Was Joseph a Type of Jesus?

Blaine Robison, M.A.

Published 10 October 2011

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     Joseph (Heb Yosef) was the eleventh son of Jacob and fulfilled Rachel’s longing for a child (Gen 30:22-25). Out of all his children Jacob loved Joseph best, because “he was the son of his old age” (Gen 37:3). Because of this affection Joseph received a special tunic from his father. One night Joseph had two dreams, but the second captures the imagination more than the first. In the second dream the sun, moon and eleven stars bowed down to Joseph.

     By unanimous interpretation Joseph’s brothers and his father concluded that one day Joseph would rule over his family. Jacob on hearing the report of the dream interpreted the sun as representing himself, the moon as his wife Rachel, and the stars as Joseph’s eleven brothers. Jacob seems to be correct in his interpretation of the eleven stars, since the second dream is parallel to the first in the aspect of the brothers bowing down to Joseph.

     However, Jacob was wrong in his interpretation of the “moon” because Rachel died before Joseph was sold into slavery. She was not alive to bow down to Joseph in Egypt with the rest of the family. In Joseph’s situation the sun, moon and stars more likely referred to Egypt’s political and religious leadership since they worshiped the heavenly bodies and did bow down to Joseph at the order of Pharaoh (Gen 41:40).

     Overcome by jealousy his brothers betrayed him and sold him to a passing caravan of Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. Joseph was seventeen at the time. Sold to Potiphar in Egypt Joseph soon rose from lowly servant to overseer of Potiphar’s household. After about eleven years with Potiphar, Joseph was tempted to commit adultery with his owner’s wife. Refusal of the woman’s advances and falsely accused of assault resulted in being sent to prison. Two years later fortuitous events arising from a dream interpretation of two fellow inmates gave Joseph the opportunity of interpreting a dream for Pharaoh and sudden elevation to power at the age of 30 (Gen 41:46).

     Joseph’s life is remarkable in that no sin is attributed to him. He endured suffering brought on by the treachery of his brothers, forced emigration to Egypt, his life as a slave, his arrest and imprisonment on a false charge. In so doing Joseph was able to ultimately procure salvation for his family. Joseph’s most shining virtue was that in recognizing the sovereignty of God he could forgive his brothers and provide for their needs (Gen 50:15-21). The ability to forgive comes from God, the exercise of which makes the blessing of God’s forgiveness possible (Matt 6:14). Joseph’s life was one of faithfulness to God and fruitfulness for Him.

    Because of the parallels to the life of Jesus (Yeshua) many commentators and teachers have likened Joseph as a type of the Messiah, although nowhere in Scripture is Joseph accorded this lofty honor. We could say that Joseph is not condemned in Scripture because of the principle that where there is no law there is no violation (Rom 3:20; 4:15). Yet, there are a number of ways in which Joseph’s life does not fully measure up to biblical expectations of the Messiah.

     First, Joseph married the daughter of an Egyptian pagan priest (Gen 41:45) and there is no evidence she accepted Israel’s God. While there was no prohibition against marrying an Egyptian (Abraham had married Hagar, after all, Gen 16:1-3), the history of idolatry in Joseph’s descendants could be traced to this unequally yoked beginning.

     Second, instead of encouraging private storage of grain to save for the anticipated famine Joseph imposed a 20% “flat tax” on all grain production, in order to create a national reserve held in storage cities under Pharaoh’s protection (Gen 41:34-36). Joseph’s plan may be contrasted with the God’s standard of tithing already established by the example of Abraham (Gen 14:20) and Jacob, his father (Gen 28:22).

     Third, rather than operating a charitable “welfare” system, Joseph sold the legally confiscated grain to people from other nations suffering the famine (cf. Gen 42:5), and even charged the Egyptians to buy their own grain from the reserve (Gen 42:6; 47:15). Requiring the Egyptian people to buy their own grain from the government resulted in the people running out of money and they were forced to sell their land to Pharaoh for food.

     Fourth, Joseph facilitated the development of a totalitarian regime. The system designed to save the Egyptian nation from the famine had the consequence of transferring ownership of all currency, livestock and land in Egypt to Pharaoh, while exempting the pagan priests (Gen 47:13-25). Pharaoh gained unprecedented and unparalleled power and the people became serfs (Gen 47:23-24). Joseph made the flat tax permanent (Gen 47:26), thereby ensuring the growth of Pharaoh’s power.

     Fifth, Joseph made no comparable sacrifice as Jesus. Joseph lived in the lap of luxury and his family was given the most fertile portion of Egypt while the Egyptian people sank into poverty and lost their liberty. The divide between the rich and the poor widened considerably, a natural consequence of bloated government and nepotism. Joseph, who with the best motives only wanted to save the nation from destruction and did, unwittingly set the stage for the oppression of the Israelites during the days of Moses.

     At the end of his life Jacob offered a lengthy and glowing prophecy about his favorite son and began by complimenting him as a “fruitful bough” (Gen 49:22), perhaps an allusion to Joseph’s two sons, but more likely to the fact that through Joseph’s position Jacob’s family received gifts of immense wealth, including the best land, from Pharaoh (Gen 45:17-23; 47:5f). Moses also offered a high commendation of Joseph and blessed him and his posterity with all the best that heaven has to offer (Deut 33:13-17).

     Joseph is a fascinating study of a life well lived. His moral and ethical choices perhaps justify Jacob’s favoritism. There was a quality of character recognized very early. Joseph always did the best he could with the knowledge and wisdom given by God to handle his circumstances. Regardless of how we might view his economic and political decisions, he not only saved his family, but also a nation that was not his own. The latter was very much like the Messiah.

Copyright © 2011 by Blaine Robison. All rights reserved.