A friend and I have been back-and-forthing on various biblical themes with a libertarian lens. One of the characters we keep coming back to is Joseph. In a mainstream read, he’s a hero, a character that changes for the good, does teshuva, saves his family, rises to glory. A complete success story. He is referred to by Chazal as Yosef Hatzadik, Joseph the Righteous. But I have since been rereading the Joseph story in a libertarian light and have come to more complicated conclusions. Not that they necessarily contradict the read that Joseph was basically a good guy who succeeded in life, but a perspective that has liberty at the forefront tells me that Joseph was a much more limited and narrow person than people generally think.
In broad strokes, Yosef is the master socialist, statist, economic central planner. These are all bad words in libertarian-speak, but it is not that simple. The first thing we know about Yosef is that he has dreams of power and he seeks to control, without necessarily being in control of himself first. This initially got him into trouble when he was sold by his brothers to Egypt. There he is humbled and gains some self control, working hard to make his way to the top wherever he is, and not being sidetracked by feeling sorry for himself and depressed all day, as I’m sure many of us would feel if we were one day sold by our own family into slavery in a foreign country.
At some point, his own self control is tested, and he passes the test so well that it sets him back. He refuses to sleep with his boss’s wife, who then ironically accuses him of attempting to rape her, and he is then sent to prison.
But even then, he refuses to wallow in self-pity and does his best, rising to the top of the prison and eventually getting out by interpreting a few dreams.
Then he finally has his opportunity. He impresses Pharaoh with his interpretation of the cows swallowing cows and corn swallowing corn. And here’s where we come to a serious libertarian rereading. According to mainstream thought, Yosef saved the entire region from starvation by executing an ingenious plan of storing food. Without Yosef, the thinking goes, the entire middle east and western Africa would have been dead from hunger.
But is that really true? My contention is no. Yosef didn’t save anybody. All he did was some central economic planning through which he was able to give Pharaoh near absolute power in Egypt. The Otto Von Bismarck of his time, so to speak.
Had not Yosef interpreted Pharaoh’s dream correctly, what would have happened? There would have still been plenty of surplus food produced during the seven years of plenty. Instead of it all being monopolized in Pharaoh’s royal granaries through either coerced sales or probably outright theft, the supply would have remained decentralized.
My evidence that it was outright theft of the surplus comes from the word שילש used to describe how Egypt was divided when Pharaoh put Yosef in charge to begin collecting the surplus food. שילש is a very belligerent term, which also describes the head of an Egyptian war chariot, as in ושלישים על כלו. It is a term also used in the קדושה, as in יחד כולם קדושה לך ישלשו, describing how the angels praise God in heaven. The phrase the angels use is the famous triple קדוש, as in קדוש קדוש קדוש ה׳ צבאות, or Holy Holy Holy is the Lord of Hosts, in other words the commander of an army, with the angels being God’s army. So it is probably that Yosef sent soldiers in to simply confiscate the surplus.
There was little resistance because there was so much surplus that nobody wanted to put up a fight about it. But the key is that had Yosef not appointed thugs to confiscate the surplus, it would not have simply been wasted. All major cities had stockpiles of grain in case of a siege, and it’s not like famines were uncommon things those days. The food would have been stored, but instead of monopolized by Pharaoh with Yosef as his agent allowing him to charge an arm and a leg for it later, the price would have been competitive as many sellers would have competed for buyers during the famine years, lowering the price to something more reasonable than everything you own plus a 20% income tax for eternity, which is what Yosef ended up instituting.
So all Yosef did was give Pharaoh the window of opportunity for the greatest power grab in history up to that time. And Pharaoh took it. 3 years into the famine, Pharaoh owned all the silver in the entire economy. 4 years in, he owned all the cattle. 5 years in he literally owned the entire country. ותהי הארץ לפרעה. And it was Yosef that instituted the income tax on the Egyptian people.
That’s the bad part. The good part is that Yosef the Socialist Economic Central Planner did get his family a privileged spot through all the turmoil. There was no income tax on Bnei Yisrael. How do we know this? Because the income tax only applied to people who were forced to sell their land. The Torah clearly says that the Egyptian priests did not pay the 20% tax because they didn’t to sell their land because they got free food from the Egyptian Crown as part of the deal of being priests of Amun, or Aten, or On or whatever Egyptian god they were priests of. You know who else got free food during the famine? We did. From Yosef. So we never got taxed. And that’s why the Egyptians got really pissed off and turned on us later, enslaving us. Because our Statist brother Yosef enslaved them first with taxation.
This helped me answer a burning question I’ve always had about one little thing Yosef did in the aftermath of revealing himself to his brothers. At one point before he reveals himself, he gives Benjamin, his only full brother, 5x more food than everyone else. This is easily explainable as a test to see if it stokes their jealousy. But what always bothered me was that even after Yosef reveals himself to his brothers, he still gives Binyamin 5x more changes of clothes than everyone else for the way back!
Why? Because deep down, despite all the improvements in his persona which are undeniable, Yosef is still the same power-hungry crony capitalist who, just like government and big business, picks his favorite and showers him with gifts. He can’t help himself from using his power. It’s beyond his personality to be able to control it once he has it.
