Vayeishev & Vayigash: Is Joseph Ethical?

It is one thing to take an ethical stand when only you and a few other individuals are concerned. It can be harder to perceive and make the most ethical choice when a whole population is affected.

Joseph as ethical examplar

I have written before about Joseph’s iffy behavior as a troubled seventeen-year old and his older brothers’ inflated response: selling him as a slave to a caravan bound for Egypt.1 I have also written about how twenty years later Joseph saves his brothers’ lives and declines to take revenge, though he could easily enslave them; he merely puts them through a nerve-wracking test.2

Joseph acts even more ethically when he is propositioned by the wife of his Egyptian owner, Potifar. God blesses Joseph with success in everything he does, and Potifar promotes him to steward over his household in the Torah portion Vayeishev (Genesis 37:1-40:23). Potifar’s wife notices how good-looking Joseph is, and asks him to lie down with her.3

And he refused, and he said to his master’s wife: “Hey, with me, my master is not concerned about what is in the house, because everything that is his, he placed in my hand. There are none greater in this house than I am, and he has not withheld anything at all from me except you, since you are his wife. So how could I do this great wickedness, and be guilty before God?” (Genesis/Bereishit 39:8-9)

Joseph Flees Potiphar’s Wife,
by Julius Schnorr von Carlsfeld, 19th century

Joseph feels intuitively that committing adultery with his owner’s wife would be wicked. Potifar did not enslave him, but merely purchased him as a slave. Since then his owner has treated him well and trusted him completely. Joseph believes it would be wrong to cheat him.

He also believes that adultery is wrong according to God. Although the God of Israel does not explicitly prohibit adultery until the Ten Commandments,4 God has already punished two kings who unknowingly attempted adultery with Joseph’s great-grandmother Sarah. Furthermore, adultery is a general taboo in the region; both kings were appalled when they discovered what they had almost done.5

So when Potifar’s wife approaches him again, Joseph flees.

Several years later, Pharaoh has two significant dreams, and Joseph is called upon to interpret them. He tells Pharaoh that the dreams are God’s warning that Egypt will have seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. Then he advises Pharaoh to appoint someone make sure grain is stockpiled during the years of plenty. Pharaoh appoints Joseph viceroy in charge of all agriculture in Egypt.6

He spends the next seven years commandeering and storing Egypt’s excess grain. The Torah does not say how Joseph acquires the grain; it may be through eminent domain, for the public good. Or he may purchase the grain, as the United States purchases crude oil to stock its Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Either way, Joseph is earning his livelihood as Pharaoh’s agent in an ethical way.

We learn what Joseph does during the seven years of famine in this week’s Torah portion, Vayigash (Genesis 44:18-47:27).

Joseph, Overseer of the Pharaoh’s Granaries,
by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1874

Joseph as capitalist

During the first year of famine, Joseph sells grain from the government’s reserves for silver, the currency of that time and place, and brings the silver into Pharaoh’s palace. The second year of famine, there is no more silver left in either Egypt or Canaan.

Then all the Egyptians came to Joseph, saying: “Give us bread! Why should we die in front of you? For the silver is all gone.” (Genesis 47:15)

Rather than distributing grain for free, Joseph offers to trade grain for livestock. So that year Pharaoh acquires ownership of all the horses, donkeys, cows, and sheep in Egypt.

In the third year of famine, the Egyptians tell Joseph:

“We cannot hide from my lord that all the silver and the cattle [we] possessed have gone to my lord. Nothing remains before my lord except our bodies and our soil. Why should we die before your eyes, us and our soil? Keneih us and our soil for bread, and we will be slaves to Pharaoh. And give us seed, so we will live and not die, and the soil will not turn into desert.” (Genesis 47:18-29)

keneih (קְנֵה) = Acquire! Buy! (An imperative form of kana, קָנָה = acquired through purchase, ransom, or production.)

By the third year of the famine, the Egyptians are in the position of debt slaves who must sell both their land and themselves just so they can eat. Their poverty is entirely due to the weather, which is an act of God.

How does Joseph respond? First he acquires all the farmland in Egypt for Pharaoh—all except for the land Pharaoh had previously allotted to the priests,7 and the land of Goshen where Pharaoh invited Joseph’s extended family to settle.8

Vayiken, Joseph, all the soil of Egypt for Pharaoh, since all the Egyptian sold their fields because the famine was too strong for them. And the land became Pharaoh’s. (Genesis 47:20)

vayiken (וַיִּקֶן) = and he acquired. (Another form of kana.)

