Joseph's Economic Strategy

  • Rav Alex Israel






Dedicated in memory of Yehuda Chaim ben Aharon Safier z"l
by Rafe and Roberta Safier





Joseph's Economic Strategy

by Rav Alex Israel



"Now there was no bread in all the world, for the famine was very severe; both the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan languished because of the famine.  Joseph gathered in all the money that was to be found in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan, as payment for the rations that were being procured, and Joseph brought the money into Pharaoh's palace.


And when the money ran out in the land of Egypt and the land of Canaan, all the Egyptians came to Joseph and said 'Give us bread lest we die before your very eyes; for the money is gone!'  And Joseph said, 'Bring your livestock,   and I will sell to you against your livestock if the money is gone.'  So they brought their livestock to Joseph and Joseph gave them bread in exchange for the horses, for the stocks of sheep and cattle, and their asses; thus he provided them with bread that year in exchange for their livestock.

And when that year was ended, they came to him in the second year and said to him 'We cannot hide from our lord that, with all the money and animal stocks consigned to my lord, nothing is left at my lord's disposal save our persons and our farmland.  Let us not perish before your eyes, both we and our land.  Buy us and our land in exchange for bread, and we with our land will be slaves to Pharaoh; provide the seed, that we may live and not die, and that the land may not become a waste.'

So Joseph gained possession of all the farm land of Egypt for Pharaoh, every Egyptian having sold his field because the famine was too much for them; thus the land passed over to Pharaoh.  And he removed the population town by town, from one end of Egypt's border to the other.  Only the land of the priests he did not take over, for the priests had an allotment from Pharaoh and they lived off the allotment which Pharaoh had made to them; therefore they did not sell their land.

Then Joseph said to the people, 'Whereas I have this day acquired you and your land for Pharaoh, here is seed for you to sow the land.  And when harvest comes, you shall give one-fifth to Pharaoh, and four-fifths shall be yours as seed for the fields and as food for you and those in your households, and as nourishment for your children.'  And they said 'You have saved our lives!  We are grateful to my lord, and we shall be slaves to Pharaoh.' ...

And Israel settled in the land of Egypt, in the district of Goshen, they acquired holdings in it and were fruitful   and multiplied exceedingly" (Bereishit 47:13-27).


            Tradition has it that the words of the Torah are precious.  The Torah uses language with precision and exactitude.  In the rabbinic literature there is a heightened sensitivity to a phrase out of place, an unusual word, an extra letter.  Here - in the concluding section of our parasha - we have an entire section which describes Joseph's economic policies in Egypt during the seven years of famine.  What are we to learn from the details?  Is it important for us to know every stage, every development of the Egyptian home policy during Joseph's years of power?


            Our assumption is that there is something in Joseph's famine policy from which we can learn, perhaps an ethic of leadership, a system of social welfare during troubled times.  But this is far from the case.  If only on a first reading, Joseph comes over here not as a moral example but rather something of a despotic opportunist.  He would seem to be a cruel leader taking advantage of a nation in distress.  Look at the evidence - the population is in crisis, people are starving, resources are scarce.  And what of Joseph?  He is interested in making a quick buck for the treasury!  He would seem to have only the interests of the state at heart using a national emergency to gain greater central control of the country for Pharaoh.  First the people hand over all their money, their livestock is next, then their land, and finally the people themselves become his slaves.  He has enslaved the entire nation!


            Where is our humanitarian relief?  What about a national program of famine control?  This is not the compassionate disposition that we expect from a Joseph!  Where is his heart?  We shall see that, despite first impressions, many of Joseph's policies at this time were devised with the specific aim of preserving human dignity.  There is more to this parasha than meets the eye.




            This saga begins earlier on.  The planning for this famine goes back many years.  Joseph has a masterplan which will ensure the food supply, the financial security and prosperity of Egypt throughout the seven famine years.  In chapter 41 we read of Joseph's preparations during the seven plentiful years.


(47) "During the seven plentiful years the land produced in abundance.  (48) And he gathered all the food for seven years ... and stored it in the cities; he put in each city the food produced by the local fields.  (49) Joseph collected produce in immense quantities, like the sands of the sea, until he ceased to measure it, for it could not be measured ..." (41:47-49).


