Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Messiah Son of Joseph?

Genesis 45:1-15

It can be very beneficial to engage with and learn from thoughtful people of good will with whom we have deep disagreements. I don't mean the kind corrupt and offensive views of the Neo-Nazis and white supremacist gathered in Charlottesville this weekend. There is a difference. Such evil must be denounced without equivocation.  I am speaking of those of good will.

For instance,  I have been reading a lot of Jewish interpretation of scripture lately. In many ways, this has been a largely unexplored world of thought for me.  It is fascinating because it is simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar.

I’m particularly interested to see how Jewish theologians read the prophecies of the messiah. These texts are extremely familiar to Christians because we believe they refer to Jesus Christ, but of course, non-Christian Jews read these texts differently.

For example, some prophecies suggest a “suffering servant” who will be a sign of judgement against the people, who will come lowly and riding on a donkey, and who will lay down his life in battle against Israel’s enemies. Others suggest a victorious king, who will liberate his people, and reign forever.

These appear to be two contradictory teachings, which is why some Jewish interpretations suggest two different Messiahs extending from Jacob’s two wives Leah and Rachel. One messiah from the tribe of Joseph—Messiah ben Yosef or “Messiah son of Joseph”—a suffering servant who will lay down his life—and a second, kingly, Messiah from the house of Judah--who will bring redemption to Israel and reign forever. The second Messiah is greater than the first.

I find this idea fascinating in light of the themes that have emerged from our readings from Genesis this summer. 

Throughout the history of Israel we can see the children of Leah and the children of Rachel compete for ascendency. It is Moses and Aaron, both descendants of Leah’s son Levi, who lead the people out of exile, but it is Joshua a descendant of Rachel’s son Joseph that leads the people into the promised land.

Saul a descendant of Rachel is anointed king, but the kingdom is taken from him and given to David the descendant of Leah’s son Judah.

Following the death of David’s son Solomon, the kingdom becomes divided in two with the northern kingdom ruled by the descendants of Joseph and the southern kingdom ruled by the descendants of Judah.

Jesus himself is from the tribe of Judah, he is the promised messiah, the son of David, who will unite the divided people of Israel. But both the descendants of Joseph and the descendants of David bear witness to him in their own unique way.

The concept of a Messiah son of Joseph is Jewish rather than Christian, but it resonates with the gospel. Jesus is not a descendant of Rachel’s son Joseph, but he is the adopted son of a different Joseph. Not much is known about Mary’s husband and Jesus’ guardian, but we do know that like the Joseph of Genesis, God spoke to him in his dreams. God speaks to Joseph four times in the gospel of Matthew concerning Mary’s son Jesus.

The comparisons between the story of Joseph in Genesis and Jesus’ own story, however, are even more striking. It has often been pointed out by Christian commentators that Joseph is a type of Christ. 

Consider some of the parallels between Joseph and Jesus. Both were born by God’s gracious intervention. Joseph was the son of a woman who was thought to be barren. Jesus was the son of a virgin.

Joseph was the shepherd of his father’s flock. Jesus is called the Good Shepherd and we are the sheep of his pasture.

Joseph was the son of Jacob’s old age, the son of his beloved wife Rachel. His father demonstrated his favor to Joseph by clothing him with a coat of many colors (This is the famous coat that Andrew Lloyd Webber produced a musical about, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat). Jesus was likewise the son of his Father’s love, exalted and glorified above all others. Just last week we celebrated the Transfiguration in which Jesus’ coat became dazzling white and shown with heavenly glory. The Father spoke from Heaven, “This is my Son, my chosen, Listen to him!”

Joseph proclaimed to his brothers that God showed him in a dream that he would be exalted and they would bow down and serve him. Perhaps somewhat understandably, Joseph’s brothers saw him as a precocious brat. They envied the favor their father showed him. Jesus also predicted his own glory and exaltation. His own siblings thought he was delusional and the religious leaders envied and despised him.

Joseph’s own brothers conspired to kill him. He was stripped of his garment, thrown into a pit, and handed over to wild beasts.  Joseph’s life was ultimately sparred; he was lifted out of the pit and sold to Ismaelites for twenty pieces of silver.

The chief priests and rabbis also conspired to kill Jesus. He was betrayed by one of his closest friends and handed over to gentiles for 30 pieces of silver. He was stripped of his robe and beaten. Unlike Joseph, he was cruelly executed, but just as Joseph was pulled out of the pit and delivered from death, Jesus rose from the dead conquering death.

Just as Jesus was exalted in his death and resurrection, so also was Joseph exalted. He was sold as a slave in Egypt but there he distinguished himself and was exalted to Pharoah’s right hand. What his brothers intended for evil God used for good. As a lord in Egypt, Joseph became his family’s deliverer in a time of famine. In the same way, Jesus’ betrayal and execution became the source of deliverance for all people.

The parallels between the story of Jesus and the story of Joseph are in fact so numerous that we simply do not have time to discuss them all here. As you can see, although Jesus is the Son of David, in a profound way he is also the son of Joseph. Jesus is both the victorious king and the suffering servant. Both dimensions of the messianic expectation find their completion in him.

He is both the chosen and rejected, the cursed and the blessed.

What can look on the surface like two contradictory concepts—suffering and exaltation, defeat and victory—are unified in one individual. What can easily be seen as two individuals, two messiahs, is actually one. Jesus came first lowly and riding on a donkey, he came to suffer reproach, to be rejected, and to die. But Jesus will come again in glory as the King of Kings to reunite the people of Israel and to reign forever. 

