Welcome back to my study/review of Genesis. If you missed the previous parts of this study, you can find them HERE.
13 Now there was no food in all the land, for the famine was very severe, so that the land of Egypt and the land of Canaan languished by reason of the famine. 14 And Joseph gathered up all the money that was found in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan, in exchange for the grain that they bought. And Joseph brought the money into Pharaoh’s house. 15 And when the money was all spent in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan, all the Egyptians came to Joseph and said, “Give us food. Why should we die before your eyes? For our money is gone.” 16 And Joseph answered, “Give your livestock, and I will give you food in exchange for your livestock, if your money is gone.” 17 So they brought their livestock to Joseph, and Joseph gave them food in exchange for the horses, the flocks, the herds, and the donkeys. He supplied them with food in exchange for all their livestock that year. 18 And when that year was ended, they came to him the following year and said to him, “We will not hide from my lord that our money is all spent. The herds of livestock are my lord’s. There is nothing left in the sight of my lord but our bodies and our land. 19 Why should we die before your eyes, both we and our land? Buy us and our land for food, and we with our land will be servants to Pharaoh. And give us seed that we may live and not die, and that the land may not be desolate.”
20 So Joseph bought all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh, for all the Egyptians sold their fields, because the famine was severe on them. The land became Pharaoh’s. 21 As for the people, he made servants of them from one end of Egypt to the other. 22 Only the land of the priests he did not buy, for the priests had a fixed allowance from Pharaoh and lived on the allowance that Pharaoh gave them; therefore they did not sell their land.
Joseph’s dream – and the opportunity to prepare for what was coming – subsequently allows Pharaoh and Egypt to profit greatly as a result From The Pulpit Commentaries:
And there was no bread in all the land; for the famine was very sore (literally, heavy), so that the land of Egypt and all the land of Canaan fainted (literally, was exhausted, had become languid and spiritless) by reason of the famine. The introduction of the present section, which first depicts the miseries of a starving population, and then circumstantially describes a great political revolution forced upon them by the stern necessity of hunger, may have been due to a desire
(1) to exhibit the extreme urgency which existed for Joseph’s care of his father and brethren (Bush),
(2) to show the greatness of the benefit conferred on Joseph’s house (Baumgarten, Keil, Lange), and perhaps also
(3) to foreshadow the political constitution afterwards bestowed upon the Israelites (Gerlach).
Is there a record of this famine outside of the Bible? It is difficult to say because there have been many famines in the window of time wherein Joseph was thought to have lived. However, the time period of Joseph generally is thought to have occurred near the end of the Bronze Age and there is scholarship on the topic. Joseph and the Famine: The Story’s Origins in Egyptians History, by Prof. Israel Knohl, covers the story from the perspective of Egyptian history – excerpt included below:
During the reign of Pharaoh Siptah, Egypt had a powerful vizier from the Levant named Baya, who dominated even the Pharaoh. Archaeological records and climatological studies show that this was right in the middle of a lengthy famine that affected the entire Mediterranean.
Genesis 41 tells of a lengthy famine which, according to the text, lasts seven years. The famine is so deadly that people have nothing to eat, not only in Egypt, but in the surrounding lands as well. Egypt, however, survives the famine by storing extra grain from previous good years, and all the neighboring lands come to Egypt to buy food.
This famine provides the background for the story of how Jacob and his extended family end up in Egypt. They are just one group out of many that come to Egypt to buy food. But does this dramatic account of a regional famine have any basis in Egyptian history? In other words, do we have any historical record of a dramatic or widespread famine that might bring many people to move to Egypt on a quasi-permanent basis? One such event that we can identify is attested.
When the Bronze Age Collapsed
Towards the end of the Bronze Age, in the last decades of the 13th century and the early decades of the 12th century B.C.E., the Mediterranean world suffered a decades-long series of draughts and famines. Many of the more vulnerable lands in the Levant and the Mediterranean were in desperate need of food. Egypt was in a unique position to supply food since it depended on the annual inundation of the Nile rather than on rainfall.
This famine began in the final years of Ramesses II, who ruled for 66 years, from 1279–1213 B.C.E., dying in his early nineties. The Hittite Empire in Anatolia (modern day eastern Turkey) was hit particularly hard from the beginning and turned to their historic rival Egypt for assistance. This is attested in a letter from the Hittite Queen Puduhepa to this Pharaoh about a royal marriage between their two houses, where she notes that the Hittite princess was given animals as her dowry, and tells Ramesses II to quickly take possession of them himself, since “I have no grain in my lands” with which to take care of them.
