We run our website the way we wished the whole internet worked: we provide high quality original content with no ads. We are funded solely by your direct support. Please consider supporting this project.

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 Acts 4:27–28?

“[B]oth Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.” This passage is very close in content to Acts 2:23 (see How do you respond to Acts 2:23?). While…

Topics:

How do you respond to Isaiah 53:9?

Speaking of the suffering servant Isaiah says, “[T]hey made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich…” As with most evangelical exegetes, I believe that Isaiah 53 constitutes a beautiful and stunning prophetic look at the person of Jesus Christ. The most impressive feature of this prophecy is that the suffering servant…

How can you put your trust in a God who’s not in control of everything?

Question: I read your book Is God to Blame? and found it to be very compelling. It’s rocking my world. But I’m also finding I’m now having trouble trusting God like I used to. I used to believe that God ordained or at least foreknew all that was going to happen. Now I’m questioning this,…

How do I avoid feeling like God is absent?

Question: I used to see God involved in everything and used to believe every event expressed God’s will. After my wife and I lost our child in a tragic accident,  and as a result of reading your books (especially Is God to Blame?),  I came to embrace the warfare worldview and the open view of…

What is the significance of 1 Samuel 15:10?

In light of Saul’s sin the Lord says, “I regret that I made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me.” Common sense would suggest that one can only regret a decision one makes if the decision results in an outcome other than what was expected or hoped for. If God foreknows all…

Topics:

If God anticipates each possibility perfectly, how does he differ from the “frozen God” of classical theism?

Question: If God anticipates each and every possibility as if each were only possibility, how does God ever experience novelty and adventure? It seems that a God who perfectly anticipated (from all eternity)  every single possibility as if it were the only possibility would not differ from the timeless “frozen God” of classical theism Answer:…