Joseph Buys the Egyptians and Their Land

I was studying Genesis 47 and I was terribly bothered by the story. Because of the famine, the Egyptians had no food. It was a national emergency. Joseph had spent years storing up grain in anticipation of this. I would have thought he would generously supply the people with food after taxing their produce for so many years. Instead he seems to flay the populace for everything they’re worth – taking all their money, then all their animals, and finally taking their land and their very selves, making them eternal slaves of Pharaoh. Then to top it off, he uproots and resettles the entire population, moving people from one city to another. Wasn’t Joseph righteous? Why does he seem to be treating the nation so heartlessly, taking advantage of their desperation?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

Thank you for your excellent question. You are right that Joseph’s treatment of the Egyptians at first appears very cruel. (Although in truth in ancient times people were virtual slaves to the king. They had no rights per se and could only live and control their property at the king’s pleasure.)

In truth, however, Joseph had a very noble reason for enslaving and exiling the Egyptians as he did. It was out of devotion to his family. The entire family knew, ever since Abraham’s time, that they were destined to be slaves in a foreign land (see Genesis 15:13). It was clear to Joseph that the family would follow him and eventually be enslaved by the Egyptians. And he saw it as his mission to pave the way. Thus, he purposely made the Egyptians themselves slaves and refugees – in their own land – to remove that same future stigma from his brethren (Talmud Hullin 60b, brought in Rashi to 47:21). (Later he would also see to it that they settle in Goshen – as far as possible from the immoral influence of Egyptian society.)

(One can compare this to many prominent Jews of later generations who held positions of power in non-Jewish nations. So often they bent over backwards not to appear too “Jewish” or partial towards the Jews. Joseph, by contrast, saw his entire appointment as viceroy in Egypt as for the purpose of easing the nation’s descent into exile.)

More generally, the Torah is not a history book. It records virtually nothing of Joseph’s long rule as viceroy of Egypt. Yet this one incident is recorded – because it carries an eternal message for future generations.

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