Review: The Cambridge Introduction to Biblical Hebrew

I’m about halfway through this book, and I can say without hesitation that it is the worst language book I have ever had the misfortune to use. It is clear that Webster wrote the book as a complement to his own lectures, and it is possible it works better in that context.1 As a standalone text, however, the book is remarkably badly done. The problems are manifold.

Webster often uses terms without explaining them, or explains them only after he has been using them for the majority of a chapter. Especially when introducing terms almost certain to be unfamiliar to the reader, this is terrible form. A case in point: Webster spends three or four pages discussing the morphological differences between stative and fientive verbs before he defines the two—despite the fact that “fientive” is a term used almost exclusively for Hebrew and therefore certainly outside the knowledge of first-year students. This is typical of his usage throughout the book.

Similarly, Webster will sometimes provide the most useful high-level explanations only after having led the student through the lowest level of details sans any context whatsoever. For example, rather than giving a brief overview of the verb system and then introducing specific patterns within it, Webster provides the overview at the end of a chapter full of nitty-gritty details of one of the verb forms. This gets it completely backwards.

Webster focuses on morphology to the exclusion of actual usage. His examples of usage are few and brief, while his discussions of the changes are lengthy and overwrought. Morphology is incredibly important, and Hebrew morphology is admittedly complex. However, complex changes in word structure are difficult to remember when one has something to which to attach them mentally. The task becomes nearly impossible for most students when the morphological rules are left in the abstract.

The exercises are often frustratingly difficult and obtuse, not least because Webster (or whoever wrote the exercises on his behalf) frequently includes vocubulary terms and grammatical patterns that have (a) not yet been defined or explained, (b) been defined in a single off-hand reference and are not available in reference pages (especially frustrating for vocabulary), or (c) are exceptions to the established patterns, and no explanation is supplied. Nearly every set of exercises contains at least one of these issues, and most contain multiple examples.

Webster’s approach to learning vocabulary is painful, to say the least. He frequently groups similar-sounding but entirely-unrelated words in the same list. He sometimes provides the same word in different forms in different vocabulary lists, and does not note that they are the same word. In the first chapter, apparently to complement his own particular teaching approach, he lists the vocabulary in no particular order at all—not grouped by word type, and not alphabetized. In all subsequent chapters, the words are alphabetized—except when they are separated by word type. As noted above, he sometimes provides words in discussions in the chapter, but does not include them in the vocabulary lists, and then includes them in the exercises.

The typography and layout of the text is horrifyingly amateurish. The book seems to have been printed directly from Microsoft Word manuscripts, left entirely unadjusted: it is on 8½×11ʺ pages, set in 12 pt Times New Roman double spaced. There is no vertical rhythm whatsoever, and no visual hierarchy to speak of: the headings are all at the same size, weight, and relative position on the page. The result is a book that is nearly impossible to read, but which is equally unsuitable for reference, with perhaps the exception of the referenc echarts in the back. (I will be writing up a short blog post separate from this review to demonstrate the issues visually—as well as to show how straightforward it is to fix the issues for anyone who cares to try.)

The only redeeming feature of the material—the included CD—is itself problematic.

  1. The material is small enough to have been much more sensible to make available via download, rather than encumbering the book with an increasingly archaic format (as was the case even at the time of the book’s publication, and still more so now). Further, this would have made updates straightforward and simple—as opposed to impossible

  2. The material was distributed in possibly the worst technological choice available: Adobe Flash. Flash is now essentially dead, because its capabilities have been largely matched by other web technologies, but even at the time the software was distributed it was known to be a poor choice for this kind of application. The software is easily the worst battery drain of any software I use on my device—I can run a Windows virtual machine, an integrated development, two browsers, and iTunes simultaneously on my Mac without draining my battery as quickly as this single program does.

  3. The typographical and design choices here are more amateurish than those in the main textbook. The primary English typeface in use is the much-derided Comic Sans. Navigation through the program is wildly inconsistent: keyboard shortcuts that work in one area do not in another, or produce different behavior. Visual cues (like arrows) similarly mean different things in different places. There are no tooltips to aid navigation through the program, so most of the paths to various parts of the program can only be discovered through trial and error.

