet and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt.
34: Let Pharaoh do this, and let him appoint officers over the land, and take up the fifth part of the land of Egypt in the seven plenteous years.
35: And let them gather all the food of those good years that come, and lay up corn under the hand of Pharaoh, and let them keep food in the cities.
36: And that food shall be for store to the land against the seven years of famine, which shall be in the land of Egypt; that the land perish not through the famine.
37: And the thing was good in the eyes of Pharaoh, and in the eyes of all his servants.
38: And Pharaoh said unto his servants, Can we find such a one as this is, a man in whom the Spirit of God is?
39: And Pharaoh said unto Joseph, Forasmuch as God hath shewed thee all this, there is none so discreet and wise as thou art:
40: Thou shalt be over my house, and according unto thy word shall all my people be ruled: only in the throne will I be greater than thou.
41: And Pharaoh said unto Joseph, See, I have set thee over all the land of Egypt.


46: And Joseph was thirty years old when he stood before Pharaoh king of Egypt. And Joseph went out from the presence of Pharaoh, and went throughout all the land of Egypt.
47: And in the seven plenteous years the earth brought forth by handfuls.
48: And he gathered up all the food of the seven years, which were in the land of Egypt, and laid up the food in the cities: the food of the field, which was round about every city, laid he up in the same.
49: And Joseph gathered corn as the sand of the sea, very much, until he left numbering; for it was without number.


53: And the seven years of plenteousness, that was in the land of Egypt, were ended.
54: And the seven years of dearth began to come, according as Joseph had said: and the dearth was in all lands; but in all the land of Egypt there was bread.
55; And when all the land of Egypt was famished, the people cried to Pharaoh for bread: and Pharaoh said unto all the Egyptians, Go unto Joseph; what he saith to you, do.

Gen. 47:

13: And there was no bread in all the land; for the famine was very sore, so that the land of Egypt and all the land of Canaan fainted by reason of the famine.

14: And Joseph gathered up all the money that was found in the land of Egypt, and in the land of Canaan, for the corn which they bought: and Joseph brought the money into Pharaoh’s house.

15: And when money failed in the land of Egypt, and in the land of Canaan, all the Egyptians came unto Joseph, and said, Give us bread: for why should we die in thy presence? for the money faileth.

16: And Joseph said, Give your cattle; and I will give you for your cattle, if money fail.

17: And they brought their cattle unto Joseph: and Joseph gave them bread in exchange for horses, and for the flocks, and for the cattle of the herds, and for the asses: and he fed them with bread for all their cattle for that year.

18: When that year was ended, they came unto him the second year, and said unto him, We will not hide it from my lord, how that our money is spent; my lord also hath our herds of cattle; there is not ought left in the sight of my lord, but our bodies, and our lands:

19: Wherefore shall we die before thine eyes, both we and our land? buy us and our land for bread, and we and our land will be servants unto Pharaoh: and give us seed, that we may live, and not die, that the land be not desolate.

20: And Joseph bought all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh; for the Egyptians sold every man his field, because the famine prevailed over them: so the land became Pharaoh’s.


23: Then Joseph said unto the people, Behold, I have bought you this day and your land for Pharaoh: lo, here is seed for you, and ye shall sow the land.

24: And it shall come to pass in the increase, that ye shall give the fifth part unto Pharaoh, and four parts shall be your own, for seed of the field, and for your food, and for them of your households, and for food for your little ones.

25: And they said, Thou hast saved our lives: let us find grace in the sight of my lord, and we will be Pharaoh’s servants.

26: And Joseph made it a law over the land of Egypt unto this day, that Pharaoh should have the fifth part.

So the actual Biblical story isn’t about the virtue of thrift or of rugged independence. Instead, the government, in the person of Pharaoh, has information (in the form of a dream) and wisdom (in the form of Joseph) both provided directly by God. And the resulting wise action – resembling, for example, a carbon tax to prevent global warming – saves the lives of not only the Egyptians but also their neighbors (for example, Jacob’s family back in Canaan).

