My friend and colleague Seth Klayman led a group discussion last week at the Messianic Leadership Roundtable in Phoenix, on “Building Trust While Approaching Gentiles and the Torah in our Communities.” Trust was the theme of the whole event, and Seth applied that theme to the thorny issue of Jews, Gentiles, and Torah within the Messianic Jewish community. He opened with the idea that we steward “two profound truths” in our community: “(1) God has cut an enduring covenant with Israel as a distinct people; and (2) Gentile believers are ‘brought near’ to Israel, resulting in a deep unity of Jew and Gentile in Yeshua. Therefore, we embrace both Jewish ‘distinction’ and Messianic ‘inclusivity.’”
Clear enough, but the discussion threatened to turn into train wreck. As soon as it left the station, participants jumped out of their seats, raised their voices at each other, and even pointed fingers once or twice. Rabbi Seth handled the controls calmly enough to keep the train on the rails, and bring it home with no evident injuries. On the surface we were talking about the “One Law” question; whether the Torah applies differently to Jews and Gentiles, whether some aspects of Torah are specifically given as identity markers for the Jewish people and aren’t intended for non-Jews, even within the Messianic Jewish community. Beneath the surface, though, there was clearly something else going on. At one point Seth asked us, “Why do you think this topic stirs up such emotions?”
The answer that popped into my mind was, “Sibling rivalry.” I’m currently working on a book that explores the story of Joseph and his brothers from a family systems perspective. The most visible family dynamic in the story is the rivalry between Joseph and his brothers, which is a rivalry over the favor of their father, Jacob. Sibling rivalry, however, doesn’t only shape what’s going on among our ancestors in ancient days; it drives current events in the religious world of 2016.
We usually refer to this long section of Genesis (chapters 37-50) as “The Joseph Story,” but as another friend and colleague, Jeff Feinberg, notes in his book Walk Genesis! (Baltimore: Lederer Books, 1998) it’s Judah (or Y’hudah) who really turns things around. “Y’hudah faces brotherly jealousies and the resulting sorrows caused to his father” (p. 196). In response, he offers himself in exchange for Benjamin, who is a sort of stand-in for Joseph, and potentially the target of all the same jealousies that had moved the brothers to get rid of Joseph years earlier.
Sibling rivalry is in play throughout Genesis, foreshadowed in Cain vs. Abel, and continuing with Ishmael vs. Isaac, Esau vs. Jacob, and now Jacob’s favored son Joseph vs. ten of his brothers. The remedy to sibling rivalry is not the 21st-century solution of unconditional equality and inclusion—in other words, not to eliminate the rivalry over the father’s favor by making all the sons equal favorites. The remedy is to repent of bucking the father’s favor of one son over the others and instead to embrace and support it. Y’hudah goes so far in this new and right direction that he’s willing to offer up himself in exchange for the evident new favorite, Benjamin.
Jeff Feinberg asks, “In what way do messianic gentiles face feelings similar to Y’hudah’s?” Is he alluding to the potential for sibling rivalry within the Messianic Jewish community, where gentile members might feel like all the emphasis is on the Jewish members? Or is he thinking of Christians in general as “messianic gentiles,” and noting the long and terrible history of Christian antisemitism, which is indeed rooted in sibling rivalry? The first possibility brings me back to the roundtable discussion last week, where the intensity reflected an unresolved, present-tense sibling rivalry. In fact, during that discussion someone (or was it more than one?) invoked the charge of gentiles as second-class citizens within our community. Y’hudah’s example is helpful here too: “He is even prepared to accept Leah, his mother, as a less loved wife—though at some level, Ya’akov’s favoritism must make him feel like a second-class son of Leah (Gen. 42:38).”
Here’s the verse that Jeff cites, Genesis 42:38 (with my added emphasis): “And Jacob said, ‘My son shall not go down with you; for his brother is dead, and he alone is left: if mischief befall him by the way in which you are going, then you would bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to the grave.’”
Jacob is speaking to Reuben here, but all the sons are listening in. Their father is refusing to send Benjamin down to Egypt with them, as the still-unrecognized Joseph is demanding, and favoritism is very much alive in his language. The 21st-century response would be, “What do you mean, My son? We’re all your sons!” or “What do you mean, He alone is left? You have ten other sons, and one of them is still in jail in Egypt!” But this response won’t fly here. It’s only as the brothers accept Jacob’s favoritism and, through their representative Judah, pay the price to protect it, that the story can move forward.
I see what the rabbis call a qal v’homer (light and heavy) or a fortiori interpretation here. If the brothers are supposed to embrace, support, and even sacrifice for their father’s favor of Joseph—even when their father displayed that favor unwisely and then openly transferred it onto a new favorite, Benjamin—how much more should all the gentile brothers support the Father’s favor upon Israel. The remedy for religious sibling rivalry isn’t to eliminate all distinctions within the Father’s family, but to support and honor the distinctions he has made. If there’s a call for Gentile members in the Messianic Jewish community to take a secondary role in support of ongoing Jewish calling in Messiah, I don’t see that as demeaning at all. Instead, it reflects the meaning of “Messianic” on a level far deeper than religious branding, “Messianic” as in emulation of Messiah Yeshua, who forsook status and the competition for status, and made it clear that second-class would be first.
Of course, there’s also a “Messianic” role for Messianic Jews to play on behalf of the Gentiles in our community. Like Messiah, we’re supposed to be a “light to the nations/Gentiles” (it’s the same word in Hebrew), who come to the house of the God of Jacob to learn his ways (Is. 2:3), and grab the cloak of a Jew saying, “We want to go with you, because we have heard that God is with you” (Zech 8:23). The Torah that we teach is articulated differently toward different groups, but it carries divine instruction for all. If Judah represents the Gentiles in this reading of Genesis, Joseph represents the Jews, especially Messianic Jews. God didn’t raise up Joseph to become a celebrity, but to serve his brothers. Perhaps our service means sharing an articulated, distinction-honoring, and life-giving Torah with all.