In short, Webster’s text is a disaster on nearly every front. The pedagogy is atrocious, and the book and CD are both uniquely terrible at a technical level. I am stunned this made it through editorial in its current form, I cannot recommend it in any way. I am sure Webster meant well, and no doubt he is a decent fellow and in all probability a good teacher. As noted in the beginning of the review, it seems likely that as a complement to his own lectures, the book may work well. As a standaone textbook, however, The Cambridge Introduction to Biblical Hebrew is a failure—a pedagogical, technical, and typographical disaster.


  1. Alas, no: a friend who has taken Webster’s class informs me that he actually failed the class, largely due to the book, which he noted “makes no sense whatsoever”—an unfortunately accurate description of the book from my point of view. 

Predestination, the Atonement, and Perseverance Among the Reformers

This short essay was written for Church History: Reformation to Modernity. I trust it will at least not bore you to tears.

The first hundred years of the Reformation saw the rapid proliferation of a wide variety of views on the nature of salvation, and thus the most thorough development of the doctrine of soteriology in history. Luther and Zwingli both dealt with the topic to some extent, (re)introducing the notion of justification by faith alone and righteousness by imputation. It was not until the second and following generations of the Reformation, however, that the particular issues of predestination, the extent of the atonement, and perseverance of the saints became significant issues for debate. Once they had come up, however, the topics became painfully divisive in the Reformed tradition, leading to schism over and over again in the centuries that followed. Did God actively elect the saints to heaven and preserve them while actively electing the reprobate to hell (double predestination), actively elect the saints to heaven and preserve them while simply allowing the reprobate to continue on their rebellious course for hell (single predestination), or passively elect the saints on the basis of his foreknowledge of their free choice and perseverance? Was the atonement intended to extend to all men, or only to some; and was its effect applied generally or only specifically to the elect?

At the fount of the discussion stood John Calvin. Calvin argued for an Augustinian view of the means of salvation. Interestingly, though approaching the issues of predestination, the extent of the atonement, and perseverance in the generally more systematic Institutes of the Christian Religion than Augustine ever had, he ultimately was little less ambiguous than the Father had been. With Augustine, he clearly affirmed predestination, and with Augustine it is unclear whether he affirmed single or double predestination. Similarly, there are currents in his writing that suggest both general and limited views of the atonement. The topics are simply never addressed clearly in his writings, for it was the Institutes that prompted future generations to answer these questions. On perseverance, however, he was clearer: God does preserve all the elect and all those who have made credible professions of faith and are seeking to walk with God may be confident of their salvation.

Calvin’s immediate heir in Geneva, Theodore Beza, set about further systematizing Calvin’s doctrine in the many years between Calvin’s death and his own. He affirmed double predestination, establishing it as a position with lasting influence in the Reformed tradition to this day. In consequence, he also clearly affirmed the perseverance of the elect—but, curiously, he also broke with Calvin by rejecting assurance and suggesting that Christians ought to regularly question their salvation. He also clearly articulated the limited atonement position, arguing decisively that God intended Christ’s death only for the elect.

Beza’s most famous student, Jacob Arminius, was also his most famous opponent. In the latter years of his life, the Dutch pastor-turned-professor began openly questioning the reigning Bezan interpretation of Calvin. Against Beza, Arminius claimed that the atonement was unlimited and applied to all men, not only the elect. Further, he rejected both single and double predestination and argued that God’s choosing of the elect was based on their free choice and perseverance to the end of their lives. Thus, in his view, God did not cause salvation in a monergistic act that decisively changed a human’s heart, but supplied prevenient grace that enabled all men to respond to the gospel when it was preached. This in turn led him to argue that perseverance was also not guaranteed by God, but dependent on the continuing effort and faithfulness of men: the elect were those who persevered, not those whom God kept from falling away. Like Beza, Arminius claimed he was the true heir to Calvin’s theology.

