Thanks for Carter Mundy for putting together this excellent piece to help us better understand our approach to the story of Joseph.
This sermon series on Joseph has been awesome. One of the most important things it has taught us is that Joseph points us toward a greater and better Joseph—Jesus. But it has also raised some questions. How does Joseph point us to Jesus? How should we approach reading the Old Testament? Can we even trust the story of Joseph? After all, aren’t stories for fiction and fairytales?
Well, let’s see if we can clear up some of these issues, starting with how we should read the Bible. Hold on, because this gets deep.
There are several different ways interpreters approach the Bible. Systematic Theology pulls out major topics and issues, and understands the message of the Bible in a categorical way (i.e. anthropology; soteriology; eschatology; theology proper, and so on). Biblical Theology understands those categories holistically as they relate to the overall message of the Bible. And, Narrative Theology—closely related to Biblical Theology—is interested in understanding how the Bible ought to be read, essentially as one big story.
All three methods are useful ways of interpreting and understanding the Bible’s message. But, let’s focus on the last way, Narrative Theology, because it’s focus is on how the Bible is meant to be read. It makes a claim about the nature of the Bible: it is a composition of many accounts (narratives, poetry, wise sayings, etc.), yet it tells one overarching story about God and about his creation.
The Old Testament is the foundation of the story. It begins with a poetic account (in Genesis) about God’s creation. Like any good story it sets up all necessary elements to compel the reader to continue. Namely, it sets up the main theme: God’s redemption—his desire to return his perfect creation to its original glory before humanity’s fall into rebellion. Our fall caused death, strife, and a cursed earth. But, God promised to send someone who would reverse the curse (Gen. 3:15), and this promise is the element that carries the rest of the story.
Now, that’s a big claim, but just look at the rest of Scripture. The lineage of men from Adam and Eve is described, starting with Cain and Able. Able must be the one who will reverse the curse (a direct answer to God’s promise), but he is murdered. Then Seth is born, but he dies. Seth’s descendants lead to Noah, whom God uses to save the human race from total annihilation, but he and his descendants die, and the curse is not reversed. Their lineage is passed down to Abraham, all the way to Joseph, who is the savior of the known world during his time. He’s the closest figure to God’s promised “curse-reverser” that we see in Genesis, but even he dies and fails to reverse the curse on creation.
Then Moses, and Joshua, and the imperfect judges, and the kings (including David), and the prophets, and those who return to Israel’s land out of exile—all these figures look like they could be the ones God would use to save his creation from a cursed and twisted existence, but none ever are. They keep leading us up to the One who does: Jesus. He does reverse the curse, though it is not yet completely realized.
Jesus is the better Adam, Noah, Abraham, Joseph, etc. He lived a sinless life, whereas the others did not. He died with a sacrificial purpose—taking our penalty for sin on himself—whereas the others died because of their own sin, like us. He rose again from death, and began the process of reversing the curse of human rebellion. Now we look forward to the day when he will return to finalize this process and actualize his plan to redeem God’s creation.
So that answers how Joseph points us to Jesus. The next question is, if the Bible is a story, is it then untrue? The simple answer: of course not! Stories are how we best grasp the truth. A story doesn’t cheapen truth. Rather it sheds light on what is actually true, and allows us to understand truth more fully. Aren’t Aesop’s fables, or Grimm’s fairytales, some of the primary ways we teach children moral truth? Don’t illustrations help us grasp abstract truths by making them directly applicable to our lives?
Some people argue that such a well-crafted story (like that of the Bible) must be made up—it’s too well-structured to be true. But this just points to the fact that an Author (God) has crafted the story. This is one reason why stories are fundamental to human understanding. We learn primarily through storytelling because we were designed to live in the story of human history.
So, don’t be thrown of by the fact that the Bible tells a story. Remember, Joseph’s story actually points us to see the greater story about God’s redemption of Creation through Jesus. And don’t think that stories are only for fiction and fairytales. Remember, God is crafting his story even now, and we’re a part of it. His is the true story of the whole world.
The True Story of the Whole World: Finding Your Place in the Biblical Drama by Craig G. Bartholomew and Michael Goheen
Windows to the World: Literature in Christian Perspective by Leland Ryken
The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology by N. T. Wright
Old Testament Story and Christian Ethics by Robin Parry