Why Was Joseph So Cruel to the Egyptians?

Joseph has prophetic gifts and uses them to preserve Egypt. But he radically transforms his host nation. The average Egyptian, we are told, was grateful to be saved from starvation. But today, we would see Joseph as a tyrant.

He interprets Pharoah’s dreams to foresee seven years of plenty will be followed by seven years of famine. He advises Pharaoh to make all Egyptians give him part of their crops during the years of plenty. When the famine strikes, Joseph wields his power with uncompromising ruthlessness. When they run out of food, Joseph sells their own food back to them from Pharaoh’s storehouses that they stocked. When they run out of money, they sell him their livestock. When they run out of livestock they sell him their land. Finally, the only thing they have left to sell is their own their bodies and their labor, and they agree to indentured servitude to Pharaoh. Pharaoh already has supreme authority, but now Joseph has used the famine crisis to consolidate everything into Pharaoh’s grasp.

It’s an amazing saga and the first in human history of the orderly transition from what was an open agrarian society of landowners under a monarchy to totalitarian rule by an absolutist, an autocrat. All Egyptian citizens – except priests who already serve Pharaoh as god-king – lose not only all their possessions, but the most precious thing, their freedom. They no longer own themselves.

What follows is one of the most disturbing scenes of all, another turn of Joseph’s screw: Joseph now forcibly re-locates whole Egyptian towns to new ones, playing a cruel game of mixmaster with them for reasons that seem gratuitous and harsh.

So Joseph gained possession of all the farmland of Egypt for Pharaoh. Every Egyptian sold his field because the famine was too much for them, so the land passed over to Pharaoh. And he [Joseph] removed the population town by town, from one end of Egypt’s border to the other.

(Gen 47:20-21)

We might say Joseph uprooted the Egyptians for strategic reasons.[1] His measures saved Egypt from starvation, but the result is effectively enslavement of the entire populace. We could say he was averting a revolution against Pharaoh but he created a totalitarian regime. Everyone has a visceral attachment to his or her own land and home and local culture. When they made the deal, the Egyptians did so willingly. They were starving and even declared their gratitude to Pharaoh for saving their lives so they might live until the Nile flooded again and they might prosper and maybe even buy their old land back. But how long before the formerly free landowners and farmers chafe against their servitude to Pharaoh? Joseph wanted to make sure they were completely detached, dislocated, disunited.[2] Ibn Ezra, a 12th century Spanish commentator even says Joseph was staging a notorious tactic – it was used used by Mao in China’s Cultural Revolution of the 20th century – to move urbanites from the major cities to farms, “from the capital to villages so that they would till the soil” as Ibn Ezra says. In both instances, it still seems cruel.

Forced exile from Liga, Latvia during WWII. Jewish-Czech writer Milan Kundera accepted Jerusalem Prize for Literature for his wrenching portrait of deracination. From The Federal German Archive.

Americans old enough will remember Depression-era dislocation in the Oklahoma Dust Bowl and in towns across the country when banks repossessed mortgages. Think of movies like the Grapes of Wrath or It’s a Wonderful Life. In The Plot Against America (2004), Philip Roth imagines an alternate history in which Charles Lindbergh, a Nazi, becomes president in 1940. In league with Hitler, he implements a much subtler plan to destroy the Jews than burning them wholesale. He separates individuals from their families in Jewish enclaves like Newark and re-settles them in places like rural Kentucky. It’s a form of cultural and psychic extermination.

