I would love to say that the Lord dropped this theology into my lap in the form of two stone tablets, but the truth is that I stand on the shoulders of giants. David H. Stern, to whom most branches of the Messianic movement are deeply indebted, first developed the kernel of this Adoption Theology1 in his Messianic Jewish Manifesto (today republished under the far less-threatening name, Messianic Judaism). As he explains,
All humanity is divided into Jews and Gentiles (non-Jews). . . [N]o matter how the term is defined, logic demands that everybody on earth is either a Jew or a non-Jew–he can’t be both, and he can’t be neither.
Likewise, all humanity is divided into Messianics and non-Messianics (we avoid the common terms “Christian” and “non-Christian” for reasons discussed elsewhere). . . [A person] must be one or the other, and he can’t be both or neither. . . Thus–and this is the very simple and obvious point–it is possible, logically, to be both Jewish and Messianic.2
There is only one cultivated tree, and that means there is only one Israel, not two. The wild branches (Gentiles) have been grafted in through faith in the Messiah, “brought near in the blood of Christ” (Eph. 2:13, RSV) so that they are now included in the commonwealth of Israel. But they are not, as Replacement Theology would have it, a New Israel. Nor do Jewish and Gentile believers together constitute a New Israel, since the cut-off branches too are still identifiable as Israel even though they do not have the living sap of the tree flowing through them. For God is miraculously preserving them, so that instead of drying out, as detached branches normally do, they are able to be grafted back in by faith. Thus unsaved Jews (cut-off natural branches), saved Jews (natural branches attached to the tree), and Gentile believers (grafted in wild branches) each have their own kind of ongoing participation in the one Israel; and this fact needs to be taken into account in any correct theology of Israel and the Church.3
While Stern does not emphasize the adoption aspect as I do here, he does establish the basic foundation of the theology. That foundation would be built on fifteen years later by D. Thomas Lancaster in The Mystery of the Gospel. Specifically, he interprets the story of Joseph and his brothers midrashicly (prophetically) so that Joseph becomes a picture of the Messiah and his brothers of Israel. Just as Joseph was rejected by his brothers and sold into the hands of the Gentiles for the price of a slave, so was Yeshua. And just as Joseph through his obedience and wisdom feed the whole Gentile world, so does Yeshua. Lancaster goes on to show how the reunion of Joseph and his brothers is a picture of Yeshua’s reunion with Israel. In this prophetic picture, Benjamin would seem to prefigure the Messianic Jews, who like Benjamin never betrayed their brother. (I also explore this idea in the key articles that give this blog its name: Messiah, Son of Joseph and Ben Joseph and His Brothers.)
Lancaster does not end the comparison there:
Jacob himself poses the same question when he first sees the two sons enter his tent. He says, “Who are these?” The Torah means for us to ask the same question. Who are they? What is their significance in our reading of the story? Manasseh and Ephraim are the sons born to Joseph in those years while he was estranged from his brothers. They are Manasseh and Ephraim, “Forgetfulness” and “Fruitfulness.” They are children raised in Gentile Egypt, sons of Joseph’s Gentile bride.
Who are they in the midrash we are spinning? They are Gentile Christians: non-Jewish believers. They are the followers of Jesus. They are those born in the years while Messiah is estranged from His brothers. They are called “Forgetfulness” and “Fruitfulness.” We Gentiles may have forgotten the house of Jacob, but we have been fruitful. We are like the children raised in Egypt, sons of an Egyptian bride, thoroughly Egyptians!5
While I obviously agree with Lancaster’s midrash on Joseph and his brothers, there is a subtle warning hidden in the text as a what-if? What if, when another Pharaoh arose that forgot the service of Joseph and persecuted the children of Jacob, Ephraim and Manasseh had chosen to escape that persecution by siding with Egypt? What if they had not suffered with their brothers and therefore never departed from Egypt along with them? What would have happened to their lines?
Perhaps some of Joseph’s descendants did betray their brothers and hide among the Egyptians. If so, they would have been subject to God’s wrath along with the rest of Egypt, and their names were blotted from the Word.
1I would call it “Adoptionism,” but it turns out that term has already been used to describe a particular heresy.
5D. Thomas Lancaster, The Mystery of the Gospel: Jew and Gentile and the Eternal Purpose of God (FFOZ 2003), p. 79.