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.
Everyone knows about Joseph and his fancy coat. He was the one with the dreams of greatness about how his brothers and his parents would bow down to him. Joseph was the favorite son, the one his father loved best, and the one who seemed to rub that in the faces of his brothers. That’s why they hated him and tried to kill him, and that’s why they sold him into Egypt as a slave. Everyone knows that story, and they know how Joseph was thrown into prison because his Egyptian master’s wife falsely accused him of attempted rape. They know what happened next: that while in prison Joseph interpreted the dreams of Pharaoh’s chief butler and baker, and eventually that’s what opened the way for him to get out of prison. Even people who have never read the Bible know Joseph’s story. It makes for good theater, as Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber and Sir Tim Rice showed us with Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and as we learned with the DreamWorks animated movie, Joseph: King of Dreams. That’s why I’m not going to write about Joseph. I’m going to write about the awkward and uncomfortable story of his older brother Judah.
There was a time I wrestled with God. The wrestling match began in my teenage years, when I detected certain inconsistencies in the instruction handed down from my elders. From my Southern Baptist church and family I learned that God had given free will to every human being, and that we could choose whether to follow Him or not. From my Presbyterian school I learned that God had foreordained everything, and that a process called predestination somehow influenced the choices we make. This was not the only inconsistency encountered in my Christian upbringing; there were and still are many. The question of free will and predestination, however, shaped the context of my wrestling with God from the beginning. I had no reason to doubt the sincerity of my elders, nor had I reason to question the truth of what they taught me. What I questioned was how these seemingly incompatible truths fit together. I still do not have the answer, but a very wise man helped me find a way through the dilemma. He was my Bible teacher. One day in class someone asked him to explain which was correct, free will or predestination. He may have been the only person in the school qualified to answer that question. He was an ordained Baptist minister, and had had ample opportunity to consider the subject as he taught Bible in our Presbyterian academy. His answer was surprisingly Hebraic, both imminently satisfying and frightfully frustrating: he asked us if both concepts were present in the Bible. When we said yes, he said, “Then they both must be true.” And that was the end of the matter.
We see from Scripture that the Creator’s processes are lengthy, thorough, and often completely different from what humans desire or expect. This should not be a surprise. YHVH says quite plainly that His ways are not our ways and His thoughts are not our thoughts. Nevertheless, He does tell us what we need to know, and He reveals things at the appointed times to those who bother to seek Him. What we often learn is that the answer has been there all along, but we have never understood it correctly until the right time and until we approach with the right heart. When it comes to the purpose of the Lord’s processes regarding His people Israel, the answer has been staring at us for about 3,000 years. He spoke it through Moses to prepare the people for their first great meeting with Him at Sinai:
In the third month after the sons of Israel had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that very day they came into the wilderness of Sinai. When they set out from Rephidim, they came to the wilderness of Sinai and camped in the wilderness; and there Israel camped in front of the mountain. Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob and tell the sons of Israel: You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Myself. Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the sons of Israel.” (Exodus 19:1-6 NASB, emphasis added)
Managing Expectations: Case Studies in God’s Processes
Ancient Hair Care
One of the most colorful characters in the Bible is Samson, the Judge of Israel from the tribe of Dan. His story is in Judges 13-16. It begins like this:
Now there was a certain man from Zorah, of the family of the Danites, whose name was Manoah; and his wife was barren and had no children. And the Angel of the Lord appeared to the woman and said to her, “Indeed now, you are barren and have borne no children, but you shall conceive and bear a son. Now therefore, please be careful not to drink wine or similar drink, and not to eat anything unclean. For behold, you shall conceive and bear a son. And no razor shall come upon his head, for the child shall be a Nazirite to God from the womb; and he shall begin to deliver Israel out of the hand of the Philistines.” (Judges 13:2-5 NKJV, emphasis added)