On The Patriarch Joseph and Jesus

On The Patriarch Joseph and Jesus December 18, 2018

St. Albert the Great, in his reflections upon the eucharist, saw in the story of Joseph in Egypt a symbolic or prophetic prefiguration of what Christ would offer to us in communion. Whereas Joseph, with wheat, was able to save many, including his family, from famine, Jesus is willing to save us all from the barrenness of spiritual famine:

For the wheat that is sold in Egypt on Joseph’s authority saves them all from the barrenness of famine. This is the wheat of the body of the Lord, which is sold, by the exchange of soul and body, by the Lord, who is signified by Joseph, and which saves all in the world from being consumed by spiritual famine. So therefore by restoring what was lost in the substance and strength of the spirit, it restores lost health and repairs strength. [Gen. 47.12] “And he nourished them, and all his father’s house, supplying food to each one.” So Christ feeds us and all his house, that is, the Church, which is the house of the Father, supplying food for each in the sacrament of spiritual food, in which is the medicine of perfect health, by which all that was lost through the hunger of the ancient famine is restored.[1]

There is much more which can be seen to connect the story of Joseph in Genesis with Jesus; looking at some of those elements can be used not only to confirm the association St. Albert has made between Joseph and Jesus, but to supplement it by giving us greater insight into the work of Christ.

In the story of Joseph, we find out this his brothers were jealous of Joseph. Not only was he especially loved by his father, he was receiving dreams which seemed to indicate his whole family would one day bow down in obeisance to him. Joseph’s brothers, angered by what they thought was indicated by Joseph’s actions, decided to throw him down a pit, stripping him of his clothes in the process: “So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the long robe with sleeves that he wore; and they took him and cast him into a pit” (Gen. 37:23-4 RSV).  Originally, they thought about letting him die, but then Judah, his brother, believed it would be better to sell Joseph off in slavery. This allowed God’s providence to work over itself upon Joseph so that years later, after much hardships, he had found himself in a position of authority, the right-hand man of the Pharaoh. Years later, during a great famine, Joseph’s brothers were sent into Egypt to try to get food for their family; they went to Joseph, not knowing who he was. Joseph recognized them, but saw with them a younger brother whom he did not know. He decided to test his brothers, to see how they were treating his brother, Benjamin: he made it look like Benjamin was a thief, saying he would keep Benjamin under arrest while the rest could return home. Judah, who previously had saved Joseph, pleaded not only for Benjamin, but also his father, because Judah said his father would die of grief if Benjamin did not return with them. Joseph could take no more. He revealed himself to his brothers, showing forgiveness for what they have done, indicating that God’s providence was able to use the evil they intended for a greater good:

So Joseph said to his brothers, “Come near to me, I pray you.” And they came near. And he said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are yet five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest.  And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God; and he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt (Gen. 45:4-8 RSV).

Jesus, likewise, was crucified because the leaders of Israel jealous of him and his popularity with the people. And, like Joseph, despite the ill-will of those who desired him harm, Jesus showed care and concern, indeed, forgiveness for what happened to him: “And Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.’ And they cast lots to divide his garments” (Lk. 23:34 RSV). Joseph and Jesus had their clothes taken away from them, and what they suffered, ultimately was able to be used by God in his providence for the welfare of others. Though Joseph did not die, his life was sacrificed and it was as if he were dead, only to come back to life when he revealed himself to his brothers:

But when they told him all the words of Joseph, which he had said to them, and when he saw the wagons which Joseph had sent to carry him, the spirit of their father Jacob revived;  and Israel said, “It is enough; Joseph my son is still alive; I will go and see him before I die.” (Gen. 45:27-8 RSV),

Jesus, unlike Joseph, truly died, but like Joseph, Jesus accepted the burden placed upon him, and let the wrath of humanity be taken out against him so that he, in his death, could take on the sins of the world and save the world from the famine which had left humanity spiritually dead. Jesus, in his resurrection, demonstrated the bountiful grace which God has granted the world, showing that God can and does find a way to subvert evil intentions and use them for the greater good.  The evils intended against Joseph and Jesus were was forgiven by Joseph and Jesus, and likewise, were able to be used for the greater good, to preserve and save people, Joseph materially, Jesus spiritually.  Thus, what we see as great in Joseph, we see even greater in Jesus, who Joseph prefigured, as Origen understood:

But he who says: “It is a great thing for me if my son Joseph is living” as if he understands and sees that the life which is in the spiritual Joseph is great, is no longer called Jacob, but Israel, as it were, he who sees in his mind the true life which is Christ, the true God.[2]

Jesus, then, treats us as his loved ones, give us spiritual nourishment, the eucharist, sharing us the whole of himself to us so we can be incorporated into him through communion, like the way Joseph shared his bounty with his family, in a joyful inebriation, as St. Albert also explained:

For he held himself in his hands, and he fed his intimate friends with himself and so, as if inebriated by their sweetness and charity, has nothing of himself in which his most beloved will not share, as it is read that Joseph, too, eating in the noonday heat with his brothers, was inebriated with them. [Gen. 33.34][3]

The bounty of Egypt was Joseph’s to command, and he used it for the benefit of others, including, and especially his family. He had a life of suffering, of servitude and suspicion, before finding himself lifted up into a seat of power; likewise, Jesus lived and died as the suffering servant, giving all of himself to everyone, only to be raised in glory and ascend to the Father. Although the story of Joseph had a different end than what we find with Jesus, it is easy to see how the two parallel each other, and why Joseph is a fit example for us all to ponder and consider as we try to understand the character and disposition of Jesus in regards those who wished him ill. Jesus calls all to himself, willing not only to forgive, but to share his bounty with those who previously considered themselves his enemies. He shows us, likewise, how we are to forgive others, indeed, to be charitable and gracious to them, hoping for their salvation even as we, once, were sinners estranged from him.

Perhaps, when we find ourselves at the eschatological feast, we will find Jesus revealing himself to many others who once thought themselves his enemies, like Joseph did with his brothers; perhaps this is how and why Paul was able to say all Israel will be saved (cf. Rom. 11:26): for Christians and Jews are spiritual brothers, and Jesus will not forget the promises shown to the people of Israel because he loves them even as Joseph loved his brothers. The schism between Christians and Jews comes was a result of conflicts and ill-will from people on both sides of the schism. Christians must not look at Jews with eyes of hate, putting the crimes of a few individuals upon the whole of the people, even as they would not like the crimes of fellow Christians to be seen as being upon themselves. We must, rather, look at Jews, indeed, not only Jews, but others from around the world, as brethren in the family of God; we must seek a restoration of that family unity. With the eschatological feast to come, we have hope that this will be done, so that God will indeed be all in all. Joseph gives us a representation of that spirit which we should expect from Jesus in the eternal supper which he will provide to all who willingly come to him.

[IMG=Joseph is Governor by Owen Jones [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]

[1] St. Albert the Great, On the Body of the Lord. Trans. Sr. Albert Marie Surmansku, OP (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 2017), 126.

[2] Origen, “Homily XV on Genesis” in Homilies on Genesis and Exodus. Trans. Ronald E. Heine (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 1982), 206.

[3] St. Albert the Great, On the Body of the Lord, 51.

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