There are occasions when a story so compelling meets with a portrayal so moving and produces an effect so profound that it leaves the audience forever changed. Such is the case with The Deer Hunter, the 1978 drama of three young men from Pennsylvania who go to war in Vietnam. Under the direction of Michael Cimino, The Deer Hunter won several Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director, and nominations for Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep as Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress. For me, though, the most deserved award was for Christopher Walken as Best Supporting Actor in his role as Nick. As the story unfolds, Nick and his two friends Michael (De Niro) and Steven (John Savage) are captured by the North Vietnamese. They manage to escape, but only Michael returns home relatively unscathed. Steven survives, but loses his legs and his sanity. Nick never returns and is presumed dead. Yet someone is sending money anonymously to Steven, and Michael suspects it is Nick. He returns to Vietnam looking for his friend, but when he finds him Nick is almost unrecognizable. He has become a star attraction in a Saigon establishment that features nightly contests of Russian Roulette. As “The American” with considerable good luck, Nick piles up gambling profits for his employers, who give him his fair share and keep him supplied with drugs and other “necessities” so he will remain in their care. The only way Michael can reach Nick is by engaging him in a game of Russian Roulette, hoping that as they face death across the table from one another he can help Nick remember his identity and persuade him to come home. As might be expected, the contest ends badly.
In some ways the story of Joseph and his exile to Egypt resembles Nick’s tragic exile in Vietnam. Both men suffer loss of identity and separation from their homeland, and both are forgotten by their family and friends. Happily, though, Joseph’s story comes to a much better ending.
The familiarity of Joseph’s story all too often causes us to overlook the profound tragedy in it. Just as he is coming into manhood, this innocent youth is betrayed by his own brothers and suffers a fate worse than death: they consign him to exile in an alien land and then continue with their own lives as if nothing had happened other than removal of a pest. Father Jacob seems to be the only person who mourns Joseph, or at least the only one who keeps his memory alive. And all the while, the young exile becomes an adult in a place where the language, the customs, the gods, and the social structure are far different from anything he had known in his childhood.
One might expect that Joseph would give in to despair in the midst of such circumstances. Countless others have lost heart and died when thus separated from their homes and thrust into the bonds of slavery, but Joseph did not. He prospered in everything, and in his prosperity we find the key difference between Joseph and Nick: Joseph knew his God and held fast to Him. Even when he fell from his place as a privileged slave and became an unjustly accused prisoner, Joseph remained true to the Lord, although no doubt he questioned God continuously about why he had to suffer so grievously – and why his father never came to rescue him.
As we know from the account in Genesis, God gave Joseph a way out of prison one day. Pharaoh had a dream, and only Joseph could interpret it. The king’s dream foretold seven years of bountiful harvest, followed by seven years of terrible famine. In providing the interpretation, Joseph advised Pharaoh to appoint a wise man to oversee collection of the harvest during the good years so that enough could be set aside to provide food during the bad years. Pharaoh realized that he had no one in his realm more qualified than Joseph, so he appointed the young Hebrew as his Grand Vizier and put him in charge of the land. Not only that, but Pharaoh gave Joseph a new name, Zaphenath-paneah (“God speaks, he lives”), and a new wife: Asenath, daughter of the priest of On (Heliopolis), city of the sun god, Ra.
As the seven good years of harvest proceeded, Asenath gave birth to two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. Their names are important to us. Manasseh means “causing to forget”, and Ephraim means “doubly fruitful”. The Bible tells us why Joseph named them this way:
Joseph named the firstborn Manasseh, “For,” he said, “God has made me forget all my trouble and all my father’s household.” He named the second Ephraim, “For,” he said, “God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.” (Genesis 41:51-52 NASB)
In other words, while Joseph’s family were forgetting about him, he was forgetting about them. His own identity slipped away as he became more and more Egyptian. And yet Joseph did not forget his God, and neither did God forget him. All of his prosperity in Egypt resulted from his obedience to the Lord God, at least as far as he could be obedient in such an alien and hostile place. Thus God blessed him even more, giving him two fine sons and a new life in the most powerful and wealthy nation on earth.
