№ 6: Joshua and Joseph
A Christmas Story
Theoretically, if I (Susannah) finish writing this before I have to go back to do something to green beans (they’re getting slivered almonds) or sweet potatoes (they will eventually have flaming bourbon poured over them) or ham (it’s spiral cut and I think my uncle already did the glaze thing so that’s ok) then we will get this substack sent before our English friends go to sleep. We’ll see! So anyway, merry Christmas.
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There are twenty of us for Christmas dinner, plus two more coming later in the evening. My mother, however, has Covid, so I have (terrifyingly) sort of taken over as major meal coordinator? I think? People are sleeping everywhere - in all beds, on couches, in pallets on the floor.
This is a classic Christmas at Tennis Place. Everything is extraordinarily ritualized, with new highlights: a friend and her sons who came over at the last minute because her flight home was cancelled because of the weather, neighbors/old family friends whose daughter is one of my cousin’s good friends, who came over to show off a new puppy, one of my uncles’ childhood friends who also still lives in the neighborhood who came over to say hi since most of us are here. (He is a kind of legend in the family: my mother has five younger brothers, and this guy, who we will call JW, attached himself to the crowd of boys at some point and became part of their semi-criminal gang, so all the stories of shenanigans include his name.)
And actually now I have to go because we are about to do another of the rituals, which is the grab-bag. And so I will hit send, and say once again, a very merry Christmas. God bless you all. He who invented quantum mechanics and who knows the names of all the stars, he who holds you in being from moment to moment, he who is stronger than strength, became a newborn in Bethlehem.
Joseph Redivivus in Matthew
Alastair: Matthew’s nativity account has been a peculiar focus of my attention over this Advent. In my recent Plough piece, I discussed the genealogy with which the book begins and some of the things that we might learn from it. However, as I trust this newsletter will demonstrate, there is a great deal else to be explored within Matthew’s nativity accounts.
Ian Paul recently posted on the subject of Joseph’s contribution to the account of Jesus’ origins in Matthew 1. Paul helpfully underscores the importance of Joseph in an account, not merely of the birth of Jesus, but of his origin as the Davidic Messiah. For Jesus’ status as the Son of David, his relationship to Joseph matters greatly!
Beyond Paul’s key points, Joseph’s prominence within Matthew’s nativity account has further effects. Here we should consider that the way a story is told doesn’t merely convey information important to the author, it also frames it and brings it into conversation with other narratives.
There may be many ways to narrate the same events. The ordering of the narrative, the central characters, the choice of words and expressions, the selection of details to include or exclude, and several other such creative judgments, are all integral to the composition of an account.
That we have four gospels, rather than merely one, is both partly a result and a demonstration of this. Considering this fact can spur us to ask more searching questions, alert to the literary and theological artistry (unavoidably) involved in writing a gospel account.
There are many ways that one might begin a gospel account. Mark begins with John the Baptist’s public ministry. Luke begins with Zechariah in the temple, but focuses especially on the women and birth stories. John begins with the eternal Word by whom all things were created.
If the accounts of Mark and John were the only ones we had, we would barely even know of Joseph’s existence. In Luke’s account he is more of a side character. However, he is front and centre in Matthew. How does Matthew’s decision to tell the story in this way affect the way that we hear it?
In my recent Plough article, I suggested the centrality of Joseph in the opening chapters of Matthew evokes the story of Genesis. In Genesis, Joseph the son of Jacob had dreams and led his people into Egypt for safety. Jesus’ father does the same.
In the opening chapters of Matthew, there are several allusions to the patriarchal narrative and the Exodus. Jesus’ genealogy begins with Abraham. The reference to ‘Judah and his brothers’ in verse 2 prompts hearers to recall the Joseph narrative (note also parallels with v.11). The presentation of Jesus’ father as a dreamer connects him with Old Testament Joseph (although the angelic appearances in his dreams are more reminiscent of Jacob in, for instance, Genesis 31:11-13).
In chapter 2 there are several allusions to Exodus themes, albeit with twists. There are magi at a wicked king’s court and an attempt to kill the baby boys. However, the wicked king is in Jerusalem, not Egypt. And the magi are not his servants like the magicians in the court of Pharaoh, but faithful people who have journeyed through the wilderness following a divine light. Whereas Israel departed from Egypt, Joseph and Mary fled to Egypt with the infant Jesus. While the reference to Hosea in Matthew 2:15 connects it with Israel’s Exodus, there is a sort of reversal of direction here. We might also note the allusion to Exodus 4:19 in Matthew 2:20.
