Stephen presents Joseph and Moses as "types" of Jesus

This is the twentieth entry in the Bible Junkies Online Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles. This entry continues Stephen’s speech before the council.

For previous entries, please now go to the Complete Acts of the Apostle Commentary, where you can find links to each of the entries updated after each new blog post.

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3. Contents:

D)  Persecutions of the “Hellenist” Jewish Christians and the First Mission outside of Jerusalem (6:1-8:40): Stephen’s Speech Continues: Joseph and Moses (7:9-40):

9 "The patriarchs, jealous of Joseph, sold him into Egypt; but God was with him, 10 and rescued him from all his afflictions, and enabled him to win favor and to show wisdom when he stood before Pharaoh, king of Egypt, who appointed him ruler over Egypt and over all his household. 11 Now there came a famine throughout Egypt and Canaan, and great suffering, and our ancestors could find no food. 12 But when Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent our ancestors there on their first visit. 13 On the second visit Joseph made himself known to his brothers, and Joseph's family became known to Pharaoh. 14 Then Joseph sent and invited his father Jacob and all his relatives to come to him, seventy-five in all; 15 so Jacob went down to Egypt. He himself died there as well as our ancestors, 16 and their bodies were brought back to Shechem and laid in the tomb that Abraham had bought for a sum of silver from the sons of Hamor in Shechem. 17 "But as the time drew near for the fulfillment of the promise that God had made to Abraham, our people in Egypt increased and multiplied 18 until another king who had not known Joseph ruled over Egypt. 19 He dealt craftily with our race and forced our ancestors to abandon their infants so that they would die. 20 At this time Moses was born, and he was beautiful before God. For three months he was brought up in his father's house; 21 and when he was abandoned, Pharaoh's daughter adopted him and brought him up as her own son. 22 So Moses was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in his words and deeds. 23 "When he was forty years old, it came into his heart to visit his relatives, the Israelites. 24 When he saw one of them being wronged, he defended the oppressed man and avenged him by striking down the Egyptian. 25 He supposed that his kinsfolk would understand that God through him was rescuing them, but they did not understand. 26 The next day he came to some of them as they were quarreling and tried to reconcile them, saying, "Men, you are brothers; why do you wrong each other?' 27 But the man who was wronging his neighbor pushed Moses aside, saying, "Who made you a ruler and a judge over us? 28 Do you want to kill me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?' 29 When he heard this, Moses fled and became a resident alien in the land of Midian. There he became the father of two sons. 30 "Now when forty years had passed, an angel appeared to him in the wilderness of Mount Sinai, in the flame of a burning bush. 31 When Moses saw it, he was amazed at the sight; and as he approached to look, there came the voice of the Lord: 32 "I am the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.' Moses began to tremble and did not dare to look. 33 Then the Lord said to him, "Take off the sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy ground. 34 I have surely seen the mistreatment of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their groaning, and I have come down to rescue them. Come now, I will send you to Egypt.' 35 "It was this Moses whom they rejected when they said, "Who made you a ruler and a judge?' and whom God now sent as both ruler and liberator through the angel who appeared to him in the bush. 36 He led them out, having performed wonders and signs in Egypt, at the Red Sea, and in the wilderness for forty years. 37 This is the Moses who said to the Israelites, "God will raise up a prophet for you from your own people as he raised me up.' 38 He is the one who was in the congregation in the wilderness with the angel who spoke to him at Mount Sinai, and with our ancestors; and he received living oracles to give to us. 39 Our ancestors were unwilling to obey him; instead, they pushed him aside, and in their hearts they turned back to Egypt, 40 saying to Aaron, "Make gods for us who will lead the way for us; as for this Moses who led us out from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has happened to him.'  (NRSV)

Last entry, I discussed the nature of the speech itself and covered the first eight verses, those which concerned Abraham. This entry has a much larger section of text to examine, from verses 9-40, which cover the stories of Joseph and Moses. Joseph Fitzmyer, S.J. breaks down this section of the speech, by dividing it into Part II, verses 9-16, dealing with Joseph, with verses 17-19 a transition connecting the stories of Abraham and Joseph, then Part III, verses 20-38, dealing with Moses, with verses 39-40 focusing as a transition from the rejection of Moses to the idolatry of the Israelites (Fitzmyer, Acts, 365).[1]

