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This is the third and final part of a series here on the biblical origins of the American character. it definitely builds on the parts preceding it, so if you haven’t read part one, do so, here, and part 2 here. Today we pick up where we left off, with the patriarchs portrayed as the American archetypes.

We all know, or should, that the early settlers, especially the ones we call the Pilgrims,  felt a close affinity with the Patriarchs of the Old Testament. But why? I’ve always felt it was a disenchantment with the King of England, not least because of their sympathy for Oliver Cromwell. Turns out that I was fairly close to right. Kenneth Hanson has studied in far greater depth than I have ever seen, this paper was published in the New English Review. It’s a fascinating story as well, which sheds light not only on American History but on early Jewish history.

Here you will find the biblical basis of what we as Americans hold sacred.

English: Joseph made ruler in Egypt

English: Joseph made ruler in Egypt (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Go ye!” – Patriarchs and Pioneers

by Kenneth Hanson (July 2012)

“Liberty, next to religion has been the motive of good deeds and the common pretext of crime… In every age its progress has been beset by its natural enemies, by ignorance and superstition, by lust of conquest and by love of ease, by the strong man’s craving for power, and the poor man’s craving for food.” – Lord Acton[1]
Joseph the Bureaucrat

Jacob, who is now officially “Israel,” has twelve sons, who become the progenitors of twelve tribes. The trouble starts, however, when one of sons, a precocious and ingenuous lad named Yosef (whom westerners call Joseph), has some dreams, depicting him as the greatest of the bunch, and his brothers as subservient. This, understandably, doesn’t strike his eleven siblings well, and they plot to be rid of Joseph and his arrogance. They seize him, through him into a pit, grab his cloak (an exquisite garment bestowed on him by Jacob, who favored him over the others) smear it with goat’s blood, and subsequently return it to his grief-stricken father, explaining that Joseph was killed by a wild animal.

Joseph, however, hasn’t really died; he has been sold to some nomadic Ishmaelites as a miserable slave and in turn taken down to the Nile Delta, being resold to a prominent Egyptian named Potiphar. Entrepreneurial like his father, Joseph soon rises to become chief of Potiphar’s entire household. As we might expect from this particular family line, everything in his care – meaning the property of the great Egyptian – prospers. We’re not told exactly what Joseph does to grow the fortune of his master and benefactor, but he had to have been the consummate businessman. He makes use of his wits to bring enrichment to his boss, and is rewarded in kind. There’s no sense that Joseph is envious of Potiphar’s wealth or position. What an attitude! He doesn’t ask what his benefits are, or how many paid vacation days he acquires per month. He’s happy to serve, and we respect him for that. Like his father, he’s a model capitalist. Furthermore, Egypt must not have had anything like a “progressive income tax” that effectively redistributed wealth. And the Bible does not complain. It only lauds Joseph for his acumen.

Unfortunately, Joseph’s good fortunes are destined to plummet, as he runs afoul of Potiphar’s adulterous wife. According to the classic narrative, Joseph is accosted by the lusty lady, who makes advances on our hero only to be ignominiously refused. As the righteous Hebrew flees from her, she pulls off his cloak, which she next presents to Potiphar himself, claiming that Joseph had tried to rape her. The enraged Egyptian has Joseph thrown into prison, where he languishes in an even worse kind of bondage. But once again he rises to the top, impressing his jailer so much that he is put in charge of all the other inmates. Dreamer that he is, he successfully interprets the dreams of the other prisoners and is finally called upon to interpret the dream of the great potentate of all the land, the pharaoh himself. All of the other magicians and soothsayers were quite clueless as to the meaning of Pharaoh’s dream, involving seven skinny cows who devoured seven fat cows and seven scorched and dry heads of grain that swallowed seven full and healthy heads of grain.

But when, through a quirk of fate, Joseph is summoned, he is by supernatural agency shown the exact meaning the dream is intended to convey. Egypt is soon to experience seven years plenty, including bountiful harvests and abundance for all. These good years, however, will be followed by seven more years of terrible famine that will bring ruination to the whole land. The great pharaoh, on hearing this lucid interpretation, is, to say the least, impressed. Ingenuous and unassuming as he is, Joseph doesn’t display self-congratulation; he simply suggests that the mighty potentate find “someone” in the land capable of putting Egypt in “hoarding” mode for seven years, so that when the famine inevitably arrives, there will be enough gain in the storehouses to last for all seven years of scarcity. Who could such a man be?

