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Six approaches to The Story of Joseph

A question about interpretation of the Bible.

Take the story of Joseph, Genesis 37-50.

#1 A feel good hero
A story inspirational enough to inspire Andrew Lloyd-Webber. Is his 1970s Disneyfied reading the true meaning?

#2 Joseph a christ
Or what about the classic interpretation of Joseph for most of church history - that Joseph is a Type of Christ, a beloved son who suffers and figuratively dies, but who is raised up to feed the world? In this, telling the dreams is revelation of the way that he'll lovingly provide rather than arrogance. Jesus says Moses wrote about Jesus...

Or, a more modern reading, that it's a story about either (three variations on 'Be Joseph'):

#3 Suffering in general
People might mean things for evil but God is always working for good?

#4  Providence in general
Similar to the previous, with an encouragement that you might be falsely accused etc but nonetheless finally vindicated. Both #3 & #4 major on the summary verse in 50:20 about the brothers evil intent and God's good plan.

#5 Lessons in Leadership,
With warnings to not to be arrogant (even if you're right) and to flee temptation and so rise to greatness like Joseph, but also to plan for the future, hear God etc. Application to leadership is of course possible from each of the above options too - from a search for the hero inside, to the kind of leadership we see in a christ, and how to face suffering and hardships etc.

Should we teach all of them? Some of them? Only one of them? Or something else?

#6 ?


  1. An interesting variation on 'be Joseph' is Joseph as representative of a movement of churches. Ern Baxter famously did this with David and Saul - David representing the new movement of Spirit-filled churches, and Saul the institutional church. Terry Virgo did a similar thing with Joseph, who represents the new church movement who may be immature but nevertheless have a God-given dream. He saw parallels with the way that Joseph was initially rejected by his brothers to the hostility towards new churches from the established denominations.

    Maybe you could call this a 'corporate Joseph' or a 'we are Joseph' interpretation.

  2. To answer your other question, I think there is a lot to be said for Origen's idea of a three-fold meaning to passages (even though this idea seems to be sneered at in a lot of heremeneutics books).

    So there is a "literal" meaning which just takes this as a historical story, which forms part of the bigger picture of the biblical story of salvation. The application would be truths about God who was working out his purposes in human history.

    Then there is a "moral" meaning, which your "be Joseph" interpretations fit into. The story of Joseph does serve as a good illustration for topics such as suffering, providence, trusting God, faithfulness, leadership etc. These readings have to be informed by other biblical passages that teach the same things in non story form.

    And finally there is a "spiritual" meaning. This would not be an uncontrolled allegory, but a christological reading of the text, expecting on the basis of Jesus' words on the road to Emmaeus to find some echoes the gospel in every part of the OT.

    I don't have a problem with preachers occasionally going with the "be Joseph" approach, but if that is their only angle, there is something seriously deficient. I think many preachers could learn a lot from the likes of Tim Keller on how it is possible to preach OT narrative in a Christ-centred way.

  3. I love the story of Joseph. We preached through it on our way through Genesis a few years ago.

    I reckon, if you do number 3 properly (and do your Christology properly) you can also end up having all the best bits that 3, 4, 5, and Mark Heath's corporate suggestion all have to offer too. Totus Christus and all that.

    [Isn't this a bit like the same question with the Song?]

  4. Preach Christ! Helpful though #3-5 might be, they still feel a bit 'me and what I must do' focussed (I must flee temptation, I must listen to God, I must bear up under suffering because God's got a plan...) true enough though some might be. If the OT is just God-flavoured moral lessons, it's like trying to eat overcooked meat (dry and tough going, and because our hearts are what they are, soon passes). But if it's about Jesus, if it points beautifully to how marvellous he is, if it preaches the good news that Jesus suffered, died and rose in my place because I couldn't do any of it. It draws me out of myself and how I must relate to God to being lost in his beauty, swept off my feet in worship, which actually results in far deeper and longer lasting change. I freely admit I lean with a heavy bias, and probably represent #3-5 unfairly, but seeing Christ in the OT is just so much more interesting, and so much more affecting, I wouldn't waste my time with the rest! Besides if you want to preach about leadership, church, suffering, and all the rest, Christ is the place to start and finish. #Mytenpenneth

  5. I wonder if a lot of which way our reading of Joseph goes depends on what you make of Joseph sharing the dreams with his brothers...

    Is he arrogant... in which case they're right to hate him but why is his father storing it up in his heart, and what about that it comes true?
    Or, is he rightly sharing a prophetic vision of a future in which he'll be the source of blessing to feed the world, something that should fill the brothers with joy...