One of the effects of Matthew focusing his narrative upon Joseph in the manner he does is to foreground Exodus motifs from the outset. These will continue in the account of Jesus’ wilderness temptations and even in a possible evocation of Sinai in the Sermon on ‘the Mount’.
Here we should pause to consider the way that Scripture can use smaller narratives to frame bigger ones. Let me explain what I mean. The book of Genesis ends with Joseph’s promise that Israel will leave Egypt with his bones. Israel take Joseph’s bones with them in Exodus 13:19. And then, at the completion of the Exodus, after the conquest of the land, at the very end of the book of Joshua, Joseph’s bones are buried at Shechem (Joshua 24:32). In such references, we are invited to read the whole Exodus as the raising up and returning of Joseph to the place where it all went wrong!
This is one example of a smaller story providing a frame for a much larger one. We might see another example in Jeremiah 31, alluded to in Matthew 2: Rachel as the weeping mother mourning over her lost children is presented as a frame for understanding the destruction, deportation, and exile of the Jews and then later of the Massacre of the Innocents.
Rachel, of course, was Joseph’s mother; she looms in the background of Matthew 2. Verses 5-6 allude to Micah 5:2. Anyone who knows Micah 4-5 knows that Rachel is behind it all. The daughter of Zion is likened to a woman struggling in labour, straining to give birth to children from captivity. The association is strengthened by references to Migdal Eder (‘tower of the flock’) in 4:8 (where Jacob camped after Rachel’s death in Genesis 35:21), Bethlehem, painful labour, and the coming of the Messianic king. All these themes or details are present in some form in Genesis 35, as Rachel dies on the road to Bethlehem, giving birth to Benjamin, who will give rise to Israel’s first king (also note verse 11). Her tragedy will frame the nation’s tragedy.
Indeed, before that, her tragedy frames that of Joseph. It is no accident that as we see camels coming from Gilead to bear Rachel’s eldest son away in Genesis 37, we should hear resonances with Genesis 31, where Rachel had concealed her father’s teraphim in her camel’s bags in Gilead as a death sentence was cast over the thief (as Rabbi David Fohrman has argued, טֹרַף טָרֹף in 37:33 aurally recalls the תְּרָפִים, the stolen teraphim of Laban in Genesis 31). The death sentence declared over Rachel now seems to extend to her eldest son.
Jesus’ advent is presented as the answer to Rachel’s tears, but perhaps also to the story of her son, Joseph. Several have argued that the story of Joseph needs to be read as a type of Christ’s. Jim Hamilton makes a detailed case for the position in this article. There are many points of contact that we can identify. Here are a few examples, most of which can be found in Matthew:
First, there are several parallels between the story of the sale of Joseph in Genesis 37 and Jesus’ Parable of the Wicked Tenants in Matthew 21:33-44. Hamilton remarks:
As with Joseph and David, the father in the parable sends the son to see about his own, and the son will meet with a harsh response from those to whom the father has sent him. Here we meet the linguistic connection to the Joseph story in Genesis, for the words that Jesus places on the lips of the wicked tenants are the very words of the Greek translation of Genesis 37:20: ἀποκτείνωμεν αὐτόν, “let us kill him” (Luke 20:14). It seems likely that in telling this parable that summarizes the history of Israel’s rejection of the prophets, Jesus has chosen the very language of a significant early instance in Israel’s history when the patriarchs themselves rejected Joseph, the one whom God had designated as preeminent through his dreams.
Second, in Stephen’s speech in Acts 7, he presents the stories of Joseph and Moses as ‘double visitation’ narratives, paradigmatic of the people’s initial rejection of an appointed deliverer, before the deliverer’s decisive return. Joseph is rejected by his brethren, but is elevated to high standing and saves the Gentiles and also his people. A wicked action, where his own people seek to kill him, is providentially ordered by God to accomplish the salvation of all. Stephen presents the people’s rejection of Christ as history that exhibits the same pattern.
Third, Joseph’s story is one of resurrection in several respects. To his family, and especially his father, he is the dead child restored to life. His story also ends with the promise that his bones be raised up from the land of Egypt.
