Taxation Under the Pharaohs and Today

Email Print


On this, the 15th day of April, 2008, it does not hurt to do a brief comparison between the Bible’s account of the tyranny of Egypt and our own democratically elected taskmasters.

The story of Joseph in Egypt is the story of how the people of Egypt came under the tyranny of a king who claimed divinity for himself. The biblical text does not say that this Pharaoh made such a claim, but we know from historical texts that the pharaoh was regarded as a divine-human link. When he died, he was believed to journey to the realm of the gods. He was the official source of meaning in the cosmos.

He was also responsible for allocating scarce economic resources for the benefit of the State. The estimation of the Pharaoh, not the estimations of acting buyers and sellers in free markets, was the standard of economic value. It was incumbent on the Pharaoh to make accurate cost-benefit estimates if the nation was to prosper. Egyptologist Henri Frankfort made this clear in a book published in 1948.
The king is not only instrumental in producing the ‘fat of the land'; he must also dispense it. Only then is there evidence that he functions effectively. His bounty proves that he disposes, as a king should dispose, of the earth and its produce. . . . But the king also keeps alive the hearts of all those subjects who do not directly partake of his bounty. For he exercises a never ending mysterious activity on the strength of which daily, hourly, nature and society are integrated. [Henri Frankfort, Kingship and the Gods. A Study of Ancient Near Eastern Religion as the Integration of Society & Nature (University of Chicago Press, [1948] 1962), pp. 59—60.]
The king was understood
to direct the very forces of nature. It was the king, and only the
king, whose judgments concerning economic production were sovereign.

The Egyptians began with a false theology. They assumed, incorrectly, that their supreme ruler was the incarnation of the State as well as the very cosmos. This assumption was bound to lead to negative consequences. Joseph was the agent of these consequences.


The text tells us that the pharaoh had a dream that he was unable to understand: seven fat cattle were eaten by seven lean ones. Then he had a second dream, much like the first one: seven fat stalks of grain were eaten by seven lean ones. None of his court prophets and soothsayers could tell him what this meant.

Then one of his advisors told him of a man he had met during a stay in prison. This fellow prisoner had accurately forecast the death of another man imprisoned with them, as well as the success of the advisor.

The pharaoh brought Joseph before him. He asked Joseph if he could interpret the dream. Joseph did. There would be seven years of good harvests followed by seven years of famine. “And for that the dream was doubled unto Pharaoh twice; it is because the thing is established by God, and God will shortly bring it to pass” (Genesis 41:32).

It always helps to have the equivalent of Warren Buffett interpreting the data for you. But you must also know what to do to protect yourself — even profit from the information. Lest pharaoh miss the point, Joseph made the connection. He described a plan dear to the hearts of political leaders down through the ages. He recommended that the government raise taxes.
Now therefore let Pharaoh look out a man discreet and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt. Let Pharaoh do this, and let him appoint officers over the land, and take up the fifth part of the land of Egypt in the seven plenteous years. And let them gather all the food of those good years that come, and lay up corn under the hand of Pharaoh, and let them keep food in the cities. And that food shall be for store to the land against the seven years of famine, which shall be in the land of Egypt; that the land perish not through the famine (Genesis 41:33—36).
But who might
this be? Joseph, a prudent man, did not name anyone in particular.
It is never wise to appear self-serving. He just waited. He did not
have to wait long.
And the thing was good in the eyes of Pharaoh, and in the eyes of all his servants. And Pharaoh said unto his servants, Can we find such a one as this is, a man in whom the Spirit of God is? And Pharaoh said unto Joseph, Forasmuch as God hath shewed thee all this, there is none so discreet and wise as thou art (Genesis 41:37—39).
Once they had
made up their minds — or at least the pharaoh made up his mind,
and the yes-men who surrounded him concurred — the pharaoh announced
a new economic order.
Thou shalt be over my house, and according unto thy word shall all my people be ruled: only in the throne will I be greater than thou. And Pharaoh said unto Joseph, See, I have set thee over all the land of Egypt. And Pharaoh took off his ring from his hand, and put it upon Joseph’s hand, and arrayed him in vestures of fine linen, and put a gold chain about his neck; And he made him to ride in the second chariot which he had; and they cried before him, Bow the knee: and he made him ruler over all the land of Egypt. (Genesis 41:40—43).
Then came the
climax: “And Pharaoh said unto Joseph, I am Pharaoh, and without thee
shall no man lift up his hand or foot in all the land of Egypt” (Genesis
41:44). Joseph was given total power as the agent of the State.