            Seven years of extraordinary plenty are utilized to the full by Joseph.  But it is in the fine details of this story that we really see Joseph's genius.  One significant point that is noted by the Ramban is the regional strategy used in the grain collection and storage: "... he put in each city the food produced by the local fields."  Why is the location of the food stores an important detail worth mentioning?  According to some, the importance of storing the grain locally was to ensure that people would not have to travel great distances for food once the famine arrived.


            The Abarbanel, however, sees this policy as having a significant role in other areas:


He acted with honesty and fairness. The produce of a city was stored in that very city and nowhere else.  The verse also stresses, "the local fields" indicating that produce from the fields close to the city were stored in the city BUT the fields deep into the countryside were transported to central warehouses, to the stores of the king. That is where Joseph sold grain to non-Egyptians."


            This explanation reads the verses carefully.  It sees verse 48 and verse 49 talking about different collections of food.  One store was a local town storehouse and another was the national grain stores.  The stress in the first is its proximity to the people who had worked the land.  The stress in the second is the sheer quantities which became incalculable.




            Why split the grain into local and national storage?  Over and above the accuracy of the Abarbanel's textual reading, he tells us an important psychological point - that even if there was a need for a national reserve of grain, it was also crucial for the local population to know that their grain - the food that they themselves had produced over the previous seven years - would be put at THEIR disposal once the famine struck.  It was vital that they recognize the fairness and even-handedness in the food procurement and rationing policy.


            We are not told precisely how Joseph collected this grain.  Various suggestions have been proposed.  Possibly there was a tax of grain during the seven years of abundance.  Alternatively, Joseph - always the entrepreneur - bought up immense quantities of grain at low cost when supply was in excess during the plenty years.  He then sold at high price during the famine years.  Others suggest that ALL grain produced in Egypt was requisitioned during these seven good years and it was rationed out to ensure that it was not wasted.  Whichever suggestion you take, Joseph's policy of saving local grain for the mouths of those who grew it was an expert psychological move.  During the plenty years they did not resent what they lost to the storehouse, and during the famine, they knew that they were not losing their hard-earned grain to anyone else.


            Famines by their very nature breed panic and hysteria.  Joseph - throughout his management of the food situation - shows an ability to calm down the masses even once the famine has began.  The verses state:


"And when the famine became severe in the land of Egypt, Joseph laid open all that was within and rationed out grain to the Egyptians" (41: 56).


            The Or Ha-chayim [R. Chayim Ibn Atar 1696-1743.  Moroccan Jewish Kabbalist and Talmudist.  Led his community in Morocco to Israel.  Set up a shul in the city of Jerusalem.] is bothered by the use of phraseology here.  If Joseph "laid open all that was within (the storehouses)," then what does it mean that he "rationed out grain?"  The first phrase indicates plentiful distribution whereas the second phrase indicates restrictions in supply.  He explains:


"He opened all the stores in each district to public view ... When the local people saw the enormous volume of grain, they became less hungry.  Hunger enters the heart    of a person when he feels that he lacks something.  When the people saw all the stores, their burning psychological feeling of hunger dissipated."


            The Or Ha-chayim is sensitive to the psychological factor involved in informing the public as to the state of the nation's food reserves.  Opening the granaries to the public strongly affected public morale and gave confidence to the starving, unemployed farmers.  They knew that rationing still had to continue, but at least the sense of imminent demise, of living on the brink of disaster would no longer need to be felt.  The nation had  confidence that they could survive the famine.




            This clearly brings us into the parasha with which we opened.  The central question that we raised initially relates to Joseph's policies, his harsh treatment and apparent exploitation of a nation in crisis.  Once the famine caused real hardship, we would hope that he would help the poor and starving.  Instead, he seems to ensure that the entire populace becomes penniless and he then enslaves them all.  It seems that he has the process all pre-planned: money - livestock - land - persons.  We have to understand what he was doing.  We also might want to question the morality of his actions.  Is there an ethical justification here?


            One important detail, which is frequently passed over, will provide the key to our approach.  The Egyptians themselves request that they be enslaved.  Did Joseph accede to their request?  It would seem that he did not.  Joseph never agrees to their request of enslavement.  Why?  Joseph will use the situation to gain tighter central control of the country for Pharaoh.  But for Joseph, there are certain red lines which cannot be crossed and even in a delicate national emergency there is a moral way and an immoral way.


