A Symbol of the Coming Deliverer

Sons Who Became Servants

The story of Joseph in the Qur’an is rather unique in that a whole chapter is given to it, Surah 12, which is appropriately titled Suratu-Yusuf, yet no mention of the patriarch appears anywhere else in the book. The Qur’an actually states that, until the story came to him in one complete narrative, Muhammad had "been among those who knew it not" (Surah 12:3). Significantly the Qur’an suggests, in the same verse, that he only heard of it because it was revealed to him by Allah. Non-Muslims will conclude that he was simply ignorant of it until he heard it retold somewhere in all its details which, like most Qur’anic stories of the prophets, are partly Biblical and partly traditional. Nonetheless its inclusion in the book creates further opportunities to show how the life and work of Jesus was foreshadowed in the lives of many of the prophets who went before him. One simple definition of the story in the same text we have referred to, however, is a tremendous platform for a witness of God’s saving grace in Jesus Christ. It is:

We do relate to you the most beautiful of stories. Surah 12:3

If the story of Joseph is beautiful, how much more is the story of Jesus which it prefigures! A brief outline of their lives and achievements from the Bible can be put together to show just how similar their courses were. Joseph’s whole life is defined in this brief passage:

When he summoned a famine on the land, and broke every staff of bread, he had sent a man ahead of them, Joseph, who was sold as a slave. His feet were hurt with fetters, his neck was put in a collar of iron; until what he said came to pass the word of the Lord tested him. The king sent and released him, the rulers of the people set him free; he made him lord of his house, and ruler of all his possessions, to instruct his princes at his pleasure, and to teach his elders wisdom. Psalm 105:16-22

The parallel passage to this one in the Bible, which defines the life, work and ultimate achievements of Jesus Christ, is this one:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient to death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Philippians 2:5-11

The first thing to note is that both of them, after being honoured as sons in their father’s houses, became servants in another realm. Joseph "was sold as a slave" and Jesus "took the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men." Before this Joseph had been the beloved son of Jacob more than any of his other children (Genesis 37:3) and he made a coat of many colours to adorn him. Jesus likewise, when praying to his Father in heaven, spoke of the "glory which I had with you before the world was made" (John 17:5). From here on Joseph becomes a type of Christ, probably the most perfect type in the whole of the Old Testament. Of all the great figureheads in the Old Testament, Joseph’s life is the only one without blemish. No major downfall or scandal is reported of him like Moses’ murder of an Egyptian, Noah’s drunkenness, David’s adultery or Solomon’s profligacy. The Qur’an goes on to say:

Truly in Joseph and his brethren there are signs for seekers. Surah 12:7

Indeed! Here you, in witnessing to Muslims, can show them just what those signs are. We will look at some of the remarkable parallels between Joseph and Jesus and see how the Gospel was prefigured in Joseph’s life.

Comparisons between the sufferings of Joseph and Jesus

Once Joseph had been sold to the Ishmaelites by his brothers, he was taken down to Egypt. There he was sold to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh and the captain of his guard. Although this turned to his advantage for a while because of his great service and faithfulness to his master, one event soured his life yet again. Potiphar so trusted him that he had "made him overseer of his house and put him in charge of all that he had" (Genesis 39:4) but his wife "cast her eyes upon Joseph" (v.7) and tried to persuade him to lie with her. She did this for many days until one day, when she caught him by his garment, he fled, leaving it in her hands (v.12). It’s well known what happened next and from here on let’s look at the similarities between Jesus and Joseph.