Fourth, besides these resemblances between the larger patterns of their stories, there are also similarities in the details. Joseph was the peculiarly loved son of his father; Jesus is the only begotten Son of the Father. Jesus was betrayed by his brother Judas/Judah for pieces of silver. He was stripped of his garment. He was given by his envious brothers into the hands of the Gentiles. He was brought out of the pit. He resisted temptation. He was falsely accused. He was associated with two criminals with contrasting fates. The provision of bread (and wine) are prominent narrative elements in both the stories of Joseph and Jesus. There is an emphasis upon the third day as the day of transformed fortunes. He was exalted to the highest office. Eleven ‘brothers’ bow down to their exalted brother in Joseph’s dream, but also in Matthew 28:17 (cf. verse 10). Much as Joseph, Jesus forgave those who sought his death, returning good for the evil shown to him.
This would not be the first time the sale of Joseph was a framing narrative for another set of events. Consider the many allusions to Genesis 37 in the story of the assassination of Gedaliah and the Judeans departure to Egypt in Jeremiah 41-42. Also note that we are reminded of Joseph not merely at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel, but also at its end, where there are allusions to the sale of Joseph and to his dream.
We should also be alert to the other Josephs within Matthew itself. There is a Joseph and a Mary at the beginning of Matthew at Jesus’ birth, but there are two Josephs and two Marys at the end of Matthew at his death and burial (27:55-61). Here we need to engage our biblical memory again. What Old Testament episode might Matthew 27:57-60 remind us of?
A man called Joseph requesting the body of a dead man from a ruler to bury him in a cave tomb is the story of Genesis 50. The fate of Joseph’s own body is a crucial element of that chapter too. Joseph of Arimathea’s requesting the body of Jesus from Pilate recalls this.
There’s a further twist to consider here. The story of the Old Testament Joshua—the same name as ‘Jesus’—ends with his death and burial, followed by the burial of the bones of Joseph. They are deep connections between these two characters.
Joseph at Shechem—the place where he is first sent by his father to check on his brothers and the place where his bones are finally buried—frames the entire story of the Exodus. However, the story that starts with Joseph is brought to its completion by Joshua. Joshua was an Ephraimite, a descendant of Joseph and, in several respects, he recalls his famous ancestor.
The story of Joseph really begins with him bringing back a bad report to his father (Genesis 37:2) and then with Judah’s betrayal. In Numbers 13-14, it is a descendant of Joseph (Joshua) and a man of Judah (Caleb) who together bring a good report concerning the Promised Land to the people.
More interestingly, besides Joshua’s death being recorded alongside the burial of the bones of Joseph at the very conclusion of the book of Joshua, Joseph and Joshua both live to the same age—110 (Genesis 50:22; Joshua 24:29). The destinies of these two men seem entwined.
The connections between Jesus (or ‘Joshua’) and the Josephs in the New Testament evokes this rich thread of biblical memory. In the way that Matthew tells the story of Jesus, he invites us to hear it in the resonance chamber of the story of Old Testament Joseph and Joshua.
There are many things hearing the story of Jesus in such a manner will do for us. It highlights, for instance, the way that Jesus heals some of the oldest historical wounds, the way past actions continue to reverberate through history, and the redemptive entwining of destinies.
The New Testament writers understood what they were recording to be the continuation of and the climax of the story of Israel. Jesus is the answer to Old Testament hope, the divine overcoming of past tragedies. He dries the tears of Rachel. Ministered to by Joseph, Jesus—like his Old Testament namesake, Joshua—both resembles Joseph and brings Joseph’s story to its proper resolution. Joseph’s story in Genesis ends with a burial and promises of bringing up bones. In Jesus’ resurrection, Joseph too will rise.
❧ The naming of Jesus and a love story hidden in Matthew’s genealogy are the focus of this article of mine that has just been published on the Theopolis website. It is a deep dive into some remarkable motifs and themes in biblical theology, covering much ground, from Genesis 38 and the strange and troubling story of Judah and Tamar, to the great Harlot of Revelation 17.
The following, highly speculative remarks on the story of Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38, were dropped out of the published piece, but I thought I would include them here.
Appearing as it does within the context of the levirate law, I believe that the peculiar commandment of Deuteronomy 25:11-12—concerning a situation that one can barely imagine occurring—might best be read as a symbolic reflection upon the events of Genesis 38. The ‘husband’ in this scenario is Er, Judah’s dead firstborn. The assailant is Judah himself, who, by refusing to allow Tamar to marry Shelah, is denying his dead son an heir. As her dead husband is powerless, Tamar intervenes by seizing Judah’s private parts, engineering sexual relations with him unawares. The strangeness of the punishment prescribed—cutting off the woman’s hand—relates to the loss of one of the two ‘hands’ of the lines of her sons, as Zerah’s line is cut off. This cutting off the ‘hand’ is symbolized by the scarlet tied around the hand of Zerah.
