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Identity, Joseph, and the Hero’s Journey

The Lord’s long dialogue with Abraham opens with two words: Lekh l’kha (Gen 12:1). This phrase can be translated, “Go for yourself,” which Rashi interprets as “Go for your benefit and for your good.” It can also, and perhaps more literally, be translated “Go to yourself,” that is, go to find or to become who you are, to become a self, as a modern psychotherapist might put it. Family theorist Salvador Minuchin writes, “Human experience of identity has two elements: a sense of belonging and a sense of being separate.”1 Accordingly, Abram must separate himself from where he belongs—his homeland, his kindred, and his father’s house—and journey to a new place of belonging that God shows him. On this journey, he becomes the self he was meant to be: Abraham.

Abraham’s grandson Jacob must likewise journey away from his homeland to eventually become the one he was meant to be: Israel. Jacob’s son Joseph is also separated from his place of belonging to become who his early dreams pictured him to be, the rescuer and preeminent one of his family. The family narratives of Genesis portray identity as a free gift from God, but a gift that must also be tested through a long and arduous journey.

The Hero’s Journey

From the earliest times, myths and legends have recounted the quest for identity in the tale of the Hero’s Journey, a term introduced by Joseph Campbell in his influential book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces.2 The hero must leave home, pass into a foreign, and often mysterious realm, overcome great adversity, including death-like experiences or even death itself, be raised up out of his or her trials, and eventually return home with great powers to benefit his family or tribe. On the way, the hero often acquires a mentor or supernatural guide, and most of all, a new identity. Campbell wrote that the hero’s journey story was rooted in “the dynamics of the psyche”3 and reflected the process of individual identity formation.

The hero, therefore, is the man or woman who has been able to battle past his personal and local historical limitations. . . . Such a one’s visions, ideas, and inspirations come pristine from the primary springs of human life and thought. Hence they are eloquent, not of the present, disintegrating society and psyche, but of the unquenched source through which society is reborn. The hero has died as a modern man; but as eternal man—perfected, unspecific, universal man—he has been reborn. His second solemn task and deed therefore . . . is to return then to us, transfigured, and to teach the lesson he has learned of life renewed.4

For Campbell, the “primary springs of human life” and the “unquenched source” that brings renewal are found deep within the human psyche. “It is the realm that we enter in sleep. We carry it within ourselves forever.” The elements we encounter individually in dreams or collectively in myths are the archetypal images, as explored most fully in the psychoanalytic theory of C.G. Jung.5

My reference to Campbell and Jung, however, might raise some questions. Are we saying that the stories of the Bible are myths? Or that they derive from the collective mythology common to humankind, rather than from actual events? We don’t need to embrace the entire perspective of Campbell or Jung to recognize the psychological depth and power of the Hero’s Journey, and its vital role in identity formation, which still applies in the identity-confused 21st century. A similar theme is reiterated throughout Scripture—and comes to its fullest expression in the life, death, and resurrection of Yeshua the Messiah—with one great distinction: in Scripture the myth becomes true.

The True Myth

One of the seminal conversations of the 20th century took place on September 19, 1931, between C.S. Lewis and two close friends at Oxford, H.V.V. Dyson, and J.R.R. Tolkien. “It was a really a memorable walk,” Lewis wrote another friend, Arthur Greeves, three days later. “We began (in Addison’s Walk just after dinner), on metaphor and myth—interrupted by a rush of wind which came so suddenly on the still, warm evening and sent so many leaves pattering down that we thought it was raining.” On October 1, Lewis wrote Greeves again, “I have just passed on from believing in God to definitely believing in Christ—in Christianity. I will try to explain this another time. My long night talk with Dyson and Tolkien had a good deal to do with it.”6

In another letter to Greeves, on October 18, Lewis disclosed some of the details of the “long night talk.” He said that he often had been moved by the portrayal of a “dying and reviving god” in myth, “provided I met it anywhere except the Gospels.” But after the discussion with Dyson and Tolkien, Lewis realized, “the story of Christ is simply a true myth: myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths.”7

Lewis had come to believe in God a couple of years earlier, after spending his young adult life as a convinced atheist, but continued to resist the Gospel. Apparently one of Lewis’s objections was its resemblance to the pagan myths which he knew so well as a scholar. This sort of objection can often be heard today, the idea that the story of Yeshua’s life, death, and resurrection had already been circulating in various forms and cultures for millennia before his appearance. Therefore, in this line of reasoning, the Gospel must be no more than another ancient tale among many. Lewis’s response, the insight that the Gospel is a true myth, God’s myth, remains profoundly relevant to this day.

