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Joseph and Predestination
Genesis 50: 15-21
15 Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph's brothers said, "What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?"
16 So they approached Joseph, saying, "Your father gave this instruction before he died,
17 'Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.' Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father." Joseph wept when they spoke to him.
18 Then his brothers also wept, fell down before him, and said, "We are here as your slaves."
19 But Joseph said to them, "Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God?
20 Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.
21 So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones." In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.
Genesis tells us that Jacob had several wives and twelve sons and assorted daughters, but he loved his wife Rachel most of all, and consequently her firstborn, Joseph, was his favorite son. The other sons were soon put to tending flocks, but Joseph stayed home with his father.
Joseph was something of a tattletale. His father frequently sent him on errands to his brothers, and he sometimes found them doing things that they were not supposed to be doing, and he told all to his father—which did not set well with his brothers.
But Jacob doted on Joseph and gave him what the KJV calls “the coat of many colors.” The point of giving this distinctive “coat” was that Jacob recognized Joseph as his eldest son. In that culture, 4000 years ago, the eldest son got double the inheritance of any other son. So, Jacob’s decision had direct economic consequences, and it aroused jealousies that nearly destroyed his family. Joseph was not the eldest son. Joseph was the eleventh son. Reuben was the eldest. We can imagine that the other sons would have reluctantly allowed Reuben a double portion because after all he was the firstborn, but they were unhappy with their father changing the natural order of succession and promoting Joseph to eldest son.
The final straw was the dreams. Joseph was always a visionary and he had prophetic dreams. His dreams were symbolic, but the dreams obviously represented Joseph’s superiority over his brothers. And he foolishly told the brothers about the dreams, and we imagine he told them with smug satisfaction.
This drove the brothers over the edge. They had had enough of this arrogant jerk. They decided to kill him. But eventually they thought better of that, and sold him to a passing company of Ishmaelite slave traders.
The Ishmaelites took Joseph to Egypt and sold him again to Potiphar. Poor Joseph, he had been a Bedouin prince; now he was just property. He belonged to Potiphar just as much as Potiphar’s dog, and had about the same rights. Being sold into slavery was certainly a traumatic experience, but Joseph, in whom we have not found much to admire so far, was apparently transformed by the experience. He was humiliated and shaken by what had happened, but he determined to make the best of his situation, and he rose quickly through the ranks of the slave hierarchy, and became Potiphar's steward, or head overseer, supervising all his possessions.
Things were going well for Joseph again, but then disaster again. Potiphar's wife tried to seduce Joseph. When Joseph refused her advances, she, in her fury, accused him of rape. Joseph was still a slave. His word against the word of his master’s wife was not worth diddily. Potiphar threw Joseph in prison. Commentators point out that Potiphar could have killed Joseph. That he did not suggests that he had some doubts about his wife’s story. In any case, Joseph was still in prison.
This must have seemed like the depths of the depths to Joseph. He was a slave and now on top of that he was in prison with no prospect of ever getting out.
After some time, Genesis tells us that Pharaoh got angry with his cupbearer and his baker and threw them into prison, the same prison were Joseph was. These two high-ranking prisoners had dreams that Joseph interpreted. His interpretation was that the cupbearer would be restored to his office in three days, but that the baker would have his head chopped off in three days. Sure enough, in three days, Pharaoh restored the cupbearer and decapitated the baker.
Unfortunately, the cupbearer forgot about Joseph until two years later when Pharaoh complained of having persistent dreams of seven fat and seven lean cows coming out of the Nile. Pharaoh also dreamed of seven plump ears of grain and seven blighted ears of grain. Then the cupbearer belatedly remembered Joseph.
Joseph interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams to mean seven years of bountiful harvests to be followed by seven years of famine. Pharaoh was so impressed that he appointed Joseph as his second in command and used the seven good years to store up for the bad years to come.
Soon, the good years were gone and famine came. The famine included not just Egypt but the land of Canaan as well. Soon, Jacob’s family is in a bad way. The sons of Jacob go down to Egypt to buy grain. They meet Joseph but he has become so Egyptian in speech and manner that they know him not, but he knows them.
Several chapters in Genesis describe how Joseph played with his brothers, which is as near as he ever came to seeking revenge. He accused them of being spies; he accused them of stealing; and since he had absolute power over them, any hint of accusation must have struck fear into their hearts. As they had seen his anguish when they sold him into slavery, so now he sees their anguish.
But Joseph was not a vengeful person and eventually he reveals himself to them. To the brothers, it must have seemed as if the ghost of one whom they had murdered stood before them. They shrank from him, but he forgave them freely. He had them return home and bring their families to Egypt, including their father Jacob. They move to Egypt where Joseph has become so rich and powerful that he can take care of them all.
Then Jacob dies, and the brothers began to be anxious again. Their thought is that Joseph only forgave them for the sake of his beloved father. Now that Jacob is dead, Joseph might feel that it is payback time. So the brothers concoct another lie. They had lied to their father for years about what happened to Joseph. Now they are desperate to extract themselves from the guilt of what they did to Joseph, and so they lie again, saying that their father had told them to tell Joseph to forgive them. We suspect that Joseph knows they are lying, but simply does not care. He says, "Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good” (v19-20).