When Ramesses II’s son Merneptah (1213–1203 B.C.E.) takes over as an old man, he immediately has to contend with the challenges of being the only country with an excess of food in the region. In his first year as Pharaoh, Merneptah boasts how “he caused grain to be taken in ships, to keep alive this land of Hatti”—in other words, he sends boatloads of wheat to the starving Hittite Empire.
Of course, Egypt did not send this wheat to the Hittites as a charitable donation. A letter uncovered in Tel Aphek (near Antipatris) from the governor of Ugarit to the Egyptian governor of Canaan, describes a shipment containing about 15 tons of grain paid for with silver, to which the governor of Ugarit added 100 shekels of blue and purple (biblical תכלת וארגמן) dyed wool.
As the Israeli Hittitologist Itamar Singer (1946–2012) notes: “The efforts invested in procuring such a relatively small amount of grain only emphasize the severity of the situation.” Ultimately, before the advent of the Iron Age, the Hittite Empire crumbled as a consequence of both the famine and the invasions from marauders looking for food.
The famine extended beyond the Levant and Asia minor, throughout the Mediterranean. Greece was affected, and the Mycenean culture, with its luxurious palaces, collapsed. Other civilizations in the Greek and Italian islands, such as Sicily and Sardinia, were also destroyed, and the peoples of the Greek and Hittite empires began to wander, looking for a more hospitable environment.
This famine is responsible for a wave of destructions in the Levant. Emar, a powerful city on the Euphrates in Syria, Ugarit, and many Canaanite city-states are destroyed in his period. The Ugaritic texts describe the invaders from the sea, showing that the king and his people knew what was coming, but were powerless to stop it.
Some of the history described above might sound familiar. The article’s mention of “invaders from the sea” is a reference to the mysterious Sea People, who have become somewhat popular in that portion of Bronze Age history that is somewhat mainstream. Other events from within the region during this period of time included the Greek invasion of Troy – which some historians now claim a date for of 1184 BCE.
Returning to verses 14 and 15 in The Pulpit Commentaries:
And Joseph gathered up—the verb, used only here of collecting money, usually signifies to gather things lying on the ground, as, e.g; ears of corn (Ruth 2:3), stones (Genesis 31:46), manna (Exodus 16:14), flowers (Song of Solomon 6:2)—all the money (literally, silver) that was found in the land of Egypt, and in the land of Canaan, for the corn which they bought: and Joseph (who in this matter was simply Pharaoh’s steward) brought the money into Pharaoh’s house (i.e. deposited it in the royal treasury).
And when money failed (literally, and the silver was consumed, or spent) in the land of Egypt, and in the land of Canaan, all (literally, and all) the Egyptians came unto Joseph, and said, Give us bread: for why should we die in thy presence? for the money faileth (literally, and why should we die in thy presence because silver faileth? i.e. seeing that thou art able to support us).
These verses cover the first phase of Pharaoh’s financial ascendance. Everyone in the region spends all of their money to obtain Egypt’s grain – to the point they literally run out. Continuing into verse 16 with Ellicott’s Bible Commentary:
(16) Give your cattle.—As the people were in want of food, and their land incapable of cultivation as long as the Nile ceased to overflow, this was a merciful arrangement, by which the owners were delivered from a burden, and also a portion of the cattle saved for the time when they would be needed again for agricultural purposes. As the charge of so many cattle in time of dearth would be a very serious matter (1 Kings 18:5-6), we now see the reason why Pharaoh wished the ablest of Joseph’s brethren to be employed in the task; and probably while there was no food for them in the Nile Valley, there would still be grass in the alluvial soil of the delta, which men used to move about with cattle would be able to find.
(17) Horses . . . flocks . . . herds . . . asses.—The mention of horses is a most important fact in settling the much-debated question as to the dynasty under which Joseph became governor of Egypt. When Abram went there, horses do not seem as yet to have been known (see Note on Genesis 12:16), but oxen and asses were common, and the former indigenous in the country (Maspero, Histoire Ancienne, pp. 11, 12). The horse was introduced by the Hyksos, according to Lenormant, Les Prem. Civilisations, i., 306 ff.; Rawlin-son, Egypt, i., 74; and the first representation of one is drawing the war-chariot of the king who expelled them. The “flocks” are expressly said in the. Hebrew to be sheep. This, too, is important; for while goats were indigenous in Egypt, sheep do not appear in the most ancient monuments, though they were introduced at an earlier date than horses.
