Joseph and Moses (I):
From Septuagesima until Palm Sunday, the Church’s tradition is to read the books of Moses, especially Genesis and Exodus, which begin the history of salvation. The territory to which these Scriptures take us is often strange and disconcerting. The conduct of the patriarchs at times seems out of keeping with modern moral expectations. (There is a delicious story about Queen Victoria, who spent the many remaining years of her life after the death of her husband, Prince Albert, in a state of mourning. One winter afternoon, while out for a drive in an open carriage with one of her ladies-in-waiting, herself also an elderly widow, the latter broke the Queen’s gloomy silence with a little conversation. ‘Oh, Your Majesty, think of when we shall see our dear ones again in Heaven!’. ‘Yes,’ said the Queen. ‘We will all meet in Abraham’s bosom,’ said the lady-in-waiting. ‘I will not meet Abraham’, said the Queen”. The saints of the Bible, however, are not illustrations of Victorian or every other moral code: what they show us is the beginnings of man’s moral and spiritual education in the ways of the Lord, often by trial and painful error.
One such is Joseph, whose story is told in Genesis 37-50; for when Joseph appears, he is not indeed an attractive figure. The child of Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel, Joseph is his father’s favorite, and by his own tactless ambition provokes the envy and hatred of his older half-brothers, sons of Jacob by less favored women. They seize an opportunity to get rid of him, and he is sold into slavery, and given up for dead by his heart-broken father. Unknown to any of them, however, Joseph is taken to Egypt, and after a spell of imprisonment on false accusations rises suddenly to the position of supreme power under Pharaoh, when he predicts a cycle of agricultural boom and bust, and is put in charge of managing Egypt’s food supplies. When the famine strikes Canaan, Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt seeking to purchase food, and there, unrecognized, Joseph meets them again, but now in a position of total power. The question for the reader – and also it seems for Joseph – is how he will use his power over them, and what relation he will have with his family.
In the end, Joseph recognizes that something larger is at work in his relations with his brothers, and that is the saving purpose of God: “be not grieved”, he tells his brothers, “nor angry with yourselves, that ye sold me hither: for God did send me before you to preserve life”; and he bids them bring his father and their families and herds down to Egypt to escape the famine in Canaan. Thus Joseph is reconciled to his brothers, and restored to his aged father, like a son risen from the dead, to save his own from death.
The story of Joseph is thus the story of a “rejected savior”, and as such a pattern for the redemptive work of Christ, who like Joseph is envied and rejected by his own, betrayed and sold into captivity, given up for dead by those who loved him, unjustly condemned and imprisoned, before (beyond all expectation) being exalted to the heights of power, restored to his father as a son risen from the dead, and put in the position to save not only those who loved him, but also those who had been his enemies. “Ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive” (Genesis 50:20).
Given the striking parallels between the story of Joseph and that of Jesus, it might seem that Joseph should be the primary Old Testament type pre-figuring and foreshadowing Christ; yet, with one signal exception (Stephen’s speech in Acts 7:9-16) Joseph hardly features in the New Testament as a type of Christ. It is not Joseph, but rather Moses, who takes this role; Moses, who (as Leon Kass remarks in his splendid books of Genesis and Exodus) is “in soul the antithesis of Joseph”.
You may read parts 2 & 3 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, Feb. 28, 2021. If you have questions or topics for a featured story, please send them to Rector Gavin Dunbar.