Joseph and Moses (II)
In the figure of Joseph, envied by his brothers, sold into slavery, given up for dead, and exalted to supreme power in Egypt, is the prophetic type of the “rejected savior” fulfilled in Christ. Perceiving God’s providential hand at work in these events, Joseph forgives his brothers, is restored to his father as one alive from the dead, and saves the entire children of Israel from death. So vivid are the parallels between Joseph and Jesus, that it is surprising to note that Joseph barely features in the New Testament (with the notable exception of Acts 7:9-16), and is far outshone by the figure of Moses, who is, as Leon Kass remarks, the antithesis of Joseph.
Joseph is not without troubling ambiguity as a hero of Israel. On the strength of his God-given gift for the interpretation of dreams, Joseph rises to eminence in Egypt, but like so many outsiders risen to power, his position depends entirely on the favor of Pharaoh; and Joseph, readily conforming to Egyptian ways (so much so that his brothers do not recognize him in his Egyptian garb) uses both the knowledge God has given him and the position it has brought him to engineer a massive expansion of Pharaoh’s despotic power in Egypt. The agricultural surpluses of the good years are stored in Pharaoh’s granaries; and in the years of famine Joseph drives a hard bargain with a hungry populace, obtaining ownership for Pharaoh first of the livestock, then of the land, and finally of the very persons of the Egyptians. The Egyptians sell their freedom for survival, and Egypt becomes a nation of slaves, with Pharaoh their absolute master. But this is not God’s way – for the law that will be given Israel has notable provisions to limit and prevent the tyranny of kings, the alienation of lands, and the servitude of Israelites. Joseph’s administrative expedients in Egypt provide no pattern for God’s people to follow.
Moreover, when Joseph brings Israel down into Egypt, he is able to provide them with sustenance during the famine; but after Joseph’s death, when a new dynasty takes power, the privileged status of the Israelites arouses the envy of the Egyptians, and the Israelites cannot resist the enslaving power of the despot. Thus Joseph ensures Israel’s short-term survival at the price of future enslavement; and the intervention of God is required to rescue his covenant people, a redemption that will take place by the hand of Moses. For though Moses like Joseph is delivered from danger of death into a position of eminence in Egypt (adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter), from that point his path diverges radically from that of Joseph. Rather than expanding Pharaoh’s power, he will challenge it and defeat it; rather than setting his own people up for slavery, he will set them free; liberating them not only from Pharaoh’s tyranny but also from their own slavishly self-destructive tendencies; and while Joseph brought Israel into Egypt, Moses leads them out, and brings them to their own land, the land God promised their fathers. Discerning his place in the providence of God, Joseph provided a short-term administrative solution for a particular crisis, which meets a physical need of the children of Israel; by the calling of God to be the conscious willing agent of his purpose, Moses forms a people and a nation from their descendants, with a clear spiritual identity and purpose, as the people of God, to show forth God’s praise.
Moses’ accomplishments fall into four distinct areas; first, the redemption of Israel from bondage in Egypt, so that Israel may serve the Lord in righteousness and holiness; second, his mediation of a covenant that unites God and Israel in a nuptial bond of mutual obligation, and by which the lives of his people may be guided in the way of righteousness and holiness; third, his building of the Tabernacle (together with the establishment of priesthood, sacrifices, and ritual laws of purity), wherein the covenant Lord is present and available to be the shepherd of his covenant people. In redemption, covenant-mediation, and tabernacle-building, Moses foreshadows Christ both in person and work. (It’s not accidental that John 1:14 may be literally translated as “the Word was made flesh, and tabernacled among us” – in Christ’s humanity, his deity is fully present.)
Given the huge scope of Moses’ achievement, so summarily sketched in this essay, but explored in detail in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, the question must be, what need is there for another mediator, a new covenant, a further redemption, a new tabernacle? To this we turn next.
(to be continued)
You may read Part 1 of this essay below.
The public domain painting is entitled “Joseph’s Bloody Coat Brought to Jacob” by Diego Velazquez . This essay was published in the St. John’s Parish Paper for Sunday, March 7, 2021. If you have questions or topics for a featured story, please send them to Rector Gavin Dunbar.