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The Best Retelling of the Jesus Story Isn’t from Narnia or Harry Potter
The problem with well-known stories is that they grow dull through familiarity. When narratives become part of the cultural fabric—think Romeo and Juliet, Cinderella, or Hamlet—they may retain their charm, but they will usually lose their edge. So creative people find ways of retelling them that capture the drama and basic storyline of the original, but with a twist. Move Romeo and Juliet to New York, and you get West Side Story. Turn Cinderella into a prostitute, and you get Pretty Woman.
The most obvious example is the best-known story of all. No matter how well we know the gospel, we can find new perspectives: Aslan dying for Edmund, Jean Valjean’s encounter with grace in Les Miserables, or Harry Potter taking the killing curse upon himself before the resurrection stone brings him back to life. But the best examples of fresh reads on the gospel come not from fiction but from Scripture itself.
Take the story of Joseph, for instance. As we are introduced to him in Genesis 37, Joseph, like Jesus, is favored by his father, honored in front of his family, and given a vision of the whole of Israel worshiping him. This prompts jealousy and hatred from his brothers, who conspire to kill him, even as he comes to serve them. Reuben intercedes for him, as Pilate later will for Jesus, but Joseph is eventually thrown into a pit anyway and sold for pieces of silver through the mediation of Judah (whose name, in its Greek form, would be Judas). Blood is presented to Joseph’s father—the blood of a goat, the animal which makes atonement in Leviticus.
The parallels continue in Genesis 39. After he avoids being murdered out of jealousy, Joseph finds safety in Egypt. As he grows older, all that he does prospers because God is with him. He fights temptation and wins. Nevertheless, he is accused of doing something he did not do and is unjustly imprisoned. Throughout his ordeal, we are told, “the Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love” (39:21, ESV throughout).
In Genesis 40, Joseph is sandwiched between two criminals. One is a baker, a maker of bread; the other is a cupbearer, a server of wine. Joseph prophesies the salvation of one and the death of the other, when they look virtually identical to us, just as Jesus will promise one of the criminals, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Joseph remains faithful, despite suffering injustice. He waits for God to raise him up.
When, in Genesis 41, Joseph is finally vindicated, he emerges from the pit with a new face and new clothes (41:14). So does Jesus. Joseph’s appearance is immediately hailed as good news for the nation: Pharaoh says, “Can we find a man like this, in whom is the spirit of God?” (41:37). It is the same with Jesus. Joseph is exalted to the right hand of the highest authority (like Jesus), with emissaries sent before him (like us), crying out to all who can hear, “Bow the knee!” (41:43). The result is blessing for the world in fulfillment of the promise to Abraham, as we find in Jesus. The world comes hungry to Joseph and finds that he is the only one who can provide food that satisfies. In a far greater and more lasting way, we discover the same thing in Jesus, the Bread of Life.
Connections like this help us make more sense of the Joseph story, and they open up new angles on the Jesus story. At the same time, they hint at other, subtler lessons. Joseph feeds the nations, and only then, after a protracted back-and-forth, is he reconciled with his Israelite brothers. Does this prepare us for Paul’s argument that the salvation of the Gentiles will, after a time, lead to the salvation of Israel?
Whatever we make of that, it is hard to miss the punchline of the Joseph story, and the way in which it anticipates the Jesus story. In the last two paragraphs of Genesis, Joseph looks back and says to those who persecuted him: You meant this for evil, but God meant it for good, that many should be saved (50:20). As Jesus looks back across history, and particularly at his betrayal and crucifixion, he can say the same thing. In the end, God wins.
Andrew Wilson is teaching pastor at King’s Church London and author of the forthcoming Echoes of Exodus (Crossway). Follow him on Twitter @AJWTheology.
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