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.

Related Reading

How do you respond to 2 Thessalonians 2:11–12?

Of those who disobey the truth Paul says, “…God sends them powerful delusions, leading them to believe what is false so that all who have not believed the truth but took pleasure in unrighteousness will be condemned.” This passage is sometimes cited as evidence that the delusions that unbelievers embrace are as much a part…

Tragedy Strikes and Coherence Goes Out the Window

I encourage you to read Aurora shooting inspires various perspectives on God and belief, written by Electa Draper and published on the front page of the Denver Post Monday. The article shows how differently believers process tragedies, and illustrates the centrally important role one’s picture of God plays in these responses. For today, I’d like…

What is the significance of Jeremiah 36:1-6

The Lord has Jeremiah write his prophecy on a scroll, telling him, “Perhaps when the people of Judah hear about every disaster I plan to inflict on them, they will each turn from their wicked ways; then I will forgive their wickedness and their sin” (Jer. 36:3). Jeremiah then tells his scribe to take the…

Topics:

What do you think of the left wing Christians who are calling on Christians to stand up for “biblical justice”?

Yes, we’ve been hearing a lot of this recently, especially from more “progressive” (left-tending) Christians calling on people to vote “God’s politics” and stand up for “biblical justice.” On the one hand, I along with everyone else applaud such rhetoric, for what Bible-believing Christian in their right mind would take a stand against “biblical justice”?…

Doesn’t Psalms 139:16 refute the Open View of the future?

One of the passages most frequently cited in attempts to refute the open view of the future is Psalm 139:16. Here David says that God viewed him while he was being formed in the womb (vs. 15) and then adds: “[Y]our eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in…

Why do you have such a pessimistic view of government?

Question: I’m a Christian and serve as a servant in government and I find your book The Myth of a Christian Nation, as well as some of your sermons on Christians and politics, highly offensive. I find that while governments sometimes harm people, they also do a lot of good. The American government in particular…