Moise Amyraut sought to find a middle way that recognized both God’s sovereign election and a general atonement. Thus, he embraced single predestination (against Beza’s more radical double predestinarian position), and accordingly embraced a robust view of God’s sustaining the believer to persevere. On the other hand, he agreed with Arminius that the atonement was in at least some sense general and intended for all men. Since he nonetheless acknowledged God’s predestination of some men, Amyraut posited two wills in God. One was the public will, that all men be saved, which corresponded with the intended universal extent of the atonement. The other was his secret, electing will, which corresponding with the actual, limited effect of the atonement. He acknowledged that his view was less logically tight than either Arminius’ or Beza’s formulations, but maintained that his was the most Scriptural (as well, unsurprisingly, as the one most in line with Calvin).

I find Calvin and Amyraut’s restraint on the topic admirable. There are too many passages in Scripture which speak of God’s will that all men be saved for me to embrace double predestination, and too many passages that speak clearly of God’s special election of the saints based not on anything in man but solely in his gracious will for me to embrace Arminius’ views. There is clearly a degree of tension in (our ability to understand) Scripture’s teaching on these matters, and so it seems to me that restraint is best. I thus find myself a Calvinist who holds the five points confidently but with strong sympathies for Amyraut’s position and even stronger sympathies for his recognition that the Scriptures do not present us with a tidy explanation of this difficult topic. With Calvin, I refuse to make predestination the centerpiece of my theology, preferring rather to focus on the glory of God and the life of the church.

Zwingli and Luther: A Comparison

This short essay was written for Church History: Reformation to Modernity. I trust it will at least not bore you to tears.

Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli stand at the heads of two of the most influential streams of Protestant theology—the Lutheran and Reformed traditions, respectively. While the two men were united in their opposition to Roman Catholic doctrines and agreed on many doctrinal issues, they also differed so substantially in a few points of their theology that they were unable to unite their movements in a single front against Roman Catholicism.

Luther and Zwingli both emphasized justification by faith alone and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believers. Both rejected the Catholic doctrines of papal authority, purgatory, priestly celibacy, veneration of saints, Marian devotion, and transubstantiation. Both affirmed sola Scriptura and the necessity and centrality of preaching in the life of the congregation. They affirmed similar views of the atonement and embraced an Augustinian, monergistic understanding of salvation and regeneration. They both wrestled with the question of infant baptism but ultimately affirmed it for political reasons. In the political sphere, both embraced the idea of the Territorial Church, in which the religious views embraced by the magistrates of a given region were to be enforced upon the citizens of that region (making both both “Magisterial Reformers”).

These wide-ranging points of agreement notwithstanding, the two not only could not unite their movements but considered each other heretics. To begin, they embraced substantially different views of the New Testament’s teaching on worship services. Luther took the view that the New Testament’s explanation of the practice of the early church is descriptive, not prescriptive (the so-called “normative principle of worship”). Zwingli understood the New Testament descriptions of the early church’s worship to be prescriptive and binding on the church: anything not explicitly described or enjoined of believers in the New Testament was verboten. Thus, Luther retained much of the language and many of the trappings of the traditional Catholic service, including calling it the Mass, and left decorations and instrumental music in place. Zwingli excluded instrumental music, white-washed the walls of his church, destroyed all icons, and referred to the Eucharist not as the Mass but by its biblical name, the Lord’s Supper. Luther continued to embrace much Tradition as genuinely good and valuable, even if not binding at the same level as Scripture; Zwingli rejected almost all Tradition, moving beyond sola Scripture almost to the point of solo Scriptura.

Most significant of the differences between Zwingli and Luther was their difference on the question of the Lord’s Supper. They differed not only on what to call the eucharist, but also (and much more importantly) on what was happening when the elements were offered to the congregation. While both rejected the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, Luther continued to embrace the doctrine of Real Presence, arguing that Jesus is especially present in the elements. Zwingli, on the other hand, rejected Real Presence and embraced a memorial view, arguing that Christ is seated at the right hand of God the Father. Insofar as Christ might be especially present in communion, he said, it was only by the presence of his Spirit with the church—not physically, as Luther asserted.

