Disaster Capitalism in the Bible

Yesterday I preached at Texas Lutheran University’s chapel service. I used what I’ve written before on the story of Joseph’s attempt to deal with famine in Genesis. The sermon might tie together some loose ends and certainly makes a stronger connection between the interpretation of that story and the exploitation of natural disasters today and throughout history. Here’s the sermon:

It’s a familiar story, in more ways than one. We don’t know how his sisters felt about him, but Joseph’s brothers got so fed up with his arrogance that they sold him into slavery. He ended up working for an important official in Pharaoh’s administration. Then an unfortunate encounter with his boss’ wife landed him in jail, where he proved his usefulness to the jailer and became known for interpreting dreams. It was this talent that brought him to the attention of Pharaoh. Pharaoh’s sleep had been tortured by vivid dreams, perhaps nightmares, that troubled and haunted him, emaciated cows eating fat cows, thin and scorched grain consuming healthy grains and an overwhelming sense of foreboding. None of his advisors could satisfy him with their interpretations. So Joseph was brought in from prison and here is his interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams,


There will come seven years of great plenty throughout all the land of Egypt. After them there will arise seven years of famine, and all the plenty will be forgotten in the land of Egypt; the famine will consume the land. Now therefore let Pharaoh select a man who is discerning and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt. Let Pharaoh proceed to appoint overseers over the land, and take one-fifth of the produce of the land of Egypt during the seven plenteous years. Let them gather all the food of these good years that are coming, and lay up grain under the authority of Pharaoh for food in the cities, and let them keep it. That food shall be a reserve for the land against the seven years of famine that are to befall the land of Egypt, so that the land may not perish through the famine. (41:29-36)

It is clear that the dreams were a message from God about an impending disaster. Joseph tells Pharaoh that it is fixed because the dream was doubled. God is giving a warning about a natural disaster that no one could predict. It is not clear whether or not the specific policy Joseph suggests is God’s will. I imagine Joseph thinking quickly on his feet and arriving at a sensible solution that would benefit Pharaoh. When Joseph says, “Let Pharaoh select a man who is discerning and wise,” I can hear him saying to himself, “I could suggest someone for the position. You know, like someone who could interpret dreams that no one else could.”

Now, farming is an inherently unstable enterprise. You have to deal with unpredictable elements like climate, weather patterns, drought, floods, pests and disease. If only we could control nature to an extent, we might free ourselves from the impacts of famine and natural disasters. The policy that Joseph creates is one of the earliest human attempts to deal with the instability of the agricultural enterprise.

Now, it is important when reading the Bible to take notice of details. Joseph creates a very specific policy of taking a fifth of the harvest to store up in order to deal with the coming famine. Let’s see what happens when the time comes to implement this policy.

He gathered up all the food of the seven years when there was plenty in the land of Egypt, and stored up food in the cities; he stored up in every city the food from the fields around it. So Joseph stored up grain in such abundance–like the sand of the sea–that he stopped measuring it; it was beyond measure. (41:48-49)

It’s unclear whether Joseph ignored his policy and literally gathered all the food or the land produce such abundance that one-fifth of the harvest was an incredible amount. Regardless, the narrator uses extreme language to describe the amount of grain that was stored up, “like the sand of the sea” and “beyond measure.” There was more than enough for the coming famine.

Let’s see how this policy works out when the crisis of famine comes,

Now there was no food in all the land, for the famine was very severe… Joseph collected all the money to be found in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan, in exchange for the grain that they bought; and Joseph brought the money into Pharaoh’s house. (47:13a, 14)

After the people ran out of money, they came to Joseph for food asking, “Why should we die before your eyes?” Joseph then requires their livestock in exchange for food. Again the people run out of food and come to Joseph for help. Desperate the people say, “There is nothing left in the sight of my lord but our bodies and our lands. Shall we die before your eyes, both we and our land? Buy us and our land in exchange for food” (47:18-19). Nothing but our bodies and our land! Can you imagine yourself there?

