Naomi Graetz

Two Stories of Famine: Ancient and Modern


Once upon a time, there were two stories of famine. One recent, in Russia, and artificially created by Joseph Stalin. The other was in Ancient Egypt, in the days of the Pharaoh who was lucky to have the Israelite Joseph as his adviser. In the latter story, the famine was averted because of some quick thinking on the part of Joseph, but with a result that the hungry people sold themselves into slavery so that they could have some food. This Joseph was the hero of the story. Not so, the story of the other Joseph, Joseph Stalin. It is alleged that he was responsible for millions of Ukrainians peasants dying, because he stole their food to feed the rest of Russia. Some historians have said that he deliberately wanted to destroy the Ukrainian people whom he hated with a vengeance and thus engaged in an early act of genocide, though no one called it by that name.


Last month was the 90th anniversary of the Holodomor, which means “death by hunger.” From 1932-33 Joseph Stalin created a famine by his economic and trade policies which resulted in at least 4 million people in the Ukraine starving to death in the famine. There are scholars who argue that the Soviet policies were deliberate and meant to counter the rise of Ukrainian nationalism. On this anniversary many commentators argued that the current leader of Russia, Vladimir Putin, is trying to do the same thing. Both the Polish prime minister and Ukraine’s president said that if Putin continues in his way, he will be the Stalin of the twenty-first century. They said, he is doing this by destroying infrastructure, terrorizing civilians, and if he succeeds the people of Ukraine might freeze to death. As President Zelensky said, “They want to destroy us with bombs, bullets, cold and hunger again.” There are no official figures, but most estimates point to tens of thousands of Ukrainian deaths among soldiers and civilians since Russia invaded in February. Almost eight million Ukrainians have fled their country, creating an enormous refugee crisis.


In comparing the two situations, we have a clear-cut contrast and no comparisons. One is an act of villainy and the other an act of far-sightedness. In contrast to these nefarious deeds, Joseph the hero of this week’s parsha, saved his family and much of the ancient mid-eastern world by foreseeing the famine and thus averting it.

Yet the story in the bible is much more nuanced:

So Joseph settled his father and his brothers, giving them holdings in the choicest part of the land of Egypt, in the region of Rameses, as Pharaoh had commanded. Joseph sustained his father, and his brothers, and all his father’s household with bread, down to the little ones. Now there was no bread in all the world, for the famine was very severe; both the land of Egypt and the land of Canaan languished because of the famine. Joseph gathered in all the money that was to be found in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan, as payment for the rations that were being procured, and Joseph brought the money into Pharaoh’s palace. And when the money gave out in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan, all the Egyptians came to Joseph and said, “Give us bread, lest we die before your very eyes; for the money is gone!” And Joseph said, “Bring your livestock, and I will sell to you against your livestock, if the money is gone”… And when that year was ended, they came to him the next year and said to him, “We cannot hide from my lord that, with all the money and animal stocks consigned to my lord, nothing is left at my lord’s disposal save our persons and our farmland. Let us not perish before your eyes, both we and our land. Take us and our land in exchange for bread, and we with our land will be serfs to Pharaoh; provide the seed, that we may live and not die, and that the land may not become a waste.” And he removed the population town by town, from one end of Egypt’s border to the other. …. Then Joseph said to the people, “Whereas I have this day acquired you and your land for Pharaoh, here is seed for you to sow the land.  And when harvest comes, you shall give one-fifth to Pharaoh, and four-fifths shall be yours as seed for the fields and as food for you and those in your households, and as nourishment for your children.”  And they said, “You have saved our lives! We are grateful to my lord, and we shall be serfs to Pharaoh.”  And Joseph made it into a land law in Egypt, which is still valid, that a fifth should be Pharaoh’s; only the land of the priests did not become Pharaoh’sThus Israel settled in the country of Egypt, in the region of Goshen; they acquired holdings in it, and were fertile and increased greatly (Genesis 47: 11-27).

Two things are worth noting: first of all, the over-arching frame of the story, i.e., the opening and closing verses of the passage above  (vs 47: 11 and vs 47:27), make it clear that Joseph looks after his immediate family. I have put that in bold. Inside the frame (in italics) is the description of how Joseph slowly squeezes the Egyptians, taking advantage of their fears of dying and how he turns them into serfs, or slaves to Pharaoh. Inside this frame the Egyptians come to Joseph saying, ‘“Give us bread, lest we die before your very eyes; for the money is gone!” And Joseph replies, “Bring your livestock, and I will sell to you against your livestock, if the money is gone.”’ A year later they said, “Let us not perish before your eyes”. They give him everything “that we may live and not die”.