            The Ramban (12-13th cent. Spain - Israel) comments:


"BUY US AND OUR LAND: They said to Joseph that he should buy their very bodies - that they be slaves to Pharaoh ...the verse states that 'JOSEPH GAINED POSSESSION OF ALL THE FARM LAND' and it does NOT say that he bought THEM (as slaves), only their land.  They said that they wished to be purchased as slaves to the king to be treated as he saw fit.  But Joseph wanted to buy ONLY the land and stipulated that they would be perpetual leaseholders or tenants of Pharaoh.

When Joseph told them (v.23) 'I have this day acquired you and your land for Pharaoh,' he means not that he has acquired them as slaves but rather that through their farmland they will serve him.  In truth the king should take 80% of the income and leave you only with 20%, but -says Joseph - I will be kind.  You will take the (80%) share due to the landowner and Pharaoh will take the (20%) due to the tenant farmer.  But you will be 'owned' by Pharaoh in that you may not abandon working your        fields of your own volition."


            The Meshekh Chokhma (19 cent. - Dvinsk) adds:


"Joseph hated the institution of slavery - the mastery over a person, which always works to the detriment of the enslaved.  This is why Joseph said that he would purchase the land of Egypt but not the people as slaves.  The land would be owned by Pharaoh and they would be his property in that they would work for Pharaoh for their very food as laborers."


            Joseph seems unprepared to take any person's autonomous freedom.  A person's freedom is the basis of his dignity.  Joseph would not, and did not take this basic right from the Egyptian people.  Instead, he put the entire nation in the employment of the state.  We will have to examine why this was done and how it affected Egypt.  The Ramban has support for this theory: If this were a slave state then everything produced by the slave would belong to his master save his daily bread.  But this is far from what happened in reality.


            The people of Egypt requested slavery.  Joseph gives them employment.  Why did they want to become slaves?  And what was the purpose of Joseph's plan?




            The socio-political situation of a famine is extremely fragile and potentially explosive.  We have here fertile ground for unrest, communal collapse and even revolution.  People are out of work, bored.  They will sit around, hungry, complaining, with their families around them.  An atmosphere of depression and suffering prevails.  The tendency is to blame everything on the government, on other ethnic groups, on anyone.  The danger of social unrest, even revolution, is real.


            Joseph with his shrewd political brain and deep psychological insight, understands what is going on.  First, the government cannot fall, must not fall.  This might be because he is working for Pharaoh himself, but there are additional reasons.  The central powers are the only ones who can ensure that the food stores will last the full duration of the famine.  If the mobs seize the food stocks, the danger is that the food will not last long, and will not be transported to those living on the periphery.


            He must ensure that national morale is retained at the same time as a certain control over the people.  A most important ingredient in this control is to have people occupied with their work rather than sitting around aimlessly.  To this end, Joseph buys all the land and obligates the entire nation to work in return for the grain they are given.  They get 80% of everything they produce.  They have an incentive to be productive because almost all of what they grow, they keep.  In this way, people remain in work, the economy does not grind to a halt.  The country can remain stable despite the difficult times.


            The people request slavery.  A slave has no worries, he can throw all his needs onto his owner.  In a time of crisis they wanted to pass their problems on to someone else.  They wanted Joseph to do their worrying for them.  Now, had the nation become slaves in the simple sense of the word, they would have had no desire to work, no personal ambition, no dreams and no feeling of future.  A slave has no vision, no future.  He will remain what he is; his life is not his own.  Joseph chooses instead to hand responsibility over to the people.  He helps them to their feet by retaining their dignity and spurring on the economy through a work plan.




            Part of Joseph's famine-austerity-rehabilitation plan is mass population transfer from place to place around the country.  What is the purpose behind this movement of families and communities?


            Most commentators (see Radak, Rabbi David Kimchi, Provence, 1160-1235, and Seforno, Rabbi Ovadia Seforno, Italy, 1470-1550) suggest that the reason the people were transferred to new towns and territories was to fortify Pharaoh's position as landowner of all Egypt.  If Pharaoh purchased the land but every farmer remained on his land, then the sale would not take effect in real terms.  By taking people away from their ancestral lands, the people lost their claim on those lands and Pharaoh enforced his position of ownership.


