Sunday, October 09, 2005

Joseph the Unrighteous (a critique of Joseph's administration of Egypt in the famine years)

© Berel Dov Lerner. This article originally appeared in Judaism: a Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, issue 151, vol. 38, no. 3, Summer 1989, pp. 278-281.

The narrative of Genesis 47:13 to 47:26 depicting Joseph’s treatment of the Egyptian people during the years of famine is troubling both from a literary and from a moral perspective. From a literary perspective we may ask: what is the point of interrupting the story of Joseph and his brothers with a seemingly superfluous description of Joseph's history as the viceroy of Egypt? Surely not in order to explain his ability to sustain Jacob's family and cause his brothers to fear him. Joseph's power is already sufficiently established by the prior stories of his elevation to high office, administration of policy, and manipulation of his brothers' lives.

The ethical problem presented by Joseph's administration is even more perplexing. Joseph is here portrayed as ruthlessly pursuing a course of coercive economic centralization. After collecting the surplus product of the seven fat years, he sells back the food to its producers at an exorbitant price - eventually forcing them to hand over their savings, livestock, land, and freedom to Pharaoh, in order to avoid starvation.

I believe that Joseph's story is best approached as a lesson in political morality and the instruction that it offers is of universal importance. Let my motives be clear: this interpretation is not meant as a veiled criticism of some aspects of modern Jewish history. If anything, Jewish politicians have shown little susceptibility to Joseph's faults. My purpose here is openly apologetic. I wish to demonstrate that the Torah does not condone Joseph's obviously inexcusable behavior, and to give some explanation why his actions were recorded for all time.

Although the Torah nowhere openly criticizes Joseph's policy, there are clear indications that Joseph's behavior is not to be seen as fulfilling the will of God. It is with great pathos that the Torah gives voice to the pleadings of the Egyptians : "Give us bread: for why should we die in thy presence? For the money fails." (Gen. 47: 15). And again, "There is nothing left in the sight of my lord, but our bodies, and our lands. Why shall we die before your eyes, both we and our land?" (47: 19). These are not the words of a people benefiting from the care of a thoughtful ruler.

The Torah also hints that Joseph's tyrannical stance was not part of the original divine plan. When Joseph first appears before Pharaoh to explain his dreams, he repeatedly insists on the Divine origin of the dreams and of their interpretation. Joseph's economic plan is delineated as an integral part of the dreams' explanation:

Now therefore let Pharaoh look out a man discreet and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt. 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 years of plenty. 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 it for food in the cities. 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 (41: 33-41: 36).

As if to reemphasize the Divine origin of the plan, Pharaoh says to Joseph "Since God has shown thee all this, there is none so discreet and wise as thou art" (41: 39). But Joseph's enacted policy deviates from the original on several points. The original plan does not mention selling the grain back to the Egyptians, but states simply that the "food shall be for store in the land." The purpose of the plan was not to increase Pharaoh's power, but to guarantee that "the land perish not through the famine." Also, the original plan did not call for uprooting the people from the land and concentrating the population in the cities.

The critical attitude of the Torah towards Joseph's administration again becomes evident if we compare his treatment of the Egyptians to God's care for his people, the Children of Israel. Joseph's policies repeatedly fail even to approach the ideal of imitatio Dei. While Joseph reinforced the Pharaoh's claim to rule by enslaving his people, God's claim to rule, as expressed in the first Commandment, is founded on having freed the Jews from slavery. Joseph's acquisition of land for Pharaoh was a further deprivation of people's rights, whereas God decrees "The land shall not be sold forever, for the land is mine" (Gen. 25: 33) in order to assure that no one be forever deprived of his patrimony. During their sojourn in the desert, God gave manna freely to the Children of Israel and did not use food to extort power.

The Torah's account of Joseph's early life presages his moral failure as ruler of Egypt. From the outset Joseph is depicted as having somewhat narrow social horizons. As the favorite son, he gets on well with his father. Yet, Joseph seems to be incapable of consideration for his brothers. He informs on them to their father and evokes their jealousy by relating to them his dreams of dominion over the whole family. Isaac and Jacob before him had been selected as sole inheritors over their brothers and Joseph's brothers must have suspected that he was preparing to follow suit by usurping their collective succession of Jacob. Eventually, Joseph's insensitivity towards his brothers led to his enslavement and exile.

