JOSEPH AND THE YOKE OF BONDAGE
The story of Joseph and Pharaoh
is well known. Poets have retold it and painters have redrawn it so often
that most of us mainly remember Joseph's kindness towards his cruel brothers
while the darker shadows behind his figure are forgotten.
In Genesis the old traditions of the patriarchs
have been a much-disputed subject among learned and sceptical orientalists.
Alternatively the names seem to be names of persons or names of tribes.
However, the modern excavations in Mesopotamia and the findings in Egypt
confirm so many details in the tradition that we may conclude that in between
myth and poetry historical facts do exist.
Joseph-like Benjamin-was the son of Jacob and
Rachel, while their ten older brothers were sons of other wives. Jacob loved
Joseph, the child of his old age, and gave him "a coat of many colours" which
seems to have been such an unusual garment as to hurt the hearts of the
less well-clad with snakebite of envy. As it seems that Joseph was something
of a telltale, some of the brothers bore a grudge against him.(Gen.xxxvii 3)
"And Joseph had a dream." His sheaf arose, and also
stood upright, and beholds, his brothers' sheaves made obeisance. He saw
the sun and the moon and eleven stars make obeisance to him. Joseph was a
One day as young Joseph went into the fields,
the brothers said one to another: "Behold, this dreamer cometh. Come now
therefore, and let us slay him." (Gen. xxxvii 19, 20)
Through Reuben's intercession, however, his life was spared. The loving brothers
sold him as a slave to some Ishmaelites, who were on their way to Egypt with
a caravan. The Midianite merchantmen sold him again to one of Pharaoh's geldings,
Potifar, captain of the guard. We recall how the brothers showed Joseph's
beautiful, detested coat to Jacob, well dipped in the blood of a kid-how
Joseph won the confidence of Potifar-and how that officer's hot-blooded wife
tempted Joseph to breach of confidence. On a false charge of having attempted
to seduce this seductive lady, the chaste and faithful Joseph was thrown
into prison. This motive is well known from old Egyptian literature.
In prison Joseph gained the jailer's favour and
had the good fortune of being able to interpret two fellow-prisoners' dreams.
One of them, the butler of the king, was later reappointed at the court,
as Joseph had predicted, and the other, the king's baker, was hanged.
Two years passed, and the butler of the king
had forgotten the little interpreter of dreams, but then Pharaoh had a dream.
He dreamed he was standing by the river, and up came seven wellfavoured kine
and fatfleshed, and they fed in a meadow. After them seven other cows came
up from the Nile, ill favoured and leanfleshed, and they ate up the seven
cows that were plump and fatfleshed. (Gen xli. 1-4)
As nobody was able to interpret the dream, the
butler came to think of Joseph. Then Pharaoh sent and called for Joseph,
and they washed and shaved him and brought him from the dungeon to Pharaoh.
Having heard the dream Joseph said: "What God is about to do he sheweth unto
Pharaoh. Behold, there come seven years of great plenty throughout all the
land of Egypt. And there shall arise after them seven years of famine; and
all the plenty shall be forgotten in the land ... by reason of that famine
following for it shall be very grievous." (Gen. xli 28-31)
Therefore he advised Pharaoh to appoint a supervisor for the whole of Egypt,
who was to collect one fifth of the harvest during the good years and fill
the granaries and keep it for the bad years. Pharaoh and Joseph went together
into a great speculation in corn, almost like making a corner in grain in
the Chicago of today. Joseph's office as a Grand Vizier was to organise the
whole thing. "And Joseph went out over all the land of Egypt ... And Joseph
gathered corn as the sand of the sea." ( ibid. 45-49)
In his famous "History of Egypt", Professor James
H. Breasted describes the functions of an Egyptian vizier as follows: "He
was a veritable Joseph, and it must have been this office, which the Hebrew
narrator had in mind as that to which Joseph was appointed." Joseph was married
to the daughter of the priest of On-the later Heliopolis. Periods of great
famines are well known in Egyptian inscriptions, and their deadly effect
on the population is shown on a relief from Sakkarah, dating from an earlier
period than Joseph's. In Pithom, in the land of Goshen, ruins of granaries
and grain silos have been found.
