Keyword:

Light from the Sidra

Vayeshev (Hanukkah)

Genesis 37:1 - 40:23; Zechariah 2:14 - 4:7

The rabbis encountered a considerable problem when it came to understanding what the Tanakh teaches about the Messiah. There appears to be two irreconcilable strands of revelation in the Hebrew Scriptures. The second Psalm, for example, reveals the Davidic Messiah as the Son of God to whom God promises the nations as his inheritance. A similar picture is painted in Psalm 110; the Messiah, full of the dew of his youth, is revealed as the head of an immense army of volunteers, seated at the right hand of God until all his enemies become his footstool.

But another line of teaching presents a Messiah who suffers unjustly and dies ignominiously. Passages such as Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53 are the best known. The rabbis were at a loss to reconcile these apparently contradictory portraits of Israel’s Redeemer and they developed the theory of two Messiahs. The victorious conqueror of the nations would be Mashiach ben David, not simply someone descended from Israel’s greatest king but a man of the same spirit and calibre.


Messiah ben Joseph

But what biblical role model is there for a suffering Messiah? The pages of the Hebrew Bible are replete with accounts of men of God who suffered unjustly: Abraham, Isaac, Moses and many of the prophets, particularly Jeremiah. Even King David suffered rejection by the nation when Absalom raised an army against him. The rabbis, however, saw elements in the life of Joseph that not only set him apart from other biblical martyrs but also foreshadowed the suffering Mashiach ben Joseph. Our Sidra reveals some of the ways in which Joseph is a model for the Messiah.

In Genesis 37:3 Joseph is portrayed as the favourite son of his father, so much so that Jacob presented his son with a coat of many colours. In the ancient Near East a robe of many colours was a robe of royalty (in 2 Samuel 13 all David’s daughters wear multi-coloured coats). In view of the fact that the character and behaviour of Jacob’s other sons left something to be desired and that it had not yet been revealed to the patriarch that Judah would be the royal line, Jacob probably saw Joseph as the best candidate for kingship. Joseph’s prophetic dreams reinforced that hope but, needless to say, his brothers resented the pretensions of their precocious kid brother.

The resentment of the brothers finally boiled over into murderous hatred when their father sent Joseph from Hebron to Shechem to see how they were. No doubt Jacob was afraid for his sons. Judah and Levi had slaughtered the men of Shechem to avenge the rape of their sister Dinah. If there had been any survivors they might organise a revenge attack on the murderers of their people. Joseph’s visit was to seek the welfare of his brothers and it involved personal danger in view of where he was going and that he was going alone. Rashi suggests that Joseph knew that his brothers “had gone from any brotherly feeling” towards him but that, out of concern for them and with no thought for his own safety, he still went to meet them.


“He came to his own…”

In the past Joseph had been a talebearer. He had told Jacob what his brothers got up to while tending sheep away from home and now Israel’s sons imagined Joseph had been sent to spy on them. Within minutes they arrived at a cold, ruthless decision to kill their brother. Through the intervention of Reuben Joseph’s life was spared but Judah sold him into the hands of Gentile traders. As far as the brothers were concerned Joseph was, to all intents and purposes, dead.

What relevance has this to the Messiah? What details in these chapters led the ancient rabbis to postulate a Messiah who would conform to the pattern of Joseph. We will probably never know for sure but we do know from other portions of the Hebrew Bible that the Messiah would be rejected and killed by his own people. Isaiah 53, for example, speaks of the Messiah as “despised and rejected” by his own people, imprisoned without justice and led like “a lamb to the slaughter”. But it is in the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth that we see the parallels most closely.

Jesus is portrayed in the New Testament as the beloved son of his heavenly Father who was sent into the world because of God’s concern for our eternal welfare. In the Gospel of John, we read that, “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life” (3:16). The same Gospel says that the Messiah “came to his own [the Jewish people], and his own did not receive him” (1:11-12). Just like Joseph, Jesus also was sold and handed over to Gentiles by another Judah for a similar amount of silver (Gospel of Matthew 26:14, 15; 27:1-2).

But just as God used the evil of Joseph’s brothers to bring about their salvation so, too, the death of Jesus was part of the plan of God to save Israel and the world. Joseph figuratively came back from the dead and his brothers were happy to bow the knee to him because, through their brother whom they once despised and rejected, they would be saved. The judicial murder of Jesus, though inexcusable, was no tragic accident; God was working behind the scenes using the evil of men to accomplish his purposes.


Pause for Thought:
  • If I were one of Joseph’s older brothers, how would I have reacted to his dreams of exaltation above the rest of the family, including father and mother?

  • Would I have agreed with the decision of the rest of my brothers to sell him into slavery?

  • What is my attitude to Messiah? Have I “believed [Isaiah’s] report” about him (53:1) or do I “despise and reject” him (53:3)?

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