This division proved decisive in their break with each other, as it represented not only a difference on the Lord’s Supper but a difference in Christology. Though they were arguing over which words in the institution should receive the emphasis (“this is my body” or “do this in remembrance of me”), they were also arguing over how Christ as the God-man is present everywhere. Luther emphasized the divinity of Christ, noting his omnipresence. Zwingli emphasized the humanity of Christ, noting his especial presence at the right hand of the Father and arguing that his omnipresence is now through the Spirit. Both men died considering the other a heretic because they took this issue of Christology so seriously.

I find Luther more persuasive in some areas and Zwingli in others. Luther’s approach to worship (the normative principle) seems to be the more Scriptural of the two, since there is no injunction in the New Testament against innovation in form or contextualization. Thus, Zwingli’s emphasis on the New Testament as finally authoritative would seem to militate against his stated views on worship practice, though his caution about unauthorized forms of worship is well-taken and many churches would do well to heed it more thoughtfully. On the other hand, I find Zwingli’s emphasis on the continuing humanity of Christ, and thus the continuation of the everywhere-but-especially-somewhere theme so common of God’s presence through Scripture, the most satisfying view of the Lord’s Supper. Indeed, the view of Spiritual Presence that Zwingli tentatively expressed in some letters later in life, and which Calvin further developed most closely matches my own position. Yet, again with Luther, I affirm the importance of much of the Tradition, and with him I also see preaching as secondary to Communion in the gathering of the people of God (though only just).

Introduction to the Bible

For some time now, I have thought it would be useful to have a simple introduction to the Bible handy. I have had a number of conversations with people who have had little exposure to the Bible and don’t know where to start. This is that guide. (I am sure there are other guides, and probably better ones, out there—but as I do not know of them, I hope this will be helpful to someone!)

Note: This is currently a work-in-progress. I am updating it daily as I fill out the various sections.

Overview

The Bible is a single volume, but it is composed of many different books. Most English versions have 66 different books within them.[1] The Bible is broken down into two major sections, the Old Testament and the New Testament. The Old Testament comprises about 75% of the material in the Bible, and spans the period from the creation of the world up until just about 400 B.C. It focuses on the doings of the Jewish people from ancient times.[2] The New Testament, which makes up the remaining 25% or so of the book, focuses on Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and then the birth of Christianity out of Judaism, all within the first century A.D.

The books in the Bible start with Genesis and end with Revelation (see below for a full list). Each book is further divided into chapters and verses to make it easier to find one’s place. (Technically, all books are divided into at least verses, and almost all of them are also divided into chapters, but a few are only a single chapter long.) So if someone tells you to turn to Genesis 1:1, they mean to look at the first verse of the first chapter in the first book of the Bible. Likewise, Romans 8:31 is the thirty-first verse in the eigth chapter of the book of Romans, which is the sixth book in the New Testament and the forty-fifth in the Bible. The chapter and verse markings are not always at sensible places—they were added long after the books were written as a navigation tool.

Both Testaments contain a wide variety of kinds of writing (see the section below on genres). Further, both were composed by a wide array of authors, at different times, in different places, with different aims for their own books. The content of the Bible thus ranges from ancient Hebrew liturgical poetry—not as boring as it sounds; the Psalms are many people’s favorite parts of the Bible!—to personal letters from one Christian to another, and from historical narratives to theological treatises. Although the Bible varies widely in terms of authorship, style, genre, and even when it was written (from ~1,400 B.C. to about A.D. 100), it nonetheless presents a coherent picture of who God is and what he is doing in history.[3]

The Books

The books of the English Bible are organized by basic type. In the Old Testament, they are grouped by history, wisdom literature, and prophecy. In the New Testament, they are grouped into “gospels” (which describe the teaching and life of Jesus), letters, and prophecy. Here is a basic outline of the books of the Bible.[4] I have noted where there are well-known groupings within the major groupings.

