by Doug Ward
A highlight of the book of Genesis is its dramatic and inspiring account of the life of Joseph, son of the patriarch Jacob. Joseph experiences a daunting series of trials, including slavery and years of incarceration in Egypt. Through it all, though, he maintains his faith, and in the fullness of time God rescues him. Joseph becomes a kind of agriculture czar to Pharaoh, charged with managing Egypt's food production and distribution through seven years of plenty and an ensuing famine. He reunites the family of Israel in Egypt and saves the region from starvation through his able leadership.
The trajectory of Joseph's life prefigures the later experience of Jesus of Nazareth. Joseph suffers punishment for a crime he did not commit, but then he is raised to a high position in the Egyptian government and saves many lives. Jesus, who commits no sin, suffers death by Roman crucifixion and is raised to eternal life for the salvation of the world.
This is the leading example from a substantial list of parallels between Joseph and Jesus. Because of such parallels, Christians have always recognized Joseph as a type of the Messiah. Although the New Testament does not link Joseph and Jesus explicitly, the link is implied through verbal allusions that appear especially in the writings of Luke. Luke often describes episodes from the life of Jesus using language from the Greek Septuagint (LXX) translation of Gen 37-50. Here we will consider several of these verbal allusions to Joseph.1
Both Joseph and Jesus are precocious youths who have a special connection to God, a connection noticed by their parents. At age 17 Joseph has two striking dreams that he describes to his family, dreams that predict he would one day be a leader among them. Genesis 37 reports that Joseph's father "kept the saying in mind" (v. 11). Similarly, Jesus at age 12 drifts away from his family during a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to engage in study and debate with the sages at the Temple (Luke 2:40-51). When Jesus explains to his parents that he must be in his "Father's house" (v. 49), his mother Mary "treasured up all these things in her heart" (v. 51).
When Joseph becomes a slave in Egypt, Gen 39 emphasizes that "the Lord was with him" (vv. 2, 21, 23). Stephen repeats this detail in Acts 7:9, and then Peter notes in Acts 10:38 that as Jesus engaged in his ministry of healing, "God was with him." These are the only places in the Gospels and Acts that refer to God being with someone, suggesting that an allusion to Gen 39 is intended in Acts 10:38.
We also read in Gen 39 that young Joseph receives "favor" with his masters in Egypt (vv. 4, 21). Later, Pharaoh declares Joseph to be wise (41:39). Stephen notes in Acts 7:10 that Joseph found favor and wisdom. In the case of Jesus, Luke says that he "increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man" (Luke 2:52).
As an innocent prisoner Joseph encounters two members of the Egyptian royal court, predicting that Pharaoh's cupbearer will be restored to his position, while Pharaoh's baker will be executed. Joseph asks the cupbearer to remember his plight and mention him to Pharaoh (Gen 40:14). In an interesting contrast, the innocent Jesus is crucified next to two criminals, one of whom acknowledges his sins and asks, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom" (Luke 23:42). Jesus assures the man, "... today you will be with me in paradise" (v. 43).
Joseph is later released from prison and appointed to a high position. He explains to his brothers, "God has made me lord of all Egypt" (Gen 45:9). Similarly, in his Pentecost sermon the apostle Peter says of Jesus, "God has made him both Lord and Christ" (Acts 2:36), using the same Greek words for "made" and "Lord" as the LXX translation of Gen 45:9. These are the only two places in the Bible where these two words are used together in this way, implying that Peter may be comparing the resurrection of Jesus with Joseph's sudden rise to power.2
There are several parallels between Joseph's reunion with his family and the account in Luke 24 of the appearances of the resurrected Jesus to his disciples. Joseph is believed by his family to have died (Gen 42:13, 32, 36, 38; 44:20), and some disciples of Jesus do not initially grasp that he has risen from the dead (Luke 24:11, 20-21). When Joseph's brothers travel to Egypt to obtain grain, they do not recognize him (Gen 42:8), and the disciples on the road to Emmaus do not recognize Jesus (Luke 24:16). Joseph's brothers initially react with dismay when they see he is alive (Gen 45:3), as do Jesus' disciples (Luke 24:37). Finally, Joseph and Jesus announce they are alive with similar words. Joseph says, "I am Joseph!", where "I am" in the LXX is ego eimi; and Jesus states that "it is I myself" (Luke 24:39), where again the Greek is ego eimi.
There is evidence in the Gospels that the idea of comparing Jesus with Joseph began with Jesus himself. In the parable of the ten minas, the citizens of the nobleman (who represents Jesus) "hated him" and declare, "We do not want this man to reign over us" (Luke 19:14). The citizens are echoing Joseph's brothers, who "hated him" (Gen 37:4) and asked Joseph (v. 8), "Are you indeed to reign over us?" The parable implies that Jesus is rejected by his people just as Joseph had been rejected by his brothers.
Such a comparison is also made in the parable of the tenants, which appears in all three Synoptic Gospels. In this parable the vineyard owner sends his beloved son to reason with his unruly tenants (Luke 20:13), much as Jacob sends his beloved son Joseph to check on his other sons (Gen 37:3, 13). The tenants see the son coming and decide to kill him, just as Joseph's brothers do. "Let us kill him," the tenants say in Luke 20:14, a phrase that appears in the Bible only in this parable and in Gen 37:20. The parable suggests that those who reject Jesus are more culpable than Joseph's brothers, since the tenants go on to kill the son rather than “merely” selling him into slavery.
In these parables and elsewhere, the Gospels show that Jesus saw himself as the culmination of a line of persecuted prophets (Luke 11:46-51), a line including Joseph. When Jesus taught his disciples the ways in which the Torah pointed to him (Luke 24:27, 44-45), the life of Joseph was part of this lesson.
1A good reference on this topic is Nicholas P. Lunn's article, "Allusions to the Joseph Narrative in the Synoptic Gospels and Acts: Foundations of a Biblical Type", Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Vol. 55 (2012), No. 1, pp. 27-41.
2See Lunn, p. 32.
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