Emphasizing the major themes in the Joseph narrativesuch as the sovereignty of God, suffering, temptation, forgiveness, and faithJohn Lennox applies the life of Joseph to readers’ lives today.
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About the Author
John C. Lennox(PhD, Cambridge University; DPhil, Oxford University) is professor emeritus of mathematics at the University of Oxford and an associate fellow of Oxford’s Said Business School. Lennox has published more than seventy scholarly papers and coauthored two research-level texts in mathematics. He is author of a number of books on the relations of science, philosophy, and biblical understanding, includingGunning for GodandAgainst the Flow.
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The Structure of Genesis
Complex lives have complex backgrounds, and Joseph's is no exception, so, before we start to think about the detail of the Joseph narrative, we need to step back and set it in the context of the rest of the book of Genesis in order to give depth to our understanding. Since the narrative of Joseph's life comes at the end of Genesis, that background is considerable. My view is that the Genesis background enriches the story considerably since the book is a unity. After all, the author of Genesis anticipates that you read all of the book and not just the last part.
As is the custom in that part of the world, Joseph would have grown up on a diet of stories of the great heroes of Israel's tribal history. He would have been steeped in the fascinating narratives of his father, Jacob, his grandfather Isaac, and his great-grandfather Abraham. But not only that — he would have been acquainted with their prehistory right back to the beginning. In other words, he would have known a good deal of the plotline of the book of Genesis, so it is there that we must begin, for we need to know some of what Joseph knew.
Genesis is more than a narrative. It is a metanarrative giving us a grand framework for our understanding of the universe and life.
In order to grasp its story — Genesis is, after all, a large book — it is helpful to have some idea of its literary shape. It turns out that the author uses a simple literary device in order to structure his material, the repetition at intervals of the phrase: "These are the generations of . . ." (the phrase occurs at 2:4; 5:1;6:9; 10:1; 11:10, 27; 25:12, 19; 36:1; 37:2). The six main sections the phrase indicates are: 1:1–2:4; 2:5–4:26; 5:1–9:29; 10:1–25:11; 25:12–35:29; and36:1–50:26. Several of the sections have more than one instance of the repeated phrase in order to delineate subsections.
The first part of the book consists of three sections that record the creation of human beings in the image of God. The second part of the book consists of three sections that cover the lives of the patriarchs. The first section in the second part ends with the death of Abraham, the second section with the death of Isaac, and the third section with the deaths of Jacob and Joseph.
Above all, Genesis tells us about the God in whom Joseph believed, the God he learned to trust.
Section 1: Creation (Genesis 1:1–2:3)
The book begins with the origin of the universe in the mind and creative energy of God: "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth" (1:1). This first majestic sentence undergirds and gives meaning to the developing saga that follows. It asserts that the universe we inhabit is a creation. The world did not generate itself. It did not spring into being spontaneously from nothing. God caused it to be.
By asserting the existence of a Creator, the opening words of Genesis constitute a frontal attack on the materialist atheist philosophy that dominates so much of the Western world today. That philosophy has a long history reaching back beyond the atomism of the ancient Greek thinkers Democritus and Leucippus to the essentially materialistic theogonies of the ancient Near East — the birthplace of the Genesis story.
The book of Genesis was penned long before the ancient Greek philosophers had begun to formulate the ideas that are typically taken to represent the beginnings of philosophy. The lofty monotheism of the ancient Hebrews predates the Greek philosophers by centuries, a fact that is often lost in the current attempt to validate naturalism or materialism as the only worldview that holds intellectual credibility. Furthermore, in contradistinction to the Greeks, the Hebrew thinkers did not have to purge their worldview of a pantheon of god-projections of the forces of nature for the simple reason that they never did believe in such gods in the first place. The God of the Hebrews was not a projection of any force of nature. He was the Creator without whom there would be no forces, or, indeed, any nature in the first place.
The current naive trend of dismissing the God of the Bible as just another of the ancient mythical gods completely fails to grasp this distinction. Werner Jaeger, an expert on the gods of the ancient Near East, makes the point that those gods were descended from the heavens and the earth whereas the God of the Bible created the heavens and the earth. This holds in particular for the gods of the land of Egypt, where Joseph spent most of his life.