Lewis could credit many authors and friends with bringing him to faith in Jesus. “His conversation with Tolkien, though, was the immediate human link in the chain.”8 Lewis, of course, became one of the most widely read Christian writers of the twentieth century. Years after the conversation, he played a major role in encouraging Tolkien to complete and publish his epic work, The Lord of the Rings, which outsold everything that Lewis wrote, and remains a significant, though highly nuanced, Christian influence within our culture.9

The Lord of the Rings is itself a reworking of myth, a complex and deeply layered hero’s journey tale. Tolkien’s ability to bring the ancient theme of identity formation to life is a key to his work’s unparalleled popularity and impact. The hobbit Frodo becomes the unlikely hero when he comes into possession of a mysterious ring. He learns from Gandalf, his mentor, that this is the One Ring, which threatens all of Middle-earth, and must be carried to “the Cracks of Doom” in far-off Mordor to be destroyed. Since Frodo now owns the Ring, he is the one who must destroy it. Frodo protests, “I am not made for perilous quests. I wish I had never seen the Ring! Why did it come to me? Why was I chosen?”10 Nevertheless, Frodo accepts his mission, leaves his homeland, the Shire, to journey through foreign and mysterious realms, where he endures great danger, captivity, and a nearly mortal wound. Along the way Frodo is somehow empowered to find the Cracks of Doom and destroy the Ring. And even after the Ring is destroyed, even after his friend Aragorn is crowned as the rightful King, Frodo must return to the Shire to rescue it from the oppressive regime that had taken over after his departure. He saved all of Middle-earth, but he must return home to save the little corner of Middle-earth called the Shire.

This same kind of journey appears in the stories of our biblical ancestors—not because the Bible is copying ancient legends, but because both the legends and inspired Scripture reflect the universal quest for individual meaning and identity.

Thus, translator Everett Fox entitles Genesis 12:1–9, “The Call and the Journey,” commenting: “The Avraham cycle begins decisively, with a command from God to leave the past behind and go to an unnamed land.” Fox notes, however, “The classic mythological motif of the journey, where the hero meets such dangers as monsters and giants, has here been avoided.”11 The biblical stories, like the mythic journey stories, reveal deep spiritual and psychological truths. As Fox notes, “Yaakov’s journey takes him not only to a foreign land, but to the portals of adulthood.”12 Joseph will have a similar journey. He is exiled from his homeland into a completely different realm, Egypt. There he suffers slavery and imprisonment until he is finally raised up and empowered to be a source of blessing and salvation to his family, as well as to all the surrounding nations. Notably, Joseph doesn’t return home, but instead summons “home”—that is, his family—to himself in Egypt. Only after death, and after the close of Genesis, will he return home as his brothers carry his bones back to the Promised Land for burial.

The Journey to Identity

Salvador Minuchin pictures individual identity as comprising both a sense of belonging and a sense of being separate. I may be part of a family, part of a tribe, perhaps even part of a mighty kingdom, but where do I actually fit in? How do I stand out individually within the group to which I belong? Selfhood or identity means belonging to a family, or a larger group that somehow replicates family, and still distinguishing oneself, standing apart, within that family.

The hero’s journey builds upon these two complementary dynamics of identity formation. The hero must separate from his family to find himself, and he also must return, so that he still belongs, even after the journey of separation. His separation empowers him to eventually return as a source of blessing and help. Through his journey, he becomes his own person, not just for his own sake, but to benefit the family, tribe, and community. The hero’s journey also sets him or her apart from the siblings, resolving the pervasive issue of sibling rivalry, often in ways that benefit all the siblings.

