Joseph and the famine in Egypt


I have a question regarding Genesis, CH. 41. In this chapter, Joseph accurately interprets Pharaoh's dreams as foretelling the "7 years of plenty" and "7 years of famine" for Egypt. Genesis 41 says the following (verses taken from the Revised Version):

  • "...there was famine in all lands" Gen. 41:54
  • "And the famine was over all the face of the Earth..." Gen. 41: 56
  • "And all countries came to Egypt to Joseph for to buy corn; because the famine was sore in all the Earth." Gen. 41:57

Then in Genesis 42, Jacob's sons leave Canaan to go to Egypt to buy corn/grain; obviously Gen. 42:5 says that there is famine in Canaan.

I guess my question is, what does Genesis refer to when it says "all lands/all faces/all countries of the Earth?" I know famine was periodically common in the ancient world (and still is today); we learned about the many famines that plagued Egypt in my Egyptian archaeology class back in my undergrad years during the different dynasties and periods.

Does "all lands" mean a worldwide famine as we would understand it today (I'm guessing no), or more of a regional famine that affected the Mediterranean "world?" I would think an ancient Egyptian or ancient Hebrew/Israelite would view their "world" on a more localized or regional scale, not so much a global one. But I don't know.

Does anyone know if such a regional/"worldwide(?)" famine has been found dating from Joseph's time in the archaeological record (to be honest, I don't know the exact time of when Joseph lived in Egypt; I'm assuming it's earlier than 1,000 BC)?


The Joseph period was approximately 1600BC.

A famine need not have covered even the "Mediterranean world" to have been considered "worldwide" by those involved in it. Famine conditions extending from Egypt into SW Asia would have involved all the nations known to them.



I think I have two answers to this question. First, from my own reading of scripture and from logic, you might say: Famines might be both local and global, but not total.

In the global sense, there might have been many localized famines, requiring some to seek food elsewhere besides their immediate local.

And, it comes to mind too that perhaps the sense of famine here is that there was not enough food in a particular location, rather than a total crop failure affecting all people.

Surely, from the perspective of the writers of the Bible, there was not knowledge of a global world as we know it, with seven continents.

I'm looking up what might be another answer, and will get back if I find anything.


There have been plenty of times in recent history when there were bad crop failures and famines pretty much worldwide. For example, when volcanoes have put large amounts of dust into the atmosphere, as in the years after Krakatoa, or in the 1777 "year without a summer" which led into several years of bad crops around the world. Bad crop diseases also tend to come when the weather is damp and cold worldwide, as in 1847 and the years afterward, which promoted the potato famine blight all across Europe along with other crop failures, and thus caused huge amounts of political unrest and war. The explosion and sinking of Thera has been associated with all sorts of dramatic legends and archaeological evidence.

So yes, Joseph was probably thinking "the known world," but it could well have been the whole world.


I'm reminded of a line from that great movie "To Be or Not To Be" - "He's world famous in Poland". The famine could have been limited to the "known" world, which would not contradict with the context at all.


The first time I read a no-frills translation of Genesis, I was shocked by the liberties translators take to "dress" the text. Biblical Hebrew has a sparse vocabularly, but it makes
up for it in the many-layered meanings of its words. Remember the Ten Commandments? Technically, they are the Ten Words, but they can also mean the Ten Sayings, or even the Ten Things.

The most straightforward translation I found of Genesis 41:56 is, "the hunger was all over the face of the land aretz]." Aretz refers to physical "land," but also to "civilisation" (the latter, more abstract meaning appears in Genesis 41:57). Therefore, even assuming the famine as factual history, I see no reason to assume it was a global occurrence. Furthermore Ancient Egypt was the superpower of its day, a major avenue of trade and export (especially grain) to the region. From the perspective of the Canaanite inhabitants, like Joseph, it probably seemed as like a global famine if Egypt was living on rations.

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