1. They were both severely tempted to sin against God

Joseph said to Potiphar’s wife, "How then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?" (Genesis 39:9). Jesus likewise, when he was in the wilderness, was forcefully tempted by Satan on three occasions to break faith with his Father. He said to the devil:

It is written, "You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve". Luke 4:7

2. Both Joseph and Jesus were falsely accused

Although Joseph refused to listen to Potiphar’s wife, even though she tempted him for many days, she falsely accused him to her husband in these words:

The Hebrew servant, whom you have brought among us, came in to me to insult me; but as soon as I lifted up my voice and cried, he left his garment with me, and fled out of the house. Genesis 39:17-18

As a result of this false charge Joseph was thrown into prison (v.20). Jesus was also falsely accused by the chief priests before Pontius Pilate in these words:

We found this man perverting our nation, and forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ a king. Luke 23:2

This charge, too, was patently false as, when Jesus was asked by the Pharisees and Herodians whether it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, he replied, "Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s" (Matthew 22:21). In another passage we read that "many false witnesses came forward" to give false testimony against Jesus at his trial (Matthew 26:60).

3. They were both rejected by their own people

When Joseph went to look for his brethren and found them at Dothan, they conspired against him, stripped him of his robe, and cast him into a pit (Genesis 37:23-24). After first agreeing to kill him, they changed their minds and decided to sell him as a slave to the Ishmaelites. Stephen, in his address to the chief priests, described the outcome in these words:

And the patriarchs, jealous of Joseph, sold him into Egypt; but God was with him, and rescued him out of all his afflictions, and gave him favour and wisdom before Pharaoh, king of Egypt, who made him governor over Egypt and over all his household. Acts 7:9-10

Jesus, too, was rejected by the Israelites. "He came to his own home, and his own people received him not" (John 1:11). On one occasion they tried to throw him down headlong from the brow of the hill on which their city Nazareth was built (Luke 4:29), on another they sought to stone him to death (John 10:31). Like Joseph, Jesus was delivered up because of the envy of his own people which Pilate clearly perceived (Mark 15:10).

4. They were both sold for a price

The brothers of Joseph profited from his betrayal (Genesis 37:27). The Qur’an has an interesting comment at this point:

They sold him for a miserable price, a few dirhams numbered, and they were indifferent to him. Surah 12:20

Jesus, too, was sold and betrayed for "a miserable price." When Judas went to the chief priests and offered to deliver him into their hands, they paid him thirty pieces of silver (Matthew 26:14).

5. Both of them won the approval of their captors

After Joseph had been thrown into prison the Lord "gave him favour in the sight of the keeper of the prison" (Genesis 39:21) who committed all the prisoners to his care and, convinced of his integrity, did not expect him to account to him (v.23).

Likewise the Roman centurion, who was keeping guard over Jesus and the two thieves who were crucified with him, was also persuaded of his integrity and, as Jesus breathed his last, he cried out, "Certainly this man was innocent!" (Luke 23:47).

6. They both predicted the destiny of their fellow-prisoners

Just as Joseph had been thrown into prison as a criminal with the other prisoners present, so Jesus too had been condemned to die with two other prisoners and had been crucified with them. Here comes one of the most interesting and significant parallels between them. Two of the prisoners interned with Joseph were the Pharaoh’s chief butler and chief baker. One night they both had strange dreams and Joseph encouraged them to reveal them to him (Genesis 40:8).

The chief butler told Joseph that he had seen a vine and, when its branches budded and blossomed, he took the grapes, pressed them into Pharaoh’s cup, and placed the cup in Pharaoh’s hand (Genesis 40:10-12). Joseph assured him that he would be saved and delivered out of the prison within three days, adding that he would also be restored to his position as Pharaoh’s butler. When the chief baker saw the interpretation was favourable, he too told Joseph his dream. There were three cake baskets on his head with all sorts of baked food for Pharaoh, but the birds were plundering it. Joseph told him he would be condemned, that Pharaoh would hang him on a tree, and that the birds would eat his flesh (Genesis 40:19). The outcome is expressed in the Qur’an in these words:

O my two fellow-prisoners! As to one of you, he will pour out wine for his lord to drink; as for the other, he will be crucified, so that the birds will eat from his head. Surah 12:41

Jesus was crucified between two thieves who had been condemned with him. Like the jailer and butler, he promised salvation to the one and left the other to go to perdition. Jesus said to the first:

Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise. Luke 23:43

This is a remarkable parallel between the two stories and here we see Joseph foreshadowing the role of Jesus who is the source of salvation to all who believe in him but who will be the judge of all who don’t.

