There are many strands to this magnificent history. When the nation divided after the death of Solomon, for example, ten tribes formed the nation of Israel, but two tribes remained loyal to the house of David: Judah and Benjamin (1 Kings 12:21). Judah was always the pledge of Benjamin’s safety, with all the Messianic strands of that history. That is the outcome of the Genesis narrative, in which Judah becomes the first person in Scripture ‘who willingly offers his own life for another’ (Waltke, Genesis, p567).
The final quarter of the book of Genesis is taken up with the familiar narrative of Joseph. Although he is the most prominent actor in the closing drama of Genesis, the account of his history is headed ‘These are the generations of Jacob’ (Genesis 37:2); the story of Joseph has as its theme to tell us what God was doing in the family of Jacob.
The narrative of Joseph is so striking that some people regard him as a type of Christ. There is much parallelism between the life of Joseph and the life of Christ: there is a betrayal; pieces of silver are exchanged; there is humiliation followed by a kind of resurrection and exaltation; there is elevation to glory and subsequent administration; the government is on the shoulders of Joseph following his extraordinary rise; he alone is the dispenser of riches in an Egypt ravished by famine.
But does parallelism warrant a typology? There is certainly much evangelical mileage in the parallel; but I question whether there is typology, rightly understood. For one thing, there are few references to Joseph in the New Testament. He is mentioned in the testimony of Stephen in Acts 7:9-18, and in Hebrews 11:22 with reference to the faith of Joseph on his deathbed. And there is an incidental reference to the number of the tribe of Joseph in Revelation 7:8.
Beyond that, however, the New Testament is silent on Joseph. If New Testament interpretation of the Old is the key to typology, references to Joseph are overtaken by reference to another son of Jacob, who is just as significant in the narrative: the character of Judah.
All typology is derived from the promise of a Saviour, an anointed One who would crush the head of the serpent. If things in the Old Testament are typological, it is because they take their significance from the One who is the fulfillment of that promise. It is evident, says the New Testament, that our Lord was descended from Judah (Hebrews 7:14), not Joseph. Jesus is the lion of the tribe of Judah (Rev 5:5). If, therefore, we are to do justice to the organic nature of revelation, we must do justice to the place of Judah in the Genesis narrative.
We are introduced to Judah as the fourth son of Jacob and Leah in Gen 29:35 (with a summary in Gen 35:23). The narrative of Genesis 37 begins with a conspiracy among the brothers, who hate Joseph. They plan to kill him, until Reuben, the firstborn, intervenes to spare Joseph’s life (37:21). When the Ishmaelites appear, Judah suggests that Joseph should be sold: ‘what profit is it if we kill our brother… let us sell him… for he is our brother’ (37:26-7).
There is irony and hypocrisy in these words. ‘Let us sell him because he is our brother’!. That is not how brothers ought to be; it is unnatural. Yet Judah’s intervention does preserve Joseph’s life, and is one of the means by which Joseph is brought into Egypt.