Christianity 201

April 4, 2015

The Story of Joseph Prefigures The Story of Jesus

I hope some of you have some extra time this weekend to click through and explore the rest of the series from which we’re excerpting a reading today. At ABC Religion and Ethics (Australian Broadcasting Company) throughout Holy Week, renowned theologian Oliver O’Donovan has been exploring Jesus’s “journey into a far country” by reading it alongside the story of Joseph’s search for his brothers. It is both theology of the highest order, and a thrilling modern example of a more ancient Christian interpretative practice. To see earlier and subsequent entries click the title below. For reasons of scheduling, this is the one from Good Friday, but there should be a new one on the site by the time you read this.

In Search of Judgment: Meditations for Holy Week

Good Friday

“And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here. For God sent me before you to preserve life.” (Genesis 45:5)

This week, I have been laying the story of Jesus’s passion alongside the story of Joseph from the Book of Genesis. Each of these two stories culminates with a trial and a judgment. The parties have to reach a decision on what the other is to them, and what they are to be to the other.

We usually think of a judgment as taking the form, “A was in the right, B was in the wrong.” The “A” and the “B” are fixed entities, the parties to the controversy whose identity was determined from the beginning, and all the judgment defines is the moral relation in which this A and this B are to stand to one another.

But when God is on trial, “being in the right” means simply “being known as God.” For God is rightness, goodness, justice, and the manifestation of his rightness and his justice over against our wrongness and injustice is – quite simply – a theophany, the manifestation of himself as God, before whom we fall and worship.

Jesus is man judged by God and God judged by man. God will render his judgment on the Second Adam on Easter morning; but he will not wait till then to elicit the judgment of man. Already, as Jesus commends his soul to his Father, the truth is wrung out of the bystanding soldier: “Surely this was the Son of God!”

Joseph’s judgment, too, takes the simple form of making himself known. “I am your brother, Joseph!” That is the moment to which everything has been building. That is the resolution of the question that they had been asking.

The reason this is a judgment is that without what had happened in the trial, this self-revelation was not possible. Until that climactic moment, it remained in doubt whether the brothers could know Joseph – know him as the brother he really was; whether they could be delivered from that other role that they had played towards him – that of the betraying friend.

The whole drama of the story turned on this: that it was impossible for the brothers first of all to learn who the Egyptian stranger was, and then to make up their minds whether and how greatly they had wronged him. That way they could never have known him at all – not, that is, in fraternity, which is an openness to the truth about oneself. If they are to know him, they must know him as the wronged brother; they must reach a judgment in his favour against themselves.

What has happened in the trial that has made this conclusion possible? First, Joseph has drawn his youngest brother, Benjamin, into the role he had occupied himself, that of an innocent victim, wrongly accused. But then Judah – not the most attractive of the brothers by a long shot, but by that complicated family reckoning, the senior brother and spokesman for them all – has stepped forward to take the responsibility, to assume the role of the wrongly accused himself, freely, rather than let Benjamin bear it. And with this step the whole bar to restored fraternity is lifted, for the brothers are now prepared to go where Joseph has been before them. They are prepared to embrace the role that they once all too readily thrust on him.

Are we to say, then, that Judah reconciled the house of Israel, rather than Joseph? No, for it was Joseph who went before. Judah follows on, like a kind of echo to his younger brother’s cry. Joseph provided the impulse. Never absent from their thoughts, he is alluded to at every twist and turn of the story, even while he standing there, unrecognized. Joseph’s sufferings have made a way for them to embrace suffering for one another. And there is more: for Judah does not need to live through his sacrifice right to the bitter end, for Joseph has lived through it before him. And Joseph is there.

The week before Jesus suffered, we are told, he was at dinner with Mary and Martha and Lazarus. And Mary, in a gesture of extravagant love, poured out the costly ointment which was, in effect, their life’s savings, upon the head and feet of the one who had brought her brother back from the dead. Jesus saw it as a sign that the moment for his sacrifice had come – it was the anointing for his burial. He had prepared those who would take responsibility in sacrificing their own life-resources, whatever they might be, for others, just as he was to take responsibility in sacrificing his life for all.

What is offered to us this Good Friday is to enter into the role that Jesus bore when he died. Nothing can replace that role; it is the role in which he went before, as Joseph went before his brothers. “We may not know, we cannot tell …,” as the hymn goes. We are his fraternity, and part of what he had to bear was bearing it alone, without us.

But we can open ourselves to it we can be formed by it, we can show ourselves ready to bear the burden after him for his brothers and sisters. We can, as St. Paul puts it, “become like him in his death” (Philippians 3:10). And that is what following Jesus, bearing the cross, means in daily experience. In that way we can know what it means to say, “With his stripes we are healed.”

Shall we offer ourselves, then, as Judah offered himself as an echo of Joseph’s suffering? Shall we offer ourselves to be a living echo of what Jesus bore, resonating down the centuries. If so, St, Paul says, we shall “know him and the power of his resurrection” (Philippians 3:10).

 

 

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