  • Old Testament
    • History
      • Genesis
      • Exodus
      • Leviticus
      • Numbers
      • Deuteronomy
      • Joshua
      • Judges
      • Ruth
      • 1 and 2 Samuel
      • 1 and 2 Kings
      • 1 and 2 Chronicles
      • Ezra
      • Nehemiah
    • Wisdom
      • Psalms
      • Proverbs
      • Ecclesiastes
      • Song of Solomon
    • Prophecy
      • Isaiah
      • Jeremiah
      • Lamentations[5]
      • Ezekiel
      • Daniel
      • Hosea
      • Joel
      • Amos
      • Obadiah
      • Jonah
      • Micah
      • Nahum
      • Habakkuk
      • Zephaniah
      • Haggai
      • Zechariah
      • Malachi
  • New Testament
    • Gospels: treatments of the life of Jesus by different authors (after whom each book is named)
      • Matthew
      • Mark
      • Luke
      • John
    • Acts: a history
    • Epistles (letters!)
      • Romans
      • 1 and 2 Corinthians
      • Galatians
      • Ephesians
      • Philippians
      • Colossians
      • 1 and 2 Thessalonians
      • 1 and 2 Timothy
      • Titus
      • Philemon
      • Hebrews
      • James
      • 1 and 2 Peter
      • 1, 2, and 3 John
    • Revelation: prophecies, especially about Jesus’ return

Genres

There are about ____ different basic genres in the Bible, along with some variations on these. Knowing what the genres are and what to expect from them makes reading the Bible much easier. The main genres are historical narratives, laws, prophecy, wisdom literature, poetry, genealogies (yes, genealogies!), letters (or “epistles”), and apocalyptic literature. Some books contain a mix of these, and some of the genres sort of blend into each other.

Historical narratives

Much of both the Old and New Testament is comprised of historical narratives. These narratives sometimes round numbers, skip details we might consider important, and otherwise differ from the way modern Westerners write history, but nonetheless are written as true recordings of real historical proceedings.

In the Old Testament, the books of Genesis, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah are primarily composed of historical narratives. Exodus, Jeremiah, and Isaiah also contain sections of history, mingled with other genres.

In the New Testament, the Gospels all contain a good bit of history of Jesus’ life, mingled with sections of Jesus’ teaching. They all spend the last few chapters focused on the details of his trial, crucifixion, and resurrection from the dead. Acts is a purely historical book, written by Luke, the author of the gospel by that name. The book traces out some of the history of the early church, focusing on the activities of the apostles Peter and Paul.

Laws

There are a number of laws explained in the first part of the Bible, including parts of Exodus, all of Leviticus, parts of Numbers, and nearly all of Deuteronomy. These laws governed the religious, economic, and social life of the Israelites. Though these are often rather dry reading from a modern Western perspective, they are actually incredibly important to understanding the rest of Scripture. There are a few important things to understand about these laws.

  1. Some of the laws focus on moral issues, whereas others focus on ceremonial issues. All of these were important for ancient Israel, but not in exactly the same ways. Both were designed to mark the Israelites as separate and distinct from the nations around, as a reminder to them that God was separate in important ways from humans and—just as importantly—that he was not like the gods the surrounding nations worshipped. Christians understand the moral laws (against murder, for example) still binding, but the ceremonial laws not, for reasons that become clear in the course of the New Testament.
  2. Many of these laws focus on sacrifices, and especially on sacrifices of “atonement.” These were the ways that God established to deal with sin in the Old Testament. Christians believe all of these sacrifices ultimately point to the sacrifice of Jesus in the New Testament. In any case, understanding them at least a little helps make sense out of what is going on in the rest of the Bible, since the Jewish religious system is in the background of nearly everything else that happens and that is written in both the Old and New Testaments.

