Reviewed by Keith Plummer
Through popular theatrical portrayals such as the animated film Joseph: King of Dreams and the musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat many who make no claim of religious faith have some acquaintance with the story of Jacob’s favored son who, though a victim of his brothers’ abuse and a series of injustices and trials, rose to a position of prominence second only to Pharaoh in ancient Egypt. It should come as no surprise, given the artistic license taken by the creators of such renderings, that those who rely on them as their sole or primary source or information about the meaning of Joseph’s life will be missing a lot.
However, even Christians who have frequently read and heard Genesis’s narrative about the young Hebrew, are in danger of misunderstanding the depth of its significance. These are Voddie Baucham’s intended audience for Joseph and the Gospel of Many Colors: Reading an Old Story in a New Way. As the subtitle suggests, Baucham is convinced that believers stand in need of reading the ancient text in a new way. But this “new way” is not really novel or innovative. It is only new because we have, for various reasons, strayed from the story’s proper theological interpretation which, as the title indicates, is connected to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Why is the Joseph Story Misunderstood?
Baucham contends that one reason American Christians in particular misread the Joseph account is our tendency to interpret it through our affinity for “success” stories in which an underdog, through hard work, determination, and perseverance, beats the odds and makes it big. This leads us to falsely identify Joseph’s ascent to power (which Baucahm calls “one of, if not the most, misunderstood and misinterpreted scenes in the entire Bible” (72)) as the climax of the story whose moral is “Let ‘em hate you. If you’re faithful, you’ll end up rich, powerful, and vindicated” (15).
A related factor is our propensity to read biblical narratives atomistically and moralistically. That is, we are inclined to treat biblical narratives as though they are stand-alone accounts whose primary purpose is to exemplify and encourage moral living. Conceived of as such, biblical narratives serve as little more than fables. A moralisitc reading of the story of Joseph concludes that it is essentially a vehicle for lessons about such things as the dangers of parental favoritism and sibling rivalry, and how to resist sexual temptation. Baucham lists several reasons why we readily resort to a moralistic reading and preaching including the facts that God’s law is holy, sin is pervasive, and we desire clearly defined rules. Moralism, says Baucham, is “low-hanging fruit” that appeals to us because “It’s the way we’re all wired, and it takes very little effort or creativity to pull off. And it feels good to boot” (19).
Decrying moralism is not however to deny that the biblical narratives have moral implications (as Baucham demonstrates throughout the book). It is to say that this is not their ultimate purpose. The problem with reading moralistically is that that we lose sight of the centrality of God and his redemptive purposes.
Joseph in the Context of Genesis
Instead of understanding the Joseph account (or other biblical narratives) in an atomistic, moralistic way, we should aim to understand it theologically. This requires careful attention to context on two levels. First, there is the immediate context of which the story is a part. “In short, we cannot understand Joseph until we understand Genesis” (29). Baucham’s second chapter is devoted to helping the reader better understand how Genesis works. He does a very good job showing how the structural pattern of Genesis and the manner in which the Joseph account is resolved reveal that the story of Joseph is actually about Jacob and how the promises God made him (and before that to Isaac and Abraham) will be fulfilled.
“… Jacob’s story cannot be told without this focus on Joseph. God is indeed going to make Jacob/Israel a great nation, and Joseph will be the primary means by which that task is accomplished. Jacob has neither the character nor the wisdom to become that which God intends. Nevertheless, God will raise him up in spite of himself” (46).
In the same chapter, Baucham identifies three recurring themes in Genesis (land, seed, and covenant) and shows how they are integral to understanding the story of Joseph. For example, of the connection between the seed promised by God in Genesis 3:15, Baucham notes,
“What, then, does the theme of the seed have to do with the life of Joseph? Joseph is not the promised seed. The question we must ask, then, is, what is the significance of Joseph’s relationship to the promised seed? Again to ignore this question is to fail to understand Joseph in the context of Genesis as a whole and in the context of specific themes and divisions of Genesis into which he is placed” (40).