Then something even more strange happened in the already strange life of this exiled Hebrew: Joseph’s brothers showed up. In the second year of the famine, they arrived looking for food, and Joseph recognized them immediately. Yet he was not able to make himself known to them right away. He had to find out a few things first. Would they be glad to see him? Would they welcome him back? Had his father ever acknowledged his absence? And if so, why had Jacob never made an effort to find him? Or perhaps were his brothers still the same selfish, vindictive lot that had plotted to kill him, and then let him be dragged away in the bonds of foreigners? It would not do for Joseph to reveal his identity before he knew the best way to do it, or even whether it would be better to leave things as they were.
Of course, Joseph did reveal himself eventually, but there were a series of tests first which proved that his brothers had indeed changed for the better. But before that there was something of great significance regarding Joseph’s uncomfortable place between two worlds. When the brothers traveled to Egypt the second time, bringing their youngest brother Benjamin with them, Joseph brought them into his home for a meal. Yet he did not eat with them, as the Scripture explains:
So they served him by himself, and them by themselves, and the Egyptians who ate with him by themselves, because the Egyptians could not eat bread with the Hebrews, for that is loathsome to the Egyptians. Now they were seated before him, the firstborn according to his birthright and the youngest according to his youth, and the men looked at one another in astonishment. He took portions to them from his own table, but Benjamin’s portion was five times as much as any of theirs. So they feasted and drank freely with him. (Genesis 43:32-34 NASB, emphasis added)
Do you see Joseph’s strange circumstances? He was lord of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh, but because he was Hebrew, he was unable to fellowship freely with the Egyptians. However, as lord of Egypt, he could not break the custom of the Egyptians and sit at table with his Hebrew brethren. Consequently, Joseph sat at a table by himself, with his Egyptian staff at another table, and his Hebrew brothers at a third table. No wonder Joseph felt so lonely and out-of-place. He wielded great power and possessed vast wealth, but he dwelt among a people who could never truly be his own, and who would never accept him as an equal. He could not even eat at the same table with his wife’s family. Joseph and Asenath probably had a difficult time balancing the desire to stay true to YHVH with the need and desire to spend time with their extended family, particularly on those joyous feast days to the sun god – provided, of course, that Joseph was even welcome in his father-in-law’s house. His identity was with the Hebrews, but he could not go to them, for they had cast him out and could not recognize him with his Egyptian garb and Egyptian speech and manners. Although he tried to forget who he was, neither the people he had married into nor the people who had thrust him out would let him do so, and his growing prosperity only served as a constant reminder of his strange place in the wilderness of the peoples.
It is interesting that Yeshua told His own version of Joseph’s story. It ended like this:
But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet; and bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’ And they began to celebrate. Now his older son was in the field, and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. And he summoned one of the servants and began inquiring what these things could be. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has received him back safe and sound.’ But he became angry and was not willing to go in; and his father came out and began pleading with him. But he answered and said to his father, ‘Look! For so many years I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours; and yet you have never given me a young goat, so that I might celebrate with my friends; but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him.’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.’ (Luke 15:20-32 NASB)
This is far more than just a story for a Hebrew Roots believer. We have come to understand our identity as Hebrews, those who have crossed over from death to life through the redeeming sacrificial work of Messiah Yeshua. Our eyes are opening to the fact that we have been exiled from our people for centuries, and that our true home is among the Commonwealth of Israel. We strive to keep the commandments of God, however imperfectly. The day on which we worship Him, the festivals we celebrate, and even the things we eat set us apart from kith and kin, and sometimes cause offense. Yet our brethren who have never left the fold of Israel do not even know us, and we cannot fellowship with them in openness and freedom. Long ago they rejected the One we know to be Messiah, and now it is odd at best and offensive at worst when we attempt to learn from them about the Torah of the God we mutually adore. We have prospered, but we are still aliens and strangers, and more so with each passing year. As with our ancestors, the only remedy is a change of heart among all the brethren. Only then can Joseph be revealed and dine freely with his restored family.