When I was twelve years old, we read a short story called The Scarlet Ibis by James Hurst in my Grade 7 English class. The dying ibis that lands in a tree in the backyard, my teacher explained, was an example of foreshadowing, the author letting us know in advance about the tragedy to come. I was entranced. To this day when someone mentions foreshadowing, I see a scarlet ibis in my mind.
The Bible is full of foreshadowing as well, but of a special kind. Throughout the Old Testament are figures whose lives predict to greater or lesser degree what the Christ would be like, called types. The first one we encounter is Joseph, around 1850 years B.C., whose life story shows four key aspects of Jesus’ character and mission.
Every knee shall bow
Joseph was the Abraham’s grandson, the son of Jacob and his favourite wife, Rachel. As sign of his special affection for Joseph, Jacob gave him a robe of many colours, stirring up jealousy among his other sons. To add insult to injury, Joseph was quick to share the dreams he had with them in which his brothers, father and mother all bowed down to him.
Who Jesus was and would be was not apparent to his family either. After all, while his conception was unusual, he was born a regular baby, grew up among many siblings and even though he was sinless, still managed to drive his parents crazy at least once. But after his resurrection, his mother and at least one brother (James) believed in him as their Saviour and were founding members of the first church in Jerusalem. Even before Jesus' birth, we know his earthly father accepted that the baby to be born would be the Messiah. One day they will be among those who bow down to the returning King.
When they can’t stand his tattling and preening any longer, Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery and he is brought to Egypt where Potiphar, Pharaoh’s captain of the guard, buys him. He proves to be so diligent and trustworthy that Potiphar eventually makes him chief servant and leaves the running of the household to him. Potiphar’s wife takes notice of him, too, but not for his attention to detail. Day after day, he refuses her advances, until in frustration she accuses him of trying to seduce her. Joseph is thrown in jail, but just as in Potiphar’s household, he finds favour with the warden and winds up managing the prison.
Jesus, likewise, has had all things given into his hands (John 13:3). He left the riches of heaven and became poor and must have felt imprisoned in his earthly body. The Gospels record his life as one of chastity and celibacy.
In prison, Joseph discovers he can interpret the dreams of two of his fellow prisoners. Both, he realizes, will be released shortly, one to return to his former position in Pharaoh's court, and the other to be executed. Eventually, Joseph gets to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams and gets promoted from jail to prime minister.
In Jesus, we also see this prophetic role. He can read men’s thoughts and he prophesies about the end of the world.
Bread for the world
Pharaoh’s dreams have shown Joseph that seven years of bumper crops will be followed by seven years of famine. During the years of plenty, Joseph leads a program to buy up the surplus, and during the years of famine, he sells it back to the people of Egypt and beyond. Joseph’s brothers are also affected by the shortages and come to buy grain from the Egyptians, not suspecting it is their little brother who is now saving the world.
I love this aspect of the foreshadowing best. Jesus is also the saviour of the world, not through an ambitious government program, but through his own body. I am the Bread of Life, he says in John 6:35. This part of the story also foreshadows Jews and Gentiles coming to Christ for spiritual food. In a way, you can think of the Egyptians as the Gentiles, who are taking advantage of Joseph’s program in great number, and of Jacob and his family as the Jews who come a little later, but who are reunited with Joseph in the end, as Paul predicts will happen in Romans 11.
In The Scarlet Ibis, James Hurst makes it plain that the bird’s death is significant when the narrator says, “It is strange that all this is still so clear to me now.” We don’t really know what he means until the end of the story when we can marvel at how beautifully Hurst ties the imagery of the red bird to his brother's death. Same with the story of Joseph. It’s only from our vantage point, knowing how the story ends, that we can see the connections between Jesus and Joseph.