Bickle, Benjamin, and the All-Israel Narrative

When Evangelical pastor Mike Bickle endorsed Ted Cruz for President earlier this month, Cruz gratefully accepted his endorsement, but some Jewish commentators rose up to object. Bickle claims that he is staunchly pro-Jewish and pro-Israel, but in an op-ed entitled “Why Ted Cruz’s Preacher Sidekick is No Friend of the Jews or Israel” Sarah Posner attacks this claim.

Bickle’s teaching is unequivocal: Jews must accept Jesus in order to accomplish God’s will that Jesus return to Jerusalem to rule the world from his throne on the Temple Mount. It’s hard to imagine how a Zionist of any stripe would define this position as pro-Israel.

I don’t follow Bickle, but I’m familiar with the general position that he seems to be espousing. Posner, inevitably, is providing a simplistic version, but she gets the basics right—yes, God’s will is for Jesus to return to Jerusalem to rule all the nations, and this return is linked to Jewish recognition of Jesus. Yeshua himself told Jerusalem, “You won’t see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’” (Matt 23:39). Posner uses her summary to raise a common Jewish objection to Evangelical Christians who claim to love Israel and the Jewish people: How can you claim to love us if you believe, as she writes, that “Jews and Israel must repent for not accepting Jesus as the Messiah”? In other words, how can you say you love the Jewish people if you think we all really should convert and become Christians?

I’m not writing this to defend Bickle or Cruz. In fact, I think it’s a bad idea for a religious leader to publicly endorse a specific candidate. But I have to question Posner’s objection. Many Christians across a broad spectrum—not just pro-Israel Evangelicals—believe in the return of the Messiah and in some version of the Kingdom of God. What’s controversial here is the belief that this divine intervention into human history won’t happen apart from a Jewish response to Jesus. Contra Posner, this belief can be understood as pro-Jewish because it sees God as so invested in the Jewish people that he’s not going to wrap up his plan of world redemption, which is to be executed by Messiah Yeshua, without them.

Posner interprets such belief as anti-Jewish because her definition of Jewishness starts with not believing in Jesus. In fact, it starts even earlier with the axiom that Jesus isn’t and can’t possibly be the Jewish Messiah. Therefore, Jews do not believe in Jesus; and therefore if a Jew does believe in Jesus, he/she stops being a Jew. She’s telling Christians, “You want all Jews to believe in Jesus; therefore, you want the Jewish people (and Israel) to cease to exist.”

It’s a circular argument: Jesus can’t possibly be the Jewish Messiah. Therefore, Jews do not believe in Jesus. Therefore, if a Jew does believe in Jesus, he/she stops being a Jew. Therefore, Jesus can’t possibly be the Jewish Messiah.

But for a Jew to believe in Yeshua means that we believe he actually is the Jewish Messiah, and therefore his story, properly understood, not only allows but demands that we remain Jewish when we accept him. Understood this way, his story benefits all Israel, and is decidedly pro-Jewish.

One of the greatest moments of the biblical narrative illustrates this reality.

The scene is the Egyptian court where Joseph presides, unrecognized by his brothers, who had sold him into slavery 22 years earlier. The brothers had come to Egypt to buy food from Joseph, who is now prime minister under Pharaoh. To test the brothers, Joseph has manipulated them into bringing Benjamin, Jacob’s youngest and favored son (now that Joseph is gone), down to Egypt on a return trip. Joseph frames Benjamin as a thief and threatens him with life-long servitude for his supposed crime. At this point Judah steps forward from the pack of brothers and appeals directly to Joseph, on Benjamin’s behalf:

“Your servant has pledged himself for the boy to my father, saying, ‘If I do not bring him back to you, I shall stand guilty before my father forever.’ Therefore, please let your servant remain as a slave to my lord instead of the boy, and let the boy go back with his brothers. For how can I go back to my father unless the boy is with me? Let me not be witness to the woe that would overtake my father!” (Gen. 44:32–34 JPS Tanakh)

Judah offers himself in the place of Benjamin. He will redeem Benjamin by becoming Joseph’s slave “instead of the lad.” Jewish commentator Leon Kass highlights the significance of this act:

This is, without a doubt, Judah’s finest moment. Judah volunteers to be “the ram”—“instead of the lad” (tachath hana’ar; compare, in the story of the binding of Isaac, “instead of his son” tachath beno; 23:13). His magnanimous and self-sacrificing offer to remain as Joseph’s slave in Benjamin’s stead is unparalleled in the book of Genesis . . . (The Beginning of Wisdom, p. 602)

Judah, of course, is the ancestor of the Messiah, and his action here hints at the sacrificial work of the Messiah to come. In Messianic Jewish circles, we tend to recount Judah’s deed within what I call the Benjamin narrative. Benjamin is doomed, in bondage, with no way to help himself, and Judah offers himself in exchange for him. I was doomed, in bondage, with no way to help myself, and Messiah Yeshua offered himself in exchange for me.

