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Joseph’s ‘Little Bible’

A familiar story discloses an unexpected choice.

As I was preparing a chapel meditation on Job some weeks ago, I read a commentary that described Job’s story as a microcosm of the entire biblical redemptive narrative. It begins with an idyllic life of one of God’s servants, takes him through the darkest valleys of affliction, brings in his friends’ proposed solutions to his plight, and ends with God restoring Job’s fortunes. This prompted me to look at other examples of “little bibles” in the Scriptures, and I believe several can be found in the first book of the Bible, one of which I will explore here.

The story of Joseph always moves me emotionally when I read it, as it recounts a tale of reconciliation and forgiveness in a severely dysfunctional family. Yet it has some peculiar features which make for a complicated relationship with the larger biblical narrative. Joseph is the hero of the story. Or is he?

Prophecies

As a mere 17-year-old, Joseph constantly annoys his brothers with his cockiness, telling them of dreams in which the sun, moon and 11 stars bow down to him. Like many older brothers, they think his pretensions are badly in need of pruning. Of course, most older brothers do not go as far as to sell an offending sibling into slavery, but that is what Joseph’s brothers do, much to his father’s grief.

This is not the only biblical story featuring enmity between brothers. In later centuries, it was not unheard of for a newly anointed ruler to eliminate especially his half-brothers as possible rivals for his throne (Jud. 9; 2 Sam.13; 1 Kings 2; 2 Chron. 21:4). In a polygamous society, sons of the same mother were likely to be bound by brotherly affection, while common paternity had little significance. Nowadays we might judge that the absence of a nurturing father produced ruthless sons in the grip of a toxic masculinity.

The rest of the story is familiar. Joseph is sold to an Egyptian, falsely accused of violating his master’s wife and put in prison. There the visions he receives from God elicit attention from his Egyptian captors, including Pharaoh himself, who elevates Joseph to a prime-ministerial position in his kingdom. In this exalted capacity he once again meets his brothers, who have come from Canaan to buy sorely-needed food, thereby fulfilling the prophecies in Joseph’s adolescent dreams.

Unlikely heroes

The story of Joseph mirrors the larger story of salvation in the Bible, beginning with the pastoral life of Jacob and his family, peacefully tending their livestock in a land promised to their ancestor Abraham. Sin enters the picture with the break between Joseph and his brothers (Gen. 37). The story ends with the brothers’ reconciliation (45), subsequent move to Egypt (46), and the restoration of a peaceful life, albeit in another land.

From this one would think that Joseph, the apparent hero of the story, would be the line God would choose to bring his Messiah into the world. But no. God instead chooses Judah, son of Jacob’s less favoured wife Leah. It was Judah who suggested selling Joseph to the Ishmaelites. It was Judah who visited a woman he thought was a prostitute and by her fathered one of Jesus’ distant ancestors. By contrast, Joseph’s descendants would be led into apostasy by Jeroboam after Solomon’s death, ending up in a redemptive cul de sac centuries later.

Scripture constantly surprises us with God’s unexpected choices. In the larger story of salvation, God chooses unlikely people with flawed characters to accomplish his purposes. While God seems to favour Joseph in the final chapters of Genesis, he ultimately chooses Judah as father of the One he would send to save his people from their sins.

  • David Koyzis is a Global Scholar with Global Scholars Canada. He is the author of the award-winning Political Visions and Illusions (2nd ed., 2019) and We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God (2014). He has written a column for Christian Courier since 1990.

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