Economics and Cultural Interaction: Israelites and Egyptians Va-y’chi Genesis 47:28-50:26

On a historic day when the U.S. government is imploding, when the President of the country as Commander-in-Chief, on impulse and without proper consultation or process, betrays America’s allies and helps its enemies, when that president endangers his own country let alone the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces and his Afghani allies possibly by creating a vacuum for a resurgence of the Islamic State, when he suddenly and without notice switches horses from his Kurdish allies to their Turkish foes, when he directly undercut his own country’s negotiations with the Taliban surrendering all leverage in advance, we are watching the anticipated destruction of the world order established after WWII.

When we observe a president deliberately creating chaos to distract from his own legal woes, a president willing to go to the wall and shut the government down for a wall along the border for which Congress will not pay, a president of the most powerful country of the world firing off the first major bunker-buster bomb that makes his actions heretofore look simply like musket shots, a president acting to defend his self-interests and hidden personal records as the stock market plunges 500 points in a single day as deficits explode and the president attacks the Fed, why spend my time on one seemingly innocuous story in the Torah that ends the book of Genesis?

Because we need distance. Because the story in the Torah is about politics, is about economics and is about culture and not just the covenantal relations between the Israelites and their God. I will deal with the politico-economic dimension first.

This portion depicts Jacob blessing the results of Joseph’s intermarriage, his sons and Jacob’s grandsons, Ephraim and Manasseh, then his (Jacob’s) characterization of his own sons and their prospects, his own death and the carrying out of the promise to bury him with his forefathers in Canaan, Joseph’s reassurance that he forgave his brothers and his promise to provide for them and their families and, finally, the death of Joseph and the insistence that God will return the Israelites to their own land and the promise to Joseph that he too would have his bones transported there for burial. This ending, like the end of a television series at the end of one season, is set against the background of the Egyptian famine and how it was handled.

Just like the great flood, the famines in Egypt are part of a historical and geological record. There is a stele on Sehel Island recording the famine in the reign of Pharaoh Djoser during the classical third dynasty of Egypt. It was a period of anarchy and robbery rather than orderly redistribution of foodstuffs saved up from years of plenty. It was only after that famine, that the Pharaoh and his priests collected extra rations for the Egyptian god, Khnemu or Khnum.

Djoser did ask for priestly help, specifically from Imhotep, the high lector priest. Imhotep, after some research, informed Pharaoh that the famine was caused by the god, Khnum, stopping up the spring supplying the waters of the Nile. The high priest went to see the god, fasted, prayed, and then, exhausted, fell asleep. And, of course, he had a dream. Khnum appears in the dream and promises that he will unstop the well. Pharaoh orders that the temple of Khnum at Elephantine be rebuilt to which regular offerings would be made, including foodstuffs from Nubia. Was this the record of an actual famine? Was this the story of the famine recorded in the Torah?

One problem is that carbon dating identified the inscriptions as having been made during the reign of Ptolemy V (205-180BC). Does that mean that these Egyptian hieroglyphs really borrowed from the Israelite Bible as a means of giving greater legitimacy (and power) to the priests who served Khnum? However, the story of a seven-year famine could have come from anywhere since it was a common motif in the cultures of the Middle East. See, for example, Homer’s Iliad, Book V.

In the Mesopotamian story of Gilgamesh, there is a prediction of a seven-year famine. In Tablet VI, the Bull of Heaven, sent by the goddess Inanna (later known as Ishtar, the goddess of love/lust), descends from the sky sent by Ishtar to avenge Gilgamesh’s rejection of her efforts to seduce him. Her father, Anu, the god of the firmament, had initially refused to release the bull into her charge and warned that seven years of famine would ensue. Anu gives in, however, when Ishtar has a temper tantrum and promises she will store up provisions and flocks to offset any famine.