  6. We have just been teaching the Joseph narrative in our 14-18's youth group and I think #2-4 all came in there at some point. A few things of broader context shaped our approach:

    1) The Promise of Blessing to the Nations through Abraham's Offspring: Genesis is structured around the line of descent beginning with Adam and Eve and the pregnant wording of the curse upon the serpent (3:15), tracing it in genealogies through figures such as Seth, Noah, Shem and then Abram, Isaac and Jacob, along the way exploring alternative lines along the way- Cain, Japheth and Ham, Ishmael and Esau- before leaving them as dead ends. The reason for tracing this line seems to be hinted at 3:15, where the offspring of woman is said to crush the serpant's offspring, and 5:29, where it is hoped Noah will bring comfort in a sin-cursed world, and stated much more clearly in God's promises to Abraham in 12:1-3, where the LORD promises to make Abraham's offspring a great nation and bless the world through that offspring. Through chapters 12-50 there are loads of examples of God blessing the world through the Patriarchs (as well as plenty of examples of them failing to be a blessing!) but Joseph's story seems to be the grandest and most climactic example. It demonstrated God's power and commitment to keep His promises to bless His people and through them the world in ways that repeated patterns earlier in the patriarchal narratives and yet is clearly not the final answer to the Fall. Therefore it invites one to see God was laying down a pattern for how He was intending to ultimately bless the world. This forward looking character of the book seems to be confirmed by chapters 48 to 50, which anticipate the future Exodus and the destinies of the tribes.

    2) The Future Significance of Judah: The most significant of the blessing on the tribes is Judah's (Genesis 49:8-12): while Joseph has the brothers and the world at large bowing before him in that generation, Judah's line is promised the sceptre and a global dominion in the future and in a tantalizing and suggestive vision of that Kingdom's abundance and peace we get a picture of conditions that seem to reverse the curse of the Fall. Just as the narrative of Genesis channeled our expectations for the blessing of the nations down to the family of Jacob so within that family we are led to look to Judah and his royal descendants for that promise's ultimate fulfillment. Joseph's glorious and blessing-mediating rule pales in comparison.

    3) The Pattern of Rejecting God's Ruler: Joseph's story in recounted in Stephen's speech in Acts 7:9-15, which lists subsequent acts of rejecting the leaders and prophets God raised up climaxing in their rejection of Jesus. This isn't the only thread running through it- certainly he also develops the idea God's tabernacling presence unlimitted to one place- but it seems to invite the comparison between the people rejection and crucifixion of Jesus and what Joseph's brothers did to him. This seems to stand regardless of whether or not we think Joseph is characterised as arrogant or foolishly unsubtle at this point in the story. There is another aspect of this parallel in that it is their very rejection of Joseph that leads to the fulfillment of the promises. Like Jesus' contempories their key contribution to God bringing blessing is not their faithfulness but in fact their rebellion against His purposes; the crowd that called for Jesus to be crucified find their sin, in an act of divine alchemy, playing a part in bringing about the blessing that comes to the world through Jesus resurrection.

  7. 4) The Pattern of Fracture and Division in Genesis: Adam blaming Eve, Cain murdering Abel, the Confusion of Babel, Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob: Genesis demonstrates a pattern of fracturing relationships, particularly between brothers, that alerts us to another level of significance in Joseph's relationship with his brothers. The blessing of the family of Jacob is not just material but in the re-knitting of the fraternal bonds ripped apart by jealousy. Therefore the Joseph narrative has relevance for reconciliation within the people of God.

    5) The forward-looking faith of Jacob and Joseph: Hebrews 11:21&22 is the only place I can think of in the NT where we are told explicitly to imitate Joseph and surprisingly it is not for his faithfulness in the face of temptation nor his forgiveness of his brothers; rather it is for his forward-looking faith. Joseph identified himself with the promise of the land and the Exodus from Egypt. He was not satisfied with the fortaste he and his brothers had experienced in his lifetime of the fulfillment of the promises of God; he anticipated the future, far fuller installment.

    Working with those pointers here are a few directions we went in application:
    1) God will bring about His plans to bless the nations through His people: Ask to be a part of that blessing and live for that sure and certain hope now.
    2) God will bring about that plan through the One He has chosen and His reign: The family tree ultimately comes down to Jesus and therefore we must come under His reign to experience that blessing.
    3) Our instinct is to reject that plan when it comes to the authority of the One He has chosen: We needed to see our sinfulness in the brothers' selling Joseph into slavery, writ large in the crucifixion of Christ.
    4) God brings about His plan through that very evil and rejection: We sought to inspire awe and worship at God's marvellous wisdom and power, strengthen confidence at His power to work through us despite our sinfulness and failing and encourage commitment to the church as significant not ultimately because it lacks flaws but because of God's gracious election and sovereign power.
    5) God leads His people to repentance: alongside the story of Joseph himself we traced Judah and God's leading him repentance from gangleader in chapter 37 to the one willing to lay down his life for Benjamin in 44; we wanted to challenge them that God's sovereign grace does not mean he is indifferent to sin but rather plans to change us but Judah was an attractive example of how past sin never leaves one a second-class Christian as Judah is written into the very family line of Christ.
    6) God's plan leads to reconciliation: Joseph's forgiveness and desire for reconciliation with his brothers pointed us to Christ's gracious offer of forgiveness of sins in the Gospel and I guess provided the clearest "come to Christ" moment in our series. But as we thought through 50:20 we also applied it to our reconciliation with and forgiveness of others, not merely as a moral example- "we should forgive like Joseph and Jesus"- but more as an insight into how God's sovereignty helps us to do that: I can begin to let go of my anger as I know that whatever I feel that person has robbed me of I know that my heavenly Father has turned that loss into a blessing, even if I don't see the full picture of how He has done it.

    Not sure if that's any help to anyone.


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