Famine in the ancient Near East (Genesis 42)

Subsistence farming and chronic malnutrition were common in the ancient world, and many people perceived themselves at any given time as being only a step ahead of starvation. Natural causes (draught, locusts and blight) brought about frequent famines, as did human actions, from siege warfare to destruction of fields by invading armies to the exacerbating of food shortages by hoarding. Joel 1 recounts the desolation brought about by a locust plague, while Isaiah 7 records the devastation of Judah’s agricultural economy by invading Assyrians.

Usually famines in this part of the world were temporary and local, but some longterm and widespread occurrences have been recorded. A protracted and extensive draught and consequent intermittent famines centred in Egypt occurred from the twenty-second to the twentieth centuries B.C., as Egyptian texts from this time period attests. For example, The Admonitions of Ipuwer describes famine-related social chaos in Egypt, indicating that during this time people languished from thirst and desert-like conditions prevailed. This period of frequent famines corresponds to the patriarchal age; the Bible records famines during the lifetimes of Abraham (Genesis 12:10), Isaac (26:1) and Joseph (chapters 41-42).

Centuries later, according to Acts 11:28, Agabus predicted a worldwide famine, which did indeed occur between A.D. 44 and 48, during Claudius’ reign. This is attested by extra-biblical sources. For example, Tacitus, in The Annals, 12.43, mentioned “scanty crops” during that period.

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