Since the very popular ‘Joseph and His Technicolor Dreamcoat’ stage musical was released in the 1970s, the story of Joseph has held fascination for a new generation. A farmer boy is betrayed by his family and brought into the heart of the Egyptian empire as a slave, he is imprisoned, he serves in two noble households rising to highest rank in the nation besides the King, there he encounters his murderous brothers again and saves them fulfilling the very dream they sought to murder him for. It’s high drama.
It’s a narrative that forms over 25% of the book of Genesis, yet some scholars and theologians assume it is simply a transitional story between the patriarchs and the Exodus. Some questions its significance to the progression of ‘salvation history’. Others have written about Joseph as a story in relation to wisdom literature, outlining godly character and courage under fire. However, this doesn’t accord with the fact that the story has more in common with tragedy or high drama and the characters of the narrative are profoundly flawed: Reuben is ineffectual, Joseph bratty and immature, Judah cold and spiritually insensitive.
In line with earlier posts, I want to examine the story of Joseph from a literary perspective. It’s evident to me that while the Bible shows historical interests, the interests of the text are presented in an artistic and theological way.
- The cycles of the Pentateuch
Genesis is comprised of ten ‘toledoth’ sections which function as cycles marking the book’s major divisions. Each account is not in fact about the ‘ancestor’ but rather about his descendants [Gen 2:4]. These cycles recount God’s covenant dealings with the patriarchs and look forward to the establishment of His plans. Thus, the Joseph narrative is seen as part of the larger historical narrative of Genesis which “repeatedly and emphatically explains that Israel’s God, the God of creation and the Lord of history has called Israel to take possession of Canaan and from that basis to bless the nations [12:1-3, 15, 17].”
Since it connects the patriarchal narratives of Genesis 12-36 to the account of the Exodus and since the brothers enter Egypt “as an embryonic nation” and leave it as a powerful nation, scholars have labelled the narrative, in fact a story of the birth of the nation of Israel. While the story transitions us from the fracture between Jacob and Esau, and ends with the family united in Egypt looking towards Canaan, however, it also closes with a question mark over the nature of the ‘reconciliation’ achieved. Gen 50:15-21, after the death of Jacob, has the brothers again begging for mercy of Joseph and facing years of exile in Egypt. A British scholar called David Clines has argued that the theme of the Pentateuch is “the partial fulfilment – which implies the partial non-fulfilment – of the promise or blessing of the patriarchs’. The book of Genesis ends with a bit of a cliff hanger.
- Salvation through Judgment.
Hamilton suggest another pattern emerging through the bible, that salvation comes to the nation of Israel through the form of judgment. Evident in the Flood Narrative and later exile, this pattern shows how Israel is in fact preserved through hardship. Early in the narrative, [Gen 38:1-30] Judah threatens the family by intermarrying with the Canaanites. Some scholars believe that the Egyptian pilgrimage is brought about by God to prevent their assimilation with the Canaanites, lest they lose their purpose to bless the earth [12:3; 24:3, 26:34-35; 27:46; 34:2]. To achieve this, God sends Joseph ahead into segregated Egypt [43:32; 46:34] a place where Hebrew distinctives will be fostered and not removed. The protagonist is here both enslaved and exalted at the right time, to bring about salvation for the people. The subsequent years of exile and slavery that proceed, forges a national identity and upon return to Canaan, the Israelites number over a million people.
- Salvation through ‘the lesser born”
The very potent image of Genesis is of the ‘seed’ or the emerging Royal dynasty promised through Eve, down to Abraham and ending Genesis with Perez, Judah’s son [Gen 49:8-12]. However, a nuance to the dynastic line is the motif of the election of the ‘younger son’ or the reversal of seniority. Without exception, this election creates jealousy, strife and even murder. This conflict’ first manifests itself when Cain kills Abel in Genesis 4:8. The conflict continues; Isaac, the son of promise is hated by his older sibling Ishmael; Esau hates Jacob and Joseph’s brothers want to kill him [Gen 37: 4-5, 18-19]. Within the Joseph narrative, his dreams and paternal favouritism elicit murderous intent within his brothers. What is of particular interest to the Joseph narrative is the fact not that he is not the literal promised ‘seed’ of the patriarchal promises, in fact Judah is and from thenceforth, the line is carried through the first born. I believe the significance of this motif is not capricious election on behalf of a sovereign God, but has more to do with the motif of ‘salvation through judgement’. The election of the lesser born in these narratives subverts convention and so draws attention to a particular points about the type of servant God chooses. This servant is consistently one who suffers at the hands of a dominant and threatened “older sibling”.
