BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 112
Copyright (c) 1998 Biblical Horizons
Joseph and Esther
The third patriarch was Joseph, and the third phase of pre-gospel history is the Restoration. We have not spent time looking particularly at the Joseph narrative heretofore, because it is different in cast from the Abraham and Jacob ones. There is no explicit promise, fulfillment, and crisis pattern in the life of Joseph as an individual. Indeed, we move from a promise-fulfillment pattern to a prophecy-fulfillment pattern.
God promised Abraham seed, land, and glory-influence, with a primary focus on seed. God promised Jacob land. But the initial word of God that comes to Joseph comes in a dream, indirectly, and makes no promise. Rather, the dream prophesies that Joseph’s parents and brothers will some day bow down to him. Only some kind of tyrant would regard that prophecy as some kind of wonderful promise, looking forward to ruling over his family! This initial prophecy, consisting of two dreams, is followed by two other pairs of prophetic dreams (chapters 40 & 41), which again are not promises to any persons, but predictions of future events.
The contrast is also evident from a comparison of the Jacob and Joseph exile stories. Like his father, Joseph is driven from the land and the community of the priestly people by brothers who intend to murder him. Like Jacob, Joseph goes to a strange land with only the shirt on his back. Like Jacob he is oppressed for a time, but then is given an estate; though unlike Laban with Jacob, Pharaoh rejoices to honor Joseph. Like Jacob, Joseph acquires a wife in the strange land, and has sons there. But strikingly unlike the story of Jacob, we do not read of any special encounter with God on the road to Egypt. God did not meet with him; he was left on his own, it seems.
But he was not alone, and he was not without promise. It is just that Joseph had to rely on the general promises God had made to all His people. No special promise was given to him. He had to rely by faith on the revelation God had given to previous generations, because no special verbal revelation came to him. In this regard, he is just like us: He had to regard the "Bible," the history of previous events, as his promise.
Such faith, we may say, is a higher and tougher form of faith. It is faith without any external support in miracles and special revelations. Most pointedly, it is faith that is generated by the Holy Spirit in a more comprehensive way than before.
The absence of special personal and verbal revelations in the Joseph story fits with its theological focus, which is on the Spirit. The Father was in primary focus in the Abraham narrative, and the Brother was in primary focus in the Jacob narrative. God came in Person to dialogue with Abraham and to wrestle with Jacob, and spoke words to both of them. With Joseph, the Spirit is the primary focus (Genesis 41:38 – "in whom is the Spirit of God"). The form revelation takes in the Joseph narrative is not that of person and word, but that of wisdom and influence: The Spirit gently influences and guides Joseph to make him wise. But note: The Spirit does this because Joseph already has possession of the Person and Word revelation to his fathers.
Just as there is no special Tree of Life revelation to Joseph at the beginning of his story, so there seems to be no special Tree of Judgment crisis in the middle of it. When Joseph comes out of the exile of prison, there is no crisis; rather, Pharaoh is immediately converted and receives Joseph with open arms. When Joseph’s brothers arrive later on, Joseph is fully in control of the situation.
In fact, though, the attack of Potiphar’s wife is Joseph’s Tree of Knowledge crisis. It is his willingness to see through that crisis, and not fall into sin with the "daughters of men," that results in his having world influence.
Potiphar’s wife accused Joseph of attempted rape, and this was a capital offense. (Obviously, for a mere slave to try an rape a noblewoman would have been a capital offense.) Because Joseph had been faithful, God moved Potiphar to spare him. Yet Joseph was sent into the "death" of imprisonment.
Thus, the question for the Joseph crisis is this: ARE YOU WILLING TO DIE AND LOSE ALL GLORY AND INFLUENCE IN ORDER TO MAINTAIN FAITH WITH ME? Joseph had built up influence with Potiphar, who was Captain of Pharaoh’s Bodyguard — a highly influential position. We read that Potiphar left everything in Joseph’s hand. Thus, Joseph had great influence in Egypt, indirectly. Now he had to give it all up in order to be faithful. Eventually, though, he was rewarded with far greater influence, taking over not Potiphar’s but Pharaoh’s household.
The Spirit is the glorifier. The Spirit had given Joseph a glorious estate, and now the Spirit demanded Joseph give it up.
There is a strict relationship between glory and marriage, for the woman is the glory of the man (1 Corinthians 11:7), and while Jesus has no form or comeliness that we should desire Him, His Bride is beautiful and glorious because of the work of the Spirit (Revelation 21). Men want beautiful wives, and are tempted by the beauty and glory of the "daughters of men" (Genesis 6:2). The beauty of a woman is the husband’s glory. (When an older man marries a beautiful young woman, we call her a "trophy wife.") Thus, the temptation to take glory the wrong way is focussed in the temptation to become involved with attractive but sinful women. That was Joseph’s crisis, for Potiphar’s wife definitely sought to attract Joseph, as Tamar sought to attract Judah (Genesis 38).
Now, the Joseph story is recapitulated in larger form in the Restoration era. The parallels are instructive. The stories of Joseph and Judah, which are sandwiched in Genesis 47-50, both concern the lure of Gentile "daughters of men." Judah falls into sin with the daughters of men, but repents. Joseph does not fall, and goes to prison. He was willing to forego sexual relations with Potiphar’s wife for God’s sake, and was later given a royal bride as a reward. Similarly, the sin of intermarriage and compromise is the major sin of the Restoration era. Both Ezra-Nehemiah and Malachi point to the sin of intermarriage as the major problem. And intermarriage with unconverted women is only a symbol of the larger sin of compromise with the Gentiles. The Jews were supposed to witness to the Gentiles, not compromise with them.
