Book Review: From Prisoner to Prince, by Samuel Emadi
Samuel Emadi, From Prisoner to Prince: The Joseph Story in Biblical Theology. IVP Academic, 2022. 208 pages.
What if I told you that Joseph was a type of Christ even according to the strictest hermeneutical controls?
You might be eager to share my confidence, but you would still say, “prove it.” Then I would hand you a copy of Samuel Emadi’s volume, From Prisoner to Prince: The Joseph Story in Biblical Theology. This is what he claims to do for us in this recent volume of the New Studies in Biblical Theology series.
Skepticism around this claim is warranted. Faithful pastors desire to preach with authority, which demands drawing connections from Old Testament individuals in ways Scripture clearly warrants. Preaching Abraham, Moses, or David? Easy. The Old Testament prophets, together with the New Testament writers, plainly and repeatedly reveal how these figures prefigure Christ.
Joseph is—shall we say—a different story. Or so it seems. Joseph receives more attention in the book of Genesis than any other character, and yet he is scarcely mentioned in the rest of the Bible. Our gut tells us there has either been some mistake or that we are missing something. Surely there is more to Joseph’s story than exemplary character and an explanation for how Abraham’s children got to Egypt.
Certain correspondences between Joseph’s life and Christ’s seem apparent. But do we have biblical warrant to draw these connections in our teaching and preaching? Put another way, does the text of Scripture plainly establish God’s intention for Joseph as a pattern of the Christ to come?
MAKING THE CASE WITH BIBLICAL CONCRETE
Emadi’s concern is slightly broader than to argue that Joseph is a type of Christ. He wants to answer the question, “How should interpreters read the Joseph narrative in the context of the entire Genesis narrative and ultimately in canonical context?” (1). This appropriate first question leads him to the narrower subject of typology and Joseph. Emadi sets out to “demonstrate with concrete textual warrant” that Joseph has a predictive function in Genesis, that Old Testament authors develop this interpretation, and that New Testament authors present Jesus as the fulfillment of prophetic expectations established by Joseph (29).
I preached Genesis a few years ago. Neither on my own, nor with the help of many fine commentaries, did I make the kind of connections presented in From Prince to Prisoner. Emadi has put his hand to the textual plough to combine his own exegesis with the best insights of others for a compelling case for Joseph’s typological function—what we all sensed but needed a scholar to demonstrate.
What I have outlined below is Emadi’s work on how each aspect of the Abrahamic promise is furthered through Joseph.
- Joseph reverses the pattern of sibling rivalry that threatens the survival of Abraham’s seed giving way to fruitfulness and blessing for the nation and nations (75, 76, 79). Cain killed Abel. Joseph’s brothers attempted to kill their father’s beloved son. But Joseph trusted the Lord, forgave his brothers, and the family was reconciled (80).
- Joseph’s story takes place in Egypt, and yet Jacob and Joseph’s final words recorded in Genesis 49:29–50:26—linked through a chiasm framed by these last words—point forward with expectation for the family’s entrance into the land of Canaan (85, 86).
- Joseph’s rise in Egypt gives way to Jacob’s blessing of Pharoah in 47:7–10, and thus the world, a blessing mentioned twice, with reminders of Jacob’s age sandwiched in between to highlight the unlikely nature and significance of this moment.
In these ways, Joseph constitutes the resolution to the story of Genesis as its final act.
What of the fact that the messianic seed will not come from Joseph’s line? Is it not Joseph, the royal son of Jacob, who remains pure in the face of temptation (Gen. 37:5–11; 39:9; 42:4; 43:26, 28)? That’s a fair question. We have followed the seed, narrowing from father to son several times over from Abraham to Isaac to Jacob. With Joseph, however, the story widens to encompass Jacob’s family, his twelve sons, and the beginning of Israel as a nation. Joseph’s story doesn’t tell us where to look for the Messiah but the kind of Messiah to look for. In Jacob’s promise to Judah, that “your father’s sons shall bow down to you,” Moses makes explicit that Joseph’s royal rise is a pattern to inform our expectations concerning Judah’s royal seed (63). Joseph’s story is Israel’s story in miniature, the model for what is to come.
Later Old Testament authors pick up on these connections.