Hunger is a strange thing; people will do anything to survive. The biblical Joseph, in “doing his job”, took advantage of people’s misery. Hiding behind his position, he exchanged in a very cold-blooded fashion, food for land, money, souls and bodies. Where did Joseph learn to be so cold-blooded? To take advantage of people’s desperate hunger? One would think that he would have sympathy for others, given his suffering as a youth sold into slavery. But perhaps, because he had endured unthinkable suffering, he knew how to inflict it on others. The abused person can easily become the abuser! If his brothers could sell him into slavery, why not sell his adopted countryman, the Egyptians into slavery. At least they got food in exchange. But where was his moral compass? Surely our Joseph is a good guy, not an evil Stalin.

Often our actions are predicated by our past. What happened in the family genome that gave this government bureaucrat the idea that hungry desperate people would sell valuables in exchange for food? Perhaps he learned this behavior from his father. He was after all the favorite son. His father made him a special cloak. No doubt he told him family stories of his own suffering and of his childhood.  One story might have stuck in his memory, namely the story of Jacob taking advantage of Esau’s hunger:

Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the open, famished. And Esau said to Jacob, “Give me some of that red stuff to gulp down, for I am famished” … Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” And Esau said, “I am at the point of death, so of what use is my birthright to me?” But Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So, he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. Jacob then gave Esau bread and lentil stew; he ate and drank, and he rose and went away. Thus did Esau spurn the birthright (Genesis 25:29-34).

Note the similarities, Esau was exhausted and starving. Jacob could have acted like a good brother and immediately offered him some of the food. Instead, he gave his starving brother Esau a bowl of red lentils in exchange for his birthright. The language and desperate situation of both the Egyptians and Esau is strikingly similar: Esau said, “I am at the point of death, so of what use is my birthright to me?” And the Egyptians said,  “Give us bread, lest we die before your very eyes”. Both the Egyptians and Esau were “dying of hunger” and asked for food in order to live.  So, when Joseph got the chance to have the Egyptians (aka Esau) act out the scenario that was so familiar to Joseph from his father, he knew exactly what to do—accept the offer and dictate the terms.

So  Joseph suffered abuse and in turn abused the Egyptian populace (even as they accepted this treatment with gratitude). Of course, later on in history, the Israelites will get the final payback when the Egyptians who surely would resent Joseph for what he had done to them, would enslave the same relatives he protected in the land of Goshen. Ironically in a few weeks we will read at the beginning of the book of Exodus, that a new king arose who “did not know Joseph”. Of course, they knew of him: memories of enslavement do not go away—they may not have remembered Joseph as a savior, but surely, they remembered the man who did them in.


What do our sages have to say about Joseph’s actions? Most commentaries see this action as praiseworthy—but here and there a commentator sees that there is a moral problem.  Both R. Shmuel b. Meir (Rashbam, c. 1080-1160) and R. David Kimchi (Radak,1160-1235) say that his action is similar to that of Sennacherib. Rashbam writes: This is what Sennacherib did, so that there wouldn’t be people left behind who were a strong force in the land after it was sold. Whereas Radak commenting on 2 Kings 18:32, writes that is what Sennacherib did with all the nations that he conquered. He exiled them from their countries and put others in their place so that all would be under him. Joseph saw to it that Egyptians were transferred [from the countryside] to cities.

If we follow the argument of the two rabbis, what may have started out as a questionable analogy between two Josephs, is now revealed to be plausible. The motivation for both was similar: dispossessed Egyptians staying on the land could cause revolution; Ukrainians refusing to give up their food could also threaten the stability of Russia. This type of argumentation is similar to those who would argue that Stalin deliberately engineered the famine to counter Ukrainian nationalism, rather than blame him for planning mistakes. And let’s not even start to analyze what motivates Putin today.

Yet there is a big difference: whereas Joseph Stalin reduced people to starvation, the biblical Joseph did after all save people from starvation. His means may have been questionable, but one can certainly argue that in that case, the end justified the means. Even if the means were exceedingly mean!

About the Author
Naomi Graetz taught English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev for 35 years. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God; The Rabbi’s Wife Plays at Murder ; S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories (Professional Press, 1993; second edition Gorgias Press, 2003), Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating and Forty Years of Being a Feminist Jew. Since Covid began, she has been teaching Bible from a feminist perspective on zoom.
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