A Critique of Joseph's Grain Policy
The Bible presents two views of Joseph's emergency grain policy:
A) According to "E" (Gen. 41:33-57), a brilliant plan and a good thing for one and all!
Key verse: The plan seemed good to Pharaoh and all his officials (Gen. 41:37).
B) According to "J" (Gen. 47:13-26), great for the Pharaoh (centralization of power), but a socioeconomic disaster for the people of Egypt (landless servitude).
Key verse: He removed the people to the cities (Gen. 47:21 MT). An alternative rendering: He reduced the people to servitude (based on an emendation of the Hebrew text by comparison with other sources).
Now I have contrasted "E" and "J" somewhat unfairly (as both seem to present Joseph as a great hero) to make a simple point: that Joseph's grain policy was not unequivocally good for Egypt. In fact, if we combine details from the two versions, the grain policy only looks worse: initially the people are taxed (i.e., one-fifth of their crop is taken, apparently without compensation), then Joseph sells the grain back to the people (and offers it for export to those folks in Canaan!). So Pharaoh has his cake and eats it too! The common people are thus impoverished and disinherited while Pharaoh and the priestly class are beneficiaries of their misfortune. I should add that Jacob's family also receives special (favorable) treatment (see 47:11-12, 27).
Because of Joseph's policy of requiring payment for the grain (perhaps necessary from an administrative point of view to effectively ration the grain, nevertheless unfair as the grain belonged to the people to begin with), the people of Egypt exchanged, successively, their:
1) Money (kesef, silver, as a medium of exchange, though not yet in the form of coinage)
2) Livestock (to include horses, sheep, goats, cattle, donkeys; cf. Exod. 9:3 camels)
3) Farmland (adamah, arable land; sometimes synonymous with erets, as in 47:20)
4) Persons (expressed dramatically as geviyah, dead bodies, 47:18)
The people became slaves of Pharaoh, and as such entirely dependent on his caprice for their livelihoods. Perhaps Joseph was also responsible for exempting his friends in the priestly class (which he had married into, after all). No wonder "the plan seemed good to Pharaoh and all his officials" (41:37).
Was there another way out of the famine? Certainly. Pharaoh could have emptied his own coffers to buy up the surplus grain during the years of abundance, both to provide a service (storing the grain) and to keep the price of grain stable for the farmers. Then during the years of famine he could have offered the grain for sale (with an added fee for administrative costs) to the people of Egypt. Perhaps foreigners should have been charged a premium to keep the price lower for the domestic population (incidentally, by this "price discrimination" Pharaoh would have not only benefited his own people but also increased total revenues to his government).
All in all, Joseph was a genius as a "civil engineer" (his plan worked in the limited sense that the people didn't starve and Pharaoh was kept fat and happy) but a little thought to economic and social concerns for the future might have been in order.
The lessons for us:
1) Beware of dreamers and those who think their good intentions are enough! Probably Joseph was sincere in the beginning: he really thought that what he planned would work for the best, both for Pharaoh and the people. If so, he was wrong!
2) Whether in private behavior or public policy, there are unintended consequences of the actions we take and the words we speak.
Appendix: A review of the terminology:
A. The plan (41:34-36)
41:34 Let Pharaoh do this: appoint commissioners (peqidim, overseers) over the land and *tax a fifth* (*chimeish*) of the land of Egypt in the seven years of plenty (sava, full).
41:35 They will collect (qavats) all the food of these good years that are coming; they will gather/store (tsavar, aggregate) grain under the authority of Pharaoh to keep (shamar) food in the cities.
41:36 This food will be held in reserve (feqadon, deposit, cf. peqidim) for the land for the seven years of famine that are coming on the land of Egypt, so the land will not perish (kareit, be cut off) in the famine.
B. The process (41:48-49, 56-57)
41:48 He collected (qavats) all the food of the seven years that they produced in the land of Egypt and he put the food in the cities, the food of the field that surrounded [each city] he put within it.
41:49 Joseph gathered/stored (tsavar) grain like the sand of the sea, so much that he stopped measuring for it was not measurable.
41:56 When the famine was over all the surface of the land then Joseph opened all the storehouses and sold (shavar, deal in grain) to the Egyptians, for the famine grew harsh (chazaq, strong) in the land of Egypt.
41:57 All the land came to Egypt to buy (shavar) from Joseph, for the famine had grown harsh (chazaq) in all the land.
C. The outcome (47:13-26)
47:13 There was no bread (lechem) in all the land, for the famine was very severe (kaveid, heavy), and the land of Egypt and the land of Canaan languished because of the famine.
47:14 Joseph collected (laqeit, gleaned) all the money that was to be found in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan [in payment] for the grain that they were buying, and Joseph brought the money to Pharaoh's palace.
47:15 When the money from the land of Egypt and from the land of Canaan was spent (tamam, complete), then all of Egypt came to Joseph to say, "Give us bread! Why should we die in your presence? For the money is gone."
47:16 Joseph said, "Bring me your livestock and I will give you [grain] for your livestock since [your] money is gone."
47:17 They brought their livestock to Joseph and Joseph gave them bread for the horses, the flocks, the herds, and the donkeys. He provided with them bread for all their livestock that year.
47:18 When that year was over (tamam), they came to him in the second year and said to him, "We cannot hide from my lord that since the money is spent (tamam) and the stocks of animals [belong] to my lord, nothing is left for my lord except our bodies (geviyah) and our farmland.
47:19 "Why should we die before your eyes? Both we and our farmland, buy (qanah) us and our farmland for bread and we will be, we and our farmland, slaves to Pharaoh. Also give us seed that we may live and not die, and the farmland may not turn to desert."
47:20 Joseph took all the farmland of Egypt for Pharaoh, for each Egyptian sold his field, for the famine had grown harsh (chazaq) for them. The land became Pharaoh's.
47:21 He removed the people to the cities, from one end of Egypt’s border to the other.
A final question: Was the tithe introduced as a more lenient alternative to the 1/5 tax that Israel remembered from Egypt? Compare Gen. 47:24, 26 to Lev. 27:30.