Since Pharaoh has a monopoly on all the grain remaining in the region, Joseph can sell the grain at any price he likes. If laissez-faire capitalism is ethical, then Joseph’s acquisition of all the farmland is ethical.

Next, in order to make sure that the Egyptian farmers know they no longer own the land they farm, Joseph moves whole communities to different areas. People have the same neighbors as before, but they live in a different place, and farm different plots than their parents and grandparents.

Is this ethical? It could be worse; at least Joseph deports existing communities together, so people have the same friends, neighbors, and social structure in their new location. But they do not have a choice about where to live. In that respect, they have indeed become slaves rather than citizens.

The Hebrew Bible accepts slavery as a necessary evil, but decrees that Israelites may only sell themselves as debt slaves for a term of six years. In the seventh year they must be freed, unless they choose to undergo a ritual committing them to their owner for life. And when owners free their slaves, they must supply them with goods that will give them a start in their new life.9

So if Joseph were ethical by later Israelite standards, he would buy the Egyptians as temporary slaves, and set them free after a reasonable number of years.

If he were ethical by modern standards, he would acquire their land, but not their bodies. No doubt they would choose to work for the government as tenant farmers for a while, since it was the only way they could get food. But when times improved, they would be free to choose another form of livelihood.

After Joseph acquires the farmland for Pharaoh and deports whole communities, he takes one more step.

Then Joseph said to the people: “Hey, kaniti you and your soil today for Pharaoh. See, there is seed for you, and you shall sow the soil. And when you harvest, you will give one-fifth to Pharaoh, and four-fifths will be yours to sow the field and to eat, you and everyone in your households and your little ones.” (Genesis 47:24)

kaniti (קָנִיתִי) = I have acquired. (Another form of kana.)

Thus Joseph institutes a system of serfdom, turning the people into permanent tenant farmers. Every year the farmers must give Pharaoh 20% of their harvest. It is not a tax on their income, but rather a split of the profits between the owner of the land and the workers who do the labor.

The farmers gratefully accept this arrangement simply in order to eat. They would rather be alive with no freedom and no belongings, than dead of starvation.

And they said: “He has kept us alive! We found mercy in the eyes of my lord, and we will be slaves to Pharaoh.” (Genesis 47:25)

Mandating a tenant farmer arrangement in perpetuity certainly benefits Pharaoh and his government, which will now receive a steady annual income of grain. Joseph is a successful administrator. But is his arrangement ethical?

Some classic commentators praised Joseph for his moderation. Since Egyptian farmers got to keep four-fifths of their harvest, they did not suffer hardship, according to Radak (13th-century rabbi David Kimchi) and 16th-century rabbi Obadiah Sforno. Sforno also noted that all slave-owners were responsible for feeding their slaves, so in the event of another famine Pharaoh would have to provide his tenant farmers with food.

However, the bottom line is that few human beings want to be someone else’s property. We want to make our own decisions about where we live and how we earn a livelihood. Joseph did less harm to the farmers of Egypt than he might have, but his actions were still unethical.

Is he motivated by a desire for revenge due to his own enslavement? Joseph threatens his brothers with slavery, but does not impose it. He knows them, and he overhears them admit to each other that they were guilty of enslaving him.10 He feels empathy for them, and turns away to weep.

He also feels warmhearted toward Potifar, who promoted him and trusted him. But he does not have any feelings about the farmers of Egypt.

I believe Joseph’s ethics are imperfect because he is human. It is hard to imagine the viewpoint of thousands of people you have never met. Yet someone with power in government must do just that in order to make ethical decisions. Saving lives is good, but it is not the only good.

  1. See my post Vayeishev: Favoritism.
  2. See my posts Mikeitz: A Fair Test, Part 1 and Part 2.
  3. Genesis 39:6-7.
  4. Exodus 20:13.
  5. Genesis 15:11-20, 20:1-7 and 47:27.
  6. Genesis 41:1-46.
  7. Genesis 47:22.
  8. Genesis 47:1-6, 47:11-12.
  9. Exodus 21:2-6, Deuteronomy 15:12-18.
  10. Genesis 42:21-24.

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