Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Messiah Son of Joseph?


Genesis 45:1-15

It can be very beneficial to engage with and learn from thoughtful people of good will with whom we have deep disagreements. I don't mean the kind corrupt and offensive views of the Neo-Nazis and white supremacist gathered in Charlottesville this weekend. There is a difference. Such evil must be denounced without equivocation.  I am speaking of those of good will.

For instance,  I have been reading a lot of Jewish interpretation of scripture lately. In many ways, this has been a largely unexplored world of thought for me.  It is fascinating because it is simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar.

I’m particularly interested to see how Jewish theologians read the prophecies of the messiah. These texts are extremely familiar to Christians because we believe they refer to Jesus Christ, but of course, non-Christian Jews read these texts differently.

For example, some prophecies suggest a “suffering servant” who will be a sign of judgement against the people, who will come lowly and riding on a donkey, and who will lay down his life in battle against Israel’s enemies. Others suggest a victorious king, who will liberate his people, and reign forever.

These appear to be two contradictory teachings, which is why some Jewish interpretations suggest two different Messiahs extending from Jacob’s two wives Leah and Rachel. One messiah from the tribe of Joseph—Messiah ben Yosef or “Messiah son of Joseph”—a suffering servant who will lay down his life—and a second, kingly, Messiah from the house of Judah--who will bring redemption to Israel and reign forever. The second Messiah is greater than the first.

I find this idea fascinating in light of the themes that have emerged from our readings from Genesis this summer. 

Throughout the history of Israel we can see the children of Leah and the children of Rachel compete for ascendency. It is Moses and Aaron, both descendants of Leah’s son Levi, who lead the people out of exile, but it is Joshua a descendant of Rachel’s son Joseph that leads the people into the promised land.

Saul a descendant of Rachel is anointed king, but the kingdom is taken from him and given to David the descendant of Leah’s son Judah.

Following the death of David’s son Solomon, the kingdom becomes divided in two with the northern kingdom ruled by the descendants of Joseph and the southern kingdom ruled by the descendants of Judah.

Jesus himself is from the tribe of Judah, he is the promised messiah, the son of David, who will unite the divided people of Israel. But both the descendants of Joseph and the descendants of David bear witness to him in their own unique way.

The concept of a Messiah son of Joseph is Jewish rather than Christian, but it resonates with the gospel. Jesus is not a descendant of Rachel’s son Joseph, but he is the adopted son of a different Joseph. Not much is known about Mary’s husband and Jesus’ guardian, but we do know that like the Joseph of Genesis, God spoke to him in his dreams. God speaks to Joseph four times in the gospel of Matthew concerning Mary’s son Jesus.

The comparisons between the story of Joseph in Genesis and Jesus’ own story, however, are even more striking. It has often been pointed out by Christian commentators that Joseph is a type of Christ. 

Consider some of the parallels between Joseph and Jesus. Both were born by God’s gracious intervention. Joseph was the son of a woman who was thought to be barren. Jesus was the son of a virgin.

Joseph was the shepherd of his father’s flock. Jesus is called the Good Shepherd and we are the sheep of his pasture.

Joseph was the son of Jacob’s old age, the son of his beloved wife Rachel. His father demonstrated his favor to Joseph by clothing him with a coat of many colors (This is the famous coat that Andrew Lloyd Webber produced a musical about, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat). Jesus was likewise the son of his Father’s love, exalted and glorified above all others. Just last week we celebrated the Transfiguration in which Jesus’ coat became dazzling white and shown with heavenly glory. The Father spoke from Heaven, “This is my Son, my chosen, Listen to him!”

Joseph proclaimed to his brothers that God showed him in a dream that he would be exalted and they would bow down and serve him. Perhaps somewhat understandably, Joseph’s brothers saw him as a precocious brat. They envied the favor their father showed him. Jesus also predicted his own glory and exaltation. His own siblings thought he was delusional and the religious leaders envied and despised him.

Joseph’s own brothers conspired to kill him. He was stripped of his garment, thrown into a pit, and handed over to wild beasts.  Joseph’s life was ultimately sparred; he was lifted out of the pit and sold to Ismaelites for twenty pieces of silver.

The chief priests and rabbis also conspired to kill Jesus. He was betrayed by one of his closest friends and handed over to gentiles for 30 pieces of silver. He was stripped of his robe and beaten. Unlike Joseph, he was cruelly executed, but just as Joseph was pulled out of the pit and delivered from death, Jesus rose from the dead conquering death.

Just as Jesus was exalted in his death and resurrection, so also was Joseph exalted. He was sold as a slave in Egypt but there he distinguished himself and was exalted to Pharoah’s right hand. What his brothers intended for evil God used for good. As a lord in Egypt, Joseph became his family’s deliverer in a time of famine. In the same way, Jesus’ betrayal and execution became the source of deliverance for all people.

The parallels between the story of Jesus and the story of Joseph are in fact so numerous that we simply do not have time to discuss them all here. As you can see, although Jesus is the Son of David, in a profound way he is also the son of Joseph. Jesus is both the victorious king and the suffering servant. Both dimensions of the messianic expectation find their completion in him.

He is both the chosen and rejected, the cursed and the blessed.

What can look on the surface like two contradictory concepts—suffering and exaltation, defeat and victory—are unified in one individual. What can easily be seen as two individuals, two messiahs, is actually one. Jesus came first lowly and riding on a donkey, he came to suffer reproach, to be rejected, and to die. But Jesus will come again in glory as the King of Kings to reunite the people of Israel and to reign forever.