In the Joseph story, the Gentiles receive the wisdom of God first, and only later are the sinful brethren converted. The same thing happens in the Restoration. The story of Jonah is an anticipation of this theme, but in Daniel we see Nebuchadnezzar and Cyrus converted and following the wisdom of God before we see the Jews enabled to return from exile.
In the Joseph story, the Hebrews live within Egypt in Goshen, the best of the land. In the Restoration, the Jews live within the empire, in the province Beyond the River (Trans-Euphrates).
In the Joseph story, Joseph exercises world influence under a Gentile lord. The same is true of the Jews in the Restoration era.
In the Joseph story, Joseph must resist the allure of the "daughters of men." In Malachi, the sinful Jews have divorced their Jewish wives and taken lovely young "trophy wives" from among the unbelievers. In Ezra-Nehemiah, the Jews have sinned by marrying the "daughters of men," and are commanded to send them home, to give up this false glory.
The first time of crisis is described in Esther. Like Joseph, Esther (now a bride-figure rather than a son-figure) must live faithfully without any special personal or verbal revelation. The crisis comes as a test in terms of the new privilege of humble (under a Gentile lord) world influence. Just as God gave Abraham a son and then tested him in terms of it, and just as God gave Jacob an estate and then tested him in terms of it, so God gave Joseph a glory-influence and then tested him in terms of it: would he compromise with Egypt or break with it to serve God? Similarly, God gave the Jews an influence and then tested them in terms of it.
Mordecai sat on the Supreme Court of the Persian Empire, the Gate of the King. Probably he was the representative of the Jews, possibly of Trans-Euphrates Province. Like Joseph in Potiphar’s house, Mordecai had standing and glory-influence in the Persian empire. Then God tested him. God put Haman over him, and commanded him to respect Haman’s office. Unlike David with Saul, Mordecai refused to respect the king’s decision. Moreover, seeking influence at court the wrong way, Mordecai told Esther to conceal her Jewish identity, and thus not to be a witness to the Gentiles.
God then brought the crisis. He attacked Mordecai and all the Jews, threatening to exterminate them. In this crisis, Mordecai repented and sat in sackcloth and ashes. But now Mordecai had to give up his influence, influence that came through the bride, Esther. He had to tell Esther to reveal her peo-ple to the king, even though she might die for doing so. Because Esther saw through the crisis, she was willing to do this. She was a representative of the true Bride, the Church. Esther went before the king and bowed low, recognizing his God-given au-thority. She revealed that she was a Jew. And then God reversed everything and the Jews were saved. Not only so, but many Gentiles converted, so that the far side of the crisis was more glorious than before (Esther 8:17). Meanwhile Mordecai was elevated to a much higher position of glory-influence than formerly, moving from the "Potiphar’s house" of the Persian Supreme Court to becoming "Pharaoh’s" chief advisor. (For more on Esther, see my tape series "Witness or Perish.")
As a note, we should probably also correlate the famine that drove the Hebrews to repent before Joseph and be saved, with the death-threat against the Jews that drove Mordecai to repentance and saved the Jews.
The second time of crisis in the Restoration era is described to Daniel in visions. (See my commentary on Daniel for detailed information on this.) It came at the time of the Maccabees. God brought about a crisis by raising up an adversary, Antiochus IV Epiphanes. The wicked Jews failed to see through the crisis, and removed the High Priest Onias III, a Zadokite as God had commanded in Ezekiel 44. They allowed a man named Jason to become High Priest, and he made a deal with Antiochus. Then a man named Menelaus overthrew Jason and made further deals with Antiochus, bringing pagan institutions into Jerusalem. The unfaithful Jews were seeking peace and comfort, seeking to avoid persecution, not by wrestling with God, but by compromising with the pagans. Like Mordecai, they sought influence at court by denying the faith, much as modern Christian conservatives seek influence in politics by speaking of "natural law" rather than of the kingship of Jesus Christ.
The result, predictably, was that they died. Antiochus was provoked to anger by the Romans, and took out his anger on the Jews. Persecution came, and it was far worse than the Jews had feared, and far worse than it might have been had they been faithful.
The faithful who saw through the crisis resisted the tendency to compromise with Antiochus’s pagan dreams. But some of them also failed the test. They rebelled against Antiochus and did indeed gain political freedom for the Jews, but they did not call back the true Zadokite High Priest. Instead, the Maccabees made one of their own family members High Priest. The result was, again, predictable. This man turned against the faithful and persecuted them; and in fact, from that time on the High Priests were persecutors of the faithful. Thus, only a small remnant really passed the test.
As when God tore the Tabernacle apart in the days of Eli, so from the time of the Maccabees forward there was no full worship in the Temple. Only a valid High Priest could conduct the Day of Covering (Atonement) rituals (Leviticus 16), and so although the false High Priests went through the motions of that ritual, God never counted it as valid. Jesus went to all the feasts and religious events of Israel, but not to the Day of Covering.
Let us now summarize. In the story of Joseph and in the history of the restoration, the focus is on the Jew-Gentile relationship, especially as that relationship is played out at the human level in the relationship of husband and bride. The mid-life crisis concerns the Jew-Gentile relationship: Will you give up your God-given glory for the privilege of being God’s humble witnesses? Mordecai initially wouldn’t, and the Jews in the days of the Maccabees wouldn’t. Those who pass the test, who see through the crisis by faith, are ready for the Tree of Rule and can become the Bride of Jesus Christ, co-ruling with Him as world-emperors.
The test of the Tree of Knowledge, as it comes to us as individuals and nations, means at least this in its Joseph dimension: Will you undergo suffering and loss of glory for the privilege of bearing witness, and not try to seize it for yourself by compromise? This was the test before Joseph and before Mordecai. Those who see through the crisis, when it comes to them, acquire world influence.