Like most who are second in command, Joseph serves many interests. Keeping the people alive is one, and strengthening his patron’s regime is another. When the famine begins Joseph simply gives grain to the Egyptians. But as the famine grows more severe, he sells them grain, then he barters for their livestock and their land. Finally, the people beg to become serfs and Joseph cuts the following deal. “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…’ And they said, ‘You have saved our lives! We are grateful to you my lord, and we shall be serfs to Pharaoh’” (Genesis 47:23-25).
As contemporary readers looking back at the story, we certainly admire Joseph’s efficiency. But for a man who has come to be known in Jewish tradition as Joseph the Righteous, we would have hoped for him to express an element of human concern about implementing a policy that reduced the Egyptians to serfdom. If the policy originated with Pharaoh, which there is some basis in the text to believe, Joseph could have responded along the lines of Machiavelli’s advice in The Prince about the balance between being loved and feared:
Still a prince should make himself feared in such a way that, though he does not gain live, he escapes hatred; for being feared but not hated go readily together. Such a condition he may always attain if he will not touch the property of this citizens and subjects… but above all, he should refrain from the property of others, for men are quicker to forget the death of a father than the loss of patrimony.[i]
Did resentment about Joseph’s policy plant the seeds for Egypt’s subsequent enslavement of the Israelites? Some commentator answer in the affirmative. Etz Hayim, published by the Conservative Movement, states that “A generation later, the Egyptians would take their revenge on Joseph for having reduced them to slavery, by enslaving his people.”[ii]
In any case, Joseph’s agrarian policy was not has harsh as it could have been. In exchange for the use of land, he required farmers to contribute a fifth of their produce to Pharaoh; during the reign of Hammurabi (d. 1750 BCE) these charges were more than fifty per cent.[iii]
What are the appropriate limits to policies for managing lean times?
[i] Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince and Selected Discourses (New York: Bantam Books, 1971), p. 60.
[ii] Page 288.
[iii] JPS Commentary on Genesis, Nahum Sarna, p. 322.