Yes, the result is that Pharaoh winds up taking 20% of GDP in taxes. But the Egyptians, not being Tea Partiers, are willing to notice that the government has saved their lives. Everything that happens is presented as the Will of God. If there’s any policy advice here, it’s that the government should have taken over the financial sector after its managers ran it into the ground, rather than bailing it out with TARP.

If Rick Perry had been in Joseph’s place, which – thank God! – he was not, he would have said to the people who came to him and asked for bread, “Nay, lest thou become dependent on government handouts, after the manner of the Socialists. In the Name of Jesus and Grover Norquist, starve!”

Here endeth the lesson.

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: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

17 thoughts on ““What-Bible-is-he-reading?” Dep’t”

  1. Isn’t this also about disaster capitalism; how well-positioned players can take advantage of a desperate situation to extort extreme prices from consumers?

    No offense meant to any lightning-wielding deities who may read this blog.

  2. I’ve always wondered why this Bible story isn’t brought up more often in economic discussions. The message is pretty clear: the government should act counter-cyclically, saving money when times are good and spending it when they’re bad.

  3. Counter-cyclical, and rapacious: take all the money, then buy up all the cattle, than all the land and all the people, too.

  4. That’s what I’ve always felt restoring the Bush tax cuts amounted to: slavery. These boys know how to sell it, don’t they?

  5. Ownership society, baby. If you’re not a bigtime owner, better learn to bow and scrape. “Yes, Mame, I’d be honored to clean up your son’s mess”

  6. There’s also a whole bunch (in Leviticus, maybe, or Deuteronomy; it’s been a couple of decades since I read it) about letting fields lie fallow one of every n years, and manumitting slaves every n years, that Perry also somewhat echoes.

  7. Perry is speaking of the Sabbatical year. The Biblical injunction is, as Warren notes, to let the fields lay fallow every seven years. For six years, you lay up extra crops in a warehouse to get you through that seventh year.

    It gets confusing because he does mention Pharaoh; but that seems to be the contrasting model: it was Joseph, using Pharoah’s authority, who laid up extra crops and then dispensed them to the people (but he laid them up for seven years, not six). Then he dispersed them to the people who had NOT done the same for themselves; in doing so, he managed to buy up most of the country, and probably a lot of people had to sell themselves into slavery in order to eat.

    I’m really skeptical about Perry in general, but he’s actually citing the Bible correctly, here.

  8. I think FuzzyFace for the additional information, but I think the bit about warehousing is not in the original text – fields must be left fallow every seven years, but they’re not synchronized. For example, when field 1 is idle, fields 2 through 7 are in service. I’m not sure warehousing would even have been sufficiently reliable if they had been synchronized, nor what the laborers left idle would have done with themselves.

  9. the bit about warehousing is not in the original text

    Perry has the Joseph/Pharaoh story and the sabbatical year idea mixed up; he’s got elements of both. Warehouses, aka storehouses, are in the Genesis Joseph/Pharaoh story, in a verse Mark doesn’t quote:

    “So when the famine had spread over all the land, Joseph opened all the storehouses, and sold to the Egyptians, for the famine was severe in the land of Egypt” (Gen. 41:56, RSV).

    And that’s seven good years followed by seven lean years, resulting in slavery to Pharaoh. Six years on, one year off is the sabbatical year idea (known as Shmita, mentioned in seven books of the Bible) and has nothing to do with slavery.

  10. known as Shmita, mentioned in seven books of the Bible) and has nothing to do with slavery.

    As I said, it’s been a couple decades since I read the Torah, but I’m pretty sure the section requiring manumission of slaves every seven (?) years is not that far removed from the section ordering that fields be left to lie fallow every seven years.

