One of the questions I ask myself when reading the Old Testament is this: how would post-exilic Jews have heard this story as a report of God’s saving activity? Most of the Old Testament’s narrative texts (Genesis – II Kings) came together in their current form during or after the time of the exile which began in the early 6th century before Christ. Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the city of Jerusalem and took the leadership of Judah into exile in Babylon. The written word helped preserve (and transform) Jewish identity while the people were separated from their former land, their temple and their social institutions. What did the stories of Abraham, Moses, Joshua and David mean to the exiles? How did they see God at work in their history, and how did that help them understand their current situation?
As I bring that question to Joseph’s story, I see a few themes that would have been important to the exiles:
1) God preserves his people. The famine threatened Jacob’s family and therefore God’s covenant promises to the patriarchs appeared at risk. On one hand, Joseph’s descent into Egyptian slavery was a great injustice. On the other hand,
It was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will be no plowing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance (Genesis 45:5b-7)
For exiles in Babylon, the knowledge that God preserves a remnant provided hope.
2) God restores his people. The story of Joseph begins with a rift in the people of God. Joseph’s brothers threw him into a pit and sold him into slavery. Then, in Genesis 45, Joseph revealed himself to his brothers who believed that he was irretrievably lost to them. Jacob threw his arms around his brothers, kissed them, wept with them and talked with them. Joseph’s last words to his brothers before they departed to retrieve their father were these: “Don’t quarrel on the way.” In other words, the brothers were to maintain the unity and wholeness that God had restored.
As later generations of Israelites will hear this story, the sons of Jacob are not just individual Israelites but representatives of the twelve tribes that constitute all Israel. By the time of the exile, “all Israel” had been divided north and south along tribal lines. The division is apparently irreparable because the northern tribes had ceased to exist. Joseph’s story portrays a God who restores his people even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.
And when restoration comes, God’s people should no longer quarrel with each other, but live in peace with all the people of God. This will be important in post-exilic Israel, in which factiousness and dissension continue to cause such turmoil.
3) A great reversal is coming. The Joseph epic is a story of great reversal. The one who was thrown into a pit and sold as a slave to Egypt rises to rule Egypt and reduce the Egyptians to a share-cropping form of slavery (Genesis 47:13-25). (Joseph’s reduction of the Egyptians to slavery is ironic, given the fact that the next generation of Egyptians will hold the Israelites in slavery.)
The exiled and humiliated people of Israel also hoped for a great reversal, when the conquered will become the conqueror, and the lowly people of God exalted and enriched with the wealth of the nations. The post-exilic prophets lift up this hope time and again. For example,
Foreigners will rebuild your walls, and their kings will serve you. Though in anger I struck you, in favor I will show you compassion. Your gates will always stand open, they will never be shut, day or night, so that people may bring you the wealth of the nations — their kings led in triumphal procession. (Isaiah 60:10-11)
Joseph’s story reminded the post-exilic community that God had previously turned the tables on those who enslaved and oppressed Israel, and can consequently do it again.
4) God blesses the world through his people. God’s covenant with Abraham (Genesis 12:3) and Jacob (Genesis 28:14) include the promise that God will bless the entire world through his chosen family. Joseph’s story is a preliminary fulfillment of that promise. God put Joseph in Pharaoh’s court “for the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20b). God gave Joseph the wisdom to interpret Pharaoh’s dream and administer the grain harvest so people everywhere might survive the drought.
When the famine had spread over the whole country, Joseph opened all the storehouses and sold grain to the Egyptians, for the famine was severe throughout Egypt. And all the world came to Egypt to buy grain from Joseph, because the famine was severe everywhere. (Genesis 41:56-57)
The post-exilic prophets picked up on the theme that God would bless the entire world through the people of Israel.
It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, so that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth. (Isaiah 49:6)
5) God sometimes blesses his people through the world. Like Joseph, the exiles were living under the dominion of one of the ancient world’s major empires. The exiles lived in “Babylon” under Chaldean rule, and the returnees lived under Persian hegemony. Later Judeans would live under Greek and then Roman rule. The pagan empires certainly posed a threat to God’s people even when their armies weren’t besieging Jerusalem. The threat of assimilation and apostasy were always close at hand. Nevertheless, God sometimes used the powers of this age for his own purposes.
The story of Joseph portrays God working out his purposes through a young Israelite who unexpectedly but providentially finds himself serving in the court of Pharaoh. Later authors will put Daniel and Esther in similar situations. Perhaps we should assume that these books reflect a historical truth, that some of Israel’s educated elites found themselves conscripted into the service of the empires that dominated the ancient landscape. To those who found themselves in such situations, the story of Joseph encourages them to accomplish God’s purposes with the opportunity they’ve been given.
Of course, there arose a Pharaoh who “knew not Joseph,” and then we see the other side of the coin. Egypt enslaved God’s people and Egyptian idols were no friends of the God of Israel. However much one might accomplish in Pharaoh’s service – or in Nebuchadnezzar’s court or in Cyrus’ palace – God’s ultimate salvation of humankind lies in another direction.
The story line leads to Jesus. If there are thematic lines that run from the patriarchs through Moses and David to the time of the exile and to the generations that followed, we see those lines converge on Jesus in the New Testament. Jesus is the one sent to gather God’s lost and wayward people into one, to restore and reconstitute Israel in his own blood under a new covenant. Even the “gates of Hades” will not overcome the church that Jesus is building. Jesus opens the door to the coming kingdom, where the first will be last and the last will be first. And following his resurrection, he extends his kingdom invitation to all the people of the world, who will find their blessing in him.
Related: Joseph the Dreamer