This briefest of brief histories of time opens with an elegant and fast-flowing account of the creation of the universe and of life in all its marvelous variety. The creation and organization of the cosmos proceeds in a series of steps, each of which is initiated by God speaking: "And God said ..." These creative speech acts are summed up in the opening statement of the Gospel of John: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. ... All things were made through him" (John 1:1, 3). This is the way things are. The Word is primary; the material universe is derivative and not the other way around, as popular secularism imagines.
The final step that climaxes the sequence is God's creation of human beings in his own image. Though the heavens reflect the glory of God, human beings are made in God's image. Only humans are. Humanity is unique.
Just what being made in the image of God means and how special human beings are is gradually revealed as an integral part of the biblical storyline. However, several very important aspects of that "image" are communicated in the early chapters of Genesis. The first is that after the sequence of repetitions of the phrase "And God said," we read something strikingly different: "And God said to them: Be fruitful and multiply" (1:28). Human beings are the kind of creature that God can speak to. They can hear and understand his words — and respond to them. It is that verbal relationship that is central to the biblical storyline.
Section 2: Human Life and Death (Genesis 2:4–4:26)
In the second major section we are told much more about the nature of human life. Human beings have a material substrate — they are made of the dust of the ground. They possess an aesthetic sense; they live in a world whose trees have been created good to look upon. They inhabit an environment that they can both cultivate and explore. They can enjoy that special relationship between man and woman, a relationship of beings created with equal status but as complementary rather than identical.
With deft strokes the author builds up a picture of the various features that make human life remarkable. But there is one more feature yet to be mentioned. It is by far the most important and, once again, it has to do with the word of God. It is that God spoke to the humans about the nature of life in the garden. He gave them permission to eat of every tree in the garden except for one: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This tree was in the middle of the garden, along with another special tree, the tree of life, to which they also had free access. Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil God said: "In the day that you eat of it you shall surely die" (2:17).
There is much discussion among scholars as to the status and meaning of this portion of the story, and I must refer the reader to them for their comments. I wish to concentrate on what is often missed in such discussions: what the story is actually saying. For here we have a very clear, simple yet profound statement of the essence of morality — what it means to be a moral being. And morality is at the heart of the Joseph narrative.
First, the origin of morality, like the origin of the universe and of humanity, is to be found in God. This immediately brings to mind the famous statement of the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky in The Brothers Karamazov: "If God does not exist, then everything is permissible." Dostoyevsky was not, of course, suggesting that atheists are incapable of moral behavior. That would be a slanderous lie. After all, from the biblical perspective, all human beings are made in the image of God and so are moral beings, whether they believe in God or not. Hence atheists (or anyone else) can put others to shame by the quality of their moral behavior. Dostoyevsky was suggesting that there is no rational basis for morality if God does not exist, an issue that is as hotly debated today as is the parallel question of whether the universe itself is a creation of God or not. This book is not the right place to debate either of those issues.
What is important here is that morality involves the capacity to decide whether to obey an injunction. Genesis here traces the moral order to God, who placed the first humans in a garden and gave them permission to eat from all the trees in that garden with one exception — the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
It is obvious that the command not to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil would have been meaningless if humans were not free to eat it. Thus, although human beings are clearly restricted in innumerable ways (they are not free, for instance, to run at 100 miles per hour), it is surely evident that they were not created as predetermined robots. They had real choice; they could choose to obey or disobey God's word, to eat or refrain from eating the forbidden fruit. This capacity to choose between alternatives is often described (somewhat misleadingly) as "libertarian freedom."
This Genesis account goes to the heart of the age-old complex and often impassioned debate about determinism and free will or the parallel, though not completely identical, debate about the relationship between the sovereignty of God and human responsibility. It is to be noted that there are two separate questions here:
1. Does Scripture teach both that God rules and that humans have a certain degree of freedom?
2. If the answer is yes, how can this be so?
If we do not distinguish between these questions, there is a danger that failure to find a satisfactory answer to question 2 leads to reluctance to answer question 1 in the affirmative. This response is somewhat strange since there are many things in nature that we do not understand completely. For instance, it is well accepted by scientists that light behaves both like particles and waves. Understanding exactly how this works is another matter entirely.
