David Plotz, a self-described not-very-observant Jew, has lately been reading and blogging the Bible over at Slate.
Plotz’s latest installment, “Why Joseph is my hero”, treats the last few chapters of Genesis: Joseph in Egypt, Jacob’s death.
Please bear with me for a minute while I digress to tackle a strange subject: Egyptian public policy during the Josephean administration. Joseph is, of course, Pharaoh’s viceroy during the fat years and the famine. To hear the author of Genesis tell it, he’s the best viceroy the Middle Kingdom had ever seen. But to a modern reader, Joseph is appalling. Here’s what he does: During the seven fat years, he gathers grain from all over the country in warehouses. When the famine comes, he sells grain to the hungry Egyptians and to foreign buyers. This is all well and good. As the famine worsens, Egypt’s peasants return to Joseph to beg for help. So Joseph sells them more grain, collecting “all the money that was to be found in the land of Egypt … as payment for the rations.” The people were still hungry. Joseph feeds them, but seizes all their horses, sheep, cattle, and donkeys as payment. The famine continues. The Egyptian people, having given all their money and livestock to Pharaoh, come back to Joseph once more. This time, Joseph takes all their land in exchange for grain: “Thus the land passed over to Pharaoh.” Joseph explains the new deal to them: They will be sharecroppers, and will hand over one-fifth of their harvest every year to Pharaoh, keeping the balance for themselves. They reply, “We are grateful to my lord, and we shall be serfs to Pharaoh.”
Didn’t someone write a book on the biblical roots of capitalism and free enterprise? How did he handle this episode? Our hero Joseph abolishes private property, turns freeholders into serfs, and transforms a decentralized farm economy into a command-economy dictatorship. This is bad economics and worse public policy. This is China, 1949. Joseph is Chairman Mao. (And, to speculate a little bit, perhaps this centralized dictatorship established by Joseph is what ultimately led to the Israelites enslavement in Egypt. Once you create a voracious state apparatus, it must be fed. Is it a surprise that slavery became part of its diet? In a less totalitarian state, perhaps slavery wouldn’t have been as necessary or as feasible.