Yosef's Economic Policies



Egyptian History in the Torah?

After recounting the arrival of Yaakov's family in Egypt, the Torah describes at length Yosef's economic policies during the years of famine.  The depiction is surprising, for it is not readily apparent what purpose this story holds for the reader.  Why does the Torah, usually so careful and often sparse in its language, find it necessary to expound about Egyptian economics?  Or, in the words of the Akeidat YitzchakBereshit Gate 31About R. Yitzchak Arama:1


למה הוזכר בכאן כל זה הענין מחק החמישית והעברת העם לערים וחק הכהנים מאת פרעה?  כי כל זה יאות ליכתב בספרי נימוסי מצרים לא בתורה האלהית!

Why is the entire story of the law of the fifth and the transferring of the people to the cities, and the law of the priests mentioned here?  For this is fitting to be written in the Egyptian records, but not for the Divine Torah!

Economic Wisdom or Extortion?

At first glance, Yosef's economic measures seem somewhat severe.  Although the Egyptians had given a fifth of their grain to be stored during the years of plenty, when famine strikes they find themselves forced to give up all their money and cattle and even offer themselves as slaves2 in order to buy food.  Yosef takes all their land and a fifth of any future produce for Paroh and then implements a policy of population displacement.  What was the purpose of these actions?  Were such draconian measures really needed to ensure proper distribution of the food, or was Yosef being unnecessarily harsh?

Repeated and Seemingly Extraneous Details

The episode includes several details which are repeated more than once, making the reader question their import:

  • Fate of Canaan – When describing the impoverishment of the Egyptians, there is a three-fold mention3 that, in Canaan too, money was scarce.  Why does the Torah highlight this fact?  What does it reveal about the overall economic situation of Canaan and the devastation caused there by the famine?
  • Yosef's family – Yosef's economic policies are framed by details of Yosef's family settling and proliferating in Goshen.  The literary sandwiching suggests that the Torah is trying to connect the two issues.  What, though, is the point of the connection?
  • Priestly exemption – The priestly exemption from selling their land to Paroh is mentioned twice in this short unit; why is this necessary?  What is the reader supposed to learn from this fact?