Psalm 105 forwards Joseph’s interpretation of his own life in Genesis 45:1–8 and 50:20, a story in which God works providentially through suffering and deliverance to ensure his covenant promises.
Daniel casts his own story in the pattern offered by Joseph’s life, one that includes numerous historical correspondences: both characters are Jews exiled in a foreign court, both are enlisted to serve government officials, and both serve in royal roles alongside royal figures and interpret dreams. There are just short of ten such correspondences (108, 109). If these connections are not convincing, then a chart with nineteen near exact verbal textual correspondences reveals Daniel’s way of ensuring that we see his story in the mold of Joseph’s (110, 111).
What is the payoff for Daniel’s subtle but clear literary and historical tie to Joseph? It is this: “Joseph died in exile but was laid to rest in Canaan. Israel’s exile is a death, but they too will come through it into the land of promise” (113).
Together, these two characters with corresponding stories stand at two sides of the Old Testament to frame our expectations concerning the kind of Messiah we should look for and the deliverance he will bring.
That’s a case for Joseph’s predictive typological function that gives me confidence to preach Joseph as pattern of the Christ.
Stephen agreed, and so did Luke who recorded his speech in Acts 7:9–16. Stephen’s speech before his Jewish captors—with its rehearsal of Israel’s history leading to his words, “As your fathers did, so do you” (7:51)—functions as an indictment, identifying them with those who rejected Joseph and Moses and Jesus before him. It is not Stephen who disparages the temple, but they who have crucified the new locus of God’s presence, the Christ (122). In this way, Stephen ties the whole narrative together with Joseph’s story as the story of Israel in miniature (133).
A METHODOLOGY FOR PREACHERS, A MESSAGE FOR GOD’S PEOPLE
Emadi set out to establish a textual basis for the typological nature of Joseph in the Bible’s story. I believe he has made his case.
In addition to Emadi’s conclusion concerning Joseph, I can think of two reasons to commend this book to pastors and teachers.
First, Emadi’s book is an example of theological method for church’s preachers and teachers.
Joseph is as misunderstood as he is familiar to most Christians. For this reason, Joseph is also a good test-case for a preacher’s theological method. Will we let apparent easy applications drive our exegesis and settle for an exhortation to forgive based on Joseph’s example? Or does God have something greater for our people in this story?
Emadi begins where every preacher must on our way to an answer, asking why Joseph is here, and then answering that question with studied attention to the literary and canonical—and specifically covenantal—context. Could there be a better test-case for such a discipline? Speaking personally, this book was a welcome boot-camp in theological method.
Second, Emadi’s work opens up a needed message from God for the church.
Some of us and some of our people will stand in the place of Stephen, who himself stood in the line of Jesus, who stood in the line of Daniel and Joseph before him. Stephen found strength to stay faithful to Jesus through a perspective on his moment that was shaped by the whole story of Scripture, a story patterned after the suffering and exaltation of another beloved son, an exile in a foreign court, whose bones speak to us concerning God’s faithfulness to his promises in life and in death.
OUR FIRM FOUNDATION, HIS EXCELLENT WORD, AND A PHONE CALL TO MY BROTHER
One final reflection is in order, and one for which my heart is welling up in thanksgiving as I write this.
The Bible never ceases to amaze me. But sometimes it takes some patience to get there. I recall Greg Beale’s answer years ago to a question concerning apparent contradictions in the Bible. An atheist and a Christian may look at the same difficult passage and say opposite things. One says there is an error, and the other says there’s a difficulty awaiting a solution. The liberal Bible scholar concedes the error without examination. But the evangelical scholar with a high view of Scripture keeps working away at the problem. Emadi only spends a few pages reviewing the way that literary critics engage Joseph. Suffice it to say, an easy answer to the apparent incongruity of the Joseph story with the rest of Genesis is to conclude that it was patched in. But Emadi has shown us otherwise, and he has done so with the help of many other scholars who have contributed their own part to his broader argument.
With these thoughts on my mind, I called my brother. He’s a pastor and preacher as well. We speak weekly and sometimes daily about our preaching labors. Curious as to how he might respond, I said, “What if I told you that Joseph was a type of Christ according to the strictest hermeneutical controls, what would you say?”
His reply? “Totally. You’ve got to read Sam Emadi’s book.”
I guess he got to it first. Now, it’s your turn.