It’s also what nations do to each other. A bully country invades and if they haven’t slaughtered the natives, make them slaves or force them into exile. Some natives escape and take to the hills to fight a heroic guerrilla war. Every nation has this story. It is the story of the American Revolution against the British. It’s the story of the Americans and their cruelty to both African slaves and Native Americans. And long before white men slaughtered and herded them onto reservations, Native Americans did this to each other. In the 19th and 20th centuries we celebrated British rule over an empire of brown-skinned peoples as a victory of civilization. Now, we treat their subjugation of indigenous people as a paradigm of imperialist crimes, including colonialism and racism. In his sweeping book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2011), Yuval Noah Harari shows that eliminating the other is innate to our species. The story predates recorded history itself. It’s so universal, it’s likely a genetic instinctive heritage of being a primate. Gorillas and chimps do it to each other. Homo sapiens displaced Neanderthals and also Homo florensiensis, the so-called “hobbits.” (The name evokes not only their short stature but our sympathy.) Harari shows the drama re-enacted over and over: ethnic cleansing or slaughter; physical re-location, including slavery. The conquering culture erases the old gods and topples the statues of the conquered king. They force the conquered to speak their language and worship their gods. The Babylonians did it to the Israelites in 586 BCE. The Greeks tried to culturally erase ancient Israel in the late centuries BCE, though Chanukah celebrates the Jews’ violent resistance to their assimilation. The Romans did it to them in 70 CE. Moslems and Christians forced Jews to choose between conversion and death, most notoriously in the Inquisition.

It’s a great cartoon of history: one innocent, pure people native to the land are massacred, enslaved  and culturally erased by a technologically superior but intrinsically corrupt imperialist one. Besides Westerners from Europe and America there were the vicious Mughals, Delhi sultans, Guptas, Mauryas, Sioux. In his “Avatar” movie mythology, James Cameron brings the cartoon (literally) forward to future interplanetary war. The evil aggressors are the same villains, white men representing an American-style capitalist military-industrial complex. We call it by names that in modern times signify unmitigated evil: racism, slavery, repression, fascism, totalitarianism, colonialism, imperialism, ethnic cleansing.

The implication of Harari’s book, perhaps unintended by the author, is that the narrative of an evil imperialist West just looks at history through the narrow window of our own era and guilt. It’s a luxury of self-laceration few other eras or nations could afford. Only the modern West turns the story against itself. But any time one tribe or culture or race claims their native land by rights of precedence – We were here first! – they are usually guilty of the same crimes. If we look, we will find these so-called indigenous natives almost certainly did it to others before they became victims. Maybe Harari at the time, an Israeli, was thinking of the Palestinians.

Why shouldn’t we be outraged by Joseph rule in Egypt?

Naturally, we root for the underdogs, the scrappy, poor natives fighting against wealthy cruel rulers with overwhelmingly larger, better-equipped armies. Why shouldn’t we be outraged by what Joseph did in Egypt? How could we possibly redeem Joseph from these accusations of cruelty and violence? What justification could he have had?

Goshen was the most fertile region in Egypt and closest to Sinai and Canaan.

Let’s dismiss the fact that we’re being cultural narcissists and judging history anachronistically by our overly-refined standards today, like accusing Shakespeare of being a male chauvinist.

We could simply say Joseph was getting revenge for what he saw the Egyptians were going to do to his people down the road. Like I punch my brother in the nose because I know he’s gonna beat me up next week. But this requires we appreciate the anachronistic logic of prophecy in the Hebrew Bible where divine fate has no tomorrow or yesterday.

We could look at it as clever strategy. While Joseph is staging his Maoist-like Cultural Revolution, Pharaoh also grants Joseph’s brothers their own region.  They are shepherds, abhorred by the Egyptians who worshipped animals as gods, not just commodities. Perhaps out of hospitality and enthusiasm for Joseph, and to protect the strangers, he gives Joseph’s brothers the fattest land in Egypt, Goshen. East of the Nile delta, it is still the most fertile part of Egypt. Its very name in Egyptian, Pa-qas, or the modern Faqous, means “pouring forth.”

The fact is, it was either a fabulously lucky accident or yet more evidence of God’s finger stirring the pot of history and fate, or at least Joseph’s prescience. Goshen allowed the Hebrews to prosper and multiply. They explode from seventy souls to six million by the time Moses and the plagues liberate them from Egypt. Goshen was the first Jewish ghetto, both good and bad for them. It kept them apart from the Egyptians, the perennial “other.” When the new pharaoh resolves to crush the Hebrews generations later, it became easier to slaughter their first born, and round the Hebrews up for slavery. But it also had the effect of preserving Hebrew ethnic purity and cultural integrity so they could ultimately receive the Torah and be forged into a nation. Rashi says we should give Joseph credit for uprooting the Egyptians. By making them “strangers in their own land” Joseph might have been preparing the way for the Hebrews, his brothers, to be aliens, “strangers in a strange land.” If everyone is dislocated then no one will notice the foreign invaders.[3] So in conquering Egypt he makes it more congenial for the Hebrews.[4] In the same way, by making the native Egyptians into slaves, he is giving them a foretaste of what they will eventually do to the Israelites.

