|Vayechi 5769 - Joseph and the Scandal of Chosenness|
by Rabbi Russ Resnik
Then Israel said to Joseph, "I am about to die; but God will be with you and bring you back to the land of your fathers. And now, I assign to you one portion more than to your brothers . . ." (Gen. 48:21-22a)
As Israel recently mounted its counter-attack against Hamas in the Gaza strip, demonstrators rose up in cities around the world to protest. Many of us asked where the demonstrators were during the seven or eight years of unprovoked Palestinian rocket attacks against Israeli civilian population centers. Of course, this double standard is an old story, and we can assemble many explanations for it, but one explanation is that opposition to the state of Israel reflects opposition to the people Israel as a chosen people. The Scriptures clearly portray the children of Israel as uniquely chosen by God--and the nations as repeatedly rejecting that choice.
The idea that God would choose any group above another, that he would have any sort of chosen people at all, is at odds with the dominant worldviews of today. Indeed, the idea that God would have a uniquely chosen son is scandalous to many, which helps explain the opposition and offense we often encounter at the very name of Yeshua.
We can read the entire story of Joseph, which takes up the final four parashiyot of Genesis, in terms of election--the father's prerogative to choose whom he will, and the imperative for the sons to affirm and support that choice.
As the story unfolds, Jacob openly favors Joseph, and Joseph's brothers reject that choice.
Joseph trumpets his election by recounting two dreams in which he sees his brothers and parents symbolically bowing before him. Jacob rebukes Joseph, saying,
Nevertheless, he soon sends Joseph to check up on the brothers and bring a report back to him--another blatant sign of favoritism. When Joseph comes upon his brothers, they reject not just him, but especially his elect status, symbolized by the special tunic his father had given him:
We sometimes read this story through the lens of modern parenting theories. Jacob's open favoritism toward Joseph seems wrongheaded, especially after Joseph's two-fold dream of domination. We might even think that Jacob contributed to the delinquency of his sons by showing such partiality toward Joseph. But the point of the story when we read it on its own terms seems completely different. It is about the father's choice, and the imperative for the sons to honor the father's choice, if they want to claim to honor the father.
This reading of the story turns on Joseph's test of his brothers when they finally appear before him in Egypt. Unless we understand what Joseph wants to accomplish, it looks like he is just tormenting his brothers. But no, he discerns that now Benjamin has become the favored son, and he arranges a test to see how the brothers will respond to that choice.
When this chosen son is framed, charged with theft, and arrested, Judah speaks up. He says that all the brothers are guilty and should all remain as slaves to Joseph. This triggers the test: Joseph gives them the opportunity to reject the chosen one, just as they once rejected him, and go home in peace: "Only he in whose possession the goblet was found shall be my slave; the rest of you go back in peace to your father" (Gen. 44:17).
But to redeem themselves from the sin of rejecting Joseph the chosen one, the brothers must rescue Benjamin the chosen one. They must honor the father's prerogative to choose whom he will, and do all they can to support that choice.
As a midrash on this passage, we can picture father Jacob as Father God, his sons as the nations of humankind, and the chosen son, first Joseph and then Benjamin, as Israel. As the brothers reject the father's choice of Joseph, so the nations reject the election of Israel, and so dishonor the father-even the Christian nations that claim to honor God. Redemption comes only when the ten brothers submit to the father's choice and make it their own. Just as they sought to undo the father's choice through their rejection of Joseph, now their representative, Judah, will put his own life on the line to rescue Benjamin.
This test is not only about honoring the Father's choice, but also about restoring the wholeness of the family. Will the brothers support the father's choice of Benjamin to reverse their rejection of Joseph? Will they sacrifice their own self-interest to preserve the wholeness of the family? Joseph offers them safe passage back to the father without Benjamin; God's salvation, however, is never just an individual matter but must include all Israel. Salvation is not about me coming home to God, but must include welcoming Messiah back to all Israel. Will the brothers sacrifice their own interests to restore the family, or will they grasp at personal salvation, even if it means sacrificing a brother?
Joseph tests his brothers by returning them to their earlier scene of failure, because only there can true repentance be revealed.
Honoring the father, they have learned, means standing for the wholeness of his family, the family of Israel.
Judah's plea to Joseph demonstrates that he has turned away from his defiance of his father's choice that had torn the family apart. Now he will put his life on the line to support the father's choice and restore the family.
Judah, representing all the sons of Jacob, and in our midrash representing the nations, finally honors the father's choice, and thus repairs the damage the brothers did by rejecting the father's choice. As if to reiterate this theme, in this week's parasha Jacob maintains his choice of Joseph until the end.
God stubbornly maintains his choice of Israel, despite all our shortcomings. He stubbornly desires that the nations recognize that choice. Moreover, Joseph in this story is also a type of Messiah, the uniquely chosen one who is rejected by his own brothers. God seeks those who will affirm his choice of the children of Israel, and of the Messiah of Israel, Yeshua the Nazarene. This dual recognition is the task of the Messianic Jewish community and those who stand with us.
We need a sense in the Messianic Jewish community that we cannot go up in peace without our brother, that we cannot be whole apart from the wholeness of the house of Israel. We need a sense that the life of the father is bound up with the life of the chosen son (44:30), and so our lives must be as well. Can we respond as Judah did, and put our lives at the disposal of God and his purposes for all Israel?
Please remember to pray for protection for Israeli troops, including many Messianic young people, for protection for all civilians on both sides of the conflict, and for wisdom and guidance for Israel's leaders during this difficult time.