This, I believe, is why Mashiach ben Yosef has to die (non violently!), why Yosef cannot lead in the end, why the 10 tribes led by Efraim ben Yosef had to split off from Yehuda, which only happened when Yehuda, in the form of King Rechavam, took power to his head and became too much like Yosef, attempting to raise taxes too high and become a powerful nationalist state. And finally, why the true Mashiach has to come from Yehuda, the one who finally breaks Yosef down to crying when he offers himself in Binyamin’s place. In the end, Yehuda is the one who really knows how to treat Binyamin – as an equal, not as a favorite. Yosef treats him as a favorite and he cannot change his constant power-playing, the same mistake that led to his sale and enslavement in the first place.
Yosef is the force of Jewish nationalism. It is the force that drives classical Zionism, and it is a good catalyst for getting the nation together. It gave rise to the State of Israel which, as bad as it is, does keep the nation together. Yosef-minded Zionist people got together and put together a benign dictatorship, a Jewish State to run every aspect of Jews’ lives here, to tax them way above and beyond Joseph’s 20% rate, to indoctrinate their children in state schools and kidnap them into their army, expel them from their homes when they feel like it and all the other horrible stuff we all know about.
It is also useful to note that, just as Yosef is not a bad guy, but actually a good guy with a serious limitation, so too the current Israeli leadership, despite being evil at times, is also essentially good, but only within its own failed context and limited scope. It cannot complete the task, but it cannot be blamed either. It simply does not have the ability to even see what the task is.
Mashiach Ben Yosef has already come. He is just a catalyst for the next phase, which is liberty. It is time for Mashiach Ben Yosef to dissolve (through nonviolent means of course), and to make way for Yehuda, who, just like he did when he offered to take Binyamin’s place, will have to bring classical Zionism to its knees in some sort of catharsis.
The next step is for Yosefian Zionist nationalism to dissolve, making way for true liberty, חירות, at the hands of Yehuda. We’re getting closer. Stay tuned.
2 thoughts on “A Libertarian Reading of Joseph”
A very thoughtful article. Yosef’s story definitely merits deeper analysis.
Here’s some thoughts I’ve had in response.
When Yosef reveals himself, he tells him exactly what he’s doing. I don’t have a Hebrew keyboard, and my Hebrew is rather poor anyway, so I’ll try my best.
In 45:5, he tells his brothers l’michyah, as a supporter of life. Rashi says, to be a supporter of life for you. He only adds “for you.” Solely for you. The Artscoll Rashi edition adds a Targum Yonason that is indeed not to support myself, nor for the Egyptians, but for you, mamash.
We must also understand who and what the Egyptians are. My understand is they were basically the most debased people on earth. They weren’t so far gone as to merit S’dom-level destruction. And they gave aid and comfort to the Jews at an important time.
So instead of total destruction, all at once, Yosef initiated the process to “sustain you for a great deliverance,” (45:7) with the wealth of the world gathered in Egypt, as promised to Avraham. Yosef must’ve known about Avraham’s prophecy. He’s “tzadik” (a noun, not adjective), because he did this, for us. It almost certainly was against his personal nature (he was even described not so flatteringly as a self-absorbed gossip-mongering brown-noser), but he accepted the destiny his dreams implied, and everything that happened to him, and so he was the perfect man for the job.
As a totally depraved nation, they also had it coming to them good and hard. Still, while Egypt was destroyed as the unchallenged superpower of the day, it did survive and even go through various revivals throughout history, probably in somewhat better moral shape than before, when any married man with a beautiful (maybe even average looking?) wife was in danger of being killed (and her being abducted).
His efforts probably also reduced the Jewish slavery from what it would have been too. With all of Egypt basically a slave society, they had less motive to destroy us at Pharaoh’s behest later. Except for the elite, our demise probably would mean a lot more forced labor for the remaining slaves.
You could probably say that were it not for that, the Jews might not have been enslaved either. Well, were that to actually transpire, I doubt you and I would be here today to discuss the topic.
As far as the open favoritism of Binyamin, well, I can give that some thought too, if you’d like.
Thank you! This is a beautiful and inspiring article with a more polished subdued anger [that sort of conducted your previous articles]. I find that anger has been way over-valued in modern society.
In my opinion Yoseph forgot the essence of the message of God’s word, that he DIVIDED Heaven and Earth. Which means even though there are messages from Heaven to Earth, also time given to become accustomed with the way God made their spirits, and eventually a re-possession from God on all land along with His Kind, people cannot imitate Angels’ attitude towards God on Earth – from person to person. There cannot be one person as Lord sending out the “Army of Heavens” or one person considering themselves “soldier of God” being sent out to…be sent out.
All socialism failed subdued by the self-righteous anger that also destroyed Plato’s ” Republic” into endless sin.
But it is modern pride and ego that makes the modern man and woman believe they are significantly different than the people thousands of years ago, and the things that antiquity proved as failed the modern society will prove successfully. That perfect reasoning that miraculously works each and everyone.
God created human beings. When human beings want to become “humanity” they have no way but to repeat the original sin all over again – denying God’s creation (within them).
I think Yosef solved a big problem with a small solution because probably him being tuned with the dream world gave him a scary future vision. Would seeing the future actually help people? Not even the far stretched rational sci-fi stories – “Dune” ,”Foundation”,”The city and the stars”, “Minority Report” – can it be proven to be a way to go.
Freaking out about freedom because of what it would be like to not know exactly where you land sounds like the mythical forbidden knowledge in the Garden of Eden. The apple was perfect, maybe even the serpent was perfect (why not? it was part of Heaven), but Adam and Eve felt naked and scared which eventually consumed their every perception of the knowledge given.