When Joseph Feudalized Egypt (Genesis 47) – Questions by Joel Cohen
Joseph created an ingenious plan to store crops during the seven years of abundance. He did so by accepting the crops from the landowners and farmers in Egypt and then storing them in the warehouses that he set aside for the purpose.
But then the years of famine arrived, and Egypt cried out in starvation (“Give us bread; why should we die in your presence?”) So, Joseph demanded that the Egyptians bring to him, for that year, all their livestock and cattle, and in return he would provide them with bread. When the year ended and they began to hunger again in the next year, they once again begged Joseph for provisions, lest they die of starvation. Their livestock having been given over to Joseph previously they had none to give, and so they offered their land to Pharaoh and, furthermore, offered to become his serfs. Thusly, Joseph obtained all of the land that belonged to the people for Pharaoh (aside from the land that belonged to the priests). True, he did give them seed, but retained one-fifth of the harvests for Pharaoh, allowing the people to keep only four-fifths of the harvests. And most important here, the land remained Pharaoh’s.
• Joseph’s conduct seems questionable and despotic indeed. He did create an ingenious plan to save the populace in anticipating years of famine; but, in so doing, he took the landowners’ and farmers’ crops for Pharaoh’s storehouses. When the landowners and farmers, however, needed the benefits of his brilliance during the “famine years” it seems that he extorted all of their livestock, and then their land also. Are these the actions of a “righteous” man?
• If a 21st Century despot were to do to his populace what Joseph did to Egypt, we would sorely condemn him. Why do the rabbis not condemn Joseph for this conduct? Is it simply because the “victims” of Joseph’s scheme were Egyptian?
Rabbi Adam Mintz
There are many tools that have been used to help us understand the difficult sections of the Torah. While we most often turn to our traditional commentaries, it is sometimes helpful to explore the practice of the Ancient World in order to gain insight into practices described by the Torah. In answering Joel’s questions and looking at Joseph’s actions as viceroy of Egypt, I would like to examine the Egyptian culture of the time.
The Torah seems to describe a two step process as Joel mentioned. First, the people give Joseph their livestock in exchange for food and then they give Joseph their land in exchange for food. The Torah tells us that the food from the first exchange was used up “at the end of the first year”. However, we have no reference point to “the first year” of what? Was it the first year of the famine so that they still had six years of famine to deal with or maybe this passuk picks up the story in the middle and the end of the first year represents the beginning of the final year of the famine. This would mean the people made the deal to exchange land for food since they knew that this last step would see them to the end of the famine.
While both these readings are plausible, the most important aspect of this story is the understanding that Egyptian records claim that in Ancient Egypt, from about the 16th century BCE, which roughly corresponds to the period of Joseph, while people were permitted to own their own land, most of the land was the property of the king. If this is so, Joseph’s deal to acquire the rest of the property in exchange for food was not the action of an unsympathetic despot but someone who was working within the ancient system of laws and customs. Whether there is a system of ethics that transcends time and place is an important philosophical and religious issue. However, in judging the figures of the past, we must base our judgment on the traditions and practices of the culture in which they lived.
There is possibly an added lesson that can be derived from this discussion. In this weeks Parsha we read about the beginning of the process that leads to the Slavery in Egypt, the arrival of Jacob and his family in Egypt. One of the curious things about the Egyptian exile is the importance attached to the material wealth that the Jewish people carried out of Egypt. In the covenant G-d made with Abraham, the Egyptian Slavery is described as follows: “Know thee that your children shall be strangers in a foreign land, [where] they will be enslaved and tortured … and afterwards they will go out with great wealth.”
Again when G-d first approaches Moshe at the burning bush this promise is reiterated, “when you go, you will not go empty-handed. Every woman shall ask from her neighbor, and from her that dwells in her house, vessels of gold and vessels of silver and garments … and you shall drain Egypt [of its wealth].” Prior to the Exodus, G-d again says to Moshe: “Please, speak into the ears of the people, that each man ask his [Egyptian] fellow, and each woman her fellow, for vessels of silver and gold.” What is this obsession that G-d seems to have with the wealth of Egypt?
According to Chassidic Thought Every Physical item has a spark of G-dliness that can be uplifted by using that item for a positive action or in the service of G-d. This is also what differentiates people from angels. People have the ability to uplift a physical object, episode or interaction by sanctifying that moment, by doing a mitzvah, while Angels are “relegated” to a spiritual world.
Each of us as the ability to make a marked difference in this world, a difference that even an Angel cannot accomplish and it is specifically through uplifting our physical environs. Specifically through using the “Gold and Silver of Egypt”, seemingly negative items from an impure source, for good, through positive actions and deeds of Goodness and Kindness.
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