“Joseph,” says the pharaoh, “You are the man!” In an incredible reversal of fortunes the lowly slave turned even lowlier prisoner becomes the second most powerful person in the world’s greatest civilization. His new job description: “Chief Bureaucrat.” Sure enough, he becomes a pretty good manager of the new bureaucracy that he now creates.[18] The silos burst with grain during the years of plenty, and we wonder what kind of commentary the Bible is bringing. Isn’t this the quintessential ancient expression of “big government”? Isn’t it the very thing our third president warned about?:

If we were directed from Washington when to sow and when to reap, we would soon want for bread. – Thomas Jefferson[19]

One wonders whether Mr. Jefferson might have been reflecting on the story of Joseph when he wrote this quip. But thanks to Joseph, Egypt doesn’t lack bread. “Does God love bureaucrats?” we might justifiably ask. Is bureaucracy and big government perhaps a better way than greedy capitalism, with its cycles of boom and bust? Isn’t the story of Joseph the world’s best example of what an efficient regulation regime can accomplish? Of course calling it “regulation” understates the case. It’s “centralized planning,” Soviet-style! But before we get carried away calling Joseph a Communist, we should reflect that bureaucracies can indeed accomplish impressive ends, as long as they are well-administered. What’s wrong with that? For his part, the pharaoh was untroubled by the idea that government was becoming too big, and Joseph was equally untroubled.

What a flattering picture the narrative paints! As the good years turn to ruin, our hero opens the storehouses, first to the Egyptians, then to foreigners, who begin flooding into Egypt for relief. Through it all, there are some lessons to be learned, politically, from how Joseph administers Egypt. For one thing, our hero seems well aware of an important political adage: “Never let a crisis go to waste!” Fortunately for Egypt, Josephs knows nothing deficit spending. What he does know is that he is sitting on a vast treasure in the form of grain, and he capitalizes on that fact in the capitalistic tradition of his forebears. He sells the produce of the storehouses, not only to the foreigners who come knocking at his gates, but to the Egyptians themselves. We can only imagine the level of wealth that must have come flooding into the land of the Nile. But rather than enriching the populace, it seems to have enriched only the pharaoh’s coffers. Nonetheless, what we have here does resemble an ancient form of “welfare,” for which Joseph is highly credited, as “Bureaucrat-in-Chief.” Over time Joseph will purchase all the land in Egypt on behalf of the pharaoh, and the increasingly hungry Egyptians will be all too happy to sell.

Well, I’ve personally always had a bit of trouble with the story of Joseph, for all the reasons stated above. But no one can say Joseph wasn’t a skilled administrator, who not only administered Egypt wisely but managed an incredible return on his (or his boss’) investments. It’s also notable that this scheme which enriched both Joseph and the Pharaoh, also enabled the Egyptians to survive the lean years. One of the lessons here is that government can be efficient (although it seems, rarely) but can do things that the private sector can’t.

“Big Government,” Slavery, and Indentured Servitude

Does the Bible, then, give a “thumbs up” on “big government”? Should we hail Joseph as an ancient Marxist, who effectuates the complete nationalization of property and the means of production? After all, in addition to saving the Egyptians, Joseph ends up saving his wayward brothers, who end up in Egypt themselves, in search of food. Of course they don’t recognize their brother and don’t know that the pharaoh’s great administrator is in fact the sibling they had betrayed and sold into slavery. This enables Joseph to turn tables on them all and, through a clever ruse, force them to admit their wrongdoing, only to be reconciled through their sincere repentance in an emotionally climactic scene. Joseph’s entire family comes down to join him in Egypt, settling in the rich and fertile land of Goshen, and all ends well … or appears to.

