joseph_embracing_benjamin

From the early days of the Church, perhaps from the Church’s inception, Christian teachers have looked forward to a softening of Israel before the Lord’s return. They have taught that God will one day turn again to his people according to the flesh. He will open the eyes of many (perhaps all?) to recognize Jesus as the promised Seed of Abraham, the hoped-for Messiah, the salvation of his people. This hope has endured over centuries and has always been well-represented in both the Roman Catholic and the many Protestant streams of thought in the Western church. (I know far less about the Eastern churches, but I suspect the same could be said of those streams.) In the English language, this eschatological event came to be known as “The Conversion of the Jews.”

Generally, those who hold to this view have appealed to Paul’s prophecy or promise in Romans 11:26a, “And so all Israel shall be saved.”

I don’t propose here to give a historical analysis (or even an overview) of the many ways this hope has been expressed and often horrifically abused. The expectation of future conversion has all too frequently led to the present persecution of the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Gentile Christians, whom Paul describes as being grafted into Israel “contrary to nature” (Rom. 11:24), have even taken Israel’s unbelief as a sign of their racial inferiority. This is truly the work of the Enemy. All who belong to Christ must hate and lament such attitudes and actions.

But sweeping away the many perversions of this teaching, do we not find at its core something beautiful? What Christian can fail to be moved by the thought that God might turn and seek his ancient people? To this day the Jewish people read and deeply value the Hebrew scriptures, the very words of God. How can we not pray and yearn that those words would come alive to them, that the Spirit of Messiah might breathe life into them?

So I say with some regret that I’m not persuaded that Scripture promises a future conversion of Israel. I also take this position very cautiously because, who am I? Even if the future conversion of Israel has not been the unanimous teaching of the Church, it’s still a teaching that has been well-represented among the wise in all ages. But, humbly, I think Lee Irons has persuasively argued that “all Israel” in Romans 11:26 refers to the entire Church, both Jewish and Gentile converts. (See his paper at this link for more details.) So Romans 11:26 does not, I think, have a future conversion of ethnic Israel specifically in view.

Yet we can also say this. Scripture never says it won’t happen! The conversion of God’s ancient people to Christ is still a very proper and holy desire. We long for that increase of fellowship, for the bringing of these treasures into the house of the Lord.

If there is no explicit promise, are there perhaps hints? I think I may have come upon such a hint this morning as I listened to the Old Testament reading. (Our morning prayer service uses a lectionary with prescribed readings from the Psalms, the Old Testament, the New Testament, and one of the Gospels. Lately, the Old Testament readings have been from the book of Genesis. We are now in the middle of the story of Joseph.) The story of Joseph is, at the very least, consistent with a hope that ethnic Israelites will at last find salvation.

The story of Joseph quite clearly prefigures the story of Christ. This interpretation again goes back to the very early church—e.g. to Tertullian (ca. 155 – 240 AD) and Cyprian (ca. 200 – 258 AD). And on this point, I’m relieved to say, I can embrace the understanding wholeheartedly and align myself with the wise!

Consider the contours of Joseph’s story. He is one of the children of Israel (the patriarch formerly known as Jacob). He is the special son, the beloved, with whom Jacob is well-pleased. His father gives him a rich garment, a gift to show his esteem of this son among all Israel’s sons. The beloved son announces prophetically that he will rise above them all, over the whole of Israel, and rule over them.

The sons of Israel respond with jealousy and anger. They conspire to put him to death. And figuratively they do put him to death. First, they put him in a “pit.” (This is the earliest use of that word in the Hebrew scriptures. Anyone familiar with the Psalms will recall how “the pit” is later used as a synonym for Sheol or the grave.) From this predicament he is, temporarily, resurrected. They bring him up out of the pit, but only to send him “down” to Egypt, another figurative death. They return to Jacob with faked evidence of his death. So again Joseph “dies.” And this time the prominent aspect of his death is his separation from his father.

From these deaths as well—the going “down” into Egypt, and the death with respect to his father—Joseph will rise again. First, in Egypt, Joseph rises from his enslaved condition to oversee the house of Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officers. But again he suffers a figurative death. He is sent down into Pharaoh’s prison. He receives this “death” despite—indeed because of—his righteous behavior. He is condemned because of one who falsely accuses.

From this death also, he begins to rise. First he rises to prominence in the prison and preaches to the spirits who are there. (Ok, maybe I’m pushing the analogy, but… I don’t know. It’s at least interesting, isn’t it?) Then he rises from prison in a glorious “resurrection” to be seated at the right hand of Pharaoh and to rule in Pharaoh’s name over the whole land. All authority is given to him. Everyone bows down.

Ruling over all, he does not exploit his position but generously provides. Everyone who comes to him receives bread, receives life, receives salvation! All this happens to the greater glory of Pharaoh and the expansion of his kingdom.

If you don’t see how that story relates to the story of Christ, I must’ve told it wrong!

You know how the story ends. Having provided life to the entire world, Joseph provides life last of all to his brothers, the sons of Israel. In desperate need of that which only Joseph has, his brothers according to the flesh return to him. At first they do not recognize him. He does not reveal himself. He puts them through various trials. (During this period, he takes time privately to weep, being overcome by emotion because of what is happening. Joseph is no prankster, callously toying with his brothers to amuse himself. However we understand his actions, we must acknowledge that behind them is a genuine, deep, and heartfelt love.) Finally, he makes them know who he is. They are frightened. Will not the one whom they put to “death” desire vengeance? He does not. He embraces them. He pleads with them not to be distressed or angry with themselves because they sold him into this figurative death. God was in their actions for the purpose of life!

Famously, in the last chapter of Genesis, Joseph tells his brothers, “‘As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.’ Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them” (Gen 50:20,21). And of course we are familiar with the similarities between this statement and Peter’s assertion that Jesus was delivered up “according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God… to do whatever [God’s] hand and [God’s] plan had predestined to take place” (Acts 2:23,4:28). The crucifixion they meant for evil has resulted in life for all who repent of that evil and embrace the one they put to death.

Now, typology is not allegory. I know that. We should not look for a one-to-one correspondence between the elements of any Old Testament story and the story of Christ. We look instead for resemblances and parallels and hints and pointers. (We look for them with the confidence that they are there!)

So I will stop short of insisting on some exact correspondence between the end of Joseph’s story and the coming finale to the story of Jesus. But I will say this. The story of Joseph is long and involved. Along the way it has so many parallels with and pointers to the story of Jesus. The story of Joseph is the last, great set piece in the book of Genesis. It is the grand finale of this symphony with all the instruments playing and all the previous themes weaving gloriously together into a single masterwork. Joseph’s story takes up roughly a quarter of the book of Genesis. And fully half of that story deals with Joseph’s reconciliation with his brothers according to the flesh, the sons of Israel who figuratively put him to death. Might this not suggest that God is waiting until the end of the story to deal one last time, and for glorious good, with the descendants of those sons? Might it point to a day when Jesus comforts and speaks kindly to Israel’s children, a day when he swears to provide for them and their little ones? I have begun to think it might. I will always hope it does.

Here then is my prayer (which may or may not fit the ancient form known as a “collect”):

Almighty and most merciful God, in ancient times you saved the sons of Israel through the wisdom and righteousness of their brother Joseph. So now take pity on the descendants of Jacob and by Holy Scripture enlighten their minds in the knowledge and love of Christ. Grant this that we your Church should be made complete in communion with them as you finish your work of restoring the lost. Amen.

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