Cows in the Land of Egypt: Genesis Vayigash 44:18 – 47:27
Was Joseph a tzaddick, a righteous and upright man and a light unto the nations? Or was he a great administrator, but also a wily and power-hungry individual, perhaps even a diabolical figure who turned Egyptian independent farmers into serfs obligated to give a fixed percentage of their gross income to a centralized government under the thumb of Pharaoh?
This week’s portion ends as follows:
|כ וַיִּקֶן יוֹסֵף אֶת-כָּל-אַדְמַת מִצְרַיִם, לְפַרְעֹה, כִּי-מָכְרוּ מִצְרַיִם אִישׁ שָׂדֵהוּ, כִּי-חָזַק עֲלֵהֶם הָרָעָב; וַתְּהִי הָאָרֶץ, לְפַרְעֹה.||20 So Joseph bought all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh; for the Egyptians sold every man his field, because the famine was sore upon them; and the land became Pharaoh’s.|
|כא וְאֶת-הָעָם–הֶעֱבִיר אֹתוֹ, לֶעָרִים: מִקְצֵה גְבוּל-מִצְרַיִם, וְעַד-קָצֵהוּ.||21 And as for the people, he removed them city by city, from one end of the border of Egypt even to the other end thereof.|
|כב רַק אַדְמַת הַכֹּהֲנִים, לֹא קָנָה: כִּי חֹק לַכֹּהֲנִים מֵאֵת פַּרְעֹה, וְאָכְלוּ אֶת-חֻקָּם אֲשֶׁר נָתַן לָהֶם פַּרְעֹה–עַל-כֵּן, לֹא מָכְרוּ אֶת-אַדְמָתָם.||22 Only the land of the priests bought he not, for the priests had a portion from Pharaoh, and did eat their portion which Pharaoh gave them; wherefore they sold not their land.|
|כג וַיֹּאמֶר יוֹסֵף אֶל-הָעָם, הֵן קָנִיתִי אֶתְכֶם הַיּוֹם וְאֶת-אַדְמַתְכֶם לְפַרְעֹה; הֵא-לָכֶם זֶרַע, וּזְרַעְתֶּם אֶת-הָאֲדָמָה.||23 Then Joseph said unto the people: ‘Behold, I have bought you this day and your land for Pharaoh. Lo, here is seed for you, and ye shall sow the land.|
|כד וְהָיָה, בַּתְּבוּאֹת, וּנְתַתֶּם חֲמִישִׁית, לְפַרְעֹה; וְאַרְבַּע הַיָּדֹת יִהְיֶה לָכֶם לְזֶרַע הַשָּׂדֶה וּלְאָכְלְכֶם, וְלַאֲשֶׁר בְּבָתֵּיכֶם–וְלֶאֱכֹל לְטַפְּכֶם.||24 And it shall come to pass at the ingatherings, that ye shall give a fifth unto Pharaoh, and four parts shall be your own, for seed of the field, and for your food, and for them of your households, and for food for your little ones.’|
Note the following:
- During the famine years, using the grain in storage, it was Joseph who bought the land of the peasants for the king.
- It was Joseph who forcefully displaced the population.
- Pharaoh continued to give the priests their portions during the famine and did not take their land.
- After turning peasants into serfs and bondsmen, Joseph sold them the seed they needed.
- One-fifth of the gross income from growing grain went to Pharaoh; four parts were left for sustenance, and none for independent sales.
In the meanwhile, the children and offspring of the tribes of Israel were granted land reputedly with the richest soil in Egypt, Goshen, east of the Bubastic branch of the Nile River, where they lived in a ghetto for “the shepherd is an abomination to the Egyptian.” (46:34) They could grow grain themselves on which they did not pay taxes or tribute; they could raise cattle. They became fruitful and multiplied.
|כז וַיֵּשֶׁב יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, בְּאֶרֶץ גֹּשֶׁן; וַיֵּאָחֲזוּ בָהּ, וַיִּפְרוּ וַיִּרְבּוּ מְאֹד.||27 And Israel dwelt in the land of Egypt, in the land of Goshen; and they got them possessions therein, and were fruitful, and multiplied exceedingly.|
Joseph does not appear to be a tzaddic. He is certainly a superb administrator, decentralizing the management, storage and distribution of the country’s grain while accumulating wealth and power at the centre. He was a clever politician in making sure that he did not threaten the position of an alternative power centre, that of the priests. While serving the centre of that power, he managed to ensure the wealth of his own people. Let me link this in relationship to two other puzzles that arose in last week’s Torah study. The first is the part of Pharaoh’s dream that Joseph did not interpret. Pharaoh dreams of thin cows eating fat cows.
|א וַיְהִי, מִקֵּץ שְׁנָתַיִם יָמִים; וּפַרְעֹה חֹלֵם, וְהִנֵּה עֹמֵד עַל-הַיְאֹר.||1 And it came to pass at the end of two full years, that Pharaoh dreamed: and, behold, he stood by the river.|
|ב וְהִנֵּה מִן-הַיְאֹר, עֹלֹת שֶׁבַע פָּרוֹת, יְפוֹת מַרְאֶה, וּבְרִיאֹת בָּשָׂר; וַתִּרְעֶינָה, בָּאָחוּ.||2 And, behold, there came up out of the river seven kine, well-favoured and fat-fleshed; and they fed in the reed-grass.|
|ג וְהִנֵּה שֶׁבַע פָּרוֹת אֲחֵרוֹת, עֹלוֹת אַחֲרֵיהֶן מִן-הַיְאֹר, רָעוֹת מַרְאֶה, וְדַקּוֹת בָּשָׂר; וַתַּעֲמֹדְנָה אֵצֶל הַפָּרוֹת, עַל-שְׂפַת הַיְאֹר.||3 And, behold, seven other kine came up after them out of the river, ill favoured and lean-fleshed; and stood by the other kine upon the brink of the river.|
|ד וַתֹּאכַלְנָה הַפָּרוֹת, רָעוֹת הַמַּרְאֶה וְדַקֹּת הַבָּשָׂר, אֵת שֶׁבַע הַפָּרוֹת, יְפֹת הַמַּרְאֶה וְהַבְּרִיאֹת; וַיִּיקַץ, פַּרְעֹה.||4 And the ill-favoured and lean-fleshed kine did eat up the seven well-favoured and fat kine. So Pharaoh awoke.|
Is this not puzzling? Cows are herbivores. They do not eat animals. Egyptians were agricultural farmers and did not generally practice animal husbandry. Egypt was not known for its cattle raising but for growing grain on the farms that straddled the Nile River. Egypt was the granary of the Middle East. Thus, though the other dream of seven thin sheaves consuming seven fat sheaves makes sense in terms of famine following years of plenty, meat cannot be stored for years. Further, Egyptians considered shepherds who did so as an “abomination.”
Who are the thin cows that eat the fat cows in Pharaoh’s dream? Who were the scrawny, ill-formed and emaciated thin cows who ate the sturdy and well-formed ones? Further, and very significantly, after eating the fat cows, the thin cows remained as thin as ever so “one could not tell that they had consumed them.” What they did remained hidden.
A second puzzle. When Joseph interpreted Pharaoh’s dream for him and went even further and, unasked and presumptively, proffered advice on how Pharaoh should handle the problem his dream anticipated, Pharaoh not only appointed Joseph as his vizier, effectively his Prime Minister or Viceroy, he also gave him a new name. Normally, to signify great change in an individual and a role he will play in history, an individual obtains a new name. Abram became Abraham. Jacob became Israel. But Pharaoh renames Joseph and substitutes an Egyptian name for his Hebrew one. And Pharaoh called Joseph Zaphnathpaaneah. (41:45) Pharaoh followed that act by marrying Joseph off to Asenath, the daughter of a high priest.
Zaphnathpaaneah means “food for the living” and also, “God speaks and He lives.” In one meaning, Joseph is given credit for being the provider of food for the Egyptians. In the other, Joseph’s God, the God of the Hebrews, is credited with speaking to Joseph so that he could interpret the dream. This was also a proof-text that the Hebrew God, an invisible God, spoke and lived and was very powerful. Yet Joseph effectively and in all cultural practices became an Egyptian. He shaved. He dressed like an Egyptian. He spoke Egyptian. (Moses would go in the reverse direction.)