7. Both asked those around them to remember them

This may be no more than a coincidence (the last illustration is definitely not!) but both Joseph and Jesus asked to be remembered. Joseph said to the chief butler:

But remember me, when it is well with you, and do me the kindness, I pray you, to make mention of me to Pharaoh, and so get me out of this house. Genesis 40:14

Joseph’s request to the butler to mention him to Pharaoh is repeated in the Qur’an in Surah 12:42. Jesus also asked his disciples to bring his redeeming death to mind whenever they met together to eat bread and drink wine:

Do this in remembrance of me. Luke 22:19

8. Joseph and Jesus both forgave their enemies

Many years after Joseph had been released from prison and had become the most important leader in Egypt under Pharaoh, his brothers came to the land because the famine was severe in Canaan and they had heard there was grain in Egypt. After they had recognised the lord of the granaries to be Joseph, their brother, they feared he would avenge himself on them for selling him into slavery but he replied:

Fear not, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones. Genesis 50:19-21

When Jesus was crucified, instead of anticipating his resurrection when he could wreak vengeance on those who had condemned him, he prayed as follows:

Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. Luke 23:34

Their Eventual Glory and Honour

Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams by the power of God eventually turned his life around. When Pharaoh had two similar dreams and no one could interpret them, the chief butler remembered Joseph and he was called before Pharaoh. He told him his two dreams were one. The fat stalks and cows represented seven years of plenty. The thin stalks and cows, which consumed them but remained gaunt, represented seven years of famine. Joseph advised Pharaoh to store up grain during the good years so that there would be plenty when the famine came. Pharaoh’s response to Joseph was:

Since God has shown you all this, there is none so discreet and wise as you are; you shall be over my house, and all my people shall order themselves as you command; only as regards the throne will I be greater than you. Genesis 41:39-40

This is a picture of all authority in heaven and on earth being given to Jesus after his resurrection and ascension to heaven with all things subject to him. As with Joseph, the only exception would be that he would remain subject to his Father. This passage brings out the parallel perfectly:

But when it says, "All things are put in subjection under him," it is plain that he is excepted who put all things under him. When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will be subjected to him who put all things under him, that God may be everything to every one. 1 Corinthians 15:27-28

Joseph, who had previously been condemned, was now invested with great honour over all the land of Egypt. He became its saviour, making grain available not only to the Egyptians but to the nations round about, to keep them alive until the famine had passed. So Jesus, who had also been condemned, rose to heaven where he was to receive "power and wealth and wisdom and might and honour and glory and blessing" (Revelation 5:12).

Two points in the Qur’an are also worth noting at this point. Pharaoh is recorded as saying of Joseph: "Bring him to me, I will keep him about myself" (Surah 12:54), a statement reflecting the glory of Jesus who now reigns at the right hand of the Father where he will be for evermore (Acts 7:56). Joseph, also, is recorded as saying to Pharaoh "Set me over the store-houses of the land, I am a good keeper, knowledgeable" (Surah 12:55). This too parallels the following statement about Jesus in the Bible: "Christ was faithful over God’s house as a son" (Hebrews 3:6).

Joseph typifies the life of Jesus in every aspect and here the Christian has a great foundation for witnessing to Muslims. A very interesting summary concludes the Qur’an’s record of the life of Joseph as recorded in its twelfth chapter:

In their histories there is indeed a lesson for men of understanding. It is not a narrative which could be forged, but a verification of what is before it, and a distinct explanation of all things, and a guide and a mercy to a people who believe. Surah 12:111

You too can be a guide, and show the mercy of Jesus to Muslims, by comparing the lives of Joseph and Jesus and showing how the great patriarch foreshadowed the life, suffering and subsequent glory of the Christian Saviour.

Sharing the Gospel with Muslims [Table of Contents]
Materials by John Gilchrist
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