  11. Warren: A Jew enslaved to another Jew works for six years and goes free in the seventh (unless he declares that he doesn’t want to go free, in which case he gets his ear pierced and stays with his master until the jubilee year). The shemitta year comes every seventh year, and it applies to all crops in the Land of Israel. (Aside from not working the fields, when the shemitta year arrives, Jews must forgive any debts they are owed by other Jews.) After seven shemitta cycles, totalling 49 years, the 50th year is the jubilee year, where not only do all Hebrew slaves go free, but almost all land that was previously sold reverts back to its ancestral owners. God promises that in the year preceding shemitta, and especially in the year preceding shemitta-followed-by-jubilee, there will be enough of an agricultural surplus to carry the people through the fallow period.

    A running theme, reflected by both the tail-end of the Joseph story and the shemitta/yovel/slavery laws, is that it sucks to be chronically in debt, and it really really sucks to be a landless peasant, and to alleviate these conditions, redistribution of wealth is right and proper.

  12. Seth:

    A running theme, reflected by both the tail-end of the Joseph story and the shemitta/yovel/slavery laws, is that it sucks to be chronically in debt, and it really really sucks to be a landless peasant, and to alleviate these conditions, redistribution of wealth is right and proper.

    I was with you until your conclusion. The Torah never endorses “redistribution of wealth.” It creates an obligation of feeding the poor, which is not quite the same thing. The landowners are obligated to give about 9% of their produce to the poor (a tenth of what’s left after giving a gift to the priests and another tenth to the levites) two years in seven, plus of course they must leave parts of their field and parts of their harvest for the poor in every harvest year. (In the shemitta year, all crops that grow are ownerless, and anybody may harvest them).


    ields must be left fallow every seven years, but they’re not synchronized. For example, when field 1 is idle, fields 2 through 7 are in service. I’m not sure warehousing would even have been sufficiently reliable if they had been synchronized, nor what the laborers left idle would have done with themselves.

    As Seth has noted, they are in fact synchronized. It’s not crop rotation. Exactly how you are supposed to get through the seventh year is not explicit in the text, but warehousing is a reasonable inference. That being the case, the laborers would presumably be available for warehouse type work. The shemitta year is practiced by many in modern-day Israel, so somebody has presumably been addressing this.

  13. …I’m pretty sure the section requiring manumission of slaves every seven (?) years is not that far removed from the section ordering that fields be left to lie fallow every seven years.

    I meant “has nothing to do with slavery” as in the Joseph/Pharaoh story, where the Egyptians become slaves as a result of the famine. Sorry to be unclear. Exodus 21:2-1 prescribes manumission every seven years; Exodus 23:10-11 prescribes that fields lie fallow every seven years. (This is all from Wikpedia; no Torah scholar I!)

  14. FuzzyFace: A slave is an asset of his or her master. A debt is an asset of the creditor. When the law commands me to manumit a slave or forgive a debt, the value of those assets goes to zero, while the liabilities of the slave and the debtor are wiped out. That’s redistribution of wealth, old school.

  15. Seth, that is correct; however – the shmitta year is not a surprise. When you lend money or purchase land or a slave, you know how long before everything cancels, and pay accordingly. So somebody selling himself into slavery will get a much better price in the first year of the cycle than in the sixth year; in effect, he is simply selling a certain number of years of his labor; similarly, you would not give somebody a five-year loan in the fifth year, when you could collect no more than two years of payments. (There’s a legal arrangement called the prosbul will actually permits longer-term loans). Since all of this is taken into consideration when you make a financial transaction, everybody arranges that what is canceled is actually valueless by that time.

  16. Thanks for the detailed commentary on the Torah (or the Old Testament for us Christians).

    Kind of reminds me of why Democratic politics– and why they are so bad at messaging.

    There are two main points from this story– both easily transmitted.

    1) Rick Perry doesn’t know the Joseph story!
    Is he a fake Christian? Does he sleep in church? Does he even read the Bible?

    They made a musical about Joseph– why not start a mail-in campaign to send the DVD to the gov’s office. Suggest Donny Osmand visit Rick Perry to help with some of the details.

    Embarrass the man– make it known just how rediculous he is.