Was it necessary to make the people landless slaves to deal with the situation? After all the grain stored up was the fruit of the people’s labor. The policy did not stipulate that the people would have to buy back their own grain. It makes you wonder why the people would agree to such a set up. Joseph agrees to their request and adds this stipulation,

Now that I have this day bought you and your land for Pharaoh, here is seed for you; sow the land. And at the harvests you shall give one-fifth to Pharaoh, and four-fifths shall be your own, as seed for the field and as food for yourselves and your households, and as food for your little ones (47:23-24).

Wait a minute!! Joseph implements the specific policy intended for the years of abundance on people who he has made landless slaves during a famine. Instead of food they are given seed and told to sow the land during a famine and give a fifth to Pharaoh. What kind of harvest do you think they might have during those years of famine? Let me say it again, the policy intended to mitigate a natural disaster before it happens is used during that disaster to enrich Pharaoh.

So, how long did Joseph implement this policy? “So Joseph made it a statute concerning the land of Egypt, and it stands to this day, that Pharaoh should have the fifth. The land of the priests alone did not become Pharaoh’s” (47:26). A temporary policy intended to deal with a specific natural disaster is continued as a means to concentrate wealth and power in Pharaoh’s hands.

As we said at the beginning this story is not new. Those in power have exploited natural disasters throughout history.

The Great Potato Famine in Ireland is considered one of, if not the, worst famine in human history. The common assumption is that Irish farmers foolishly planted too much of one thing, potatoes. When the blight hit their crops it wiped out their food source and decimated the population. However, during the years of the Irish Famine, Ireland produced enough food, flax and wool not only to feed and clothe its nine million people, but enough for eighteen million.[1]

Jumping forward to a more recent example from the book World Hunger: Twelve Myths,

One large farmer in Uganda explained candidly how she had amassed over five hundred acres. “The 1980 famine helped,” she said. “People were in need. For the first time, they were willing to sell land, cows–things they wouldn’t dream of selling in normal times” (17)

We’ve heard this before. She speaks as if she had been part of Pharaoh’s administration, when the people said, “We have nothing, but our bodies and our land.” During times of desperation and disaster it is possible to exploit people in ways they would not tolerate in other times.

Hunger is a huge problem worldwide. Almost a billion people, one-sixth of the world’s population, are considered food insecure. But agricultural production has consistently stayed ahead of population growth. Why, then, do so many people lack the most basic necessity, food? Clearly the problem of hunger in the world is not one of production, but distribution.

Joseph had his experiment with redistribution in order to solve the problem. Did it work? Certainly many people survived who might have died. Were the people better off than they were before? Had Joseph really dealt with the essential problem? Joseph’s method for dealing with hunger is the same one used today. The Powers control the food and use their positions to benefit themselves while convincing themselves that they are humanitarians. Good people, like Joseph, can be so detached from the real lives of people suffering on the ground that they do not have the political will to radically change the living conditions for the “least of these.”

The question you might be asking yourself is, “Why would this story of exploitation be included in the Bible?” Or perhaps you’re wondering, “What does this story imply about God?” Perhaps more importantly “What does it imply about us?”

The beauty of our sacred scriptures is that they are not The Iliad or The Odyssey. They refrain (in large part) from lionizing the characters in the text. Murderers like Moses and David are held up as leaders and even men “after God’s own heart.” The disciples are often bumbling fools who hardly grasp Jesus’ message.

This does two things. First, it points out that even our heroes are flawed human beings who fail miserably, particularly when they achieve power. The history of the kings of Israel reads like a soap opera whose primary point is to reveal the inadequacy of power from the top, of domination, to affect change or provide real peace and security. Second, it reminds us that we are no different. We are subject to the same temptations of domination and exploitation, but like David, Moses and the disciples we also carry the potential to be forces for liberation of others, the earth and ourselves.

In closing let us pray, May the kingdoms of this world crumble and fall around us. In the midst of natural disasters and economic upheaval may we not wait for those in power to solve our problems, but be found faithful servants caring for those who are suffering, marginalized and oppressed in our midst and around the world. May your kingdom of abundance come on earth as we learn to freely give as we have freely received. Amen.


[1] Finnegan, Richard B. and Edward T. McCarron Ireland: Historical Echoes, Contemporary Politics (2000 Westview Press) ISBN 0813332478

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