Joseph and the Hero’s Journey

Parashat Vayigash, Genesis 44:18–47:27

When Joseph said, “I am Joseph,” God’s master plan became clear to the brothers. They had no more questions. Everything that had happened for the last twenty-two years fell into perspective. So, too, will it be in the time to come, when God will reveal Himself and announce, “I am Hashem!” The veil will be lifted from our eyes and we will comprehend everything that has transpired throughout history. (Chafetz Chaim, cited in the Artscroll Chumash, Gen. 45:3)

The Hero’s Journey is one of the great themes of literature, dating back to the myths and legends of ancient times. The hero starts out poor or unqualified or misunderstood and soon must leave home. He or she is driven into exile, or is sent on a dangerous mission, to a different and dangerous realm. There he faces fierce, often supernatural, opposition, as well as defeat and captivity, but is transformed through it all and finally set free. The journey must be completed by returning home with new powers, which become a source of blessing and salvation for the family or tribe. Through it all, the hero has a mentor or guardian, who guides him to victory in the end. It’s an ancient story, rooted in the human psyche, but today’s therapeutic culture sometimes tries to update it by leaving out the mentor in favor of human potentiality, or doing without the return home so that the hero can become a whole new person of his or her own imagining. The true hero’s journey, however, ends with a return home.

Joseph’s journey follows the classic route. His betrayal into slavery in Egypt launches the journey and he brings it home when he reveals himself to his brothers. He can’t return to the promised land yet, but he gathers his brothers together in Egypt to declare, “I am Yosef! Is my father still alive?” (Gen. 45:3). Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, explains how he arrived at his position in Egypt, describes his plan to save them from the famine, and concludes, “and bring my father here with all speed.” His journey won’t be over until he’s reunited with his father. “Then he embraced his brother Binyamin and wept, and Binyamin wept on his neck, and he kissed all his brothers and wept on them. After that, his brothers talked with him” (Gen. 45:14-15).

The modern scholar Nahum Sarna comments:

So far the brothers have not uttered a word. It is only after this emotional embrace that their consternation is overcome. They are now able to communicate with Joseph, something they were unable to do when he lived among them as a boy. (JPS Torah Commentary, Genesis, 310)

The brothers are being healed of an estrangement that goes back to their earliest years. Joseph, the hero who has returned, is able to bring healing to the broken family of Jacob.

We sometimes speak of Joseph as a forerunner or sign of a Messiah to come. Rabbinic literature notes the messianic qualities of Joseph, and includes some discussion of Mashiach ben Yosef, Messiah the son of Joseph (e.g. Suk. 52a, b). Joseph is rejected by his brothers, sold into slavery to the gentile powers, buried in a dungeon, and finally raised up again to be the source of salvation for all peoples, especially his own people, the sons of Israel. But, on the way to saving his family, Joseph’s identity is hidden from them. His story isn’t complete until he finally “returns home” as his brothers recognize him (Gen. 42:8). The Voice of the Turtledove, a rabbinic study of Mashiach ben Yosef, discusses this theme of postponed recognition:

This is one of the traits of Joseph not only in his own generation, but in every generation, i.e., that Mashiach ben Yosef recognizes his brothers, but they do not recognize him. This is the work of Satan, who hides the characteristics of Mashiach ben Yosef so that the footsteps of the Mashiach are not recognized and are even belittled because of our many sins . . . Were Israel to recognize Joseph, that is, the footsteps of ben Yosef the Mashiach which is the ingathering of the exiles, etc., then we would already have been redeemed with a complete redemption.[1]

When the rabbis speak of the unrecognized Messiah, of course, they are not at all thinking of Yeshua, Jesus of Nazareth. And yet it’s remarkable how closely Yeshua’s story aligns with Joseph’s story and the portrayal of Messiah ben Joseph. Yeshua is rejected by his brothers, cast out from the household of Israel, given over to death under the dominant Gentile power, and then raised from the dead. He becomes the source of salvation to the nations, while his own nation, Israel, cannot recognize him. Yeshua’s identity is cloaked by his sojourn in the Gentile world, as Joseph’s was cloaked by his high position in the court of Egypt. He speaks a language that his brothers cannot understand, although he always understands theirs. For his hero’s journey to be complete, however, he must return home and be reunited with his brothers.

The rejection by (most of) Israel and the failure of (most of) Israel to recognize Yeshua as their own deliverer becomes the source of salvation to the nations, as Paul notes in his letter to the Romans:

In that case, I say, isn’t it that [the people of Israel] have stumbled with the result that they have permanently fallen away?” Heaven forbid! Quite the contrary, it is by means of their stumbling that the deliverance has come to the Gentiles, in order to provoke them to jealousy (Rom 11:11 CJB).

It’s just a step from there to the idea, captured in the rabbinic texts above, that Israel’s recognition of Messiah ben Joseph is linked with redemption for both Israel and the nations. “For if their casting Yeshua aside means reconciliation for the world, what will their accepting him mean? It will be life from the dead!” (Rom 11:15 CJB).

For many of us in the Messianic Jewish community, our initial encounter with Yeshua as Messiah launched a journey away from our Jewish homes and family, a journey that often included testing and estrangement. But for it to be a hero’s journey like that of Joseph or even Messiah himself, it must include a return to our Jewish homeland. Whatever rescue and transformation we’ve received from God should issue forth in blessing for our people. So it was with Joseph, who told his brothers,

But don’t be sad that you sold me into slavery here or angry at yourselves, because it was God who sent me ahead of you to preserve life. . . . God sent me ahead of you to ensure that you will have descendants on earth and to save your lives in a great deliverance. So it was not you who sent me here, but God.” (Gen. 45:5, 7-8a CJB)

Like Joseph, Yeshua is estranged from his own brothers, the household of Israel, and yet as with Joseph, his heart is always with them. It’s a good reminder in this day of individualism and autonomy. Joseph cannot and will not complete his hero’s journey apart from his brothers, and neither will Messiah himself. And so we, who follow him, must even more surely remain connected to his people and their destiny.



[1] Kol HaTor 2:39, trans., R. Shaklover, The Voice of the Turtledove. The book is ascribed to a direct disciple of the 18th century Gaon of Vilna, but its authenticity is disputed. Even if it’s a more recent work, however, it reflects much older portrayals of Messiah ben Joseph.


1 thought on “Joseph and the Hero’s Journey”

  1. Excellent commentary on this amazing story. Those of us from the nations are blessed beyond measure when we grasp the height, depth and breath of the invitation from Yeshua that also invites us, “Come to Me all of you who are weary and heavy laden. Take my yoke upon yourself and learn of me, for I am meek and lowly in heart and you will find rest for your soul.” (wording mine)

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