    There are hundreds of thousands of right wing Christians who do *know* the story of Joseph, and might be persuaded that Perry is something of an ass.

    Eventually this can pivot more towards biblical economics (and the unbiblical nature of Republican policy). His approach is as rediculous as he is.

    2)God is a Keynsesian (Gen 41)

    It is a great bumper-sticker slogan you can use.

    Here is a 10 word economic slogan for the Democratic Party:

    Store up in the good years, spend in the bad.

    Attack the Republicans relentlessly on this point. They have it exactly backwards. They spent in the good years (on their rich friends). Now that we are in the bad years, they want the middle class to start storing up (so they have more to spend on their rich friends in the good times).

    Use the story of the grasshopper and the ant–

    Republicans are the grasshoppers of economic policy. They spend lavishly on their friends when times are good, and expect us to starve when times are bad. They have no concept of planning for the future– never investing in anything with a long term payback (like education, or roads, or …). Never setting something aside for a rainy day. Never borrowing to have long-term security (people borrow all the time to get mortgages– borrowing now to have long-term security, and a nice place to live today).

    Democrats are the ants of economic policy. They know that we need to store up when times are good, so we are prepared when times are bad. They know we should borrow– what we can afford to pay back– to invest in something useful (just like a mortgage, or a business start-up loan).

    If someone says “why government?” read them the US Constitution–
    “We the people” form a government to do good things. Why are the Republicans opposed to the founding fathers? Don’t the republicans know that the government *is* the people? When are they going to start working for the people, instead of the corporations? Don’t Republicans know that we are all in this together?

  17. [Genesis 41:34, NIV] Let Pharaoh appoint commissioners over the land to take a fifth of the harvest of Egypt during the seven years of abundance. 35 They should collect all the food of these good years that are coming and store up the grain under the authority of Pharaoh, to be kept in the cities for food. 36 This food should be held in reserve for the country, to be used during the seven years of famine that will come upon Egypt, so that the country may not be ruined by the famine.”

    I am with you all here. Good idea. Save up, even if the government does it, during the good times, so it is there when times are bad. However, reading chapter 47, when the famine comes, it is clear that the people of Egypt are not being given the grain back, it is being sold to them. The people, starving, have no choice to do what the government says.

    [47:14] Joseph collected all the money that was to be found in Egypt and Canaan in payment for the grain they were buying, and he brought it to Pharaoh’s palace. 15 When the money of the people of Egypt and Canaan was gone, all Egypt came to Joseph and said, “Give us food. Why should we die before your eyes? Our money is all gone.”
    16 “Then bring your livestock,” said Joseph. “I will sell you food in exchange for your livestock, since your money is gone.” 17 So they brought their livestock to Joseph, and he gave them food in exchange for their horses, their sheep and goats, their cattle and donkeys. And he brought them through that year with food in exchange for all their livestock.
    18 When that year was over, they came to him the following year and said, “We cannot hide from our lord the fact that since our money is gone and our livestock belongs to you, there is nothing left for our lord except our bodies and our land. 19 Why should we perish before your eyes—we and our land as well? Buy us and our land in exchange for food, and we with our land will be in bondage to Pharaoh. Give us seed so that we may live and not die, and that the land may not become desolate.”
    20 So Joseph bought all the land in Egypt for Pharaoh. The Egyptians, one and all, sold their fields, because the famine was too severe for them. The land became Pharaoh’s, 21 and Joseph reduced the people to servitude,[c] from one end of Egypt to the other. 22 However, he did not buy the land of the priests, because they received a regular allotment from Pharaoh and had food enough from the allotment Pharaoh gave them. That is why they did not sell their land.

    So the poor people are forced to give up all of their possessions to the government, or die of starvation. This story, which I do not necessarily believe in, actually does serve the Republican talking points. Government designs a program, but goes too far with it and tramples on individual freedoms. The people are now dependent on the government. A select group is given special priviliges (for political purposes, most likely).

    Again… I am not a tea partier, but the story actually is not a pro-Keynesian one.

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