So, Joseph had moved from prisoner to advisor and from advisor to second in command. This had taken maybe a couple of hours.

This was a terrific deal for Joseph. The pharaoh was treating him with the same kind of respect that the media treat the Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. It is as if this account looked forward to Alan Greenspan — though clearly not to Ben Bernanke, for the text says specifically, “Then Pharaoh sent and called Joseph, and they brought him hastily out of the dungeon: and he shaved himself” (Genesis 41:14a).

Notice the chain of events. The divine-human link in the most bureaucratic tyranny of the ancient world had two dreams that he could not understand. His advisors also did not understand them. So, on the say-so of a lower bureaucrat, the divine-human link brings a man out of prison to tell him what is going on. The prisoner becomes second in command.

This was centralization of power on a scale that would have made Julius Caesar salivate, let alone Lyndon Johnson.


It turned out that Joseph’s predictions came true. This was possible because:
A. He was inspired by God.
B. He had not received a Ph.D. in economics
C. He was fresh out of prison.
D. He shaved.
E. All of the above.

The grain was stored in urban storage facilities. As soon as the famine hit, this arrangement would bring the rural population to the cities, hats in hand. This is what happened.
And when all the land of Egypt was famished, the people cried to Pharaoh for bread: and Pharaoh said unto all the Egyptians, Go unto Joseph; what he saith to you, do. And the famine was over all the face of the earth: and Joseph opened all the storehouses, and sold unto the Egyptians; and the famine waxed sore in the land of Egypt. And all countries came into Egypt to Joseph for to buy corn; because that the famine was so sore in all lands (Genesis 41:55—57).
The State did
not give away grain. It sold the grain back to those from whom the
State had collected grain for seven years. Heads, the State wins.
Tails, the State wins.

The State sold to foreigners, too. The Egyptian State’s balance of payments went positive and stayed positive.

In year two, Joseph made his offer:
Then Joseph said unto the people, Behold, I have bought you this day and your land for Pharaoh: lo, here is seed for you, and ye shall sow the land. And it shall come to pass in the increase, that ye shall give the fifth part unto Pharaoh, and four parts shall be your own, for seed of the field, and for your food, and for them of your households, and for food for your little ones (Genesis 47:23—24).
He offered to
buy a fifth of the land in perpetuity on behalf of the divine-human
incarnation of the State. The people did the appropriate thing, politically
speaking. They praised their master.
And they said, Thou hast saved our lives: let us find grace in the sight of my lord, and we will be Pharaoh’s servants. And Joseph made it a law over the land of Egypt unto this day, that Pharaoh should have the fifth part; except the land of the priests only, which became not Pharaoh’s (Genesis 47:25—26).


In 1963, I was a student at Westminster Theological Seminary. There, I heard about the interpretation of this section of the Bible that had been offered by a popular professor at a small Presbyterian college that sent graduates to Westminster. As the story came to me, the professor had argued that this was a biblical case for central economic planning and taxation. I decided then that I would eventually write something that addressed this interpretation. I did so in 1982 in Chapter 23 of my book, The Dominion Covenant: Genesis. You can download it for free here.