- Character change, reconciliation and chiastic structures
A curious element of Hebrew literature is the prevalence of chiastic structures creating parallel stanzas in poems or narratives. Elements at the beginning and end reflect each other and do so in increasing frequency to a point on which the narrative pivots – revealing a significant theological or artistic point. Within the Joseph narrative pivots are identified around the double centre on verses [44:1-34] in which the brothers pass the test of love for their brother and [45:1-28] in which Joseph gives up his power over his brother. Further parallels exist between ch. 37 and 50 in the chiasmus: Joseph’s dream is fulfilled when his brothers bow before him, and he is able to assuage their fears that God “intended it for good” [50:20].
In addition, ch 38 which interrupts the Joseph narrative to show Judah’s failure as a father-in-law and consequent conception of twins stands in direct opposition to ch 49 which contains Jacob’s prophecy of the royal line to continue through Judah. Ch 38, while placed out of step with the chronological nature of the narrative, contains Judah’s confession of wrong against Tamar which occurs at a similar time chronologically to when all the brothers confess their wrong against Joseph [38:26; 42:21]. “This scene provides an essential piece in the characterisation of Judah, whose greater Son will rule the universe.” His confessions of wrongs against Tamar and Joseph [38:26; 42:21] begin his faith journey peaking when the once callous slave trader of his young half-brother, offers himself as a slave in the stead of his youngest half-brother [44:18-33].
- Emergence of a king
The notion of ‘kingship’ is mentioned throughout Genesis in relation to the main line of descent, the ‘seed’. Both Abraham [17:6] and Sarah [17:16] are promised that kings will come from them. In the Joseph narrative the brothers interpret Joseph’s dream as implying he will be king over them [37:8-11] aggravating their already potent hatred. It is the ‘seed’ however of the main family lineage which is associated with the divine promises which feature in the patriarchal narratives and by Gen 50 it is clear the ‘seed’ descends through Judah. As noted above, character change is what Genesis is all about.” As noted above, Judah emerges as the hero of the tale. While at the outset of the narrative, Judah along with his brothers conspires to kill Joseph, his transformation by chapter 44 shows he now accepts the painful reality of Joseph’s role in saving their lives without rancour. “Jacob will crown Judah with kingship because he demonstrates that he has become fit to rule according to God’s ideal of kingship – that the king serves the people, not vice versa.” Judah is transformed from one who sought in hatred to kill the ‘lesser born’ for his prophesied ‘rule’ to one who sees with eyes of faith, one who exemplifies Israel’s kingship.
- Contemporary Significance
One of the most interesting sermons in the New Testament is given by Stephen at his execution. He neatly summarises stories from Joseph, Moses, the Prophets and the law to show the Jews how they are rejecting Christ [Acts 7:9; Acts 7:23-29]. Despite the persecution of their own people, both men brought deliverance for God’s people. Stephen’s argument is that the law typologically foreshadows Christ as the rejected prophet; thus those who reject him are also typologically foreshadowed by those who rejected Joseph, Moses and the prophets [Acts 17:2-3]. It’s a powerful case study.
In the same way, this pattern is fulfilled in Jesus, and it is a pattern of salvation that comes through judgement for God’s glory. God judged Joseph’s bothers [Gen 42:21-22;44:16], exalted Joseph [45:9] and through judgement brought the brothers to repentance [44:16, 18-34; 50:15-18] and all along what they meant for evil he meant for good [50:20]. Jesus is depicted as ‘Israel son-of-God,’ when as an infant he descends to Egypt, and back fulfils the words of the prophet Hosea 11:1. The events of Jesus’ life are the ‘recapitulation’ of Israel’s history. Jesus and his family flee from Herod who is seeking to destroy him, a particularly potent example hatred on behalf of the “rightful ruler” to the “elect lesser born” prophesied to save and to rule.
To sum up, the ‘Joseph narrative’ is rich with covenantal themes that resonate throughout Genesis and throughout the Pentateuch. From the ‘seed conflict’ established in Gen 3, to the patriarchal promises of Gen 12, the narrative does more than bridge to the Exodus, and more than simply preserving the nation of Israel from assimilation and destruction. The Joseph narrative sets up paradigmatic ‘salvation’ themes of ‘election of the lesser born’ and ‘salvation through judgement.’