Vayigash: The Economics of Joseph

Image: An early Ramesside Period (1189-1077 BCE) mural painting from Deir el-Medina tomb depicts an Egyptian couple harvesting crops. (Wikimedia: public domain)

Parashat Vayigash – (pronounced – vah-yee-GOSH) is particularly fascinating to me, as I have a background in economics.

Joseph predicted a famine and proposed a program for surviving it in Genesis 41:33-36, when he interpreted Pharaoh’s dream. Joseph’s plan sounded painless: appoint an administrator to gather grain during the years of plenty as a reserve against the years of famine.

Now, in Genesis 47, we see what this program actually required. Once there was no bread “in all the world” (v.13) people bought grain from Pharaoh, and as a result, all the gold and silver in Egypt came into the king’s palace. The next year people had no money, so they traded their livestock to Pharaoh for food. The following year, they traded their land. That year, Joseph ordered a massive resettlement of the population. Every Egyptian family had to leave their home and move to a new location.  Radak teaches that Joseph did this so they would understand that the new homes were a gift from Pharaoh. Rashbam, however, compares his policy to that of the evil King of Assyria in 2 Kings 18. (It was Assyrian policy to resettle their enemies among peoples strange to them, so that they would never again be a threat. This is how the “10 Lost Tribes” were lost.)

In the final year of famine, the Egyptians became bondsmen to Pharaoh in exchange for food and seed for the coming year. So by the end of the famine, Joseph had preserved the lives of the Egyptians but at a very high price: every commoner among them was a penniless slave living on land granted by Pharaoh, and additionally paying a heavy tax.

Harold Kushner points out in Etz Chayim that a generation later, the Egyptians would take revenge on Joseph by enslaving the Hebrews. Economic policy in the ancient world, as in ours, has both short term and long term consequences.

As I write this, children are starving to death in Venezuela, despite it having the largest proven oil reserves in the world.  Our Congress is contemplating a tax bill that will be good for big business, on the promise that it will be good for us all. They might want to remember Joseph, whose economic policy seemed wise until the long term consequences caught up with his people.

This d’var Torah appeared in a slightly different form in the CCAR Newsletter.

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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

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