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The Unloved Wife

Genesis 29:15-28

One of the biggest obstacles modern people have to reading the Bible is that the people and settings of the stories seem so foreign to us. When we read Genesis for instance, we find ourselves transported into a time and place where being the first-born son means everything, where women are bartered like property, and it is not at all unusual for a man to have multiple wives. It is offensive to our sensibilities. What relevance could these stories have to people here and now? Haven’t we outgrown this kind of stuff?

First, by way of preface for today’s lesson, let me start by saying that when it comes to the cultural norms of the ancient world the bible is descriptive rather than prescriptive. In other words, the stories are just telling us what the world in that time and place was like, they aren’t necessarily being held up as a model for how things should be today.

In fact, if we actually observe how these stories unfold, the Bible presents the systems of polygamy and patriarchy as a complete disaster. They lead only to heartbreak, jealousy, and violence.

Secondly, we should be honest about whether or not we really have outgrown this kind of stuff. Although our culture is much different from the ancient culture of the Bible, human nature really hasn’t changed all that much.

In our story today, there are two sisters, the daughters of Laban, Leah and Rachel. Our translation says, “Leah’s eyes were lovely, and Rachel was graceful and beautiful. Jacob loved Rachel.” This just dosen’t get it right, and so you actually miss one of the main points. Most translations say that Leah’s eyes were weak or delicate. In other words, Leah had an eye disorder. She was either cross-eyed or she had some kind of astigmatism that made her squint. It would be more accurate to say, “Leah was an awkward looking wallflower, but Rachel was a real knock out with a killer body.” Naturally, Jacob likes the pretty one!

Aren’t you glad that we have outgrown this sort of thing, and we now live in a culture where the value and worth of women is not based on their physical appearance? Maybe this story is a bit more current than we care to admit…

Leah, lived her whole life in the shadow of her more beautiful and alluring younger sister. Jacob was utterly infatuated with Rachel, but Leah was invisible. Laban has to trick Jacob into marrying her. This is a bit of poetic justice by the way. Jacob, who tricked his father and stole his brother’s blessing is getting a taste of his own medicine. It’s hard not to see Laban’s explanation as a jab, “around here we don’t give to the younger before the elder.”

Jacob does eventually get to marry Rachel too, however, in return for another seven years of labor. These two sisters were married to one man, and they competed for his affection, but the text tells us that Jacob loved Rachel more. Leah, was desperate for her husband’s approval, but he loved Rachel more even though Leah was the sister that gave him more sons.

Jacob may have favored Rachel, but God favored Leah. The text says, “When the LORD saw that Leah was not loved, he enabled her to conceive, but Rachel remained childless.”

Leah was the girl that nobody wanted, but God loved her and he blessed her. God doesn’t judge by the same standards that the world judges. He doesn’t value the things that the world values. God is in the habit of taking the side of the powerless, the weak, and despised of the world.

Leah’s unhappy marriage should seem somewhat familiar to us from a couple chapters back. It is surprisingly reminiscent of Jacob’s upbringing. Although Jacob was the chosen of God, his father Isaac loved his twin brother Esau more.

Esau famously despised his birthright and handed it over to Jacob for a bowl of soup. Jacob and Esau are not so unalike in this regard. Jacob was born with the spiritual blessing of God, destined to be the bearer of God’s promise, and yet he despised this blessing and instead sought what his brother had. He wanted the inheritance and status that came with being the firstborn.

Esau had what Jacob wanted, his father’s love, his birthright, and his blessing. Rachel had what Leah wanted, the love and favor of her husband Jacob.
Both were able take what they wanted by deception, but it ultimately left them unfulfilled.
Isn’t it ironic? Leah and Jacob are so much alike, but Jacob only has eyes for Rachel. Leah is the wife that God provided, but she is not the wife that Jacob wanted.

God favors Leah first and more abundantly with children, but he doesn’t forget to show mercy to Rachel too. Although she struggles with infertility, she eventually has a son—who unsurprisingly is Jacob’s favorite—Joseph with his coat of many colors.

Together these two sisters, Leah and Rachel, are the mothers of the nation of Israel. We can trace their lineage and see how this story continues to ripple throughout the rest of the Biblical narrative.

Israel is God’s chosen people, the bearer of God’s blessing for the world, but they despise this birthright. They want instead what all the other nations have, a warrior king who will bring them glory and riches. In concession to this demand, God gives them King Saul, a descendant of Rachel. Like Rachel, he is very attractive with a very impressive stature. He is everything a nation would want in a king, but it all goes wrong and he is rejected by God.

In his place, God chooses one of the sons of Jesse—a descendant of Leah’s son Judah—named David. Of all Jesse’s son’s David is the least outwardly impressive, he is a young shepherd boy tending the flock, but God says,  “the LORD sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.”

It is from the Lineage of Leah, the tribe of Judah, the House of David, that God brings the Messiah Jesus Christ. The people are waiting for a worldly king and champion, someone to thrash their enemies, and restore the worldly glory and splendor of Israel. They want what Rome has, power, status, and the admiration of the world. Instead, they get a suffering Messiah of whom it is written,

He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.He was despised and rejected by mankind,a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.Like one from whom people hide their faceshe was despised, and we held him in low esteem. 

Jesus Christ was the messiah that God provided, but he was not the Messiah that Israel wanted.