Monday, January 21, 2008

Messianic Figure and Prefigure

Bruce Springsteen had a point in his 1987 microanalysis of human progress[1], and it was a point evident in the stories of the Genesis patriarchs: for every step forward we make on our own power, we invariably take two steps back. The story of Joseph, son of Jacob, exemplifies the limits of human effort in effecting redemption. While Joseph acts out the role of redeemer and savior for his family, the Egyptians, and the surrounding nations, the salvation he offers is mitigated. However, in his limited messianic role, Joseph points forward to both an ideal of the messiah and to the true Messiah, Jesus Christ.

In any discussion of the term “messiah,” one must look at two competing messianic ideals in Judaism: the national ideal and the apocryphal ideal. The earliest notion (based on early prophecies) is the national ideal, and this concept is the one embraced by Pharisaic Judaism. [2] This ideal focuses on an earthly messiah, one that will establish the Kingdom of God under a son of David and rebuild Jerusalem and the temple. As L.W. Geddes describes, “The seventeenth Psalm describes his rule: He is to conquer the heathen, to drive them from their land, to allow no injustice in their midst; His trust is not to be in armies but in God; with the word of his mouth he is to slay the wicked.”[3] Modern Jewish perspectives are not much different from this view, as Tracey Rich explains:

The moshiach will be a great political leader descended from King David (Jeremiah 23:5). The moshiach is often referred to as "moshiach ben David" (moshiach, son of David). He will be well-versed in Jewish law, and observant of its commandments (Isaiah 11:2-5). He will be a charismatic leader, inspiring others to follow his example. He will be a great military leader, who will win battles for Israel. He will be a great judge, who makes righteous decisions (Jeremiah 33:15). But above all, he will be a human being, not a god, demi-god or other supernatural being.[4]

This national messianic ideal is opposed to the apocalyptic ideal, a concept based on the prophecies of Daniel. While the national ideal focuses on an earthly messiah, the apocalyptic ideal stresses a future state: “The future age was to be ushered in by the Divine judgment of mankind preceded by the resurrection of the dead. The Messiah, existing from the beginning of the world, should appear at the consummation, and then should be also manifested the heavenly Jerusalem which was to be the abode of the blessed.”[5]

While Joseph cannot fully qualify under either ideal (as he precedes David), his role as a type of messiah is clearly in line with those of the national ideal: an earthly person who reunites the tribes (sons) of Israel and saves the nations from starvation. The general movement of the story is from someone proud who is humbled through a fall (his brothers’ betrayal in Genesis 37) and who rises through God’s favor to become far more powerful than in his previous state. With each humiliation, Joseph gains in status and power, until finally he exercises the authority of Pharaoh himself (Genesis 41). In this capacity, he effects the salvation of his family and is reunited with them. In the process, Joseph also saves the people of Egypt from starvation and puts the surrounding nations under the control of Pharaoh. As Fr. Paul Tarazi notes, it is through Joseph’s line through Ephraim that the future of Israel is preserved: “Whatever the totality of the biblical Israel is said to have undergone, it undergoes, as it were, by proxy through Joseph and Ephraim. Put otherwise, Judah’s salvation is wrought through its adoption into the story of Joseph/Ephraim’s salvation.”[6] Clearly, then, Joseph serves as a national messianic figure. Through him, the line of Israel is preserved, and he becomes a messianic model against which future messianic figures would be compared.

It should come as no surprise, then, to find numerous parallels between the stories of Joseph in Genesis and the stories of Jesus in the synoptic gospels. Joseph, as the messianic model, sets the tone for the New Testament writers, and many common elements appear in the gospel narrative to reinforce Christ’s messianic mission. Both Joseph and Jesus are conceived through Divine intervention. In Genesis 30: 22–24, God “remembered Rachel, and God hearkened to her and opened her womb.” In Luke 1, Mary conceives by the power of the Most High. While Joseph is declared by narrative to be the favored son in Genesis 37:3, God the Father declares Jesus’ favor during His baptism in all three synoptic accounts (Matthew 3:16, Mark 1:11, and Luke 3:22) and again in the account of the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1–9, Mark 9:1–8, and Luke 9:28–36). Jealousy of Joseph’s favored status in Genesis 37 leads his brothers to betray him for 20 pieces of silver. Jesus is betrayed by Judas to the Pharisees for 30 pieces of silver (Matthew 26:15). Both are tempted, albeit in different fashions—Joseph in his master’s house (Genesis 39:7–18), and Jesus in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1–11, Mark 1:12, and Luke 4:1–13). While Jesus is most frequently associated with the suffering servant of Isaiah 53, certainly Joseph qualifies as well. Joseph himself recognizes God’s hand in his falling and rising: “So it was not you who sent me here, but God; and he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt” (Genesis 45:8). Joseph suffers for the sins of his brothers but redeems them in the process. In Isaiah 53:10–11, the suffering servant is an offering for sin as well:

Yet it was the will of the LORD to bruise him; he has put him to grief; when he makes himself an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand; he shall see the fruit of the travail of his soul and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous; and he shall bear their iniquities.

