The Sixth Day of Christmas: Joseph the Dreamer

Over the Christmas period, I am posting videos exploring biblical echoes and symmetries in the stories of the nativity in the gospels. In this sixth video I focus on the character of Joseph in Matthew.

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Welcome back. Over the course of the Christmas period, I am doing a series of videos on echoes and symmetries within the Nativity and infancy narratives of the gospels. To this point, I have mostly focused on Luke’s gospel, but now I want to focus more upon Matthew’s gospel, looking at some of the connections that we can see there.

One of the first things that we see within Matthew’s gospel is that Matthew’s gospel, unlike Luke, focuses upon the character of Joseph. Joseph is the one who is foregrounded within this text, whereas in Luke, it is Elizabeth and it is Mary that are foregrounded. Here, in Matthew’s gospel, we see Joseph front and centre. Now, Matthew’s gospel, like the other gospels, alludes back to the Old Testament—chiefly to the Book of Genesis.

And Matthew’s gospel, it could be argued, is structured according to the Old Testament canon more generally. It begins with the words “the book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham,” and that draws our minds back to Genesis as a book of genealogies. ‘The book of generations of such-and-such’ is a formula that we find within the book of Genesis. And so, these are familiar words. And then, that reference back to Abraham, as well, is significant in that context.

Likewise, when we reach the end of the book, it ends on Great Commission, which echoes quite closely the end of the Old Testament canon at the end of 2 Chronicles. If you read the final verse of 2 Chronicles, it should be obvious that there is some sort of allusion being made at this point.

Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: All the kingdoms of the earth the Lord God of heaven has given to me. And He has commanded me to build Him a house at Jerusalem which is in Judah. Who is there among you of all His people? May the Lord his God be with him, and let him go up!

It is a very similar structure. It is a similar sort of commission or sending forth. And so, you have Genesis to the end of 2 Chronicles, that whole canon of Scripture held together. And we also have allusions to that in Matthew 23: the blood of Abel, the first martyr, to Zechariah, son of Berechaiah—which is, again, in 2 Chronicles.

And so, these are significant framing events. Likewise, in the genealogy, the symbolic genealogy of forty-two—a time, times, and half a time (three and a half years) in months, a broken week of years, or six by seven. It is a significant number for the generations. There are generations missed out at this point. It is helpful to see that there is something more going on here.

In the genealogy that is given, there is an emphasis upon the women of Israel’s history, key women within Israel’s history. There is also a blocking of Israel’s story into Abraham to David, and then David to the exile, and from the exile to Christ. And that significant blocking of the history, again, provides a framework within which the gospel writer perceives the story of Israel. And so, all of this is background.

Then, into this scene, comes this character, Joseph, the son of Jacob. Now, we have met a character named Joseph the son of Jacob before. In the Old Testament, he is one of the characters that occupies the foreground in the whole of the end of the Book of Genesis. He is famous for his dreams and for leading the people into Egypt, protecting the people from being destroyed by the famine. And here again, we see a character named Joseph, who is a dreamer, a character who leads people into Egypt, and a character by whom people are saved and delivered from what would have been death otherwise.

He is also an Adam-type figure. He is a figure who protects the bride from the serpent—from Herod, who is seeking to kill the baby boys and seeking to kill Christ in particular. He protects them. And again, our focus narrowly upon Mary can often miss the fact that Joseph is an important figure. The beginning of Matthew’s story is told with an emphasis upon Joseph’s role within the narrative. Christ is given to a betrothed couple—not just to Mary alone, but to a betrothed couple. And that is significant, that Joseph was already in the picture. God was not just viewing Joseph as an inconvenience. Joseph was supposed to be part of the picture. Giving Joseph this child to be a father to is part of God’s intent. And Joseph is addressed as “the son of David” by the angel—that is significant, again—within the dream. He is addressed: “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.”

He is spoken to as a royal figure, and the son of David. It is not just any old title. It is something that suggests that he has some royal lineage. And it is treating him as a royal figure. He is someone, of course, who goes to Bethlehem. He is associated with Bethlehem. He is a man of David’s line.

And other things that we see about Joseph: he leads the people into Egypt. Just as Joseph brought his family into Egypt to protect them, so Joseph brings his family into Egypt to protect them. “The angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, ‘Arise, take the young Child and His mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word; for Herod will seek the young Child to destroy Him.’” There are these themes of the threat of the serpent to the woman and the child, and here comes Joseph as the true Adam figure who is protecting the child and the mother.

It helps us to see some of the deeper themes that are at play within these texts, because it goes all the way back to Genesis; the woman and her seed, and the seed of the woman being threatened by the serpent, and the woman being threatened by the serpent. And what is the role of Adam within this situation? He is supposed to be the priest, the guardian, the one who protects the woman and the seed. And these themes are deeply rooted within the text more generally. And so, when Pharaoh, or when Herod, or when some other figure plays the rule of the serpent, the figure of Adam, the figure of Joseph, the figure of Abraham—whoever it is—has to stand in the gap and has to protect the bride from the serpent.

Joseph is a very significant character. Joseph himself prefigures some of Christ’s life in various ways. Joseph, the Old Testament character, sold by his brothers, despised by his brothers, sent into Egypt. He is the one who is put in a pit and then raised up. He is the one who sits at the right hand of the leader of Egypt, and he is the one who rules and gives bread and life to people in a time of famine. His brethren are restored to him and he brings life. And these themes, in various ways, prefigure some of what Christ does. And so, Jesus, as the son of Joseph, is someone who takes on the character of Joseph, just as the Joseph of the gospel stories takes on some of the characteristics of the original Joseph. And what we see there, again, is these characters in the Old Testament—whether that is Abraham, whether it is David, whether it is Joseph, or whether it is even Adam himself—all of these characters are playing in the background and the patterns of their lives are worked out within these subsequent figures.

Early on in this series, in the first day, I discussed the connection between the character of Joseph at the beginning of the gospel account and the character of Joseph of Arimathea at the end. There is a Joseph and a Mary at the beginning of the Gospel—Joseph and his wife Mary, the parents of Christ. And then there is a Joseph and a Mary at the end: Joseph of Arimathea, who prepares the tomb for Christ, and Mary Magdalene with the other Marys. But these two figures, again, suggest that Joseph’s character is part of a bigger picture. He is a character that points out the deeper patterns that are at play within these texts. This gospel narrative of the Nativity is not something that is just a historical account and just a blow-by-blow account of what happened. It is something that shows forth a sort of musical pattern, a musicality to God’s work in history, which connects the beginning of Christ’s life with the end.

And the story of Israel is being played out here: Joseph leading his people into Egypt to protect them, the struggle with the serpent and a pharaoh-type figure, and then leading the child out of Egypt and into the Promised Land—a Moses-type figure at that point. Joseph plays the role of Moses as well, as we will see at some later point.

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