Joseph rises from a dreamy but very self-assured and even haughty Hebrew teenaged shepherd to be transformed into an all-powerful Egyptian with a signet ring and wealth and a person who could shave, curl his hair and preen in front of a mirror. He had come a very long way, far beyond his father’s favourite dressed in his multi-coloured coat; he had become the Pharaoh’s favourite wearing the robes of the royal court.
Further, though he had forgotten about his family for more than seven years, he eventually brought his only family in an exercise in nepotism and resettled these Hebrew shepherds as farmers. His oldest son, born of the daughter of an Egyptian priest, is given an Egyptian name that means he will be a reminder to Joseph that he has left his past behind. He has not left his God behind, but certainly his past. Further, he had exercised his power to save his extended family so that they too took up their lives as Egyptian farmers rather than shepherds. But the thin would consume the fat ones. Ephraim was the fat one, the sign of munificence and wealth. The land and culture of abundance and wealth consumed the lives and culture of these shepherds.
This is the exact opposite of God’s promise to make them prosperous in their own land. Further, it took place at the expense of the Egyptian farmers. They went from freeholders of their own land to serfs. The Pharaoh via Joseph expropriated their land. Further, they were forcefully displaced and then settled on new land that they farmed giving 20% of their gross income to the Pharaoh. That appeared more generous than taking 50% of the profits, but was it? Over the years, 20% of gross would exceed 50% of profits and did not allow for much cheating.
Then there are the literary clues. Look at the last verse of Pharaoh’s dream:
וַתֹּאכַלְנָה הַפָּרוֹת, רָעוֹת הַמַּרְאֶה וְדַקֹּת הַבָּשָׂר, אֵת שֶׁבַע הַפָּרוֹת, יְפֹת הַמַּרְאֶה וְהַבְּרִיאֹת; וַיִּיקַץ, פַּרְעֹה.
The Tanach often plays with words with similar spelling and pronunciations even when they have different roots. That is the case withפָּרוֹת (cows) and with פַּרְעֹה (pharaoh) Is there an implication that Pharaoh is the fat cow, that the Egyptians as a collectivity are the fat cows? פרה as a verb also has two meanings as in פּוֹרֶה, to be fruitful and multiply, suggesting the fat cows again. However, when they are in Egypt, the Hebrews, who are an abomination anyway to the Egyptians because they practice animal husbandry, first as shepherds and then as settled farmers, were promised that they would be prolific. But the longer they stayed in Egypt, the more penurious they became as they too in almost poetic justice were reduced to actual slaves and not just serfs.
Pharaoh also is a stand in for the means of retribution. Joseph cut his hair and shaved before he first went to see Pharaoh to interpret his dream. Cutting your hair, letting your hair down, has always been associated with dissipation as in the story of the golden calf or the tale of Sampson. The word, lifrot, is also used in reference to the hardening of the heart of Pharaoh. The dream certainly terrified Pharaoh. And the most frightening image was of the thin cows eating the fat cows but remaining thin.
Jacob did not understand or interpret that part of the two dreams. For in that dream, the Hebrews are the thin cows. The Egyptians are the fat cows. The Hebrews are viewed as responsible for eating up and living off the fat of the Egyptian land. But they never get fat themselves and subsequently they move from a well-off protectorate people of the Pharaoh to slaves. That way, their role and responsibility for the transformation of Egypt remains hidden. They consume the fat cows but remain skinny. It is this dream that is the most prophetic for it will not just be about the next fourteen years but about the next four hundred. It is also this dream that adumbrates the main trope of antisemitism.
Recall that the Israelites will only be redeemed when they live in the holy land, when they live in the Land of Israel. The Hebrews, as in Jacob’s dream of the ladder, both ascended in Egypt and then descended. God had advised. Do not be afraid of descending just because you will eventually also fall. For, God promises, I will always be with you. Even as Joseph becomes an assimilationist, God is with him in his ascent and does not abandon the Israelites on their descent.