The story of Joseph told by Luke in Stephen’s speech (Acts 7:9-16; drawn mostly from Genesis 37:10-16, and 39-50) aligns with the life of Jesus particularly as Joseph is “the type of Jesus, the rejected one” (Fitzmyer, 366) or the “righteous sufferer” (Pervo, 181). Fitzmyer contrasts the treatment Joseph received from human beings with that by God –“God’s deliverance is thus contrasted with human mistreatment (Fitzmyer, 366) – but Pervo puts a sharper theological point on this, writing, “Joseph’s own people rejected him, but God reversed this misfortune and exalted Joseph as ruler, in which role he was a benefactor to those who had rejected him” (Pervo, 181). This focus on “Joseph’s own people” rejecting Joseph by Pervo rather than just “human beings” rejecting him by Fitzmyer makes the comparison to Jesus stronger, and also indicates something Luke Timothy Johnson stresses in Acts, namely, that Luke is presenting a “family dispute.”

Yet, another of Luke’s themes in Acts is also being developed in this speech: the movement of the Gospel from Judea to the ends of the earth. By using the general term “the patriarchs” to describe Joseph’s brothers who “jealous of Joseph, sold him into Egypt” (Acts 7:9), the condemnation of Joseph’s brothers is easier to apply to all Israel as a future entity. It is all of Israel, Luke will intimate, who has rejected Jesus, even though the first chapters of Acts have not borne this out.

This reflection fits with Pervo’s further assessment that “nearly every phrase of this passage {7:9-16} has been taken from Genesis 37-50, yet the summary has an edge” (Pervo, 181). The “edge” is that this sort of intra-family fight “is characteristic of Israelite history” in Luke’s telling and so the rejection of the righteous one Jesus was based on common historical behavior in Luke’s presentation, starting with the rejection of Joseph, and which continues on even now in the trial of Stephen (Pervo, 182).

The majority of the verses in Acts 7:9-16 are concerned with God’s exaltation of the one brought low in abject humiliation. Joseph was rescued “from all his afflictions” and “appointed…ruler over Egypt and over all his {the Pharaoh’s} household” (Acts 7:10). By means of God’s providence, Joseph was able to care for and save all his family (Acts 7:11-16). Luke Timothy Johnson says that “what all such recitals have in common is the way in which they select and shape a tradition in order to justify or support a specific understanding of it” (Johnson, Acts, 120). That is, there are different ways to tell Israel’s history which many other Jewish groups or writers of the time did, such as Philo, Josephus, the Qumran community, etc. Luke is aligning Joseph, as he will with Moses, to the account of Jesus he has told in the Gospel of Luke. Stephen himself, who tells the story, will continue the same narrative in his own life even as he recounts the story for the council.

The transition to the story of Moses is also linked, though, to Abraham and the whole of salvation history. For “as the time drew near for the fulfillment of the promise that God had made to Abraham, our people in Egypt increased and multiplied until another king who had not known Joseph ruled over Egypt. He dealt craftily with our race and forced our ancestors to abandon their infants so that they would die” (Acts 7:17-19). This transition takes us from the end of Genesis to the beginning of Exodus (drawn mostly from Exodus 2-3) and places the promises made to Abraham at the heart of the transition: it was necessary for these things to take place according to God’s promised plan. And now Moses will continue God’s salvific plan, for it cannot be stopped by human intentions to crush the righteous bearers’ of that plan.

Moses’ story is told in an orderly pattern – not that Joseph’s was so unorderly! – but there is more than one pattern at play in the narrative. Pervo notes the opening structure of Moses being “born, reared, and educated” in 7:20 (“at this time Moses was born”), 21 (“brought him up as her own son”), and 22 (“so Moses was instructed”) (Pervo, 183; Johnson, 125). This trope fits a pattern which we see with great heroes in antiquity (see Acts 22:3 on Paul and Pervo, 562; Johnson, 125).  But Fitzmyer rightly points to a broader pattern. There are three verses which divide Moses’ life into three groups of 40 years (Acts 7:23 –“when he was forty years old;” 7:30 – “now when forty years had passed;” and 7:36 – “in the wilderness for forty years”) (Fitzmyer, 366). While Luke follows the common biblical pattern of 40 years, these patterns also represent Luke’s care in following Hellenistic models in the portrait of Moses. For instance, Moses’ beauty – “he was beautiful before God” (Acts 7:20) – was a prominent aspect of Jewish Hellenistic portrayals of Moses in particular (Philo, Moses 1.9; Josephus, Antiquities 2.224, 231-232) but also that of Hellenistic heroes in general.