That is the Joseph story as it is found in Genesis chs 37-50. The question today is: What does Joseph tell us about the doctrine of predestination?
We see that the Joseph story has a lot to say about human sin. Jacob sinned. He was an awful parent, preferring one son above the others. Joseph sinned. He was a tattletale. He was an arrogant jerk. But whatever Joseph did, he did not deserve to be sold into slavery. Joseph’s brothers committed a terrible evil against Joseph. So, there is plenty of sin in this story.
But this is also a story of the triumph of human will and ability over bad circumstances. Joseph may have been a spoiled teenager, but he had talent and strength of character that only become apparent when his world collapsed around him. Sold as a slave, he worked his way up to be the chief slave in Potiphar’s household. Tossed into the dungeon, he comes out as Pharaoh’s number one man. This is an inspiring story of triumph over all obstacles.
But the story of Joseph is not only about human sin and human triumph. It is also about how God works in human affairs.
First of all note that we are responsible for our sins. That means that we have free will. If we did not have free will, God could not hold us responsible.
The Persian poet Omar Khayyam says
Oh Thou, who didst with pitfall and with gin
Beset the Road I was to wander in,
Thou wilt not with Predestin’d Evil round
Enmesh, and then impute my Fall to Sin! (80)
What Omar is saying is that God will not predestine us to do evil and then turn around to blame us for doing evil. That makes no sense at all. We are responsible for what we do because we have free will.
In our story from Genesis, the brothers had several choices. They could have forgiven Joseph and Jacob and got on with their lives. They could have given Joseph a good beating, tore his coat up, and sent him home crying to daddy. But, they chose a much greater evil and sold their brother into slavery.
Joseph had choices also. In slavery, he could have just given up, but he did not. He made a choice to work with all his power and ability.
So the Joseph story teaches free will and responsibility, but that is not all.
What happened to Joseph shows us that God works in human affairs to bring about his will, but, in dealing with people, God deals with very imperfect instruments, so God has to operate in conditions that are often not so good.
We can imagine a world where God’s will is always perfectly done, where everything that happens is in accord with what God wants. Everything that happens is good and true and wonderful. We can imagine such a world, but we know that is not our world, and never has been.
In Genesis, we read about a young man sold as into slavery. God did not sell him into slavery. His brothers sold him, and they did it out of envy and malice, and they had to deal the guilt of that sin for years thereafter. But God was working in that situation to turn human sin into something good. That is what Joseph said. Joseph said, “You intended to do me harm.” Do not try to cover anything up. Don’t talk about daddy wanting me to forgive you. I know, Joseph says, what your intentions were, but God took your evil intentions and made them turn out good. The situation was sinful, but God influenced or persuaded that situation toward good.
This leads us then to a basic principle about how God works in human affairs. God constantly, in every moment and every place, acts to bring about good. If that is true, you might say, why is not everything that happens good? That is an age old question, and I certainly do not think I have all of the answer but part of the answer is that we need to stop blaming God for human folly.
Some commentaries on the Joseph story say that God predestined the brothers to sell Joseph into slavery so that he would eventually become prime minister of Egypt and be instrumental in saving thousands of people from starving to death. But that makes God a slave dealer and that absolves the brothers of their sin. If God made them do it, it was no sin. But if you read Genesis, the brothers did not feel that way at all. They knew they had sinned, and Joseph knew they had sinned, but God came into all this sinfulness and persuaded it to good so that the outcome was that multitudes were saved from famine, but that did not justify the brothers at all. They were still responsible for their own sins.
Again we hear the same thing about Judas. Some say that Judas was predestined to betray Jesus from the beginning of time, and he had no choice in the matter. But Judas did not feel that way. When he realized what he had done, when he realized that Jesus would be crucified, Judas committed suicide in despair over his betrayal.
Make no mistake, Judas betrayed Jesus of his own free will . He made that choice, and he was responsible for that choice, and he knew it. But God took Judas sin and the sin of the Jewish establishment and the Roman Government, God took all that sin and changed it to something good in that Jesus died on the cross so that all our sins might be forgiven and so that we might be reconciled to God.
Let us now apply all this to us. We, like Joseph’s brothers, Like Judas, are responsible for our own sins. We have free will. We make our choices. We cannot blame our sins on God or the devil or circumstances or society. We need to have the courage to stand up and say what everyone knows: I am responsible for what I do. That is really the first step in forgiveness—realizing that I need forgiveness because I am responsible for my sins.
The Joseph story is about forgiveness. Joseph forgave his brothers. The gospel story is about a larger forgiveness. When I am in despair over my sins, when I realize that I am the one who needs forgiveness, Jesus forgives. Jesus forgives totally and completely and forever.
In conclusion, Joseph’s story ends on an optimistic note. God changed human sinfulness to good and saved people from famine. This shows us that God is here with us and God is working. Sometimes evil seems strong; sometimes sins seems all powerful; but it is not. God can change the most evil situation into something good. God can bring us out of our slaveries; God can bring us out of our dungeons.
That does not mean that we should sit down and wait on God to do it all. God does not work that way. God works with us as we use our god-given talents and abilities to do his work. God is with us. Amen.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2003 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified 6/2/05