Does every story really whisper his name? If so, how? Perhaps the most significant and pervasive way that New Testament authors point to the fulfillment of the Old Testament in Christ comes to us in their typological interpretation of the Old Testament.
Because of the way some interpreters have gotten carried away and abused this approach, many are suspicious of typological interpretation. My goal in this short piece is to offer a definition of typology that addresses the concerns of the skeptical by establishing criteria for evaluating whether we’re actually looking at a type. We’ll then use those standards in an attempt to answer the question of whether Joseph is a type of Christ, and if so, how?
First, what is typology? I contend that typology is God-ordained, author-intended historical correspondence and escalation in significance between persons, events, or institutions across the Bible’s redemptive-historical story (i.e., in covenantal context). Briefly, a word on each aspect of this definition.
God-ordained: The sovereign Lord has so orchestrated history that there are real similarities between the persons, events, or institutions under consideration.
Author-intended: This is perhaps the most controversial aspect of what I’m presenting, but it’s also the most significant criterion for evaluating the validity of a claimed type. I contend that the biblical authors noticed and to some degree—however small—understood the significance of the similarities ordained by God.
Typology is God-ordained, author-intended historical correspondence and escalation in significance between persons, events, or institutions across the Bible’s redemptive-historical story.
These similarities compose the stuff of historical correspondence, to which the biblical authors draw attention by building into their writings repetitions of key terms, quotations of phrases or whole lines, and presenting similar sequences of events. By establishing historical correspendences with earlier biblical material, the biblical authors establish patterns they intend their audience to notice.
When the biblical authors make installments in these patterns, they are presenting escalation in significance. The significance may not be fully understood, but because the patterns repeat, inspired prophets begin to search and inquire “what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating . . .” (1 Pet. 1:10–11).
Moses intended to present Joseph as an installment in the pattern of fraternal conflict in Genesis and an anticipation of the one who would overcome that conflict.
When I speak of redemptive history or covenantal context, I have in mind what my colleagues Stephen Wellum and Peter Gentry mean when they speak of “the backbone of the biblical narrative.” That narrative is held together by the covenant relationships God establishes with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David, all of which find fulfillment in the new covenant inaugurated by Christ.
So what about Joseph?
Is Joseph a Type of Christ?
In chiastic fashion, I want to begin my answer with the last aspect of the definition I’ve offered and work back through it to the beginning. The book of Genesis begins with the murder of a brother, and it ends with a brother who was almost murdered forgiving his father’s sons who sold him into slavery. This fraternal conflict isn’t just at beginning and end but all through Genesis, and is one of the outworkings of the Genesis 3:15 enmity between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman. Cain murders Abel, Ishmael mocks Isaac, Esau wants to kill Jacob, and Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery. The seed of the serpent hate the seed of the woman.
The book of Genesis begins with the murder of a brother, and it ends with a brother who was almost murdered forgiving his father’s sons who sold him into slavery.
The covenantal significance of this aspect of redemptive history can be seen in the way it enacts not only Genesis 3:15 but also the blessing of Abraham in Genesis 12:1–3. God promised to make Abraham’s name great, to bless those who bless him, to curse those who dishonor him. No one who attempts to thwart God’s program through Abraham will overcome God’s purpose to bless all the families of the earth through him. Ishmael can scoff all he wants—God promised Isaac to Abraham, and he affirms to Isaac his intention to establish the oath he made to Abraham (Gen. 26:3). So with Esau’s murderous rage—it won’t keep Isaac from transmitting the blessing of Abraham to Jacob (Gen. 28:3).
In Joseph we see the seed of Abraham, seed of the woman, whose name has been made great, who has been exalted to the right hand of power, who has been made fruitful in the land of his affliction (Gen. 41:52) to the point of blessing all the families of the earth in the midst of an awful famine: “All the earth came to Egypt to Joseph to buy grain, because the famine was severe over all the earth” (Gen. 41:57). Sam Emadi rightly argues that in Joseph we have an anticipatory fulfillment of the blessing of Abraham, and when he causes his brothers to feel conviction for their sin, then forgives them, Joseph overcomes (that aspect of) the enmity between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman.
In Joseph we see the seed of Abraham, seed of the woman, whose name has been made great, who has been exalted to the right hand of power, who has been made fruitful in the land of his affliction.
To summarize, I see God-ordained, author-intended historical correspondence between Joseph and those before him—Abel, Isaac, and Jacob. My understanding is that God sovereignly worked in these details that really took place, and that when the stories came to Moses, he saw the similarities, understood them as outworkings of what he recorded God saying in Genesis 3:15 and 12:1–3, and arranged his narrative for his audience to see these things as well.
Did it work?
How Is Joseph a Type?
I don’t have the space to go into it here, but I’ve argued in a longer study that at key points in 1 Samuel, the author presents David in ways meant to call Joseph to mind. I believe Moses intended to present Joseph as an installment in the pattern of fraternal conflict in Genesis and an anticipation of the one who would overcome that conflict. The later author of Samuel saw similar things in David’s life and presented him as an installment in that same pattern. Just as Joseph’s brothers wanted to kill him, David’s brothers answered him harshly, and his Israelite kinsman Saul sought his life continually. Like Joseph, David sought to live at peace with all the descendants of Israel.
Joseph and David are prefiguring, foreshadowing installments in a pattern that culminates in the One whose kinsmen according to the flesh would hand him over to the raging nations, that his death and resurrection might make reconciliation, provide the basis for forgiveness, bring an end to all fraternal conflict and all enmity between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman, and thereby bless all the families of the earth in fulfillment of both God’s promises to Abraham and also the “first gospel” of Genesis 3:15.