❧ My writing of the essay was spurred in no small measure by this remarkable (ongoing) series of videos on the book of Revelation by Dr Chip Bennett and Dr Warren Gage. Within the series, Gage comments in passing upon the strange narrative of the healing of the blind man at Bethsaida in Mark 8:22-26—
And they came to Bethsaida. And some people brought to him a blind man and begged him to touch him. And he took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village, and when he had spit on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, “Do you see anything?” And he looked up and said, “I see people, but they look like trees, walking.” Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he opened his eyes, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. And he sent him to his home, saying, “Do not even enter the village.”
This is an extremely peculiar story. Why does Jesus lead the man out of the village? Why would Jesus spit on the man’s eyes? Why does the healing initially only seem to half work? Why the weird reference to trees walking?
To answer these questions, we must first recognize that, in the gospels, miracles are not merely recorded as dramatic acts of divine power, but frequently function as signs. Consequently, we should pay attention to their details. Recognizing this should not involve abandoning the letter of the text, but attending more closely to it.
In leading the man out of the village and spitting on him—an act almost invariably indicative dishonour and hostility—Gage suggests that Jesus was symbolically enacting something of his own expulsion, rejection, and crucifixion. Jesus heals by conforming the man to his own death.
I hadn’t picked up on this before, but it fits quite well with things I’ve previously noted about this episode, an episode that is greatly illuminated by its context.
The immediately preceding pericope is about the disciples’ failure of perception: ‘Having eyes do you not see?’ (verse 18). The disciples’ spiritual eyes have been partially opened but, like the blind man, they need a second divine act to open their perception. The blind man is a symbol of the disciple who must follow in the footsteps of Christ out of the city and be illumined in his understanding at the cross.
What is the meaning of the strange details of the people like trees walking? The immediately following pericope provides an important clue, as Jesus declares in verse 34, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.’
A man carrying his cross is like a walking tree.
Putting the pieces together, the healing of the blind man is a symbol of the blindness of the disciples that needs to be healed. They too will truly see the light and their perception will be opened when they too follow Jesus outside of the city, carrying their crosses, to suffer with him.
❧ Matthew’s nativity accounts are also the focus of my recent podcast with Dr Chris Green, within which we discuss the first couple of chapters of that gospel.
❧ The final Mere Fidelity episode of the year is the End of Year Extravaganza! Derek, Matt, Andrew, and I discuss the past year and some of the projects that we have been working on. I give a brief description of some of the things that James Bejon and I will be tackling in our forthcoming book on biblical numerology.
❧ Over on the Theopolis podcast, we are continuing our series working through James Jordan’s seminal book Through New Eyes (I’ve made a playlist here). Our last two episodes were on the subject of trees and thorns and birds and beasts. A remark from Brian Moats after recording the first about the relationship between thorns and thickets in Scripture (e.g. Nahum 1:10) sparked the thought that the ram caught in the thicket by its horns in Genesis 22:13 had a crown of thorns. Taken with the many other significant anticipations of Christ’s later sacrifice in that chapter, the detail seems significant.
Happenings and Doings
We have been enjoying life back in New York City, enjoying time with friends, seeing sights, and revisiting haunts old and new.
The Strand Book Store has had a damaging impact upon our budget as a couple. We have had several remarkable encounters and conversations while looking through its Theology section. Earlier this week, however, Susannah saw a former president of the United States in the Americana section.
Over the last fortnight we have had many events, meals, and parties with family and friends, which has been wonderful. Susannah has fully indulged her extroverted side, while Alastair has rather enjoyed them, despite himself!
With Christmas approaching, our house has become a site of crafting and decorating on a near-industrial level. While Alastair finished a long-neglected knitted scarf project, though, almost all of the labour in baking, decking, gilding, packing, wrapping, creating, stamping, etc. has been Susannah’s.
❧ Alastair’s next Davenant Hall course, ‘Exodus and the Shape of Biblical Narrative’ starts early next year. He describes it here.
❧ Next month we will be in the Davenant House in South Carolina, where, from the 16th to the 25th, Alastair will be delivering twenty hours of talks in a series called ‘An Introduction to Biblical Wisdom’. The series is free to attend for any interested people in the area.
❧ Most of Alastair’s work is as an independent scholar, funded by Patreon donors. His primary goal is to create thoughtful yet free Christian material for the general public, most notably his largely-completed chapter-by-chapter commentary on the whole Bible (available here and here). If you would like to support his continuing research, teaching, writing, and other content production, you can do so here.
Susannah and Alastair
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