“As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive.” — Joseph, Gen 50:20
The careful student of God’s word should always be careful not to assign typology or symbolism to things in Scripture which don’t specifically infer typology or symbolism is at play. In other words, we shouldn’t take just any story from Scripture and say it’s a picture of Jesus in this or that way.
The story of Joseph in Genesis 37-50 has often lent itself such typology or symbolism by some interpreters of Scripture, even when no Scripture in either Old or New Testaments says Joseph is a type of Christ. This has often led to reading into the text of Genesis (eisegesis) more than is actually there, and at the same time missing the point of what is actually there — getting out of the text what the author intended (exegesis).
That said, those words from the last chapter of Genesis, spoken by Joseph, hover over all this first book of the Bible says about his life. Apart from the account of his birth in chapter 30, the story of Joseph really begins in earnest in chapter 37, and while we must be careful about types and symbols, there are definitely some things we learn right away about Joseph which tell us not only about him and his family, but through New Testament lenses we can see how they point us to what God has done for all whom He saves in His Son.
First, Jacob’s preferential love of Joseph is an imperfect picture of God’s sovereign, electing love for all whom He will ever save. Jacob’s favoritism of Joseph was borne of the fact he was the long sought, firstborn son of his favored wife, Rachel. Here the polygamy of Jacob creates problems (every time there is polygamy mentioned among people in Scripture some sort of problem arises). Jacob loved Rachel most and it caused problems with Leah (not to mention the lesser maid/wives, Bilhah and Zilpah). In Genesis 37 Jacob loved Joseph most and it caused problems with the sons of Leah, Bilhah, and Zilpah.
The giving of the varicolored tunic, sometimes called the coat of many colors, but more accurately a distinctive, sleeve coat, only exacerbated the problems already existing between Joseph and his brothers. Sure, it was a sign of the love of his father, but what it represented was all the more odious to the ten older brothers. The giving of the coat probably signified the transferring of the birthright to Joseph, taken away from Reuben, the firstborn son of Jacob by Leah. Reuben had intercourse with Jacob’s wife, Bilhah, in 35:22. If Jacob were to take the birthright away from him, it follows that the firstborn son of his next wife, Rachel, would get that birthright, that position of preeminence, and Joseph did (although he was eleventh in birth order).
So Jacob’s preferential love for Joseph was genuine but wrought with problems and unintended consequences. Still, it points us to God setting His love on a specific people from before the foundation of the world, predestining them to be sons by adoption (Eph 1:4–5).
Second, in Genesis 37 we see the faithfulness of Joseph to his father in such a way that mirrors the obedience of faith (Rom 1:5; 16:26) those who have been saved by God’s sovereign love. In James 2 we are told taught through the rhetorical devices of Jesus’ brother that loving God with all your heart, mind, and strength shows itself in loving your neighbor as yourself. In other words, real faith in Jesus shows itself in works.
Well, the faith of Joseph in God is show in his faithfulness to his earthly father. When Joseph saw the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah not doing well on the job, he knew it hurt his father’s interests and so he brought a bad report about them to Jacob, even when he had to know it would hurt his relationship with his brothers. Faithfulness to his father meant putting his father’s interests first. Likewise, those whose Father is God will seek His interests — first, foremost, and always.
Later on, when the ten older brothers are pasturing their flocks in Shechem, Jacob (the father) sends his son (Joseph) on a mission to see how they are doing and bring back a report to him. Again, let’s be careful not to read more into this than what is there, but again we see Joseph go, in obedience to his father, to see to his father’s interests. It meant going alone… to Shechem (a place last seen as very hostile to the son of promise, Jacob, and his family), but Joseph went, and ended up going to Dothan when he found out his brothers were there. Joseph was faithful to his father.
Third, we see in Joseph how the electing love of the father and resultant faithfulness to the father creates problems with the world. Jacob favored Joseph (again, imperfectly). Joseph loved his father and was faithful to him. That produced friction with brothers who floundered on the job. It caused enmity from brothers when Joseph made known dreams he had which pointed to a future in which his brothers, and even his father, his whole family, would be subservient to him.
Then, in Dothan, where the brothers were far from home and far removed from the restraining hand of their father, their sinful hearts accelerated and intensified in treacherous action against their brother. Reuben’s admonition to spare his life and subsequent plan to restore him to Jacob, and also Judah saying not to kill him but sell him into slavery notwithstanding, the brothers hated Joseph to the point of death.
Just as friendship with the world is hostility with God (Jas 4:4), we see both in Jesus and here in Joseph that friendship with God is hostility with the world. The previous and future actions of Joseph’s brothers show that probably not all of them trusted in the God of their father yet, or at the very least, their faith was a very immature faith. So when the one who was faithful acted in accordance with that faithfulness, they hated it and acted out against him.
They wanted to put an end to his dreams. There is no way they would allow those dreams to come to pass. They would not bow down to Joseph, so they through him down into a pit, ultimately selling him into slavery to Ishmaelites.
Likewise, Jesus, who was the favored, beloved Son of His Father, was absolutely faithful to His Father’s interests. That faithfulness caused innumerable problems with His brethren according to the flesh, the Jews. One of them outright betrayed Him.
Just as Joseph’s brother’s treachery before their father, comforting him in the “death” of Joseph even as they were responsible for it, many Jews continued to play a religious game before God, an utterly hypocritical game (as many professing Christians continue to do today).
Jesus, like Joseph, was carried off out of sight. Jesus to a tomb, Joseph to slavery. But both would show up again… to preserve many people alive. Through Joseph the sons of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob — those God would ultimately constitute as a nation — were being saved, to say nothing of the fact God preserved Egypt through famine through Joseph, and not just Egypt, but outsiders, like Canaanites, like Jacob’s family, who were brought in (perhaps a picture of Gentiles being brought into salvation via the gospel).
Through Jesus, of course, God would preserve many people alive, saving all who will ever repent of their sins and entrust themselves to Christ.
So while should be careful not to say Joseph was a type of Christ or even a symbol of Christ, and while we should be careful not to read in what isn’t there, when we take the text of Genesis 37 on its face, with fuller revelation now than Jacob and Joseph had then, we can see glaring similarities in what God did through Jacob’s favorite son and what God would later do through His own only begotten Son.
To hear two messages I taught on this chapter, see below: