Joseph uses his financial genius and the laws of supply and demand to make serfs out of Egyptian farmers
Vayigash is the happy culmination of the saga of Joseph and his brothers. Not finding it in him to sustain the cruel revenge hoax against his brothers, Joseph reveals his true identity to them and beseeches them to bring old Jacob and all their clan possessions to Egypt, where they would be granted in perpetuity a piece of land to call their own; land that is suitable for grazing livestock, but is completely separate from the native Egyptians.
This separation is required because apparently Egyptians were prejudiced against people who grazed livestock for a living. The mention of this shepherdophobia, as it may have been called today, is interesting precisely because of its nonchalant nature. The Torah doesn’t think it in the least unusual that the Egyptians are both Hebraiphobic and shepherdophobic; people back then were expected to have rather dim views of those who were not like them. Today, we are no different, though we like to pretend that we are.
The Egyptian aversion to nomadic shepherds described here lends authenticity to the text. River delta dwellers across the Fertile Crescent from the Yang Tze to the Nile had a long history of being attacked and ravaged by nomadic sheep and goat herding tribes that would descend upon them when pasture was thin and steal their grain and their women. Even centuries after such threats became moot in the face of the large and well-organized armies fielded by the farmers of the plain, the old animosity persisted.
So the Hebrews were granted land, but they were certainly not granted “equal rights” and were certainly not expected to “assimilate” to use modern parlance. They would be tolerated, upon pharaoh’s order, for as long as such orders were renewed and sustained by successive pharaohs, nothing more. Pharaoh’s gratitude to Joseph was immense, but it had its limits and as we shall see, so did pharaoh’s own power.
As Jacob’s clan was celebrating its reunion and deliverance from a hungry grave, the seven emaciated cows crawled out of the Nile’s muddy waters and the seven lean years began in earnest. Joseph’s big moment has arrived. Granted the power of the purse by the pharaoh, he set shop and began selling, not, God forbid, giving away, the grain stored during the fat years. I don’t know if Joseph actually invented commodity arbitrage, but his case is most certainly the earliest ever recorded. Having bought grain for cheap when it was plentiful using not his own, but pharaoh’s money and having stored it at the pharaoh’s expense, he was now selling it at such a high premium that the Egyptians soon ran out of liquidity and had to offer their livestock, in other words their means of production, the very oxen and donkeys they needed to plough and sow, instead. When that ran out, they had no choice, but to agree to what must be one of the earliest recorded cases of income tax. This is best told in the Torah’s own words (Genesis 47:13-27 my translation after Chabad):
Now there was no food in the entire land, for the famine had grown exceedingly severe and the land of Egypt and the land of Canaan were exhausted because of the famine. So Joseph collected all the money that was found in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan in exchange for all the grain and brought it into Pharaoh’s house. When the money was depleted from the land of Egypt and from the land of Canaan all the Egyptians came to Joseph saying, “Give us food; why should we die in your presence, since the money has been used up?” And Joseph said, “Give me your livestock and I will give you grain for it, if the money has been used up.” So they brought their livestock to Joseph and Joseph gave them food in return for the horses and for the livestock: flocks and cattle and donkeys and he provided them with food in exchange for all their livestock in that year.
That year ended and they came to him in the second year and they said to him, “We will not hide from my lord, for insofar as the money and the property in animals have been forfeited to my lord, nothing remains before my lord, except our bodies and our farmland. Why should we die before your eyes, both we and our farmland? Buy us and our farmland for food, so that we and our farmland will be slaves to Pharaoh, and give us seed, so that we live and not die and the soil will not lie fallow.” So Joseph bought all the farmland of the Egyptians for Pharaoh, for the Egyptians sold their fields as the famine had become too strong for them and the land became Pharaoh’s. And Joseph transferred the populace to the cities, from one end of the boundary of Egypt to its other end.
Only the farmland of the priests he did not buy, for the priests had an allotment from Pharaoh, and they ate their allotment that Pharaoh had given them; therefore, they did not sell their farmland. Joseph said to the people, “Behold, I have bought you and your farmland today for Pharaoh. Behold, you have seed, so sow the soil. And as to the crops, you shall give a fifth to Pharaoh, and the remaining four parts shall be yours; for seeding your fields and for your food.” They replied, “You have saved our lives! Let us find favor in my lord’s eyes, and we will be slaves to Pharaoh.” So Joseph made it a statute to this day concerning the farmland of Egypt the one fifth. Only the farmland of the priests alone did not become Pharaoh’s.
Putting on my MBA program graduate cap, I can make the following observations: acting as pharaoh’s agent, Joseph leveraged his money to buy grain at low prices when supply was plentiful and then when prices skyrocketed due to drastically reduced supply he set in motion a plan to buy all of Egypt’s productive farmland and all of its livestock used in farming for the pharaoh, effectively transitioning Egyptians from being independent farmers to serfs who from this point on owned neither their land nor the means to till it. According to their own admission, Egyptians now became not only pharaoh’s subjects, in the sense that free citizens are subjects of a legitimate ruler, they became his “slaves”, though a better word would be “serfs”. For the privilege of renting pharaoh’s land and livestock, they were now being asked to pay a flat rent or tax of 20%.
This system of serfdom existed in the world from Joseph’s time around 3,500 years ago to 1860 when it was finally abolished in Russia. Not coincidentally, Russian serfs “enjoyed” the same system first invented by Joseph; they tilled the feudal lord’s land using his tools, paying in exchange for this “privilege” something called the “barschina”, a percentage of their crops.
The case of the Egyptian priesthood, which apparently enjoyed a power base separate from that of the pharaoh is also interesting. King Henry VIII of England disassociated himself from the Catholic Church not because of a woman, but precisely because he wanted to put an end to the extra-judicial status of the English clergy, whose loyalties lay with Rome rather than with the English Crown and who owned vast properties on which they paid not a penny in tax. Joseph’s, and, we must assume, pharaoh’s, power did not extend to where he could change the status of the Egyptian priesthood as Henry would do all these millennia later, but reading between the lines one cannot help but feel the deep animosity that existed between the folks who were charged with keeping Egypt ritually pure and the upstart Hebrew shepherd that on pharaoh’s whim was made to lord over their flock.
Reading Vayigash, it is difficult to avoid the feeling that Joseph was the original, the archetypical Jewish financial wizard and grand vizier rolled into one, the prototype for all the Henry Kissingers and Steven Mnuchins of history; personages that seem to have appeared around every powerful king and potentate from the time of the pharaohs to this very day. Knowing what we now know about how things developed for the Hebrews in Egypt, we can’t help but feel that “Jewish” overachievement, our penchant for ruthless financial warfare in which we always excel has not been without its price and often a very heavy one.
The Torah contains the world with all of its roses and its thorns; it is Life and life isn’t always pretty. Joseph saved his family and all of Egypt to boot, but he also made them slaves. There is a price for everything, the Torah teaches us, but as we shall soon see, we can always be masters of our own fate.