            Another approach sees this transfer from one place to another as a measure to destabilize the population and prevent resistance to the government.  A people in a new place will have lost their organizational base and will feel collectively insecure, thus minimizing the likelihood of an uprising.  (The Rashbam notes another biblical example of this policy.  In Kings II 17:24 and 18:32 we hear of the policy of Shalmaneser, the Assyrian king who exiled the ten tribes of Israel and replaced them with other nations.  It is apparent that this was his standard strategy.  He would move vanquished populations around his empire to lessen the national confidence of those nations and consequently eliminate the chance of an uprising.)


            Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (Germany, 1808-1888) notes how, despite the inherent destabilizing nature of this forced population move, Joseph once again attempted to salvage the human dimension.  His aim would seem to have been the retention of human dignity amidst the difficult but necessary measures taken to ensure stability.  This is Rabbi Hirsch's comment:


"HE REMOVED THE POPULATION TOWN BY TOWN: ... the inhabitants of one whole city all together to another city.  The whole land had become state property, and to make this newly acquired right completely actual, every owner had to leave property that had hitherto been his own and move to another district, so that a general evacuation took place.  But Joseph's wisdom tempered the edict by arranging that the residents who had always lived together remained together and found themselves still together with their friends but only in a fresh environment.  So that the old social and communal conditions remained the same."




            One further discussion which relates to this story is worth mentioning.  Many have noted a parallel between the role of priests in ancient Egypt and the position of the priests (kohanim) in the Jewish religion.  Here, a special exception is made for the priestly class that their land will not be owned by the king nor will they pay the taxes to him.  There are those who have suggested that the Torah bases its priestly laws on the Egyptian model.


            Nothing could be farther from the truth.  This account makes one point clear.  The priests enjoy special conditions from the king and are exempt from selling their land to Pharaoh.  In Judaism, the priests are not allowed to hold land.  The aim of the priesthood is service of God and the role of the priesthood is not to be occupying oneself with agriculture but to be spreading God's teachings and practice amongst the people.


            Here we read:


"Only the land of the priests he did not take over, for the priests had an allotment from Pharaoh and they lived off the allotment which Pharaoh had made to them; THEREFORE they did not sell their land."


but about our priests we read (Deuteronomy 10:8-9):


"At that time, the Lord separated the tribe of Levi ... to stand before God, to serve Him and to bless in His name ... THEREFORE Levi has no portion or inheritance with his brethren. THE LORD IS HIS INHERITANCE."


            In Egypt Pharaoh is the controller of the priests.  They answer to him.  They belong to him and thus they have special perks.  Since they are part of the Pharaoh's estate, they are not subject to the regular laws.  In Judaism, God is the inheritance of the priests.  God is Who controls them and they answer only to Him.  As opposed to the priests of Egypt, they have NO land.  The priests have to be dedicated to God.  They haven't the time nor the energy for the mundane occupations of farming and statesmanship.  The two institutions - Egyptian and Jewish - are vastly different.




            We have studied together the passages in the Torah relating to Joseph's economic control in respect to the great famine of seven years.  We have noted how Joseph adopts harsh, far-reaching methods.  The times demand no less.  But we have shown how Joseph always aims to preserve the dignity and well-being of the individual.  He will not let a person become reliant.  He will not enslave the nation.  It is here that we see the Jewish notion - far advanced for its time - of the basic dignity of human life.  We might add a second lesson -that even in the harshest of situations, if there is a will, there is always a moral way.


Shabbat Shalom.





            The Midrash Ha-gadol brings the following midrash.  Look into the verses (in a chumash) and explain what textual difficulty found in our parasha the midrash is trying to solve:


"At the time these laws were introduced, many Egyptians went and associated themselves with the priests, proclaiming 'We are priests.'  What did Joseph do?  He went to the archive and took out the records of families and noted to which family everyone belonged.  He then wrote his findings to each person.  This is what it says (v. 26) '... only the lands of the priests did not become Pharaoh's.'"