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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There are many charges raised against the historicity of the birth narratives of Jesus Christ. These run the gamut from objections based upon alleged contradictions to inconsistencies in the genealogies to incredulity over the possibility of a virgin birth. Rather than make a case to rebut each of these objections in turn, here I will focus upon using undesigned coincidences to note how these birth narratives of Christ have the ring of truth. How exactly do undesigned coincidences work? Simply put, they are incidental details that confirm historical details of stories across reports. I have written more extensively on how these can be used as an argument for the historicity of the Gospels: Undesigned Coincidences- The Argument Stated. It should be noted that the birth narrative occurs only in Matthew and Luke. John begins with a direct link of Christ to God, while Mark characteristically skips ahead to the action. Thus, there are only a few places to compare these stories across different reports. However, both Mark and John have incidental details which hint at the birth account. These incidental details lend power to the notion that the birth narratives of Jesus are historical events.
First, there is one undesigned coincidence that is such a gaping hole and such a part of these narratives most people will probably miss it. Namely, what in the world was Joseph thinking in Luke!? Do not take my word for this–look up Luke chapters 1-2. Read them. See anything missing? That’s right! Joseph, who is pledged to a virgin named Mary (1:27) doesn’t say anything at all about the fact that his bride-to-be is suddenly pregnant. There is no mention of him worrying at all about it.
So far as we can tell from Luke, Joseph, who we only know as a descendant of David here, is going to be wed to a virgin and then finds out that she’s pregnant. He’s not the father? What’s his reaction? We don’t find out until Luke 2, where Joseph simply takes Mary with him to be counted in the census, dutifully takes Jesus to the Temple, and that’s about it. Isn’t he wondering anything about this child? It’s not his! What happened?
Only by turning to Matthew 1:18ff do we find out that Joseph did have his second thoughts, but that God sent an angel explaining that Mary had not been unfaithful, and that the baby was a gift of the Holy Spirit. So we have an explanation for why Joseph acted as he did in Luke. Now these are independent accounts, and it would be hard to say that Luke just decided to leave out the portion about Joseph just because he wanted to have Matthew explain his account.
The genealogies of Jesus that Matthew and Luke include are different, but they reflect the meta-narratives going on within each Gospel. Luke’s narrative generally points out the women throughout in a positive light, and it is often argued that his genealogy traces the line of Mary. Matthew, writing to a Jewish audience, traces through Jesus’ legal father, Joseph. Now it could be argued that these are simply reflections of the authors’ imaginations within their fictional accounts, but surely including names with descendants tracing all the way back to Abraham and beyond is not a good way to construct a fictional account. No, Matthew and Luke include the genealogies because their accounts are grounded in history.
Interestingly, the birth narratives of Jesus also help explain the events reported in Mark and John, which do not report His birth. What of the apparent familiarity John had with Jesus in Mark 1:3ff and John 1:19ff? It seems a bit odd for John to go around talking about someone else “out there” who will be better in every way than he himself is without knowing who this other person is. Well, looking back at Matthew and Luke, we find that Mary and Elizabeth (John’s mother) knew each other and had visited each other during their pregnancy. It seems a foregone conclusion that they continued to interact with each other after the births of their sons, which would explain John’s apparent familiarity with Jesus in Mark and John.
Strangely, Mark never mentions Joseph as Jesus’ father. If all we had was Mark’s Gospel, we would be very confused about who Jesus’ father is. The oddness is compounded by the fact that Mary is mentioned a number of times. Well okay, that still seems pretty incidental. But what about the fact that Mark explicitly has a verse where he lists Mary as well as Jesus’ siblings?
Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. (Mark 6:3, ESV)
This verse seems extremely weird. After all, Joseph was a carpenter (well, a more accurate translation is probably “craftsman”) and yet despite Mark explicitly using that word for Jesus, as well as listing Mary and Jesus’ siblings, we still see nothing but silence regarding Jesus’ father. Well, of course! After all, when we turn to the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke, we find that Jesus was born of a virgin. Jesus had no human father. Thus, Mark, ever the concise master of words, simply omits Joseph from details about Jesus’ life. But to not mention Jesus’ father in a largely patriarchal society alongside his mother and siblings seems extremely strange. It is only explained by the fact of the virgin birth, with which Mark would have been familiar. However, Mark didn’t see the birth narrative as important in his “action Gospel.” Only by turning to Matthew and Luke do we find an explanation for the strange omission of Joseph from Mark’s Gospel.
I have listed just a few undesigned coincidences to be gleaned from the birth narratives of Jesus. The fact of the matter is that these can be multiplied almost indefinitely if one looks at the whole of the Gospels, and even moreso if one investigates the whole Bible. These incidental details fit together in such a way as to give the Gospels the ring of truth. The way that Matthew fills in details of Luke, Mark demonstrates his familiarity with the birth narratives, and the intimate connections of Jesus and John are all cross-confirmed is both incidental and amazing. The claim is not that based upon these incidences alone the Gospel accounts are true. No, the claim is that those who challenge the truth of these accounts must account for these incidences in a way that is more plausible than that they simply occur when people relate history. It seems that the only way to do that would be to resort to outlandish narratives that involve the four authors sitting together and discussing which portions of stories to leave out so the others can fill them in. No, instead it seems much more likely that these four authors were writing what they had witnessed–or received from eyewitness testimony, and just as we do when recounting events (think of 9/11, for example, and the different things people remember) they wrote specific details they felt were important or part of the narrative, while the others found other things more important or had other incidental knowledge related to the events they recorded.
The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.