What stands out in Judah’s plea, however, is his concern not for Benjamin, but for his father. He doesn’t ask Joseph to have mercy on Benjamin, but on Jacob. Likewise, Joseph’s test of his brothers isn’t ultimately about their attitude toward Benjamin, or even toward himself, but about their attitude toward their father. Joseph’s goal isn’t just to get his brothers to repent of their treatment of him, and demonstrate their repentance through their treatment of Benjamin. His goal is the restoration of Jacob’s entire family, the household of Israel, which depends on the whole household honoring and supporting Jacob and what he values most.

Judah’s plea is compelling because its focus is on the father: “For how can I go back to my father unless the boy is with me? Let me not be witness to the woe that would overtake my father!” Joseph’s immediate reaction reveals the same focus. He is so moved by Judah’s plea that he can’t control himself any longer. He dismisses all his attendants and turns to his brothers, “Ani Yosef! Ha-od avi chai? I am Joseph! Is my father still alive?” (45:3a). Honoring and serving their father, Israel, will make the family, the house of Israel, whole again.

The Benjamin narrative is about the individual, but it’s the all-Israel narrative that drives this story.

Messiah Yeshua supports the all-Israel narrative when he tells his disciples, “Truly I tell you, in the regeneration, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matt 19:28). Rav Shaul supports the all-Israel narrative when he tells the Roman believers, “all Israel will be saved” (Rom. 11:26).

When we frame the good news of Messiah with the Benjamin narrative, we play into the sort of criticism that Sarah Posner lodges. Thank God for individual salvation, but God forbid that it should make us think that we somehow depart from Israel when we accept Yeshua. The Messianic Jewish community is not just a collection of rescued individuals. The all-Israel narrative insists that we remain within Israel, in solidarity with Israel, especially when we accept Yeshua, the Jewish Messiah.

Advertisements

5 thoughts on “Bickle, Benjamin, and the All-Israel Narrative”

  1. Excellent commentary. I have been blessed to track this mystery since the Six Day War, but it wasn’t until 2004 when I had first contact with you and begin reading commentary from the writers and scholars within the UMJC, that I found answers to many of my questions. In my opinion, your Insight, and the overall scholarship found within the UMJC, is simply the best. Thank you, and blessings to all who endeavor to “show us where the Good Way is”. It is here we will “find rest for our souls”. Nancy Carman, one from the nations

  2. “It’s a circular argument: Jesus can’t possibly be the Jewish Messiah. Therefore, Jews do not believe in Jesus. Therefore, if a Jew does believe in Jesus, he/she stops being a Jew. Therefore, Jesus can’t possibly be the Jewish Messiah.”

    You are missing the bigger picture. I think the biggest issue Jews take with Christianity is not the supposed “messiaship” of Jesus, but the fact that Christians want Jews to embrace Jesus, a human being and a fellow Jew who lived and died two thousand years ago, as their god, to worship him as a deity. In addition to this, many Christians, especially the Evangelical ones, believe that those Jews who refuse to do so (that is to submit to Jesus as to a god) will be doomed to eternity of unimaginable torture.

    So, it’s not hard to explain near-universal Jewish revulsion with Christianity when one considers these “minor” details.

    1. Gene,
      You’re presenting a case for why most Jews think that “Jesus can’t possibly be the Jewish Messiah,” but that belief is still part of the circular argument that I cite in the article. I’m not going to address the issue of the deity of Messiah in this venue, but I will say that the idea that Jews who don’t recognize Yeshua “will be doomed to an eternity of unimaginable torture” isn’t part of my belief system and is not a necessary part of Messianic–or Christian–faith in general. Shabbat Shalom.

  3. Brilliant, clear, compelling, and the Judah/Benjamin/Jacob metaphor is new to me. Loved it! Your argument is like what one author (Howard Butts) called “an iron fist in a velvet glove”–strong, commanding, but gently presented. KUDOS!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s