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From Dreams to Dependency:

Biblical lessons for contemporary food aid

By Rabbi Lauren Kurland

Today’s global food crisis—which has persisted since 2008 despite its disappearance from the headlines until the current famine in Somalia—is far from the first time the world has been dealt the challenge of feeding large populations in emergencies. Those who dispense food aid today would be wise to learn from the mistakes of their predecessors—the oldest and perhaps most egregious of which can be found in the biblical story of Joseph.

After interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams as harbingers of seven years of abundance followed by seven years of famine, Joseph lands a plum position as Pharaoh’s second-in-command, responsible for designing and administering a response to the impending hunger in Egypt.

Judiciously, and ostensibly with good intentions, Joseph develops a simple approach: gather grain during the time of plenty and ration it during the time of famine.1 For many, the story ends there, with the wise forefather solving Egypt’s food crisis. But a close read of the bible shows that Joseph’s food aid approach soon takes a turn for the worse.

As the agony of hunger intensifies within Egypt and beyond its borders, Joseph decides to monetize the grain and sell it, thereby removing “all the money that was to be found” from people’s pockets.2 Now cash poor, the Egyptian people plead before Joseph: “Give us food. Why should we die before your eyes? Our money is all gone!”3 Joseph requests their livestock, and the starving Egyptians agree, aware that there is little room for negotiation with the man who holds the keys to the grain silo.

Yet this grain only lasts a year, after which they return to Joseph, saying: “We cannot hide from our lord the fact that since our money is gone and our livestock belongs to you, there is nothing left for our lord except our bodies and our land.”4 In their desperation, the Egyptians offer to become slaves in exchange for food, finding servitude preferable to their incessant hunger pangs. Joseph agrees without apparent hesitation and certainly without any premonition that his own descendents would themselves one day suffer the torture of slavery.

Yet, despite their hunger, poverty and enslavement, the people express gratitude: “You have saved our lives,” they tell Joseph; for indeed, he literally has.5 But at what cost?

Joseph’s method of distributing food aid transformed free people into a nation wholly dependent and disenfranchised, having exchanged long-term sustainability for short-term and necessary sustenance. While our government’s modern system of food aid does not parallel Joseph’s methodology on all counts, we must acknowledge that the end result—a vicious cycle of dependence in many countries—has been disappointingly similar.

Though the United States’ food aid program—the world’s largest—saves countless lives, its tactics have had unintended consequences on many of the communities we seek to help. By shipping American food to emergency zones rather than buying it from regional famers whenever possible (as most other countries do), we undercut local farmers and damage vulnerable agricultural economies. When local agriculture disappears, people become dependent on imported food; and when global prices rise—as they have in recent years—there is little to cushion these communities from hunger.6

Take Action:

» Participate in Global Hunger Shabbat & 18 Days of Action, Beginning November 4

» Join AJWS’s food justice campaign, Reverse Hunger

Like Joseph, whose food aid system created a culture of slavery that similarly and ultimately engulfed his own people, we, too, face the real possibility that our government’s misaligned policies will sooner or later catch up to us. As John Podesta, former White House Chief of Staff under President Bill Clinton, indicates: “Unless we take immediate action, we are destined to race from food crisis to food crisis for generations to come, with grim consequences for the world’s poor and our own national security.”7

The dire repercussions of these misguided food aid systems—both ancient and contemporary—compel us to advocate swiftly and fiercely for food aid reform and for greater investment in local agriculture in developing countries. We must seek ways to stave off famine without trapping the poor in vicious cycles of dependency and contributing to our collective downfall.

By thinking of food aid as a long-term investment in addition to a short-term solution, we may succeed where Joseph failed and current U.S. policy falls short. This is our obligation and our responsibility as Joseph’s descendants—so that all may live in years of abundance and plenty.


  1. Genesis 41:48
  2. Genesis 47:14
  3. Genesis 47:15
  4. Genesis 47:18
  5. Genesis 47:25
  6. U.S. Food Aid: Time to Get It Right, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, 2005: http://www.tradeobservatory.org/library.cfm?RefID=73512.
  7. Foreign Policy. The Coming Food Crisis. 29 July 2011: http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2010/08/26/the_coming_food_crisis

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American Jewish World Service (AJWS) is an international development organization motivated by Judaism’s imperative to pursue justice. AJWS is dedicated to alleviating poverty, hunger and disease among the people of the developing world regardless of race, religion or nationality. Through grants to grassroots organizations, volunteer service, advocacy and education, AJWS fosters civil society, sustainable development and human rights for all people, while promoting the values and responsibilities of global citizenship within the Jewish community.

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