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.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

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Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the New York University Marron Institute.