So here’s the thing about the Bible. Even if you don’t believe the Creator of the Universe revealed himself (or herself) to an ancient Near Eastern tribe of Iron Age nomadic pastoralists, the Jewish Bible still represents an amazing mirror into pre-modern society. Turns out those folks had exactly the same types of problems we face today: lying, stealing, drunkenness, worship of false gods, prostitution, poverty, adultery and unprovoked violence. Of course, that the one true God had a hair trigger temper of his own, exemplified by his napalming of Sodom and Gomorrah, is a small detail we might want to gloss over.

Somewhat less well known than the spectacular theatrics of many Biblical events is the story of Joseph. You remember Joseph, the guy with the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat from that whole Jesus Christ, Superstar Andrew Lloyd Weber we’re all groovy period of the late 1960s – early ‘70s, don’t you?

Here’s a quick refresher, in case you weren’t paying attention in Sunday school (or even worse, didn’t attend, may the Good Lord have mercy on your soul). Joseph was Jacob’s youngest son, and his favorite. To demonstrate his love for Joseph, Jacob gave him a special coat of many colors. Today we would refer to Joseph as being “pimped out.” As if the coat by itself didn't sow enough jealousy, Joseph told his brothers about two dreams he had, one in which each of them had a sheaf of wheat and their sheaves all bowed down to Joseph’s, which was the tallest, and another in which Joseph was the moon and the brothers were eleven stars who bowed down  to him.

As you can imagine, the brothers got mighty ticked off, and did what any rational set of siblings would do in a period when disputes were often settled by running a sword through someone’s gizzard: while out in the fields during the day, Joseph’s siblings  threw him into a pit, and sold him into slavery to a passing band of traders. They then took his multi-colored coat (moral lesson to any current or prospective parents: tell all your kids you love them equally, and then act like it’s true).  They covered the coat with blood from a sheep of the flock, and then brought the garment back to Jacob, telling the poor old man his beloved son had been killed by a wild beast, another one of those relatively commonplace annoyances which made the “good old days” a source of such unending misery.

Through a series of adventures, Joseph ended up in Pharaoh’s dungeon in Egypt. While there, he developed a bit of a reputation as someone who was good at interpreting dreams (must be a Jewish thing, as this was a gift of Freud’s, as well). Eventually, he was summoned by Pharaoh himself and asked to provide an explanation for a very troubling dream, as recounted in Chapter 41 of Genesis:

And Pharaoh spoke unto Joseph: 'In my dream, behold, I stood upon the brink of the river And, behold, there came up out of the river seven fat cattle; and they fed in the grass. And, behold, seven other cattle came up after them, poor and lean, such as I never saw in all the land. And the lean cattle did eat up the first seven fat cattle And Joseph said unto Pharaoh: The seven good cattle are seven years; … Behold, there come seven years of 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 famine shall consume the land.

In other words, Joseph became history's first known financial prognosticator, and predicated a long-term business cycle: seven good years followed by seven bad years. Can you even begin to imagine how much money Joseph could make trading the stock market if he were around today? He would have shorted Internet stocks like nobody’s business when the Dotcom bubble popped.



Joseph and his amazing economic prediction probably wouldn't sell as many tickets as a show about his technicolor dreamcoat. But he was the world's first economist, and we should heed his advice, or at least wear a colorful coat.

 


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