Why does the Joseph story receive so much space in the book of Genesis? Abraham is the father of the Jewish people and our father in the faith, yet neither he nor Isaac nor Jacob (at least as the central character) get as much of the spotlight as Joseph. Why is this? Jeffrey Pulse, professor of exegetical theology at Concordia Theological Seminary, believes the Genesis narrative slows down to focus on Joseph because he is a death-and-resurrection figure. His life is full of down and ups and deaths and “resurrections.” In fact, Pulse lists twelve different death-and-resurrection motifs—motifs which intersect and build on one another —in the narrative (Genesis 37–50):
- Three-day/Three-stage separation and restoration
- Barren/Opening of Womb
- Cast into Pit/Being lifted up
- Down to Egypt/Up to Canaan
- Into water/out of water
- Exile/Return from Exile
This book has three parts. Part I looks at the history of biblical interpretation but looking at those who look at the biblical story as a whole instead of dissecting it into tiny, disconnected bits. Pulse advocates “reading the text of Scripture as a unified theological narrative” (4). This avoids dissecting the text into tiny bits as well as moving “away from a wooden, literalistic approach,” a “flat, one-dimensional approach” that “sees only the surface of the text and does not allow the exploration of its rich theological depths” (4).
In chapter one Pulse looks at three scholars who advanced this type of hermeneutic: Brevard Childs, Robert Altar, and Jon Levenson. The historical process and background of the text is important, but it is not more important than the final form of the text itself. He also includes R. W. L. Moberly and his theological interpretation, which he agrees with, and Walter Brueggemann and his postmodern interpretation, which he doesn’t agree with but includes because Brueggemann is “a strong voice in current biblical hermeneutic circles” (44).
Chapter two presents reading Scripture as a unified theological narrative as his recommended methodology. Why consider this approach? Pulse provides a story from his youth. As a child he wondered what made his fathers watch tick, so he took it apart. While he learned much about the inside life of a watch, he had no idea how to put it back together, making it useless. This is how the Old Testament has been treated by too many scholars. He provides one example of biblical motifs that run through the Bible—the garment motif [something you can read about here]. It’s a fascinating look at a motif that spans the entire Bible and shows how a narrative reading is to be preferred.
Part II looks at the Joseph story in Genesis 37–50. Part II spans 135 pages within three chapters. In chapter three Pulse gives a sort of commentary on Genesis 37–50 which emphasizes the twelve different death-and-resurrection motifs. This is easily the longest chapter of the book. Pulse really draws out the character of Joseph as well as the complications found between him and his family.
Chapter four looks at perceived problems and difficulties of Joseph and his character. A bit of this shows up in the previous chapter but had a more central focus here. This was interesting because though I’ve read the Joseph story who knows how many times before, Pulse pointed out ways in which Joseph is presented either in a not-so-positive light or as doing questionable acts. Though Joseph is in charge of Potiphar’s household and would very likely have known when the servants would or wouldn’t have been there, why does he “go to work” on a day when all of the servants weren’t there (Gen 39:11)? Why, after ascending to second-under-Pharaoh, does Joseph never search for his father and Benjamin? Why does he name his first son Manasseh, for God had made him forget all of his hardships and his father’s house? In chapters six and seven Pulse compares the Septuagint and the Targum Onqelos with the Masoretic text. Though they have revised thenJoseph story in ways, they also “point out nuances in the text that might otherwise be overlooked” (162).
Chapter five presents the motif of death-and-resurrection in the Joseph narrative. Though Pulse noted when different motifs occurred in the Joseph narrative in chapter three, because they “intersect and build on one another” it was hard to keep up when one thread began and another ended (165). Here, Pulse gives each motif its own section so, after having read through the Joseph narrative in chapter three, you can follow how the motifs work in the narrative.
Part III looks at other texts of Genesis 37–50. After chapters six and seven (mentioned above), chapter eight looks at how the Second Temple period viewed the resurrection theme in Joseph. Though many scholars believe Israel didn’t believe in the afterlife until tue exiling period, but Pulse’s thesis is “that Israel had always had always had a basic understanding of the afterlife and a sense of the resurrection of the dead” (259). As a result of the exile and prophecies such as Ezekiel’s valley of dead bones (37:1–14), “Joseph became a focal point for renewed theological reflection on the theme of new life springing forth out of the old” (260). As well, “[a]long with Enoch and Elijah, Joseph was the figure most looked on as the people contemplated death and resurrection” (260).
Chapter nine looks very briefly at how Philo and Josephus wrote about Joseph. Chapter ten looks at the “traveling bones” of Joseph and how his bones would one day enter the Promised land.
This is a fascinating look at the Joseph narrative and a strong example of how much a unified reading of Scripture can teach us. If he is right, and I think he is, Pulse makes a good argument that Israel believes in death and resurrection far before the time of Ezekiel, Daniel, and the exile. Teachers and preachers going through the Joseph narrative should consider picking this up, as well as students wanting to dig far deeper into the Joseph story than what they grew up with in Sunday School.
- Series: Studies in Scripture and Biblical Theology
- Author: Jeffrey Pulse
- Hardcover: 288 pages
- Publisher: Lexham Press (March 17, 2021)
Buy it on Amazon or from Lexham Press
Disclosure: I received this book free from Lexham Press. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.