Gilgamesh and Enkidu wrestle with the Bull of Heaven and kill it. Did the Bull symbolize an earthquake or a volcanic eruption which spews forth sulfates into the atmosphere that dramatically alter global weather patterns, lack of rain and drought? In this story, we deal with flesh and blood issues. God is cited but not sighted. God does not appear. Why does Gilgamesh throw the thigh back to heaven while, in the Torah, Jacob has his sons promise that they will bury him in Canaan in the grave of his forefathers and seal that promise by placing their hands on his thigh? Why do all these tales include predictions of famine, efforts at seduction, and end with death of a great hero?

The narrative on the stele on Sehel parallels the biblical story, though the years of plenty follow rather than precede the seven years of famine.

  1. Pharaoh is troubled in both tales;
  2. In both narratives, the adumbration of the famine comes in a dream.
  3. As Joseph says, it is God who gave me the dream interpretation just as Imhotep receives his message from his god in a dream.
  4. In the Egyptian narrative, the people are taxed 10% rather than 20%.
  5. In the Egyptian narrative, the populace is not required to surrender ownership of their herds and property in return for food.

What would cause such a famine? A radical change in weather could have decreased the flow of the Nile so much that it never flooded the farms. That would have been catastrophic indeed. One theory is that such an event was caused by a massive dust cloud either as a result of an enormous volcanic eruption or the impact of an object crashing from space into with Earth. Recently, the first thesis seems to be supported by a computer study that established a very strong correlation between dramatic weather changes in the Middle East caused by volcanic eruptions and periods of riots, lawlessness and anarchy. Geologists, historians and historical geneticists have shown that dates of volcanic eruptions can be correlated with historical periods in which the social order broke down and the bones of the dead reveal an increase in disease and malnutrition.

And what about the prevention of famine? Did the Joseph story coincide with the period from about 1850 to 1650 BC when a canal was built that prevented Lake Qaran on the Nile from being dried up and instead, allowed those canals to replenish the lake with water and maintain the fertility of the land? The canal has been known for thousands of years as Bahr Yusef or The Waterway of Joseph.

However, my interest is not in historical truth or the extent to which Torah stories conform to actual history or to other mythical narratives. My focus is on the narrative itself and the themes, plot and characters emphasized in that narrative. For that, actual history and other myths can serve as foils. While actual history can be constructed as a narrative, my interest is in the way the biblical narrative offers us a glimpse into the ethics and political norms of the ancient Israelites.

Look at some specific issues raised by the biblical narrative:

  1. Why did Joseph take five men to be introduced to Pharaoh? Why only five? Why does it not say his brothers rather than five men? Is there any relationship to the five books in the Torah?
  2. Is there any significance of Pharaoh asking about their occupation and the answer that they are shepherds? Why can’t farmers (Egyptians looked down on animal herders) and cowboys be friends?
  3. Why does the answer include the intentions of the sojourners, environmental refugees fleeing drought, to remain sojourners and neither seek citizenship, on the one hand, nor return immediately from whence they came?
  4. Pharaoh very generously offered not only permanent residency status but the best land and jobs as livestock minders of his herds.
  5. Why, when Pharaoh asks Jacob his age, does he reply 130, but adds that it has been a short life of constant misery?
  6. Why does the humanitarianism of the famine turn into a transactional exercise in which Pharaoh, through Joseph’s prescience and administrative innovations, eventually obtains ownership of everyone’s herds and then their land in return for allowing them to live, but as peasants who give 20% of their crops to Pharaoh?
  7. At the same time, others fleeing the famine became urbanites and provided labour to Pharaoh in return for food.
  8. Why did the priests keep their farmland and receive a food allotment from Pharaoh?
  9. Why were the Israelites such beneficiaries, acquiring both food and the best property?
  10. Why does Jacob want to be reburied in Canaan with his forefathers?