Joseph in Biblical Context
The second context that Joseph’s story must be read in terms of is that of the whole Bible. In the first chapter, titled “The Lord of the Story,” Baucham makes a compelling case for a Christ-centered, redemptive-historical interpretation of the Joseph narrative by which he means reading it “in light of Christ with an eye toward types and shadows as the author makes them obvious” (27).
It would have been helpful if Baucham had explained what the indicators of an obvious type or shadow are. Is it legitimate, for instance, to regard Joseph as an obvious type of Christ although the Bible does not explicitly refer to him as such (a point that Baucham acknowledges)? Baucham would apparently answer affirmatively for he observes that the response of Joseph’s brothers to him mirrors that of those Jesus came to save. Both Jesus and Joseph were met with murderous hostility and both, through a series of injustices, saved their adversaries.
Baucham argues on the basis of how the apostles used the Old Testament and Jesus’ teaching that the Hebrew Scriptures are about him that “the New Testament is the interpretive guide for grasping the the deeper theological message of the Old Testament text” (24) and that “Christ is the Interpretive Key to the Old Testament” (28). This is not, however, tantamount to reading the story of Joseph allegorically, glossing over grammatical-historical elements of the text. Nor is it to fancifully find Jesus in every verse. Elsewhere, Baucham writes that his goal “was not to find Christ behind every rock” but “to be mindful of the gospel at every turn” (13). Furthermore, as previously noted, a redemptive-historical reading does not mean that morality and application are irrelevant. (This is, in my opinion, a particularly helpful and necessary disclaimer. Some proponents of Christ-centered/redemptive historical reading and preaching, in their opposition to moralism, give the impression that any appeal to biblical narratives for examples of and instruction in godliness is to misuse them, a claim impossible to reconcile with New Testament texts like 1 Cor. 10:1-11 and 2 Timothy 3:16). For readers interested in further exploring redemptive-historical interpretation and/or the book of Genesis, Baucham includes a list of recommended resources at the end of the book.
Each of the remaining eight chapters is an exposition of one or more chapters in the Joseph account as recorded in Genesis 37-50. The title of each identifies a major theme of the chapter(s) covered. They are: Juxtaposition (Genesis 37-38), Providence (Genesis 39-40), Exaltation (Genesis 41), Examination (Genesis 42), Transformation (Genesis 43-44), Revelation (Genesis 45-46), Reunion (Genesis 47-48), and Reconciliation (Genesis 49-50).
Regardless of how well-acquainted one is with this biblical account, I’m confident that he or she will profit from Baucham’s careful treatment of it. He does a commendable job of alerting the reader to textual details, connections, and artistry. Baucham states that he wants his reader “to grasp the significance of a careful reading of the text” (12) and he proves to be a most apt guide, able to help others see the profound in what had previously been glossed over in the familiar.
One of the places I experienced this was in his explanation of the significance of Joseph’s leaving home to search for his brothers in Genesis 37:
“…he moves farther and farther away from the Land of Promise. But here’s something most readers never consider. When Joseph leaves home on this simple fact-finding mission, he leaves for the last time. Joseph will never return to live in the land until his bones are brought back after the Exodus (Ex. 13:19). In fact, it is this aspect of the Joseph’s story that warranted mention in the “Faith Hall of Fame” (Heb. 11:22). This is not a feel-good story wherein the hero returns victorious. This is a tale of redemption in which Joseph pays an unthinkable price for a purpose much greater than he” (52).
Each of the chapters covering the Genesis account ends with what Baucham calls “takeaways,” application derived from the interpretation of the texts in their dual contexts. For example, the takeaways from Genesis 39 and 40, whose emphasis is the providence of God, include a discussion of the truths that “God is present with his people even in the worst circumstances” and “obedience to God does not guarantee favor with men.”
In the Introduction, Baucham writes that “reading and interpreting the life of Joseph, if done right, will exalt God’s redemptive work. It is my sincere hope that this is precisely what this book does” (13). I believe the author’s hope was realized and that his book will be profitable to all who wish to grow in their understanding not only of the story of Joseph but of him who said “[Moses] wrote of me” (John 5:46).
Dr. Keith Plummer is an Associate Professor in the School of Divinity at Cairn University in Langhorne, PA.
Buy the books
Joseph And The Gospel Of Many Colors: Reading An Old Story In A New Way