The Joseph narrative, like so much of the Torah, is frequently viewed from a one dimensional perspective. At the beginning of the story, the Israelites, the clan of Jacob, are poor farmers in Canaan ; by the end they are privileged residents of Egypt , given the best land under the patronage of Pharaoh and one of their group is at the heart of the government. The fate of the Egyptian people, however, is less frequently commented on. At the outset they are fellahin – land owning peasant farmers – by the end of the story they are landless serfs who must pay rent to the state in order to continue residency. By focusing on their story, and how their lives are transformed for the worse at the hands of Joseph and state power, we can bring out the countercultural teachings at the heart of the text.
We begin with Joseph’s interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream (Genesis 42:25) where Joseph argues that a) there will be 7 years of agricultural surplus followed by 7 years of famine and that this should be dealt with by saving produce from the first 7 and b) a ‘wise man; should lead this process (guess who he has in mind). Predictably, Joseph is given the job and becomes Pharaoh’s deputy. He puts his scheme into practice, gathering up all the produce, and seems to do it rather zealously (‘like the sand of the sea….it was without number’), and there is no indication that Joseph pays for the grain, so we can assume that it is simply seized. It is all the more extraordinary then, that when the years of famine arrive, Joseph sells, rather than gives away the grain that he had taken for free (41:56). When the peasants run out of money, they beg to Joseph: “Give us bread….for why should we die in your presence”. Joseph takes full advantage of this situation, demanding their cattle (i.e. their livelihood, 47:16) in exchange for bread. When the grain from that runs out they are forced to sell themselves and their land into servitude to Pharaoh, simply in order to eat and survive. As if to remove any last vestiges of peasant strength and solidarity, Joseph forces them to move all over the country, breaking up communities in the process. The language used (47:21) can mean that the people were forcibly transferred to cities, taken from their rural environments to a place of urban vulnerability. As a final flourish, Joseph makes the setup permanent, declaring that the people must give a fifth of their crop to the state each year, in perpetuity.
The outcome of the saga is so beneficial to Pharaoh, and with him Joseph, that we have to ask whether the plan was as innocent as it claimed to be at the outset. Rather than simply a means to survive a famine, Joseph’s plan can be read as a self-fulfilling prophecy. By taking away the people’s surpluses , they were forced into agricultural overproduction, and the over farming of the land is the chief cause of the resultant famine. The programme is simply a means for the state to take control, to overthrow a localised , autonomous society, and turn it into a centralised autocracy, similar to the use of enclosure in English history.
The contemporary parallels of this narrative are rich and striking. Large multinational companies, backed by powerful governments, force GM crops onto poor farmers, so that instead of self-sufficiently growing crops each year they are forced to buy more seeds as Monsanto’s version only last for a year. Another parallel might be IMF/World Bank ‘Structural Reform Programmes’, which force through massive cuts, depriving people of benefits and autonomy, often forcing them away from homes into cities where they end up accepting any work going, whatever the wages or conditions. The breaking up of poor communities in the narrative has strong contemporary resonances, be they the frequent demolition of slums to allow in developers, the migration of workers far away from their families, or the denial of rights to associate with or preserve Kurdish culture in contemporary Turkey.
A Jewish ethnocentric reader might object here – what in the text suggests that Joseph’s behavior is unacceptable? He merely preserves the Jewish people, making possible their survival. There are however, subtle notes of condemnation in the text that enrich our countercultural reading still further. Firstly, God is almost entirely absent from the Joseph narrative. Despite many people in the story claiming to be doing the work of god (as a certain American President is fond of doing) god’s presence would seem not to be there, suggesting, as in the book of Esther, a dark dystopia with an absence of moral behaviour. Secondly, a little further on (Exodus 1), we learn that Israelites themselves are made slaves, at the hands of a new Pharaoh who ‘did not know Joseph’ (1:8). Did not know Joseph personally but perhaps knew of his methods; had learnt the lesson that power can be maintained by enslaving any people you perceive as a threat. So what goes around has come around. Just as Jacob tricked his father, and was in turned tricked by Laban, so the Israelites have been responsible for the enslavement of another people and then become slaves themselves.
If you align yourself as the agent of ruling power, you put yourself in a precarious position and it may come back to haunt you. In C17 Poland, the Jews enjoyed a highly privileged position under state patronage; they were employed as tax collectors for the Polish government. But in doing so, by working for the elite against the people, they helped to build up a vast well of anti-semitism that continues to this day. Similarly, many contemporary Jews are agents of power and empire, as Jewish neo-cons and conservatives promote the Bush administration’s policies and put themselves at odds with ordinary people and social movements across the globe. As in the biblical story, there is temporary success, witnessed in the current American government’s sycophantic support for Ariel Sharon. But in the longer term it is hugely dangerous, creating an association in many people’s minds between Jews and American imperialism, as we seem to favour the interests of the rich elite over those who should be our natural allies – those at the bottom of the heap. Joseph’s story teaches that security comes not from aligning yourself with those with power and strength, but from working together with the poorest in society and promoting justice for the oppressed. If you seek only your own welfare, and persecute others to achieve it, you may become persecuted yourself. The text contains a timeless message: none of us are free until all of us are free.