Jeffrey Pulse, Figuring Resurrection: Joseph as a Death and Resurrection Figure

Pulse, Jeffrey. Figuring Resurrection: Joseph as a Death and Resurrection Figure in the Old Testament and Second Temple Judaism. Studies in Scripture and Biblical Theology; Lexham Academic, 2021. ix+309 pp. Pb. $29.99   Link to Lexham Press  

Studies in Scripture and Biblical Theology is a peer-reviewed series exploring topics and issues in biblical studies and biblical theology. Jeffrey Pulse is the Dr. Dean O. Wenthe Professor of Old Testament Theology at Concordia Theological Seminary and has been involved in pastoral ministry for twenty-two years. This monograph adapts his 2017 Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Durham.

In this study of Joseph as a resurrection figure, Pulse uses a biblical hermeneutic reading scripture as a unified theological narrative. He wants to trace biblical motifs as they weave their way through the canon. But this study does more. He examines the Joseph narrative (Genesis 37-50) in the Masoretic text (chapters 3-5). He then compares this to the Septuagint (chapter 6) and Targum Onqelos (chapter 7), Second Temple period literature (chapter 8), and (briefly) Philo and Josephus (chapter 9). Unlike Samuel Emadi, From Prisoner to Prince: The Joseph Story in Biblical Theology (NSBT 59; IVP Academic 2022), Pulse does not see Joseph as a “type of Christ” in the New Testament.ResurrectionPulse follows Brevard Child’s canonical approach, along with Bernard Levinson and Robert Alter. He focuses on the text’s final form and carefully observes the literary artistry and overarching themes that resonate across the canon. He rejects atomizing the text in favor of a narrative reading. Israel considered their scripture a united message from God. He wants to follow this lead as much as possible. Pulse’s methodology is neither a typology nor allegorical. For example, he traces several themes and motifs and Joseph across the canon. For example, he follows the “garment motif” from Genesis 3 to Revelation (55-56).

Chapter 3 is a detailed exegesis of Genesis 37-50 of the Masoretic text. At eighty pages, this section is a detailed commentary on the Joseph story and is well worth the price of the book by itself. Pulse gathers a series of death-and-resurrection motifs from this exegesis, such as the downward/upward movements. The Joseph story has twelve such motifs, conveniently listed on pages 7-8 and detailed in chapter 5. “No other character or portion of scripture has such a predominance of these various death-and-resurrection manifestations” (144).

Anyone who has read the Joseph story closely should be familiar with the downward/upward movements. For example, Joseph is thrown into a pit and raised up out of it; he is thrown into prison (also a pit), and once again, he is raised out of it. Pulse suggests the narrator intends the reader to see Joseph’s life as preserving the life of Abraham’s family. This applies in general terms to Israel’s exile from the land. Israel’s restoration is like a death and resurrection idea in Ezekiel 37 (the Valley of the Dry Bones vision). Pulse connects Israel’s restoration to moving Joseph’s bones back to the land after the Exodus (chapter 10). These “traveling bones” are a transition from the patriarchal stories in Genesis to the tribal stories (Exodus-Deuteronomy).

Chapter 4 deals with a potential problem, Joseph’s character. There are many flaws in Joseph’s character, and he is certainly not always a clear example of moral virtue. He cites Moberly, “patriarchal religion lacks moral content or at least moral emphasis in the way that contrasts with the strong moral content enjoined on Israel in the covenant at Sinai.” Joseph is an arrogant son and a bad brother. He may have even made himself available to Potiphar’s wife. He uses a cup of divination and lives like an Egyptian. He takes an Egyptian wife and names his son Manasseh, which refers to forgetting his father’s household. (Pulse suggests Jacob may reverse the blessings because of this name.) Deception seems to be a family trait (160). The questions raised by the Masoretic text are addressed in the Septuagint and the Targum versions of this story. I would add that Joseph’s moral failings are frequently overlooked in contemporary preaching on Joseph. But this is not new. The Second Temple period novel Joseph and Asenath makes Joseph into a paragon of virtue.

Chapter 5 concludes the book’s first part with a detailed examination of the death-and-resurrection motif in the Joseph narrative. Pulse surveys the Testament of Joseph (a biblical expansion written as early as 250 BCE). The story has many up/down movements, which Pulse argues represent the death-and-resurrection motif. Even though there may be Christian interpolations in the Testament of Joseph, this still contributes to Pulse’s argument since it shows early Jewish and Christian readers saw the up/down movement as a death-and-resurrection motif. He details the rest of his 12 sub-motifs, tracing how they are developed in the Joseph story and the larger context of the patriarchal narrative. For example, he traces a “barren woman/opening of the womb” motif, first looking back at Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachel, then looking forward to Samson’s birth and Zachariah and Elizabeth (Luke 1).

One might pause after reading the book’s first part and ask, “That is all fine, but did anyone else notice these motifs?” Chapters 6-10 trace the death-and-resurrection motif in the Septuagint, Targum Onqelos, and other Second Temple texts to respond to this question. Joseph is a salvific figure in the history of Israel who preserves the family and, in doing so, preserves the nation of Israel. He argues that the early church fathers read the story this way and relied on the Septuagint, where the salvific role is enhanced (174). He concludes, “As is often the case with Joseph, ancient exegetes chose to use him in a way that suited the purpose of their current situation” (215). The Septuagint preserves the up/down motif, and the salvific themes are enhanced, “indicating the possible advent of a messianic figure that will arise from his house in the blessings of Genesis 49” (215). But Targum Onqelos focuses on Joseph’s moral and ethical character.

Conclusion: Figuring Resurrection is an excellent study of the Joseph narrative. It does not rely on typology as many evangelical biblical theology studies do. Instead, Pulse uses careful exegesis to suggest themes that naturally arise from the text. Some readers may be disappointed that the canon in this book does not include much from the New Testament, but there is really nothing related to Joseph in the New Testament. Unlike other evangelical biblical theology series, this volume of the SSBT uses intertestamental literature. This permits Pulse to track his “resurrection figure” through several examples of Second Temple period writers, potentially tracking the development of an idea within early Judaism.

A short excerpt of the book appears on Lexham’s blog.

NB: Thanks to Lexham Academic for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.



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