Prophecy

[TBD]

Wisdom Literature

[TBD]

Genealogies

You will find a number of genealogies scattered throughout the books of the Bible in both Testaments. These often serve as a way of showing how the current section relates to previous sections or to connect important figures. For example, there are genealogies in Genesis that run from the first man, Adam, to Jacob and his children—who were the heads of the various tribes of Israel. Further genealogies in 1 Samuel and then in the openings of Luke’s and Matthew’s gospels connect first King David and his descendants and then Jesus himself to these earlier figures in history.

Poetry

The book of Psalms is a collection of poems (most or all of them originally songs, but the music is lost). The Psalms range from songs praising God for his character to songs expressing pain, sorrow, and frustration with life and begging God for aid. Among many other topics are thanksgiving, lament, impatience, and hope. Some Psalms express personal interactions with God; others are written as if from a whole group of people. They also include poetic recountings of various parts of the Old Testament and prophecies. Other books include poetry, including some of the historical books, and much of the content of the prophetic books is also poetic in form, though usually with a different focus from the Psalms.

Letters/Epistles

[TBD]

Apocalyptic Literature

[TBD]


  1. Bibles in the Catholic tradition have a few more—I’m a Protestant, so I’ll just stick to the 66 we affirm. The history of these extra books, the “Apocrypha” is complicated and involves a great deal of debate throughout history, so I will leave it aside for now. It is interesting, but not necessary for this post.  ↩

  2. Thus, the Old Testament is the same as the Hebrew Bible, though it is organized somewhat differently.  ↩

  3. This is not to say that there are no areas where Scripture is difficult to understand, or that there are no places with apparent contradictions—only that when such places appear, some time studying the passages more carefully usually (I would say always) reveals a solution.  ↩

  4. I have left out more detailed groupings to keep things relatively simple. There is enough going on in this list as it is!  ↩

  5. Lamentations is not a particularly long book, but it was written by Jeremiah and so is grouped with that book.  ↩

Another problem with concordism [the idea that Genesis has modern science embedded in it or dictates what modern science should look like] is that it assumes that the text should be understood in reference to current scientific consensus, which would mean that it would neither correspond to last century’s scientific consensus nor to that which may develop in the next century.

—John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate

The End of the Beginning

I am making an ongoing discipline out of writing up reflections on my devotions—hopefully a majority of the days each week. This is one of those posts.

Tonight I came to the end of the book of Genesis. (I would have done so last week, had I not gotten sick. Alas.) The last four chapters of the book range from the proasic details of Joseph’s dealings with the Pharaoh and the Egyptian people to the poetic content of Jacob’s blessings for his sons. As far as conclusions go, the book ends, but there is not exactly a sense of denouement: Jacob dies, and then Joseph dies; this part of the story is at an end, but there are so very many promises unfulfilled. Indeed, the ending is something of a cliff-hanger for the attentive reader, who will have in the back of his or her head Yahweh’s promises to Abraham—both that his offspring would inherit Canaan and that first they would be slaves in a different nation. There are other promises, too: of the “offspring” (or “seed”) of the woman who will crush the serpent’s head, of future kingship in Judah’s line, of blessings not only to Abraham’s family but also to the nations.

There are a few passages that highlight the God at work throughout the book as this first section of the Torah comes to a close. Jacob, blessing Joseph’s sons, speaks of Yahweh: “The God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, / the God who has been my shepherd all my life long to this day, / the angel who has redeemed me from all evil…” Jacob began his journey speaking of God wholly as his father’s God, surprised to find him still present far from his family’s worship. He ended his journey aware that the God of his fathers had watched over him from Canaan to Padan Aram and back again, and then on the trek down into Egypt. Yahweh was no longer only his father’s and grandfather’s God, but his God.1

Finally, of course, one cannot—or at least, ought not!—pass over these chapters without stopping to read Jacob’s blessing on Judah very carefully:

Judah is a lion’s cub;
from the prey, my son, you have gone up.
He stooped down; he crouched as a lion
and as a lioness; who dares rouse him?
The scepter shall not depart from Judah,
nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,
until tribute comes to him;
and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.
Binding his foal to the vine
and his donkey’s colt to the choice vine,
he has washed his garments in wine
and his vesture in the blood of grapes.
His eyes are darker than wine,
and his teeth whiter than milk.
(Genesis 49:9–12)

This language is evocative in its own right, but how it grows in power as one considers the rest of the Scriptures! The glimpses of fulfillment that come in David and Solomon—too quickly shattered by their fallenness and foibles, and then wrecked almost entirely in the kings that followed in their wake—only make the longing for the real king that much stronger. And right here is the font of so much imagery throughout the rest of the scriptures, both of messianic hope and fearful judgment. It is hard to read of garments washed in wine and in the blood of grapes without thinking of sin staining Christ on our behalf and the pure white garments he has given us instead.

If Genesis ends with the conclusion unwritten, bidding us look forward into Exodus to see what will come next, this particular prophecy still bids us look forward to see what will come next. Jesus has filled it up with meaning, and the Revelation gives us a glimpse of how he will fill it up finally—but that ultimate reality of “the obedience of the peoples” awaits our proclamation of the gospel to the ends of the earth and his coming again to reign in glory. Genesis looks forward; and so do we.

Maranatha. Lord, come soon.


  1. I believe this is also this very first time that the image of God-as-shepherd appears in the Bible. The way the Pentateuch in general and Genesis specifically establishes the baseline for the rest of the Scriptures is nothing short of amazing: this kind of internal unity and consistency is hard to come by from a single author—still less the dozens who authored the Bible. 

Whose Story Is This?

I am making an ongoing discipline out of writing up reflections on my devotions—hopefully a majority of the days each week. This is one of those posts.

Joseph is an interesting character. I have heard many a sermon on him, ranging from critiques of the way his pride got him in trouble to hagiographies that hold him up as an example to follow (not to mention a foreshadowing of Jesus Christ). What is most interesting to me at the moment, however, is that the text makes little moral commentary on Joseph at all. From his introduction in Genesis 37 until his death at the end of the book, Moses gives us very few direct comments on Joseph’s character.

To be sure, there is much that is admirable about the way Joseph carries himself throughout this whole sequence, especially as we come in a few chapters to his behavior when Potiphar’s wife makes a pass at him. As for his dream-telling at the beginning, I am inclined to let that pass (not least because my wife often tells me her dreams, no matter how crazy they get.) For all that Joseph is a good model for us in many ways, though, and even for all that he does prefigure Christ,1 the central figure of the narrative is not Joseph, but Yahweh.

First, this is precisely the point Joseph makes to his brothers when they meet again in Egypt decades later: what they meant for evil, God had meant for good. Joseph was a player in that story, as were his more-and-less wicked brothers, but ultimately it was Yahweh, providentially orchestrating all things, who was responsible for all that came about. And from a literary perspective, this is also the only way to make sense out of the aside in chapter 38 to Judah’s wretched affair with Tamar in Genesis 38: otherwise, why the sudden turn from Joseph to Judah? Yes, there is a contrast between the righteous brother and the wicked brother, but why is this contrast necessary? We already know Judah is a troublemaker: he was the one who suggested selling Joseph into slavery in the first place! No, there is more going on here.

At least part of that “more” is that it is not the righteous brother that God will use to bring about ultimate salvation, but the wicked one. The kingship went not to Reuben, the firstborn; nor to Joseph, the most favored of Jacob’s sons; but to Judah, the malcontent—and that via his illicit affair with his daughter-in-law as she played the prostitute! God’s plan of salvation does not hinge on righteous men (though he certainly does use such men to bring about good for his people throughout history). His plan of salvation is in the end all about demonstrating that he can use even wicked men to bring about his purposes, and that he is interested in saving even those wicked men. Jesus, it is true, is the new and better Joseph—but he came through Judah.


  1. Jesus, like Joseph, was massively mistreated by his brothers (both his immediate family and his “brothers” in Israel), but God worked that out so as to provide for their salvation.