In Egypt, Joseph's life continues its pattern of narrow loyalty to his immediate superior. When the wife of his master, Potiphar, tries to seduce him, Joseph does not resist on general moral grounds; rather, he cites his personal obligation to his master. After being unfairly incarcerated, he gains the trust of his new master, the warden. Thus, Joseph takes upon himself the administration of a prison which, from his own experience, he knows to be an instrument of less than perfect justice. Finally, he is brought before Pharaoh. As always, he quickly directs all of his energies to serving the new master. Once more, his moral horizons are cramped. His only loyalties are to Pharaoh. Just as he was prepared to sacrifice his brothers' trust in order to ingratiate himself with his father, so Joseph is ready to disregard the well-being of an entire nation in order to gain yet more power and wealth for Pharaoh. The classical Jewish commentators explain that the verse "and Joseph brought the money to Pharaoh's house" (Gen. 47: 14) is intended to demonstrate his moral stature; Joseph did not take money for himself. Unfortunately, this singular devotion to Pharaoh is constitutive of Joseph's entire political morality.

The Torah's implicit criticism of Joseph is not enough. In the Jewish scriptures, moral wrongdoing, especially on the part of heroic figures, inevitably brings ill consequences in its wake. Thus, Miriam was stricken with leprosy after speaking ill of Moses. Moses himself was not allowed to enter the land of Israel on account of his sins. The house of Eli lost its title to the position of high priest because he failed to restrain the blasphemous behavior of his children. Could it then be possible that no evil came of Joseph's despotism?

In order to answer that question we must sketch the changes in Egyptian culture and society brought about by Joseph's policies.

The Torah does not offer us much information about the political culture of Egypt before Joseph's rule, but it can be assumed that the innovations instituted by Joseph were unknown prior to his coming to power. Since the Egyptians gave up their land rights to Pharaoh, we may infer that the right to possess land was previously respected in Egypt. Since the Egyptians sold themselves into slavery, we may assume that they had previously enjoyed the status of freemen. Since Joseph decreed that the Egyptians must give one-fifth of their harvest to Pharaoh, we may assume that this tax did not previously exist. By working backwards, we arrive at a picture of Egypt prior to Joseph's innovations, an Egypt where citizens enjoyed a political culture which granted them the status of freemen and the right to own property and which placed ceilings on taxation. By instituting the new policies Joseph completely disrupted the original political culture.

In a normative vacuum, individuals and groups can flourish only if they enjoy a special relationship with those in power. Thus, in Joseph's time, the children of Israel prospered in Egypt by reaping the benefits of unabashed nepotism. After Joseph's death their fortunes would change. The connection with Pharaoh would be broken and there would exist no commonly accepted framework of rights to protect them. The Torah makes this quite plain. Thus, the verse which begins the story of Israel's enslavement states simply: "Now there arose a new King over Egypt, who knew not Joseph" (Exod. 1: 8), as if to explain all that follows.

In a society stripped of political morality, sudden mass enslavement and the murder of all male children can become feasible options of policy. It was under Joseph's initiative that the entire Egyptian population became enslaved to Pharaoh. Could the Jews, then, complain if they were required to serve Pharaoh as slaves? Ironically, they were forced to build treasure cities, doubtless to store wealth brought to the Pharaohs through Joseph's initiatives.

Thus, the Torah's condemnation of Joseph's administration is complete. It disassociates Joseph's behavior from the original Divine purpose. The plight of Egypt under Joseph is described with pathos. The shortcomings of his rule, in contrast to Divine example, become plainly obvious. Finally, the entire Jewish nation suffers as a result of his narrow loyalty to the sovereign and disregard for the rights of the governed.

*Koren Jerusalem Bible translation, Jerusalem, 1969. All quotes from Genesis if not otherwise noted. Names are given in their conventional Anglicized forms.
** Genesis 41: 44: "I am Pharaoh, and without thee shall no man lift up his hand or foot in all the land of Egypt" is taken by Rashi and other classical commentators to mean the power to make war and not generalized, central authority.


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Anonymous Anonymous said...

"the land is mine" is in Lev25 not Gen

8:06 PM  
Blogger Berel Dov Lerner said...

Hey anonymous - you're right! I'll try to get around to fixing the typo (Genesis instead of Lev.)If only I could go back 20 years and fix that typo in JUDAISM magazine as well!

10:11 PM  

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