Supporting this interpretation is a secret signal in the Hebrew of our verse, Gen 47:21, which reads “וְאֶת־הָעָם הֶעֱבִיר אֹתוֹ לֶעָרִים וְעַד־קָצֵהוּ׃ [v’et-ha’am he’evir oto larim…] Translators struggle with the meaning of the he’evir oto l’arim usually translated as “town by town’“ but more literally implying something like “and [Joseph] moved over [the Egyptians] from their towns. But “evir” contains the same root that gives the Israelites their names, Ivri – Hebrews. It comes from the nickname for Abraham, who is called ‘HaIvri” because he came from “the other side” [of the Eupherates river]” in Genesis 14:13.[5] This makes the translation much more comprehensible. Joseph is literally “hebraicising” the Egyptians, making them into ivri when he uproots them.

Another effect, as you can see from this map, was Goshen is close to Sinai on the well-worn major trade route connecting Asia and Africa. It gave the Hebrews a quick escape route to Sinai, where they eventually attain their freedom, receive the Torah, go on to conquer Canaan, and establish Israel, the nation. In the end, Joseph’s plot against the Egyptians might have been bad for them but good for the Hebrews. So now we can accuse him of abuse of power: it is still magnificently self-serving and by modern standards looks corrupt.

So did the end justify Joseph’s tyrannical means?

The Hebrew Bible is the very origination of the story we celebrate today in all our ideologies. It gave the world the narrative of an oppressed people achieving liberty. Slaves are being ethnically cleansed and suffering inhumane treatment. They yearn for freedom and their own land. A leader on a mission from God and armed with mighty, deadly power, liberates them. It is the very type of our radical heros, the Che Guevaras and Castros and Martin Luther Kings.

The Hebrews bring this story into the world along with a new, radical conception of justice, morality, and value for the inner life of all humans. The Hebrew alphabet gave the world the technology to express the abstract, invisible realm of subjective experience as well as describe an invisible, ubiquitous, almighty and omniscient Deity. These are the foundations of the yearning for Israel’s nationhood and redemption. The Bible is the first profound, expansive expression of these ideals. That code is the scale on which we weigh the justice of Joseph’s actions today. When Joseph ploughs up and overturns the society of the Egyptians, he sowed the field of history to give it birth.

[1] The technical word for this is deracination, uprooting, commonly deplored as a form of “colonial violence.”  Rudabeh Shahid, Joe Turner, “Deprivation of Citizenship as Colonial Violence: Deracination and Dispossession in Assam,” International Political Sociology, Volume 16, Issue 2, June 2022,  https://doi.org/10.1093/ips/olac009 or

[2] Rashi makes this point.

[3] Rashi: “He settled the people of one city in another. There was no need for Scripture to state this except for the purpose of telling you something to Joseph’s credit — that he intended thereby to remove a reproach from his brothers because, since the Egyptians were themselves strangers in the various cities where they then dwelt, they could not call them (Joseph’s brethren) strangers.”

[4] As Chizkuni suggests: “[A]s far as the people were concerned, Joseph transferred them wholesale (to new locations). Once they were settled on soil which had never been theirs, they would be less capable of returning to soil which had in the meantime acquired new lessees. Every Egyptian from now on was going to be a stranger in the land in which he was born, so that it would more difficult for them to point at the Hebrews among them as foreigners.47, 22. רק אדמת הכהנים, “only the soil belonging to the priests (Joseph did not transfer to Pharaoh).” They therefore would not have any reason to start a rebellion against Pharaoh.”

[5] The tradition holds that the monicker carries theological meaning: because Abraham believed in monotheism while the whole rest of the world believed in the other side, idolatry.