What is clear is that the famine’s usual results – starvation, riots and political upheaval – were prevented. Although the absence of social order and central formal authority were averted, although the looting of the Pharaoh’s granaries did not take place, although a system of both taxation and redistribution remained, the Egyptian commoners only survived to become effectively urban slave labourers or serfs instead of freeholders. Further, instead of the famine stirring up the usual xenophobia, the foreigners ended up at the top of the political-economic structure.

Although 400 years are said to pass between the end of Genesis and the beginning of the Exodus story, in the history of Egypt, a long reign of a beneficent ruler was followed by the very short reign of a tyrant. In the latter, it is the Israelites who are turned into urban slave laborers. Was the one story about the way the Israelites prevented chaos and maintained order in a famine while in the subsequent tale they are blamed for the famine and plagues that wracked the land and led to political upheaval?

Why did the biblical redactors celebrate Joseph’s skills in predicting the famine and his steps for preventing political chaos but not condemn Joseph’s initiative in using the famine to greatly increase the wealth of the Pharaoh and, incidentally, that of his own family? My suggestion is that the story of Joseph, and, indeed of the whole of Genesis, is not about justice, and certainly not about tikkun olam, but about the survival of a tribe and how to benefit from catastrophe rather than suffer from it. It is a survival and not a moral story. It, and the entire Genesis, is about turning the bad into the better.

The whole of Genesis is a tale of the family trials and tribulations in building the foundation for a nation, of overcoming deep family fissures to form a nation living as sojourners in a foreign land and destined to return to Canaan. The ending with the mention of Mitzrayim only points to the beginning of the series for the next year on TV, the beginning of Exodus when Egypt will be equated with evil rather than beneficence and when return will be celebrated rather than remaining in a diaspora that is really not your home. Hence, the Israelites travel back to Canaan to bury their father Jacob, but return to live well in a land of exile. However, struggle at home will remain superior to lolling in paradise.

Jacob extracts the same promise as his father, that he be buried back in Canaan, perhaps even back in the same Cave of Machpelah. Redemption in this tale is not redemption from sin but redemption from living in a strange land that is not your land. Redemption is literally a down to earth story. Redemption entails memory, carrying with you the tales of the trials and tribulations, the calamities and efforts to overcome them, that will form a nation’s DNA. [Please excuse the unqualified loose generalizations.]The past becomes the present to prepare for an unknown future. We travel forward in time but always eventually backward in space to where we belong. What we have is a tale of nationalism and a story of providence serving that promise.

What connection does this nationalism have to Trump’s parochialism, to the right-wing and xenophobic nationalism currently on the rise? It is a nationalism of openness rather than redneck fear. It is a nationalism in which Jacob insists that Ephraim and Manasseh “shall be mine no less than Reuben and Simeon.” Jacob kissed them and embraced them. Marrying in and acceptance is good. Exiting and marrying out is bad. The latter meant the nation would not survive. Foreign nations threaten a nation’s purity only when one abandons the obligations to that nation. The issue is not intermarriage with foreigners but the importance of including the products of such intermarriages within the national fold.

In addition to inclusiveness, even more importantly, Jacob continued the tradition that is part of the Israelite DNA of blessing the second-born with his right hand and the first-born with the left, indicating once again that the second-born will rule over the first, that alpha males should not become the leaders of the Israelites, that impulsive and impetuous Trumps with their enormous self-assurance, confidence that one already has the answers but need only prove their superiority, should not become a nation’s leaders. Second-borns recognize that they are limited and strive to be good given those limits. They have to acquire skills rather than simply rely on their natural aptitudes.  First-borns compare who they are with whom they might be rather than compare themselves with whom they should be.

Israel will become a nation of self-doubt, of questioning and not a nation led by narcissists and braggards. The point is not that the Israelites are exemplars of the highest virtues, but that they are committed to self-criticism and improvement. Uprightness must remain superior to self-righteousness. That means that reconciliation trumps revenge and forgiveness ensures unity. What we observe south of us Canadians is the reification of divisiveness, of self-protection in the name of a false nationalism instead of community protectionism in the name of true patriotism.


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