In modern culture, the sense of being separate is heightened and has countless ways to express itself, but with its deteriorating family structures, the sense of belonging is much weaker. The quest for identity and the need to answer “Who am I?” may be more intense than ever. All this keeps the original family stories of Genesis up-to-date and relevant, even despite the growing unbelief and secularism of the 21st century. In an age in which people are more confused about identity than ever before, when identity is seen as strictly a matter of personal choice, an accessory to be put on or taken off at will, we have much to learn from the ancient tales of identity formation.

One of the key lessons is the one we’ve noted already: True identity will be tested. Despite the claims of postmodern culture, identity really isn’t something you can accessorize. Even an identity given by God must be attained through testing, if the individual is to really own it. Parents are often frustrated by that reality, as they do all they can to raise their children with a sense of who they are in God, and their children just don’t seem to get it, or only get it after years of wandering and difficulties, often self-inflicted. Every child has to discover who he or she is individually, and the journey of discovery—long, arduous and challenging—remains a compelling image. Families, and religious communities as well, would benefit by affirming and supporting the journey and making a return viable and positive for those who take it.

Differentiation

Family therapist Rabbi Edwin Friedman captures the dual sense of identity as belonging and as being separate with the term differentiation, “the capacity to be an ‘I’ while remaining connected.”13 The capacity to be an “I” might sound like the typical self-centered and individualistic jargon of our day, but Rabbi Friedman makes it clear that remaining connected, remaining part of the family, is essential to differentiation. He insists, “The concept should not be confused with autonomy or narcissism”14 (two currently popular options). Joseph could have chosen the route of autonomy, seeing his experience of betrayal as setting him free from his hung-up and dysfunctional family to become his own man. His hero’s journey would have had a one-way route, and he’d leave never to return, and never to resolve his relationship with the family. Or he could have taken the path of narcissism, which seemed to tempt him in his early years—a journey so much about himself that no one else mattered at all.

Both choices represent a spiritual dead end, and Friedman’s concept of differentiation provides a better way forward. It’s a way that reflects the hero’s journey, which departs from home and family, endures trials and transformation, but returns in the end. Such a journey is difficult, particularly for the offspring of a great parent, like Jacob. The son or daughter looks at a talented, powerful or charismatic parent and despairs of being able to follow that act with one of their own. It’s also difficult for the offspring of particularly troubled or needy parents, who might feel they need to stick around to keep things from falling apart, or who might lack the confidence to set out on their own. Either situation can lead to a failure to journey at all, so that the new generation just rests on the laurels of the old generation, or lives in its gloomy shadow, and never makes its own mark. Or the hero can take a one-way journey, seeking to find herself by rebelling, refusing to cooperate, or breaking with the family altogether. As Rabbi Friedman points out, however, this sort of journey doesn’t lead to genuine differentiation, because the disconnected offspring is still defining himself or herself in contrast with the family, instead of as a distinct “I” who remains connected.

Differentiation, according to Friedman, is the essential task for every leader. Peter Steinke, who describes Friedman as his mentor,15 provides a fuller description of differentiation in the context of leadership:

Differentiation is the relative ability of people to guide their own functioning by

thinking clearly

acting on principle

defining self by taking a position

coming to know more about their own instinctive reactions to others

learning to regulate those reactions

staying in contact with others

choosing a responsible course of action

Differentiation is . . . about balancing two life forces—individuality and togetherness—when interacting with others.16

Joseph, a uniquely gifted leader, is favored as soon as his story gets underway, but he can’t find himself and fulfill his mission until he takes his long journey of differentiation. Only after years on his journey can he become, not just his father’s favorite, but his own man, who remains connected through dedication to his father and his father’s God.

