Though Greg lists various impressive similarities between Joseph and Christ, he commendably puts the emphasis on the broader context of the Joseph story: “Joseph serves as a type of the work of Christ because he saved his people and brought them into unity with one another.” Despite my terminological quibbling below, this statement approaches my bottom line.
I also appreciate Greg’s use of Hebrews 5 to encourage the discovery of types as an exercise in Christian maturity. I wonder, however, about his conclusion that identifying Joseph as a type “is a softball lob across the plate compared to the fast pitch of Jesus and Melchizedek.” Melchizedek combines the two highly symbolic offices of priest and king, and his out-of-the-blue appearance in Genesis naturally compels the reader to consider his significance more deeply. Does Joseph have that sort of symbolic freight in Genesis? That question brings me to my main question: what is a type?
A NARROW DEFINITION
My understanding of typology has been shaped especially by J. Barton Payne (The Theology of the Older Testament, 355–60) and Michael P. V. Barrett (Beginning at Moses: A Guide to Understanding Christ in the Old Testament, 243–68). Barrett defines a type as a “picture prophecy” or a visual (as opposed to verbal) prediction (243–45). He also holds that “typology is not an interpretation technique; it is a method of divine revelation” (246). Though some subjectivity is inevitable in the identification of types, specific contextual factors help to keep one’s interpretation as objective as possible. In this regard, Barrett (and others) propose the following guideline (252):
One of the key contextual clues in identifying a person, thing, or event as typical is determining whether it was clearly symbolic. . . . Divinely intended types were divinely used symbols. In other words, all types are also symbols, although not all symbols are necessarily types. . . . This assumption is both a safeguard and a clue for identifying types. If God is using a particular person, thing, or event to illustrate by analogy some truth, then it ought to be clear from the context (the whole expanding context). . . .
In identifying types (particularly those not explicitly identified in the New Testament), I advise that we stay within the canonical context. The question is whether the person, thing, or event was “canonically symbolic.” Determining the canonical context means that we factor in all the revelation that precedes the issue in question, but not the revelation that follows. The reason for this should be clear. If I am trying to figure out whether something was an object lesson at any particular time, I should limit myself to the corpus of revelation at that time.
By way of example, it seems clear that in their original context Israel’s kings, priests, tabernacle/temple, and sacrifices functioned as object lessons Yahweh was using to symbolize truths to the original audience. This symbolic character naturally lent itself to a predictive dimension. Does Joseph function as a symbol in his context? Given the paucity of revelation at the time of the patriarchs and even at the time of Moses, I’m not sure, and so I’m not sure whether Joseph played a predictive function.
A BROADER DEFINITION
This narrow approach to typology differs from the way that typology is often understood today. For instance, though he urges caution, Robert L. Plummer defines types as patterns in God’s works that come to a consummation in Christ. Thus, “typological interpretation” is not so tied to the original context but is a matter of “looking back to see the providential foreshadowing of God” (40 Questions about Interpreting the Bible, 208). Plummer even says, “Virtually any of God’s interventions and revelations prior to Jesus can be followed with the words ‘how much more then in Jesus. . . .’ This is biblical typology” (165).
I actually agree with Plummer’s basic drift here. And Stephen does something like it in relating Joseph’s experience to Christ: a rejected figure becomes God’s successful deliverer (Acts 7:9ff). I just struggle over calling this sort of thing typology. A providential pattern perceived after the fact doesn’t seem to be the same as a pictorial prophecy. Consequently, I tend to use the more general rubric of “Christotelic interpretation” to describe what Plummer and Stephen are talking about. I intend to blog about that sometime.
RELIEVING THE TENSION
Before wrapping up, let me make a couple of qualifications. First, those who use a broader meaning of “type” as a providential pattern could argue that their definition branches off of how Paul uses typos in 1 Corinthians 10:6 and typikōs in 1 Corinthians 10:11. I would reply that I am trying to use “type” the way Paul uses typos in Romans 5:14. So maybe we can compromise and agree on a general definition and a technical definition. We would just need to clarify how we are using the term in a particular discussion.
Second, scholars like James Hamilton and Sam Emadi blend antecedent revelation and later revelation to argue in detail that Jospeh is a type of Christ. Hopefully some day I will have the time to dig into their work and perhaps moderate my view.
In the meantime, maybe Layton can take up this question for us: Is typology, however defined, an exercise in biblical theology or systematic theology? Some of both? And depending on the answer, to what degree should we be dogmatic about types?
At the end of the day, we can all rejoice in what God did for and through Joseph. His deliverance and exaltation in Egypt did more than save the lives and relationships of his family members. God had promised Abraham that in him all families of the earth would be blessed (Gen 12:3). Physically speaking, Joseph blessed “all the earth” by saving them from famine (Gen 41:57). His amazing success demonstrated that Yahweh was able to accomplish the ultimate blessing he intends for the nations. Whatever hermeneutical label you use for that, it compels wonder and worship!