Joseph: A Story of Love, Hate, Slavery, Power, and Forgiveness addresses one of my all-time favorite Bible stories. I may be a bit biased, as my name is Joseph, but I’ve always loved this narrative. I also had it assigned as a narrative to translate from Hebrew in college, which only deepened my love for this story. Lennox’s title says it: this story has it all. But what of this book? I was excited to dive in to find out what John C. Lennox, a rather famous man in some Christian circles, would have to say about this narrative.
Lennox is a somewhat strange choice for a book on Joseph on the face of things. A search of “John Lennox” with terms like “Joseph” and “Bible” brings up a number of videos of Lennox discussing this narrative, however, showing something of a longstanding interest in the topic. Lennox’s training is in mathematics, though he has written extensively in the fields of apologetics in particular as well as science-faith topics. Where this becomes relevant is when Lennox delves more deeply into the background of texts. He leans heavily on other thinkers for this, and seems particularly reliant upon Kenneth A. Kitchen. These include citations from a text from 1966, along with the more recent On the Reliability of the Old Testament (2006). Kitchen is an excellent scholar with impeccable credentials, but again, the heavy reliance on other scholars by Lennox makes any background here seem superficial.
Nevertheless, Lennox does provide quite a bit of background for readers. He begins not with the start of the Joseph narrative, but with an overview of the structure of Genesis, including a re-reading of many of the Genesis accounts. Though this may seem somewhat unnecessary, Lennox does this to give a real sense of place, time, and setting for the Joseph narrative, making it feel even more alive and fresh than it might otherwise. Lennox is keen throughout the book to show that God’s judgement, mercy, and sovereignty are in play throughout the narrative.
Lennox gives plenty of context for readers, but mostly follows an totally expository path, deviating little from the content of the story itself. Where he does deviate, it sometimes goes into strange territory. For example, when discussing “Joseph’s rise to power,” Lennox goes on a tangent about confidence, which leads to a discussion about Christianity in “the West.” In the midst of this discussion, Lennox cites others noting that “there has been a collapse of Western self-confidence…” He then goes on to link this loss of confidence to a rise in trust in science as over and against Christianity. Following previously cited authors, Lennox argues that “confidence in God and in the Lord and the Gospel is being shaken as never before” (154). Then, Lennox just brings Joseph back in. Joseph was just “a single individual, with no other human group supporting him, yet such was his conviction of the truth of the message he had… that he influenced the future of an entire nation. That is the sort of confidence in God… that is necessary in order to stand up and reverse the trend of weakness and lack of conviction and authenticity that characterize far too much of that which calls itself Christian” (155). Frankly, I am baffled by this rabbit trail. Apart from the strangeness of demanding that Christianity be characterized by strength and authenticity rather than being humble (Ephesians 4:2, for example), it also seems very much like a grasp by Lennox to make an application in a section that he has thus far done little to make practical theology happen.
The story of Joseph, of course, features prominently at least one woman: Potiphar’s wife. Lennox goes over the story of Potiphar’s wife attempting to seduce Joseph in detail. Once more, Lennox is keen to make applications to today from the story, including arguing that sexual activity “including pornography” is encouraged in “our contemporary world.” In contrast, Lennox argues, this leads to bitterness and anti-social behavior. To combat this, we ought “to make God the center and focal point of our morality, not our desires, or feeling that it is so right” (128). Later, when discussing Potiphar’s attempt to frame Joseph, Lennox appeals not to the Bible but to the common proverb “a woman scorned” to make his point (129), attempting an appeal to what he seems to think is a shared agreement–women, right? This movement from an individual woman–Potiphar’s wife–to all women: “a woman scorned,” is surely overdone and not a little insulting. Lennox’s implication seems to be that Potiphar’s wife’s attempt to frame Joseph is just what we ought to expect from a woman who was trying to seduce a man like Joseph. But this is the very kind of generalizing from abusive behavior to excuses that has led to so many problems in the world and church around the topic of abuse. I was surprised to see this, but then Lennox follows it with another disappointing statement, saying that Potiphar’s wife “denounced Joseph to the other servants, playing the race card” (129). This “race card” was that Potiphar’s wife blamed Joseph due to his being a Hebrew (Genesis 39:13-15). But the use of “race card” in this way is clearly pejorative. Lennox doesn’t give any further context for this statement, but this kind of terminology is often used to denounce those who point to real, current abuses happening due to people’s race. What makes it particularly odd is that Lennox puts this apparent condemnation of lumping whole groups together right next to his own action doing the same (“race card” means calling Joseph Hebrew to denounce him is bad, but in the very same paragraph Lennox uses “a woman scorned” to reference the “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” proverb that implies all women act in this manner). It’s an alarming and disappointing series of discussions from Lennox in this section.
Joseph: A Story of Love, Hate, Slavery, Power, and Forgiveness is a competent look at a beautiful story. Lennox gives much by way of background, but derives most of the details from other sources. When he makes contemporary applications, they are quite uneven. The theological leanings of the reader will most likely be the determining factor in one’s enjoyment.
Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of the book for review by the publisher. I was not required to give any specific kind of feedback whatsoever.
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