At first blush it looks as though Egypt’s great bureaucracy, created and administered by Joseph, is not just a “good thing”; it is genuine “salvation” for the seed of Abraham. Joseph announces to his wayward siblings that what they intended for evil God has turned to good:

And now do not be grieved, nor angry with yourselves that you sold me here. For God sent me before you to preserve life.[20]

Nonetheless, what begins as Joseph’s grand ambition to save his people from famine will end up enslaving them, over time, to an intrusive and totalitarian state. It will become nothing less than a four-century sojourn into slavery for all the children of Israel.[21] We don’t know the exact circumstances by which the Hebrews go from being Joseph’s honored guests – who live in the land of Goshen and become rich (Gen. 47:27) – to “slaves,” but one intriguing theory links them with the semi-nomadic Habiru, a group including farmers, merchants, construction workers, and warriors. While the Bible suggests that Jacob’s descendants peacefully coexist with the Egyptians for two of those four centuries, if the Habiru theory is correct, they would actually have been employed as an integral component in the defense of Egypt, protecting it from the Canaanite menace to the north. This is why the Bible takes pains to point out that they settle in the northern Nile Delta area – the land of Goshen.

Some speculate that this mercenary army is only about a thousand strong, but they are significant enough to trouble “a pharaoh … who did not know about Joseph”.[22] The reference might conceivably be to Seti I (c. 1294-1279 BCE), who becomes concerned about the growing power of this Habiru horde, declaring:

Let us deal wisely with them, lest they multiply, and it will be when there comes a war, they join also to our enemies, and fight against us, and get out of the land.[23]

He decides that the best course is to set them to work, building fortifications and city walls. The tradition persists at every Passover meal celebrated to this day: “Once we were slaves in Egypt…” In point of fact, we’re not really sure what this “slavery” amounted to. The traditional idea that vast throngs of Hebrews wearing shackles labor under the cruel whips of their taskmasters is undoubtedly a stretch. By contrast, while standard English translations tell us they are “slaves,” the actual Hebrew word is avadim, meaning “laborers,” perhaps “corvée laborers,” or “day laborers.”[24] Such work is generally without compensation, being imposed by aristocrats or nobles on people of lower-class standing. The Hebrews, according to this theory, aren’t “owned” in the way we imagine slaves in bondage; rather their servitude consists only in the dispensation of their labor.

If we translate this into political/ economic theory, it means that a direct result of trusting Joseph and the Egyptians he serves, they go from being “capitalists” (as was the tradition of the earliest patriarchs) to something akin to “indentured servants.” But isn’t this what often happens when government – in this instance, the great bureaucracy of Egypt – owns the means of production? Of course their basic needs are now provided for, and it’s difficult to overestimate the value of such security. The pharaoh’s laborers are certainly free from the nagging fears that plague so many of the ancient world’s populace, who can never be sure what the future would hold, whether the next harvest will be bounteous or scant, whether they might be invaded and ravaged by enemies, and in the final analysis whether they will live or die.

Nevertheless, trusting in “Big Brother,” even when doing so yields tangible security, has an ironic downside; for owing one’s livelihood to the state involves significant tradeoffs – most often the loss of “self-determination.” We can even draw a parallel with the tendency of certain twentieth century European societies to surrender to collaborationist regimes during the Second World War. These included governments headed by fascists like Mussert in Holland, and others, which over time evolved into full-fledged Nazi regimes under the likes of Seyes Inquart. How many people in the modern world would indeed be more than happy to trade in their freedoms for “indentured servitude” to the state? Isn’t a government job more secure, “cushier,” and even better paying than working in the private sector? The comparison is hardly a stretch, for scholars have noted that ancient Egypt’s bureaucracy persisted for many centuries and seemed to run quite efficiently. And while debates rage about the nature of Israel’s sojourn in Egypt, their servitude in the land of the pharaohs must certainly have been a function of the region’s entrenched bureaucratic structure.

Hindsight being twenty-twenty, it must have seemed to the editors of the Bible that entering into the pharaoh’s employ, however it came about, was a grievous form of bondage. If the Bible is indeed political, then it is not-so-subtly preaching: “Don’t rely on any pharaoh’s government to be your salvation!” After all, who would not argue that it might have been better for the children of Abraham to suffer the ravages of famine in the land of Canaan than to enter the “safety” of servitude in Egypt? But enter they do, and in the end they will require nothing less than a revolution. They will need an “exodus.”