Of course, the gospels make reference to Isaiah 53 with some frequency (Matthew 8:17, Mark 10:45, John 12:38), as do other books of the New Testament (Acts 8:32–33, 1 Peter 1:19, 1 Peter 2:22–23, Revelation 5:9). Isaiah 53 is, perhaps, one of the best demonstrations of St. Augustine’s dictum concerning exegesis: “The New Testament lies hidden in the Old and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New.”[7]

While some parallels tend toward more literal expression, some are more figurative. Joseph is an apprentice shepherd,[8] while Jesus refers to himself as the Good Shepherd (John 10:11–14). Joseph later acts under the authority of the Pharaoh. At play here is the common representation of the Pharaoh as shepherd, and common depiction of Egyptian royalty and divinity with a crook and flail, the tools of a shepherd.[9] This image is also common to the Hebrew scripture, most specifically in the character of King David.[10] This dual identity of king and shepherd also carries over into Christ’s identity as the Good Shepherd and a king of the line of David.

However well Joseph fits the ideal of the national messiah, he simply does not rise to the level of the apocalyptic messiah. (One could argue that the inverse is true of Jesus—that he fails to meet the national ideal.) Even as a national messiah, any redemption offered by Joseph is temporal and short lived, lasting only as long as the Pharaoh remembers him (Exodus 1:8). While Joseph saves his family from starvation, he ultimately leads them into exile and servitude in Egpyt (Exodus 1:11). Only the sons of Ephraim leave, and only Joseph’s remains return to Canaan to be buried (Genesis 50:25). There is little scriptural evidence that he rises to the level of military leadership or “slays the wicked.”[11] In light of the prophecy in Daniel 7, the dramatic difference between Joseph and Jesus becomes more pronounced.

Geddes explains the importance of the Daniel 7 prophecy in the development of the apocalyptic ideal: “The consummation is not an earth-won ascendancy of the chosen people, whether shared with otter[sic] nations or not, but a vindication of the holy by the solemn judgment of Jahveh and his Anointed One.”[12] Daniel gives the scripture reader far more ethereal images than Isaiah’s suffering servant:

As I looked, thrones were placed and one that was ancient of days took his seat; his raiment was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames, its wheels were burning fire. A stream of fire issued and came forth from before him; a thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him; the court sat in judgment, and the books were opened… I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed. (Daniel 7:9–10, 13–14)

The two passages noted throughout Revelation and in all four gospels[13] establish a clear connection between the one who comes “like a son of man” and Jesus Christ. While Joseph exercises power in a purely earthly capacity, this power of the Son of Man is one that is not now but coming—not of the simple earthly kind, but eternally lasting. As Jesus Himself says in John, “My kingship is not of this world; if my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight, that I might not be handed over to the Jews” (John 18:36). Those Jews looking for a national messiah alone would again be frustrated with Yeshua ben Yosef, but those looking for the Christ, the true son of God, would find Him.

Joseph exercises earthly power given by a false god (although ultimately derived from the one True God, cf. Genesis 39:3), while Jesus exercises power of His own Divinity, the power of God the Father working through Him. Joseph is a patriarchal prototype of the national messiah—not a true messiah himself, but providing the model, pointing to, hinting at a messiah to come. As such, he prefigures our Lord Jesus Christ, the figure and form of true salvation.

Works Cited and Referenced

Aherne, Cornelius. "Son of Man." 1912. The Catholic Encyclopedia. 17 October 2007 <>.

Alter, Robert. The Five Books of Moses: Translation and Commentary. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004.

Catechism of the Catholic Church. New York: Doubleday, 1995.

Dunn, Jimmy. The Crook and Flail in Ancient Egypt. 13 10 2005. 15 October 2007 <>.

Geddes, L.W. "Messiah." 1 October 1911. The Catholic Encyclopedia. 14 October 2007 <>.

The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version. Catholic Edition. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1966.

Rich, Tracey R. "Moshiach: The Messiah." 2001. Judaism 101. 14 October 2007 <>.

Springsteen, Bruce. "One Step Up." Tunnel of Love. By Bruce Springsteen. 1987.

Tarazi, Paul Nadim. The Old Testament Introduction Vol. 1: Historical Traditions. New, Revised Edition. Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2003.

[1] Bruce Springsteen, “One Step Up,” Tunnel of Love, 1987, <
songs/OneStepUp.html>, 13 October 2007.

[2] L.W. Geddes, "Messiah," 1 October 1911,. The Catholic Encyclopedia, 14 October 2007, <>.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Tracey R. Rich, "Moshiach: The Messiah," 2001, Judaism 101, 14 October 2007, <>.

[5] Geddes, <>.

[6] Paul Nadim Tarazi, The Old Testament Introduction Vol. 1: Historical Traditions, New, Revised Edition *Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2003), 72.

[7] Catechism of the Catholic Church, (New York : Doubleday, 1995) 42.

[8] Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses: Translation and Commentary (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2004) 206.

[9] Jimmy Dunn, “The Crook and Flail in Ancient Egypt,” 13 10 2005, Tour Egypt, 15 October 2007 <>.

[10] Tarazi, 47–51.

[11] Geddes, <>.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Cornelius Aherne, “Son of Man,” 1912, The Catholic Encyclopedia, 17 October 2007 <>.

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