Once everyone runs out of money, they begin to trade their livestock for grain. It’s not stated overtly, but the note points out that Egypt acquiring livestock meant that the acquisition of herdsmen (Joseph’s family) was valuable for Pharaoh.
The note also points out that the mention of horses also gives a clue as to the time period of these events.
Continuing in the text with The Pulpit Commentaries:
When that year was ended, they came unto him the second year (not the second from the commencement of the dearth, but the second from the consumption of their money), and said unto him, We will not hide it from my lord, how that—literally, for if (so we should speak openly), hence equivalent to an intensified but—our money (literally, the silver) is spent; my lord also hath our herds of cattle;—literally, our herds of cattle also (sc. have come) to my lord—there is not ought left in the sight of my lord, but our bodies, and our lands: wherefore shall we die before thine eyes, both we and our land? buy us and our land for bread, and we and our land will be servants unto Pharaoh: and give us seed, that we may (literally, and we shall) live, and not die, that the land be not desolate (literally, and the land shall not be desolate).
And Joseph bought all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh; for the Egyptians sold every man his field, because the famine prevailed over them: so (literally, and) the land became Pharaoh’s. From this it may be concluded that originally Pharaoh had no legal claim to the soil, but that the people had a valid title to its absolute possession, each man being regarded as the legitimate proprietor of the portion on which he had expended the labor of cultivation.
In these verses, after obtaining all of the available silver and livestock, Pharaoh obtains the land itself. God, through Joseph, has made Pharaoh wealthy and even more powerful. Ellicott adds thoughts to this verse as well:
(20) So the land became Pharaoh’s.—Joseph has been accused of reducing a free people to slavery by his policy. Undoubtedly he did vastly increase the royal power; but from what we read of the vassalage under which the Egyptians lived to a multitude of petty sovereigns, and also to their wives, their priests, and their embalmers, an increase in the power of the king, so as to make it predominant, would be to their advantage. The statement made here that the land in Egypt belonged entirely to the king is confirmed by Herodotus and other Greek authorities. The same is the case in India at this day; only, instead of the rent being a fifth part of the produce, it is in India a fixed annual sum, which is settled at comparatively distant intervals. In Burmah the agriculturists hold their land directly from the Crown.
Ellicott argues – fairly, I think – that Joseph’s actions here ultimately benefited the people of Egypt. (I would remind any readers who might be confused about the comments re: India that Ellicott’s Commentary is not a recent commentary.)
Finishing up the section in The Pulpit Commentaries:
And as for the people, he removed them—not enslaved them, converted them into serfs and bondmen to Pharaoh (LXX; Vulgate), but simply transferred them, caused them to pass over—to cities—not from cities to cities, as if changing their populations (Onkelos, Rosenmüller, Kalisch), but either from the country districts to the towns (Targums Jonathan and Jerusalem, Lange, Schumann, Gerlach, Murphy), or according to the cities, i.e. in which the grain had been previously collected (Keil)—from one end of the borders of Egypt even to the other end thereof. Not that the people were transported from one side of the country to the other as a high stroke of policy to complete their subjugation (Jarchi, Grotius, Rosenmüller, Kalisch, and others), but that throughout the land they were moved into the nearest cities, as a considerate and even merciful arrangement for the more efficiently supplying them with food (Calvin, Keil, Lange, Wordsworth, Speaker’s Commentary).
Only the land of the priests (so the LXX; Vulgate, and Chaldee render cohen, which, however, sometimes signifies a prince) bought he not; for the priests had a portion—not of land (Lange, Kalisch), but of food (Keil, Murphy)—assigned them of Pharaoh (not of Joseph, who must not, therefore, be charged with the sin of extending a State allowance to an idolatrous priesthood), and did eat their portion which Pharaoh gave them: wherefore they sold not their lands,—that is, in consequence of the State aliment which they enjoyed (during the period of the famine) they did not require to alienate their lands.
The people of Egypt move into cities to make the grain distribution easier. It stands to reason as well if one does not own the land anymore, and lacks the means to derive income from livestock herding on said land, that one need not live on it. Verse 22 tells us that priests / princes were exempt from all of this.
priests = כֹּהֵן kôhên, ko-hane’; active participle of H3547; literally one officiating, a priest; also (by courtesy) an acting priest (although a layman):—chief ruler, × own, priest, prince, principal officer.
In the next section, Joseph puts the hungry people to work.