God is no boring teacher with a monotonic “Buehler…Buehler…” manner of speaking in his biblical classroom. One minute he’s singing elevated poetry; the next he has his prophet walking around in a birthday suit as a nonverbal sermon; and at other times, donkeys are delivering homilies, seas are splitting, and prodigals are plodding their way home. Exhilarating stuff.
From Genesis to Revelation, in many and various ways, we are taught by a creative, fascinating Spirit who deftly weaves together a theologically coherent message full of texture and depth.
Our challenge—indeed, our delight—as we study the Bible is to put our ear to the sacred scroll and listen for the distinct nuances of truth that are embedded therein. Sometimes this is not too difficult, especially if it’s a text that is explicitly theological, such as Deuteronomy. At other times, it takes a little more work, such as with stories in which the theology is whispered rather than preached.
The Genesis story of Joseph is a prime example of implicit, whispered theology. And there’s an excellent new book that greatly assists us as we tune our ears to listen for theological nuances in this story. The book, by Jeffrey Pulse, is Figuring Resurrection: Joseph as a Death-and-Resurrection Figure in the Old Testament and Second Temple Judaism (Lexham Press, 2021).
A Unified Theological Narrative
First, a word about the overall approach of Pulse, who is a professor of exegetical theology at Concordia Theological Seminary. He reads the Bible as a “unified theological narrative.” Now there’s a breath of fresh air! This approach, while not always popular in academic circles, makes a huge and positive difference in biblical interpretation. Viewing the Word as a unified theological narrative prevents us from treating the Scriptures like a cage match between competing theological systems, with prophets duking it out with apostles, and psalmists with evangelists, all supposedly fighting for their voice to be heard.
Acknowledging a theological unity in the Bible allows us to hear the vast choir of voices, from Moses to John, singing the same beautiful song of salvation with all its unique parts and pitches and accents.
This means that, yes, Pulse does focus on the story of Joseph, but he does not look myopically only at Genesis 37-50, to the exclusion of the rest of Scripture. Nor does he shatter that cohesive narrative into a thousand tiny textual shards. Rather, he sees this as (1) a carefully crafted literary unit, and (2) he interprets it within the broader context of Scripture.
So, what’s the book about? The overarching thesis, as made clear in the subtitle, is that Joseph is a “death-and-resurrection figure.” What precisely does that mean?
First, a bit of background. A common assumption in the broader academic world is that belief in the resurrection was a very late development in biblical thought. The argument is that, sure, Daniel talks about it, and some later writer smuggled a verse or two about it into Isaiah, but overall resurrection is a Johnny-come-lately hope in Israel. Not in the Torah. Not in Joshua, Samuel, Kings, the Psalms, or most of the prophets. So the thinking goes.
One of the beauties of Figuring Resurrection is that Pulse convincingly demonstrates that multiple motifs of death-and-resurrection are woven into the Joseph story—that is, in the very first book of the Bible. Even those who may want to date Genesis—or this part of Genesis—late, still must face the fact that themes of resurrection are present right from the canonical get-go.
What are these death-and-resurrection motifs? The most obvious revolves around the person of Joseph himself. He goes down, down, down, until finally he is imprisoned in a dungeon pit in Egypt, which itself is “down” from Canaan. Here is a kind of death. Joseph has lost his garment, father, brothers, family, job, freedom, and so forth. Then, after three years in prison, he is raised, bathed, clothed, and takes his seat as co-regent of Pharaoh. Of course, Pulse unpacks all of these details, and many more, as he interprets the account.
Within the Joseph narrative are a dozen death-and-resurrection themes that similarly populate the rest of the Scriptures. For instance, separation and reunion, as when Joseph (long thought dead) is reunited with his brothers and father (alive again). Or, the motif of stripped and clothed, as when Joseph loses his “coat of many colors” (and winds up in a pit), loses his garment to Potiphar’s wife (and ends up in prison), and is eventually raised and clothed anew by the king.
Another death-and-resurrection motif is that of exile and return, as when Joseph’s bones are eventually carried through the Red Sea, across the wilderness, through the Jordan River, and into the Promised Land as a kind of repatriated resurrection. This concentration on bones and exile, by the way, is in the background of Ezekiel’s famous vision of the Valley of Dry Bones, which was interpreted by the rabbis as a prophecy of the resurrection of the body, not merely a return from Babylonian exile.
I cannot do justice, in this brief review, to the many ways in which Pulse teases out of the Joseph narrative these death-and-resurrection motifs. They are, quite simply, the entire canvas upon which the story is written. Altogether, they provide overwhelming evidence that the author of Genesis 37-50 did not want us to see Joseph as “primarily a moral or ethical example” (279). Rather, this son of Jacob was a “death-and-resurrection figure” (280).
In other words, Joseph was a Good Friday and Easter kind of man.
Greek and Aramaic Translations
The core of the book is Part II, where Pulse walks us through the Joseph story, chapter by chapter, and expounds the twin themes of death and resurrection. That section alone (about 100 pages) is worth the price of the book. But the other sections of the book, especially Part III, illuminate the story of Joseph—and its interpretation—in other ways.
In that section, Chapters 6-10, Pulse addresses early translations/paraphrases of Genesis 37-50, describes the heightened Jewish interest in Joseph in Second Temple literature, and shows how the motif of resurrection is related to the odd story of Joseph’s bones being carried out of Egypt in an “ark” of their own.
The early Greek (Septuagint) and Aramaic (Targum Onqelos) translations of the Joseph story include subtle interpretive moves. For instance, doubling is a very common theme in these chapters, represented clearly by double expressions in the Hebrew. But there are sections where the Greek translators, seeking to provide a more fluid narrative that was authentically Greek-sounding to Hellenistic ears, erased the doubling (English translations are often guilty of the same). The Aramaic targum, as does the Septuagint at times, also polishes the image of Joseph in those sections where we begin to think he’s become more Egyptian than Israelite. For instance, whereas the Hebrew says that Joseph had a cup with which he “divines” (44:5, 15)—a major no-no in later Mosaic legislation—the targum renders the verb with the much more generic “tests,” thus rescuing Joseph from being perceived by later readers as a lawbreaker.
Figuring Resurrection was Pulse’s dissertation. That is good news because it means that he was married to this topic for several years. He knows the material well. When dissertations leave the hands of a few doctoral advisors and become books intended for a broader audience, bear in mind that not everything in them was originally meant for popular consumption. This book is no different. Some readers, for instance, may wish simply to skip the more academic sections, such as Chapter 2, and move on to Chapter 3, which begins the major exposition of the narrative. There’s also plenty of Hebrew and Greek woven into the book, but if you don’t know these languages, that’s fine, too. Pulse always provides translations.
For the Christian reader of Genesis, who studies these chapters in light of the full cross and empty tomb of Jesus, books like Figuring Resurrection are a cause for celebration. This book demonstrates that the Spirit-inspired OT Scriptures, while written long before the incarnation, already dropped subtle and not-so-subtle clues about the dénouement of the story. The air of Resurrection Sunday already blew in the winds of Egypt, as a dirty and unshaven prisoner named Joseph stepped forth in the light of a new and redemptive life, winking of what was to come.