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 trials and estrangement. But for this to be a hero’s journey like that of Joseph or even Messiah himself, it must include a return to our Jewish household. Whatever rescue and transformation we’ve received from God should result in a blessing for our people. So it was with Joseph, who told his brothers at their reunion in Egypt:

‘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.’ (45:5, 7–8a17)

Like Joseph, Yeshua is estranged from his own brothers, the household of Israel, and like Joseph, he always remains with them at heart. It’s a needed 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, need even more to remain connected to his people and their destiny. This parallel also reminds us that our individual journey can’t reach its destination by simply departing from our family of origin. We may need to do hard and sacrificial work to stay connected. We may not be able to fix all that’s wrong in our family or religious community, but we can’t altogether depart. In my experience as a therapist I’ve learned that it’s often the client who appears to be the most distant from his or her family that is carrying the heaviest load of family baggage wherever they go. We can’t take a detour around forgiveness and reconciliation.

Joseph’s Wound

In the hero’s journey, he or she often sustains a deep wound, sometimes a lifelong wound that is never fully healed. So Frodo, early in his journey, is wounded by a Black Rider, who attacks Frodo and leaves the tip of his dagger in Frodo’s shoulder before he’s driven off. Even after Frodo succeeds in his mission and turns toward home, the wound remains.

‘Are you in pain, Frodo?’ said Gandalf quietly as he rode by Frodo’s side.
‘Well, yes, I am,’ said Frodo. ‘It is my shoulder. The wound aches, and the memory of
darkness is heavy on me. It was a year ago today.’
‘Alas! there are some wounds that cannot be wholly cured,’ said Gandalf.18

Jacob, in his hero’s journey, is wounded by the “man” at Peniel, who touches his hip socket, so that his hip is put out of joint. “As the sun rose upon him he went on past P’ni-El, limping at the hip. This is why, to this day, the people of Isra’el do not eat the thigh muscle that passes along the hip socket — because the man struck Ya‘akov’s hip at its socket” (32:32–33). Jacob’s wound is not mentioned again, but it would seem to be permanent, and his descendants permanently remember it by abstaining from eating the thigh muscle of the hip socket. This abstention remains part of the kosher laws “to this day,” a reminder of the wounding of the hero.

If all this is so, we might ask how Joseph is wounded. His wounds weren’t physical, and couldn’t be seen, but they were there nonetheless—the wounds of betrayal at the hands of his own brothers. It’s often said that emotional wounds can be as painful and as debilitating as physical wounds, or even more so. Joseph was emotionally wounded by the very ones who should have understood and protected him. His lengthy testing of his brothers years later, when they come to Egypt to buy food from him, strikes some readers as manipulative and even vengeful. But Joseph wasn’t trying to get even; he was trying to get healed. He needed evidence that the brothers had changed, so that he could not only forgive, but also begin to trust them again. Judah provided the evidence Joseph was looking for when he offered himself in exchange for Joseph’s stand-in, Benjamin (44:33–34). He demonstrated deep repentance for being part of the betrayal of Joseph, and he opened the way for restoration. When Judah offered himself, then, he brought healing not only to the fragmented family, but also to the deep wounds of Joseph’s soul. The Lord of the Rings records an ancient saying, “The hands of the king are the hands of a healer.”19 Judah is head of the kingly tribe, and he brought healing through offering himself.

Years later, when the patriarch Jacob dies, it isn’t going to reopen Joseph’s old wounds, because they are healed. And Joseph, the one who is healed, brings healing to his family through forgiveness, telling his brothers, “‘You meant to do me harm, but God meant it for good. . . .  So don’t be afraid — I will provide for you and your little ones.’ In this way he comforted them, speaking kindly to them” (50:20-21). Joseph doesn’t forgive because God did something good with the brothers’ sin. If that were the case, we wouldn’t be able to forgive the sins that have no apparent good result. Instead, it’s because Joseph forgives that he’s able to see that God used the brothers’ sin for good. He tells his brothers this, not as the condition for their forgiveness, but to enable them to receive his forgiveness despite their guilt and shame. Joseph’s statement, says Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “shows the power of a religious vision to reframe history, liberating ourselves from the otherwise violent dynamic of revenge and retaliation. . . . It includes the freedom to reshape our understanding of the past, healing some of the legacy of its pain.”20

When we practice forgiveness, we discover new meaning to our past, including our past sufferings. We are no longer victims, just trying to survive the things that happen to us. Rather, by forgiving, we “become a hero instead of a victim in the story [we] tell.”21 Forgiveness makes trust possible. Forgiveness does not equal restored trust, but it allows the offender to earn trust anew. This is why I believe that Joseph had already forgiven his brothers before he put them through the elaborate test in Genesis 42–44 to determine whether he could ever trust them again.

