How do you respond to Genesis 45:5; 50:20?

Joseph said to his brothers, “…now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life,” (cf. v. 7). Joseph later says, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people…”

Compatibilists often argue that these texts illustrate that God ordains evil actions for greater good. While different interpretations are possible, I am largely in agreement with compatibilists on this point. The passage seems to indicate that God intentionally orchestrated the evil intentions of the brothers in order to get Joseph into Egypt.

Does this support the compatibilist claim that all actions fit into God’s eternal sovereign plan? I do not believe so. Consider three points. First, though he probably could have achieved his objectives in a variety of ways, the biblical narrative leads us to believe that a good deal of God’s plan for world history hinged on getting Joseph and his brothers to Egypt at this time. Under these extraordinary circumstances it should not surprise us to find God involved in extraordinary ways. This text should therefore not be taken as a proof text of how God usually, let alone always, operates.

Second, if we choose to take this episode as evidence of how God always operates, we must accept the consequence that this passage always minimizes the responsibility of human agents. For this is the conclusion Joseph himself draws from his observation that God was using his brothers to send him to Egypt. “Do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves,” he tells them, “for God sent me…”

If this is in fact how God always operates—if God is involved in each kidnapping and murder the way he was involved in the activity of Joseph’s brothers—we must be willing to console every murderer and kidnapper with Joseph’s words: “Do not be distressed, or angry with yourself…for God kidnapped and murdered your victim.” We can’t universalize the mode of God’s operation in this passage without also universalizing its implication for human responsibility.

Third, it is significant that the passage does not suggest that God had orchestrated the brothers’ activity before creation or even before the brothers developed their characters. The text only suggests that at some point in the course of God’s interaction with humans, God decided that it fit his sovereign purpose to steer the brothers’ intentions in the manner we read in Genesis.

Hence, while I agree with compatibilists that this text shows that God may decide to orchestrate evil actions according to his sovereign will, I deny that this passage supports the conclusion that all evil actions occur in accordance with God’s eternal, sovereign will.

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