We should note in passing that the assumption that human freedom is part of human dignity lies at the heart of all civilized societies. This is evidenced by the fact that such societies hold human beings responsible and answerable for their actions, hence the existence of legal institutions and procedures for law enforcement.
The analogy from science cited above may suggest a possible approach to the question of divine sovereignty and human freedom, and that is to see how they actually work out in the details of everyday life as recorded in Scripture. It is no accident that in connection with this issue the New Testament directs our attention specifically to the latter part of Genesis and the accounts of Isaac, Jacob, and their sons (see Romans 9–11). It will, therefore, be part of our story.
More in due course. For now the important thing to grasp is that the central feature of morality as described in the Genesis account is that it focuses on obedience to the word of God. By this, I mean that the humans had only God's word to tell them that eating the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was potentially lethal. So the key question for them was simply this: Were they prepared to trust God's word? That was the thrust of the Serpent's temptation: "Did God actually say ...?" (Gen. 3:1).
The Serpent represented God as repressive and tyrannical: "You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil" (3:4–5). This was a devilishly clever half-truth in its appeal to the apparently irresistible aesthetic and intellectual desirability of the one forbidden fruit in the beautiful garden.
The first humans took the fruit, ate it and died — not at once in the physical sense, but that would eventually follow, for death is the unweaving of life. Life at its highest is a moral and spiritual relationship with God that is bound up with trust in and obedience to his word. So, according to an inexorable logic, death began with the disruption of that relationship. However, it did not end there. Aesthetic and physical death followed in due course, but death had begun its cruel tyranny, and the humans fled the presence of God. And, one might add, we have been running and hiding ever since.
Indeed, the topic of deception runs through the whole biblical storyline. In particular, it will form an important part of the story of Joseph, son of Jacob whose very name means "deceiver."
The biblical account of the way in which sin entered the world and brought disaster is not without its objectors. Indeed, many people not only refuse to take it seriously but also think that it presents a concept of God as repressive and anti-intellectual, determined to keep humans enslaved in naive and unworthy dependence. I wish to suggest that this is culpable misrepresentation arising through failure to read carefully exactly what the text of Genesis says.
Nowhere is this misrepresentation more publicly evident than in a fascinating piece of outdoor art on the campus of the University of California at San Diego. It is called Snake Path and was conceived and executed by well-known artist Alexis Smith. It forms part of the Stuart Collection, the website of which informs us that Snake Path
consists of a winding 560-foot-long, 10-foot-wide footpath in the form of a serpent, whose individual scales are hexagonal pieces of colored slate, and whose head is inlaid in the approach to the Geisel Library. The tail wraps around an existing concrete pathway as a snake would wrap itself around a tree limb. Along the way, the serpent's slightly crowned body circles around a small "garden of Eden" with several fruit trees including a pomegranate. There is a marble bench with a quote from Thomas Gray: "Yet ah why should they know their fate / When sorrow never comes too late / And happiness too swiftly flies / Thought would destroy their Paradise / No more, where ignorance is bliss, tis folly to be wise." The path then passes a monumental granite book carved with a quote from Milton's Paradise Lost: "And wilt thou not be loath to leave this Paradise, but shalt possess a Paradise within thee, happier far."
The website further explains:
These pointed allusions to the biblical conflict between innocence and knowledge mark an apt symbolic path to the University's main repository of books. The concept of finding sanctuary within oneself — outside the idealistic and protected confines of the university — speaks directly to the student on the verge of entering the "real world."
However, the tree in the biblical account of the garden of Eden was not the tree of knowledge. It was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which is a completely different matter. The snake did not open up a path to the myriad kinds of knowledge that we associate with a university that could lead to human flourishing but only to one specific kind of knowledge — the knowledge of good and evil. That knowledge, gained by the first humans, was grim, dark, and painful and led to a rupture between them and God. That was not human flourishing; it was death in the making.