By forgiving, we reframe our history of offense or abuse or betrayal into a hero’s journey. First, forgiving empowers us to discover meaning and value in what before had been only a sad tale of loss. This reframing of the past transforms the future. It allows the future to be about hope and possibility instead of revenge, domination or victimization. Second, by forgiving, we take charge of the story; it’s no longer just an event or a string of events that happened to us, but an event that we can build upon for good. Becoming a hero instead of a victim in the story we tell doesn’t mean that we claim extraordinary powers, or that we excuse what was done to us. Rather, it means that we seize the initiative in defining the meaning of what was done to us. We shape our own story, including its future installments. Thus, after the climax of forgiveness, Joseph can provide direction for his future, and the book of Genesis can end on a note of hope.

Joseph’s Return

The hero’s journey isn’t complete without a return, the “second solemn task” after the journey itself, according to Joseph Campbell.22 Ironically, Joseph will die in Egypt, but he will still return to his homeland in the end.

Yosef said to his brothers, “I am dying. But God will surely remember you and bring you up out of this land to the land which he swore to Avraham, Yitz’chak and Ya‘akov.” Then Yosef took an oath from the sons of Isra’el: “God will surely remember you, and you are to carry my bones up from here.” So Yosef died at the age of 110, and they embalmed him and put him in a coffin in Egypt. (50:24–26)

Earlier, when Jacob was dying, he looked prophetically at the future of each of the twelve tribes, and then gave directions for his own future—burial in the Promised Land (Gen 49). Joseph in his final moments does the same. He leaves behind the old rivalry with his brothers to imagine an abundant future for them all, and then gives directions that will keep him connected to that future. There’s a dynamic within these final instructions that we might easily miss. Joseph, the dominant one, the one before whom all the brothers have bowed down several times, becomes dependent on his brothers in the end. And he unabashedly states this dependence: “God will surely remember you, and you are to carry my bones up from here.” Here is a divine reversal.23 Joseph, the leading son who saves his entire family, Joseph, the ruler of Egypt who is embalmed like an Egyptian and placed in an Egyptian coffin, turns his gaze away from Egypt to the land promised to his forefathers—and must depend on his brothers to get him there.

When Joseph told his brothers, “You meant to do me harm, but God meant it for good,” he described a triangular relationship in which God stood between the brothers and Joseph, transforming the brothers’ harmful intent against Joseph into good. In that triangulation, Joseph had the direct connection to God, and the brothers received God’s benefit through him. Now, Joseph resets the triangle. God himself will remember the brothers directly, not through the mediation of Joseph, and the brothers will be the instruments of benefit to Joseph, rescuing his bones from Egypt to bear them up to the land of promise (50:24–25). Joseph has been the favored son, but now the brothers will receive God’s favor directly themselves.

Jacob had also given final instructions to his sons, but Joseph’s final instructions differ from Jacob’s in an important way. Jacob had told Joseph, “I will lie down with my fathers and you shall carry me out of Egypt and bury me in their grave.” After his final blessing on the twelve sons, Jacob had reiterated this instruction to all of them, saying, “I am to be gathered to my people. Bury me with my ancestors in the cave that is in the field of ‘Efron the Hitti, the cave in the field of Makhpelah, by Mamre, in the land of Kena‘an” (49:29–30). The brothers carried out this wish promptly; immediately after a period of mourning, they transported Jacob to Canaan for burial. Joseph, in contrast, provides for an intermediate period. It’s not until God brings all the children of Israel up from Egypt that the bones of Joseph are to go up with them for his final burial. Why the delay? Nahum Sarna comments on Joseph’s words, God will surely remember you—“This reassuring profession of faith, made fifty-four years after Jacob’s death, betrays a serious deterioration in the situation of the Israelites in Egypt in the intervening period.” And then Sarna addresses our question about the delay: “Why Joseph does not request immediate interment in the land of his fathers is not explained; no doubt, he knows that present conditions are unfavorable.”24