THE YEARS OF FAMINE
After the years of great plenty
came the years of bad crops. Farming was a failure, but the corn-speculation
turned out a success. Prices rose, and the hungry people demanded corn from
Pharaoh who referred them to Joseph. "And Joseph opened all the storehouses
and sold unto the Egyptians." (Gen. xli. 56) Still
the spell of drought continued, and when money failed the Egyptians came
unto Joseph and sold their cattle. And the famine was over all the face of
the earth and they said: "We will not hide it from my lord, how that our money
is spent: my lord also hath our herds of cattle; there is not aught 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 live and not die, that the land will be not desolate." (Gen. xlvii. 18, 19)
They were trapped. As it is written: "And Joseph
bought all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh; ... only the land of the priests
bought he not; for the priests had a portion assigned them of Pharaoh, and
did eat their portion which Pharaoh gave them; wherefore they sold not their
lands" (ibid. 20-22)
Joseph dealt out bread and seed and said: "Behold,
I have bought you this day and your land for Pharaoh; here is seed for you,
and ye shall sow the land. And it shall come to pass in the increase that
ye shall give the fifth part unto Pharaoh."(ibid, 23,24)
This was a 20 per cent mortgage interest or a copyhold rent from farmers
who had lost their independent occupying ownership. "And Joseph made it law
over the land of Egypt unto this day that Pharaoh should have the fifth part;
except the land of the priests only, which became not Pharaoh's." (ibid 26)
Here we see the land monopoly in all its might,
the worst of the Egyptian plagues; the power of kings, the power of nobles,
the power of the priesthood, used and misused in order to swallow up the
income and production of the working people. As a young dreaming boy Joseph
was sold as a slave to Egypt. As a mature and realistic statesman he in his
turn enslaved the Egyptians. And the bondage of Egypt was hard.
In the second year of the great
famine Joseph's relations had moved to Egypt and had been assigned land in
Goshen, the narrow, fertile valley, Wadi Tumilat, which stretches from the
Delta to the Bitter Lakes once connected with the Red Sea. Here lie the
towns Rameses and Pithom mentioned in the Bible as built by the Israelites.
Tradition gives Moses a leading part in their construction in that period
of his life when he lived as a young prince at Pharaoh's court. In this part
of the country the Israelites thrived and multiplied, faithfully keeping
to their religious hopes and traditions from the days of Abraham.
"Now there arose up a new king over Egypt, which
knew not Joseph." (Exod. 1. 8.) Forgotten was the
gratitude, and fear arose that the Israelites might support a potential aggressor
in this place of strategic importance, this gateway of Egypt for trade and
invasions. As we recall, this fear was wellfounded. The Semitic Hyksos tribes
had conquered Lower Egypt about 1800 BC, and controlled the Delta till about
1600 BC. Joseph must have lived at the end of the Hyksos period and at the
beginning of the 18th dynasty, when King Ahmoses I expelled the Hyksos. Sir
Flinders Petrie mentions that the word of homage: "Abrek", by which the Egyptians
cheered Joseph is a Semitic word of Babylonian origin.
The results of Joseph's land-policy now affected
his own people. As a natural consequence of the landmonopolisation, Pharaoh
resorted to well-known means: "Therefore they did set over them taskmasters
to afflict them with their burdens." (ibid 11) Poverty
increased and the pleasures of work and production changed into the misery
of slavery: "And they made their lives bitter with hard bondage, in mortar,
and in brick, and in all manner of service in the field: all their service,
wherein they made them serve, was with rigour." (Exod. i. 14.) And the
king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives: "If it be a son, then ye shall
kill him." (ibid. 16.) Heavy taxation, birth control,
the burden of Egypt! Rather modern conditions.
Egypt is a long country, the
intestine of Africa, where the mud from the rising Nile makes the soil extremely
fertile; a narrow oasis surrounded by vast deserts, where nothing grows
and few come. Even if the Nile valley is thousands of kilometres long, the
arable area of Egypt is smaller than that of Denmark. Only the tropical rain
in the interior of Abyssinia and Africa, which makes the river rise in the
autumn, saves the Nile valley from being a desert.In order to develop the
favourable natural conditions fully, the construction of dikes and embankments
and a network of canals was necessary and only possible through co-ordination.
Organised co-operation was essential and was to each person's material advantage,
because thereby he obtained a higher standard of living, but at the same
time it restricted his independence. Under powerful rulers this was to the
benefit of Egypt as long as they made it their concern to maintain law and
order and organise the community, without exploiting the working man.
As the deserts made flight and emigration almost
impossible, the people were completely at the mercy of those despots who
had sufficient forces and an organised bureaucracy behind them. This system
was greatly supported by the priests and enormously strengthened by the important
fact, which Professor John A. Wilson in his wonderful book, "The Burden of
Egypt" states as decisive: Pharaoh was looked upon as a god.
Henry George says: "Consider what Egypt was.
See the grandeur of her monuments; those very monuments-that after the lapse,
not of centuries but of millenniums, seem to say to us, as the Egyptian priests
said to the boastful Greeks: 'Ye are children! '-testify to the enslavement
of the people, are the enduring witnesses of a social organisation that
rested on the masses an immovable weight. That narrow Nile valley, the cradle
of the arts and sciences, the scene, perhaps, of the greatest triumphs of
the human mind, is also the scene of its most abject enslavement. In the
long centuries of its splendour, its lord, secure in the possession of irresistible
temporal power, and securer still in the awful sanctions of a mystical religion,
was as a god on earth, to cover whose poor carcass with a tomb befitting
his state, hundreds of thousands toiled away their lives."
He, who could take the land from the people,
owned them and what they produced. Despots arose and cartels who realised
this. King Ahmoses I who laid the foundation of the l8th dynasty, came into
power about 1580 BC after having expelled the Hyksos people. He built his
power on the army, the temples and the bureaucracy and extirpated the feudal
lords who had opposed him. Breasted says: "There seems to have been but
few of the local nobles who thus supported Ahmoses and gained his favour.
The larger number opposed both him and the Hyksos and perished in the struggle.
As their more fortunate rivals were now nothing more than administrative,
military or court officials, the feudal lords thus practically disappeared.
The lands which formed their hereditary possessions were confiscated and
passed to the crown, where they permanently remained."
PHARAOH'S PERSONAL ESTATE
Freeholding disappeared. Breasted
says: "All Egypt was now the personal estate of the Pharaoh, just as it was
after the destruction of the Mamelukes by Mohammed Ali early in the nineteenth
century. It is this state of affairs which in the Hebrew tradition was represented
as the direct result of Joseph's sagacity."
In his book, "From Joseph to Joshua", Professor
H. H. Rowley is of the opinion that Joseph lived under the reign of Amen-hotep
IV (Ikhn-aton), but the land policy of this Pharaoh was the opposite and
consisted mainly in the confiscation for a short period of the enormous
estates of the Amon temples.
The l8th dynasty resided in Thebes with the huge
temples of Karnak. The Danish Professor Hartvig Frisch asks the question:
"What things do the big temples in Luxor and Karnak gloat over? Is it merciful
and generous gods haunting these colossi of stone? Modern research has
brought the truth to light. The land monopoly is the deepest secret of the
Frisch also points to the importance of what
happened under Ahmoses who "confiscated all land with the exception of that
of the temples, and all Egypt was now the personal estate of the Pharaoh."
Most scholars agree that Joseph must have lived in this period.
The famous Papyrus Harris gives a list of the
great riches of the Karnak temple: 107,000 slaves, three quarters of a million
acres of land, half a million head of cattle and 53 shipyards. That is why
the temples were so magnificently adorned and the ceremonies so elaborate.
Frisch says: "But behind all this we find an important reality: The priesthood!
When the cult of Osiris and Amon later on spread all over Egypt, it was actually
an economic concentration, similar to the endowments of the Middle Ages and
the trust foundlings of modern times. Behind the stereotyped forms a living
and real power lurked, nourishing on the muddied channels of superstition."
At the courts of the Pharaohs a glittering luxury
prevailed, stretching far into the royal tombs of the Valley of Kings, where
now the robbed sepulchral chambers mock the vanity of the rulers. The tomb
of Tut-ankh-amon, the young and insignificant king, was discovered by Howard
Carter in 1922 and appeared to be practically undisturbed. To look at the
riches of gold, ivory and lapis lazuli in this tomb gives one an idea of
what the contents of the tombs of the mighty kings must have been like.
The land monopoly reached its prime in Egypt,
where the wealth of the princes and the splendour of the temples little by
little was overspun by a cobweb of red tape and the creepers of an excessive
bureaucratic system of innumerable writers and supervisors. The strength
of the people was eaten up from within and the country was ruined. The common
man sank into poverty and apathy through taxation and suppression, a poverty
and apathy lasting to this very day. The well favoured cows and fatfleshed
ate up the ill favoured and leanfleshed. Pharaoh had a dream.