And thus we see that in the case of the Israelites, as in the case of the Germans, the Russians, the Chinese, and all the others, putting one’s security in the hands of the government is a sure method of selling your freedom for a mess of pottage. As we Americans endure these famine years will we follow the pattern established by the Israelites that we have followed for four hundred years? Or will we learn from history, and skip the bondage part of the story in exchange for an early Exodus?

End notes:

[1] The History of Freedom in Antiquity,1877.

[2] William Bradford, Edward Winslow, Robert Cushman, John Robinson, George Barrell Cheever, The Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth: in New England in 1620: reprint from the original volume, New York, J. Wiley, 1848, 182.

[3] Bunyan’s work has been described as “a study of an individualist sensibility.” See Vincent Newey, The Pilgrim’s Progress: Critical and HIstorical Views (Liverpool, England: Liverpool Univ. Press, 1980), 3, 19.

[4] Nathaniel Morton, William Bradford, Thomas Prince, Edward Winslow, New-England’s Memorial (Boston, Congregational Board of Publication, 1855), 423.

[5] Ibid., 422

[6] Edward F. Mooney, Knights of faith and Resignation: Reading Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling (Albany, NY: State Univ. of New York Press, 1991), 33.

[7] Robert Wolfe, From Habra to Hebrews and Other Essays, (Minneapolis: Mill City Press, 2011), 11ff..

[8] Genesis 23:8-9.

[9] Jay W. Richards, Money, Greed, and God: Why Capitalism Is the Solution and Not the Problem (New York: Harper Collins, 2009), 72-3. Richards compares Abraham’s acquisition of permanent title to the land with the observation of Peruvian economist Hermando de Soto, that the key that unlocks the mystery of capital is a formal property system.

[10] Roy P. Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Vol. VII, “Reply to New York Workingmen’s Democratic Republican Association” (March 21, 1864), 259-260.

[11] J. G. Nicolay and J. Hay: Abraham Lincoln, I., 615-616.

[12] Letter to Thomas Mann Randolph, May 30, 1790.

[13] An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Chap. 2: Of the Principle which Gives Occasion to the Division of Labour.

[14] Adam Smith is generally ignored as a trade theorist in textbooks of international economics. See Kibritçioğlu, Aykut (1994): On Adam Smith’s Contributions to the International Trade Theory. Published in: Uluslararası (Makro)İktisat (1996): 31-38.

[15] Sun Tzu, The Art of War (eBookEden.com, 2009), 3; Gerald A. Michaelson, Steven Michaelson, Sun Tzu – The Art of War for Managers: 50 Strategic Rules Updated for Today’s Business (Avon, MA: Adams Media, 2010), 171.

[16] Micheline Ishay, ed., The Human Rights Reader: Major Political Essays, Speeches, and Documents from Ancient Times to the Present (New York: Routledge, 2007), 117.

[17] Jedediah Purdy, “Languages of Politics in America,” in James Boyd White, Jefferson Powell, eds., Law and Democracy in the Empire of Force (Univ. of Michigan Press, 2009), 14.

[18] David W. Tandy, Warriors Into Traders: The Power of the Market in Early Greece (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1997), 103-4.

[19] Warren L. McFerran, Political Sovereignty: The Supreme Authority in the United States (Sanford, FL: Southern Liberty Press, 2005), 123.

[20] Genesis 45:5.

[21] Geoffrey P. Miller,The Ways of a King: Legal and Political Ideas in the Bible (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2011), 103. As Miller comments, the author of Genesis fails to recognize that a centralized bureaucracy can be an agent of oppression as well as a vehicle for stability.

[22] Exodus 1:8.

[23] Exodus 1:10.

[24] Richard Gabriel, The Military History of Ancient Israel (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2003), 61ff.

Kenneth L. Hanson is an Associate professor in the University of Central Florida Judaic Studies Program. This is the first chapter from his new book, The Eagle and The Bible: Lessons in Liberty from Holy Writ published by New English Review Press.

This concludes this series. I hope you have enjoyed it, and learned something from it. I learned a lot and enjoyed bringing it to you.

“Go ye!” – Patriarchs and Pioneers > Kenneth Hanson.

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