Joseph & Pharaoh: A Lesson for a Time of Climate Change

Posted on November 25, 2013 by Peter Kinder


by Peter Kinder
I’ve been reading Global Crisis:  War, Climate Change & Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century (Yale Univ. Press, 2013) by Ohio State history professor Geoffrey Parker.
Parker has convinced me that the environmental, social and governance standards investors apply to securities issuers – governments and companies alike – require an overhaul.  What we know about the direct and indirect effects of climate change demands it.
Parker’s descriptions of mass starvations in the 17th century brought to mind the story of Joseph that makes up the last quarter of the Bible’s first book, Genesis.  Three and a half millennia ago, he foresaw a famine that would ‘consume the land’ and saved the greatest nation of his time, his family and himself.
Today’s rulers, with the nightmares of climate change all about them, should heed Joseph’s example.
Beginning as Shakespeare and Cervantes aged and died (in 1616), the people of the northern hemisphere, buffeted by the effects of the Little Ice Age, suffered a rampage by the Four Horsemen of the ApocalypseConquest, War, Famine and Death.
And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.
So wrote in the late first century St. John the Divine in his Revelation[1], the Bible’s last book, as translated in 1611.
Death and the other three horsemen, Prof. Parker shows over and over again, trampled the people of the 17th century.  The historical record, as I wrote last week, is clear on how climate change affects our habitat and how humans tend to respond to it.
Biblical chronicles aren’t ‘history’ as we now define the discipline.  That doesn’t mean they lack fact or truth.  The story of Joseph holds both.
At seventeen[2], Joseph was the little brother from Hell, beloved of his aged father, Jacob, and cocksure – based on dreams he recounted to all who’d listen – of his future importance.
His ten older brothers had enough of him.  They sold him for 20 pieces of silver to passing merchants who took Joseph from Canaan, where he’d tended his father’s flocks, to Egypt.  There, they sold him to Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh’s guard.[3]
Resisting temptations offered by Potiphar’s wife won him imprisonment.[4]   While locked up, he interpreted accurately the dreams of two fellow prisoners.  One, Pharaoh’s chief butler, promised not to forget Joseph when he was restored to his place.  But, he did.[5]
Two years later, Joseph, now 30[6], was running the prison for his jailer.[7]  One night, Pharaoh had a dream which ‘all the magicians of Egypt, and all the wise men thereof’ could not interpret.[8]  Then the chief butler remembered Joseph.[9]
And Pharaoh said unto Joseph, I have dreamed a dream…:  and I have heard say of thee, that thou canst understand a dream to interpret it.
And Joseph answered Pharaoh, saying, It is not in me:  God shall give Pharaoh an answer of peace.[10]
The last four words tip the story.  Joseph was a most cunning man.
Now, Pharaoh’s nightmare:
In my dream, behold, I stood upon the bank of the river:
And behold, there came up out of the river seven kine [cows], fat-fleshed and well-favored; and they fed in a meadow:
And, behold, seven other kine came up after them, poor and very
ill-favored and lean-fleshed, such as I never saw in all the land of
Egypt for badness:
And the lean and the ill-favored kine did eat up the first seven fat kine:
And when they had eaten them up, it could not be known that they had eaten them; but they were still ill-favored, as at the beginning.  So I awoke.
And I saw in my dream, and, behold, seven ears [of wheat] came up in one stalk, full and good:
And, behold, seven ears, withered, thin, and blasted with the east wind, sprung up after them:
And the thin ears devoured the seven good ears….[11]
The wheat ears are ‘blasted with the east wind’ off the Arabian desert, not watered by the westerlies from the Atlantic – the reason North Africa was Rome’s granary.  Modern humans would say the westerlies would move north allowing the east wind to dominate weather.
Joseph’s interpretation is succinct.
…God hath showed Pharaoh what he is about to do.
The seven good kine are seven years; and the seven good ears are seven years….
And the seven thin and ill-favored kine that came up after them are seven years; and the seven empty ears blasted with the east wind shall be seven years of famine….
Behold, there come seven years of great plenty throughout all the land of Egypt:
and there shall arise after them seven years of famine; and all the plenty shall be forgotten in the land of Egypt; and the famine shall consume the land;
and the plenty shall not be known in the land by reason of that famine following; for it shall be very grievous.[12]
Like a smart modern consultant, Joseph had a solution to Pharaoh’s problem.
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.[13]
‘Land’ here means ‘kingdom’, not ‘countryside’.  Prof. Parker’s examples of 17th century catastrophes remind that the first two horsemen are Conquest and War.  England’s 17th century civil wars and revolution reverberated in North America for 250 years, as I wrote here.
Pharaoh needed no lecture on the implications of famine for his regime.
So how did Joseph’s plan work out?  Brilliantly, since Pharaoh was smart enough to appoint Joseph to run it.
And the seven years of plenteousness, that was in the land of Egypt, were ended.
And the seven years of dearth began to come…: and the dearth was in all lands; but in all the land of Egypt there was bread.
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.[14]
Food security in times of stress can make the difference between political stability and regime change of an unpleasant sort.  It is fashionable to lampoon the Romans and their heirs, the Byzantines, for relying on bread and circuses.  But they knew what Joseph and Pharaoh knew.
The most important sentence in their story is, ‘God shall give Pharaoh an answer of peace’[15] which Joseph promises before he hears the dream.  Geoffrey Paker’s Global Crisis contains 704 pages of examples of what happens when rulers discern no ‘answer of peace’.
The story of Joseph and Pharaoh suggests the kinds of thought and action we social investors must look for in companies and governments.  What we now know about climate change and its effects demands a rewrite of the standards we use to gage their performance.
Among corporations and governments, one Joseph won’t be enough.  We need a host.
1.  Revelation 6: 8.  All Bible quotations are from the Authorized (King James) Version of the Holy Bible (published 1611).
2.   Genesis 37: 2.
3.  Genesis 37.
4.  Genesis 39.
5.  Genesis 40.
6.  Genesis 41: 46.
7. Genesis 39: 20-23.
8.  Genesis 41: 8.
9.  Genesis 41: 14.
10.  Genesis 41: 15-16.
11.  Genesis 41: 17-24.
12.  Genesis 41: 25-27, 29-31.
13.  Genesis 41: 33-36.
14.  Genesis 41: 53-57.
15.  Genesis 41: 16.

* Peter D. Kinder was the co-founder and president for 21 years of KLD Research & Analytics, Inc.  He now consults on socially responsible investing and blogs at