What the professor failed to understand was this: Joseph’s recommended system was a condemnation of central planning. Why? Because in order for it to work, the State must have the following:
1. A divine-human head of State
2. Divinely inspired dreams by this figure
3. A divinely inspired interpreter of dreams
4. An interpreter who can put two and two together and reach a practical conclusion (i.e., not an academic economist)
5. The power to impose new taxes at any time
6. An army of tax collectors
7. A nation of political sheep
8. A willingness to fleece the sheep once
9. A willingness to fleece them forever

In contrast to “Egyptian” economics is biblical economics. The prophet Samuel warned the Israelites, who demanded that he ordain a king like other nations had.

And he said, This will be the manner of the king that shall reign over you: He will take your sons, and appoint them for himself, for his chariots, and to be his horsemen; and some shall run before his chariots. And he will appoint him captains over thousands, and captains over fifties; and will set them to ear his ground, and to reap his harvest, and to make his instruments of war, and instruments of his chariots. And he will take your daughters to be confectionaries, and to be cooks, and to be bakers. And he will take your fields, and your vineyards, and your oliveyards, even the best of them, and give them to his servants. And he will take the tenth of your seed, and of your vineyards, and give to his officers, and to his servants. And he will take your menservants, and your maidservants, and your goodliest young men, and your asses, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your sheep: and ye shall be his servants. And ye shall cry out in that day because of your king which ye shall have chosen you; and the LORD will not hear you in that day (1 Samuel 8:11—18).

This warning fell on deaf ears. “Nevertheless the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel; and they said, Nay; but we will have a king over us” (I Samuel 8:19).

The Bible is clear: When the central government collects as much in taxes as God demands in the form of a tithe — 10% — the nation has moved into tyranny. It has moved in the direction of Egypt.

The Israelites in Samuel’s era, let it be noted, wanted this change in administration. They wanted a highly centralized State. They voted for it.

Conclusion: “There is no political salvation in democracy if the voters are hell-bent for tyranny.”


Joseph in Egypt brought the Egyptian nation more firmly under tyranny. Why? For the same reason that the prophets of Israel and Judah said that God would judge them by captivity in foreign lands. The Egyptians had attributed to a man what God alone possesses: absolute sovereignty. They had declared their faith in the divine State. Joseph let the Egyptians get a taste of tyranny.

Eventually, Israelites were given this same lesson. A pharaoh arose who did not honor the tradition of Joseph. Under Joseph, the Israelites inherited the land of Goshen. That inheritance was removed by the Egyptians.

Therefore they did set over them taskmasters to afflict them with their burdens. And they built for Pharaoh treasure cities, Pithom and Raamses. But the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and grew. And they were grieved because of the children of Israel. And the Egyptians made the children of Israel to serve with rigour: And they made their lives bitter with hard bondage, in morter, and in brick, and in all manner of service in the field: all their service, wherein they made them serve, was with rigour (Exodus 1:11—14).

This tyranny was consistent with the theology of Egypt: subservience to a divine-human political leader in a bureaucratic State. It was inconsistent with the theology of Israel.

The trouble was, the Israelites could not shake free of this theology until after the captivity to Assyria and Babylon. They longed to return to Egypt. “We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlick” (Numbers 11:5).


In today’s world, to get back to the tyranny of Egypt — 20% of income — the various levels of civil government would have to cut taxes by at least half.

The trouble is, the voters’ response is familiar. “And they said, Thou hast saved our lives: let us find grace in the sight of my lord, and we will be Pharaoh’s servants.” They do not cry out to God for deliverance back to the “low-tax” regime of Egypt. Egypt was a veritable flat-tax paradise compared to modern America. Yet Christians and Jews vote for more of the same.

So, the tax ratchet will continue upward. The regulatory system will tighten. If the victims cannot recognize tyranny when they are taxed by it, then they are blind indeed. They need additional experience with tyranny. They will get it.

Gary North [send him mail] is the author of Mises on Money. Visit He is also the author of a free 20-volume series, An Economic Commentary on the Bible.

Gary North Archives

Email Print