Egypt’s Famine and the Importance of Uncertainty

The sequence of events in the Bible is often confusing, leading to multiple, seemingly conflicting interpretations. Even though the Talmud declared long ago that “There is no before or after in the Torah”, in other words it is not written in chronological order, this did not solve all the problems.  Indeed, some biblical commentators, most notably the great 12th century exegete Ramban rejected this principle, because as far as he was concerned it just doesn’t work.

An example of chronological confusion occurs when Joseph’s brothers arrive in Egypt for the second time. Joseph finally makes himself known to them. he reassures them of his good intentions by saying that God had sent him to Egypt to save their lives, because there were still five years of famine left to run. He means that they are now in the second year of the seven year famine which his interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream had foretold.

Joseph then sends his brothers home to get Jacob.  We are not told how long it took Jacob and his sons to pack up their home and complete the journey to Egypt, but once they have arrived Joseph negotiates with Pharaoh for the family to live in the land of Goshen. The family settles, Joseph presents five of his brothers to Pharaoh and then finally introduces him to Jacob. It is reasonable to assume that some time had now elapsed since Joseph told his brothers that the famine still had five years to run.

With Jacob and his family now safely in Egypt, the narrative turns to Joseph’s management of the famine. It describes how he first sells corn to the Egyptians and then, when they run out of money he introduces a feudal system, acquiring their land and turning the people into serfs. This too is said to take place, when the famine is in the second year (Genesis 47,18) and it seems to mark the end of the famine; he gives them seed and they go to sow the land. If the famine ended after only two years, then Joseph’s prophecy of seven years of famine would be incorrect.

Ancient and medieval commentators are divided about the chronology. The early sources are quite clear that Joseph introduces the feudal system in the second year of the famine, the same year as Joseph had first made himself known to his brothers. The 3rd century Tosefta (Sotah 10,3) explains that while Isaac and Jacob were alive the lands in which they lived were blessed with fertile harvests. Once Jacob arrived in Egypt the famine ceased, but it restarted after his death. There were therefore seven years of famine, supporting Joseph’s prophecy, but there was a gap between the first two years and the last five years.

However, in the contemporaneous Sifrei, R. Shimon bar Yohai argues that the restarting of the famine after Jacob’s death would have been a desecration of God’s name. He would rather see Joseph’s prophecy fail than God’s name desecrated. His son, R. Eliezer disagrees, insisting that the cessation of the famine when Jacob arrived in Egypt was the due to his merit. He presumably, though it is not stated, supports the view that the famine returned for five years after Jacob’s death.

The medieval commentators are less certain about this. Rashi, as one would expect, follows the view in the Tosefta, which he cites. Ibn Ezra however says that the second year, mentioned in 47,18, when Joseph instituted the feudal system, means the second year after Jacob’s arrival, that is to say the fourth year of the famine. He keeps Joseph’s prophecy intact by suggesting that three years of famine followed, but that they were less severe than the previous four.

Ramban and Radak are more stringent about the idea that the seven years of famine predicted by Joseph were fulfilled. Abarbanel however says that the feudal system was instituted in the second of the remaining five years referred to by Joseph.

Ultimately the debate between the ancient and most of the medieval commentators comes down to a question of priorities. One position emphasises Jacob’s merits by insisting that through his very presence the famine was curtailed, even though it meant that Joseph’s prophecy was proved false. The other position takes the opposite view. But it is not a question of which view is right. That the Torah is capable of supporting a plurality of valid interpretations is fundamental. It is this which gives the Jewish tradition its creativity and flexibility. No matter what anyone may tell you, even in ancient times Torah was not monolithic in its world view.

© 2020 Harry Freedman Books