Torah This Week: Sharecroppers to Pharaoh

For me, one of the saddest parts of Torah is what many other commentators celebrate as a great triumph. It is the way Joseph (Yosef) deals with the great famine by demanding that an entire population in danger of starving turn their land over to Pharaoh, and become sharecroppers. From Genesis 47:13-19, we learn how, during the years of famine, the farmers of Egypt on the edge of starvation year by year buy the grain stored in Pharaoh’s storehouse --first with all their silver, so that all of Egypt’s silver comes under Pharaoh’s control;  then with the seed that they had set aside for the next year’s sowing; then with ownership of the land itself; and finally with their own freedom. The result is described in  Genesis 47:20-26 (Everett Fox transl., The Five Books of Moses (Schocken, 1995.)

 The result is described in  Genesis 47:20-26 (Everett Fox transl., The Five Books of Moses (Schocken, 1995):


 So Yosef acquired all the soil of Egypt for Pharaoh -- for each of the Egyptians sold his field, for the famine was strong upon them- and the land went over to Pharaoh. As for the people, he transferred them into the cities, from one edge of Egypt's border to its other edge.  Only the soil of the priests he did not acquire, for the priests had a prescribed-allocation from Pharaoh, and they ate from their allocation which Pharaoh had given them, therefore they did not sell their soil. Yosef said to the people: Now that I have acquired you and your soil today for Pharaoh, here, you have seed, sow the soil! But it shall be at the ingatherings, that you shall give a fifth to Pharaoh, the four other parts being for you as seed for the field and for your eating-needs, for those in your households, and for feeding your little-ones. They said: You have saved our lives! May we find favor in my lord's eyes: we will become servants to Pharaoh. And Yosef made it a prescribed-law until this day, concerning the soil of Egypt: For Pharaoh, every fifth part! Only the soil of the priests, that alone did not go over to Pharaoh.


Joseph could have freely given the stored-up grain to the people, leaving them as independent farmers. But he transferred power to Pharaoh and to himself as viceroy.  Moreover, he forced the people to move from their ancestral homes. Only the priests retained their land  -- their economic power – as well as their religious authority.

Whether or not this is an accurate factual and historical picture of a great change in Egypt’s political economy, it is the story Torah chooses to tell. And that makes it remarkable that it is precisely the opposite of the land-and-people system described in Leviticus 25 as how the Breath of Life wants the People Israel and all its settler-sojourner foreigners to live. For in that picture the people are guaranteed the right to redeem their land even if they become poor and need to become indentured servants. The king is not allowed to pile up silver  or land for himself. The priests do not own land, and so cannot add economic power to religious authority. And even if the people move, they are absolutely entitled to return once a generation to their ancestral homes.

All this is guaranteed in Leviticus by the Seventh Year, Shabbat Shabbaton (Sabbath  to the exponential power of Sabbath), the Shmita  or “Year of Release.”  So this may remind us that Yosef’s whole power trip begins with interpreting Pharaoh’s dream to predict that there will be seven years of abundance followed by seven years of famine. He goes out of his way to say there is no way out – the future is determined.


What if he had said there would be seven years of plenty – and if Egypt treated the seventh year as a year of sabbatical rest for the land, a year of releasing the land and its people from overwork , there would be no famine? But if they farmed the land without a pause, a rest, a release – then there would be famine. (Compare Leviticus 26 as a description for what would happen if the land were not allowed to rest.) What if he had said the dream was a warning, not a prediction?

(Is the Torah suggesting that bad experience of land policy [as described in Genesis about Egypt]  has formed a much wiser sense of land policy for the Land of Israel [as expressed in Leviticus]? Or is Torah hinting that having shaped the Leviticus /Shmita rhythm out of direct experience as farmers, the writers and chanters of ancient story introduced the precise opposite of Leviticus into their tales about Joseph, to enhance freedom with a tale of enslavement? Or is Torah saying that Joseph’s whole life-path of determinism – there are no choices possible – fits with Subjugation, with Power Over others?]

 Most commentators read the rest of Genesis as a triumph for Joseph and hi family. They live affluently by Pharaoh’s grace, in a territory of their own --  Goshen. At last Joseph’s own life-long dream of and effort to win power over his equals has been rewarded. After all, this was his fourth try: seeking power over his brothers brought him into the pit and sale as a slave into Egypt. Grasping power in Potiphar’s household brought him fury from Potiphar’s wife, whom he had displaced from her role as supervisor, and who maneuvered him into prison. In prison he rises to appointment as a “trusty,” an aide to the warden – but is left a prisoner when he sets himself up as a dream interpreter for other prisoners. Finally, he rises to sit above all Egypt, next to Pharaoh himself.  His life-search finds utter triumph!

Until we turn the Torah Scroll to the Book of Exodus.

 [Please pause from this reading for a few minutes to think through the “white fire” of the blank spaces between the two books. What is the story written in the "white fire"? What happened between the two books? What does it mean? And then come back.]


As Exodus begins, Joseph’s descendants become slaves, victims of attempted genocide.

Is the Torah trying to tell us an epic story of how Subjugation of the People and the Land recoils upon the heads of Subjugators and must – if we are wise enough to hearken to the Breath of Life --  result in a Great Turning ? Is this story not merely antiquarian history but a great and hidden parable? What is its meaning for today?


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