Fitzmyer does show, however, how Moses “fits” in the forty year divisions. In the second forty year period of his life Moses tries to deliver his people, but is not accepted:

24 When he saw one of them being wronged, he defended the oppressed man and avenged him by striking down the Egyptian. 25 He supposed that his kinsfolk would understand that God through him was rescuing them, but they did not understand.

In fact, he is rejected: “Who made you a ruler and a judge over us? Do you want to kill me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?” (Acts 7:27b-28). This is repeated later in the account when Luke makes it clear in Stephen’s speech that “It was this Moses whom they rejected when they said, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge?’” (Acts 7:35). But note that the personal rebuke of one Israelite in Exodus 2:14 and in Acts 7:28 (“do you want to kill me”) is made here in Acts 7:35 to represent the whole people of Israel (“whom they rejected”).

In the third forty year period of his life, after Moses “led them out, having performed wonders and signs in Egypt, at the Red Sea, and in the wilderness for forty years” (Acts 7:36), Moses promised the Israelites that “God will raise up a prophet for you from your own people as he raised me up” (Acts 7:37). Yet even though Moses gave the people “living oracles” (Acts 7:38), Stephen says that “our ancestors were unwilling to obey him; instead, they pushed him aside, and in their hearts they turned back to Egypt” (Acts 7:39). It is at this point that we make the transition to Moses’ total rejection and more profoundly the rejection of God complete, when Moses goes up the mountain to be with God and the people say to Aaron, “make gods for us who will lead the way for us; as for this Moses who led us out from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has happened to him” (Acts 7:40).  Stephen’s speech ignores the acceptance of the Torah by the Israelites (Exodus 24:7-8) and jumps directly to the idolatry of the golden calf episode (Exodus 32).

Richard J. Dillon says that it is in the complete portrait of Moses, especially in terms of the development of the Moses-Christ typology Acts 7:22, 25, 35, and 37  that Luke’s editorializing can be seen (Richard J. Dillon, NJBC, 741). And in this portrait, as with Joseph, it is the rejection of God’s chosen prophet Moses that defines the Israelites and develops the analogy of Moses’ rejection as similar to Jesus’ rejection (Richard J. Dillon, NJBC, 741). Luke has stressed this in order to complete the typology of the rejected righteous one, into which Stephen himself will fit, even if such rejection must be presented without any of the times when the Israelites were indeed obedient. It works the other way also. For instance, the positive presentation of Moses in Acts 7:22, “So Moses was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in his words and deeds,” is simply at odds with what Exodus 4:10 has Moses say, “O my Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” But this presentation is in agreement with what is said of Stephen in Acts 6:8, 10 (Richard J. Dillon, NJBC, 741).

Johnson argues that Luke focuses on “the history of the infidelity of Israel in the past” because this “helps to legitimate the claims of the present community to be the authentic realization of Israel in the present” (Johnson, Acts, 135). Johnson, that is, sees Luke as presenting a family dispute, much like that of Joseph and his brothers, about who best represents the family. Moses and Joseph are spiritual predecessors of Jesus not of the members of the council who are now persecuting Stephen. The difficulty with this presentation today of course, if not in the 1st century, is not in the way in which Luke understands Jesus and Stephen, or even Moses and Joseph, so much as what this presentation does to the Jewish people: it presents them as always and everywhere unwilling to listen to God, God’s message or God’s messengers. This is simply not the case and Stephen’s speech cannot be read in an uncritical way today. For Christians today, this presentation must be challenged, even if we do understand Jesus as the one who fulfilled the promises of God and Stephen as faithful to God’s call.  

 

Next entry, Stephen’s speech before the Council ends.

 

John W. Martens

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[1] Part I, of course, for Fitzmyer is Acts 7:1-8. Richard Pervo, Acts, 171-174 makes no divisions in the text, until verse 54, treating 7:2-53 as one unit. It is, of course, but the stories do lend themselves to division on the basis of the main characters.

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