When the website claims that the Snake Path contains "pointed allusions to the biblical conflict between innocence and knowledge," the idea here seems to be that God holds people captive in a state of ignorance, withholding from them the knowledge that would lead to the realization of their full potential. This erroneous idea is the seedbed of much atheism. But it is a completely false reading of Genesis. Indeed, the idea that innocence was in the garden and knowledge outside it is the very opposite of the truth, as the biblical story makes very clear.
As we have seen, Genesis 2 describes how the garden was designed to be the place where the humans could develop their creative potential. The tragedy is that misreading this story has led to the perpetuation of the slander that God is the enemy of human flourishing rather than its author.
The Seed Project
To the Serpent that deceived the humans with that lie God says:
I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
and you shall bruise his heel. (Gen. 3:15)
It is a judgment, but it also forms the basis for an astonishing expectation for the future. By promising that the offspring of the woman is to triumph, God is declaring that humanity is not finished — far from it. The human story will be complex and full of frustration and difficulty; nevertheless, says God, a human will ultimately defeat the enemy.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Joseph"
Copyright © 2019 John C. Lennox.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Part 1 The Broader Context in Genesis
1 The Structure of Genesis 15
2 The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob 27
3 Isaac and His Sons 33
4 Jacob and Family Return to the Promised Land; Meeting God and Esau 47
5 Jacob in Shechem; the Violation of Dinah 61
Part 2 Joseph, his Father, and his Brothers
6 Preliminary Considerations 73
7 The Genesis of Hatred 79
8 The Brothers' Revenge 93
9 Judah's Family Life 101
10 An Introduction to Egypt 105
11 Joseph in the House of Potiphar 113
12 Joseph and Potiphar's Wife 125
13 Joseph in Prison 137
14 Joseph's Rise to Power 147
15 The Path of Forgiveness and Reconciliation, Act 1 163
16 The Nature of Forgiveness 171
17 The Path of Forgiveness and Reconciliation, Act 2 185
18 The Path of Forgiveness and Reconciliation, Act 3 191
19 Israel Comes To Egypt 201
20 The Last Days of Israel and Joseph 211
Appendix 1 Major Divisions of Ancient Egyptian History 221
General Index 223
Scripture Index 229
What People are Saying About This
“Deep, rich, and nourishingJoseph is vintage Lennox. He has the rare gift of opening life as well as the biblical text, so that we come away understanding God’s ways more clearly and trusting him more fully.”
Os Guinness,author, The Call
“I thought I really knew the story of Josephbut was thrilled by the fact that in chapter after chapter, there were so many fresh insights. If you don’t believe me, just turn to the chapter on Joseph and Potiphar’s wife. John Lennox has written a riveting commentary on one of the timeless characters of the Bible.”
Rico Tice, Senior Minister (Evangelism), All Souls Church, London
“You may think this story is familiar, but again and again Lennox brings forth new gems in this expert guide through Joseph’s dysfunctional family history. Despite the depth of tragedy, God brought hope.”
Peter J. Williams,Principal, Tyndale House, Cambridge; author,Can We Trust the Gospels?
“Joseph is a powerful word for us today. Joseph is tested and trained through suffering and broken relationships to become a forgiving brother, son, and leader, and his relationship with God is not only a stabilizing factor but a sustaining force in his life. Throughout the book, we see how a man with a transformative relationship with God can be used by God in all areas of his life: family, work, bondage, business, government, and faith. Lennox skillfully looks back to the ancestors of Joseph to show how history was repeating in his family, and he looks forward to the life of Jesus to give us hope.”
Bob Shettler, Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, Gainesville, Florida
“John Lennox, a renowned scientist and Oxford professor, is also a remarkable, gifted expositor and Bible teacher. I had the pleasure of hearing this material when it was initially presented to a large group of European leaders, and I heartily commend it. The deep spiritual understanding and careful research that Lennox brings to Joseph’s story will bring rich dividends to the reader.”
Luder G. Whitlock Jr., Executive Director, CNL Charitable Foundation, Inc.; Former President and Professor Emeritus, Reformed Theological Seminary; author, Divided We Fall and The Spiritual Quest