Along with this practical need for delay because of unfavorable conditions, however, there’s also a deeper reason. Joseph, who was rejected and then separated from his brothers for over twenty years, will not allow himself to be separated again. For as long as his brothers remain in Egypt, he too will remain with them. There will come a time when the entire family of Abraham will be reunited in the Promised Land. Until that time, however, Joseph foregoes the privilege of being buried with his fathers. Until the brothers are able to go home, Joseph will not go home. He will remain with his brothers, and when they do depart, he will depend upon his brothers to bear him up and carry him to his resting place.

And so Joseph’s heroic journey comes full circle.25 The journey began as the brothers cast Joseph into a pit and returned home without him. Now, at the end, Joseph will descend into another pit, death itself, confident that his brothers will lift him up and carry him with them as they take their journey home. Joseph dies with his identity fulfilled and his family restored at last.

This article is on based on Russell Resnik, A Life of Favor: A Family Therapist Examines the Story of Joseph and His Brothers (Clarksville, MD: Lederer Books, 2017).

Russell Resnik serves as Rabbinic Counsel of the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations and maintains a private counseling practice in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is the author of five books and a frequent contributor to Messianic Jewish publications. He and his wife, Jane, have four children and seven grandchildren.


1 Salvador Minuchin, Families & Family Therapy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1974), 47.

2 Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (New York: New World Library, 2008).

3 Ibid., 14.

4 Ibid., 14–15.

5 Ibid., 12.

6 From The Letters of C.S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves, in The Essential C. S. Lewis, Lyle W. Dorsett, ed. (New York: Collier Books, 1988), 51, 54.

7 Ibid., 56.

8 Joseph Loconte, A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War: How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914–1918 (Nashville, TN: Nelson Books, 2015), 133–134.

9 Ibid., 136.

10 J.R.R. Tolkien. The Fellowship of the Ring (New York: Ballantine Books, 1965), 95.

11 The Five Books of Moses, A New Translation with Introductions, Commentary, and Notes by Everett Fox (New York: Schocken Books, 1995), 54.

12 Ibid., 128.

13 Edwin H. Friedman. Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue (New York: The Guildford Press, 2011) , 27 (paperback edition).

14 Ibid.

15 Peter L. Steinke, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times (Lanham, MD: Rowan & Littlefield, 2006), 136. This extremely insightful book was first referred to me by Dr. Ellen Goldsmith.

16 Ibid., 19.

17 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture references are from Genesis in Complete Jewish Bible (CJB), Copyright © 1998 David H. Stern. All rights reserved.

18 J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King (New York: Ballantine Books, 1965), 331.

19 Ibid., 166.

20 Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence (New York: Schocken Books, 2015), 157 (emphasis added).

21 Fred Luskin, Forgive for Good: A PROVEN Prescription for Health and Happiness (New York: Harper One, 2003), 110. (emphasis added).

22 Campbell, 15.

23 I develop this idea in my book by the same title, Divine Reversal: The Transforming Ethics of Jesus (Clarksville, MD: Lederer Books, 2010), i.e., the idea that the standards and values of the kingdom of God reverse the values of the dominant culture around us. The book explores this idea as the theme of Yeshua’s ethical teaching, which in turn is based on the ethical teaching of the Torah, exemplified in the stories of Abraham and his descendants.

24 The JPS Torah Commentary, Genesis, Nahum M. Sarna, comment. (Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication Society, 1989), 351.

25 I owe this insight to my friend Catherine Fuerst, who read an early version of the manuscript.