Joseph’s Brothers and the Providence of God
One concept that people struggle with is understanding God’s role in our day to day lives. How much does He involve Himself in our lives and actions? What about the consequences of those actions (both the intentional and unintentional)? Do unexplained things happen because of luck… coincidence… random chance… or something else?
Before we examine the Biblical account of Joseph, let’s consider some common views on these issues.
It’s easy to understand God’s role in the “good” events of life. But it can be hard to understand his role in the “bad” events. Many Christians believe God’s role in human life goes like this: If something “good” happens, God was responsible, but if something “bad” happens, He was not. Was someone with terminal cancer miraculously healed? God did that. Did a natural disaster kill scores of people? It wasn’t God. How about a child who gets a full scholarship to that expensive dream college? Must have been God’s blessing. But when a deranged person walks into a school and starts shooting a gun? God wasn’t involved. People usually feel this way for very innocent reasons. We want to portray God as loving, kind, caring, and merciful. If an event arises that we can’t easily explain, we want to remove God from any “bad press”.
But if God is responsible for the good things in life, where is He during the bad? We can either ignore it or try to explain it. Maybe He is unwilling or unable to stop it. Or maybe He has a definition of good and bad that is different from ours. Perhaps we are wrong about Him being inherently good.
How about you? Where do you stand on this issue? Do you believe God shares equal responsibility in perceived blessings and tragedies? Maybe you have a clear idea already formed, or maybe you have never given it thought. Before you make up your mind, I want to invite you to look into the Bible story of Joseph (Genesis chs. 37 to 50). As with any subject, we should make sure our personal opinion squares with the stated facts from the Bible. It is God’s revelation of Himself to mankind, and therefore the primary source to find information about His essence and character.
Joseph’s father, Jacob (who later was known by the name Israel) had a difficult time starting a family. His background contains story after story of turmoil and deception. After being instructed by his father Isaac to go to his mother’s hometown and find a wife (Gen. 28:1-5), Jacob eventually returned home with 12 sons, who were birthed by not one, but four wives!!! The passage indicates considerable rivalry between the wives (ch. 29, 30), and jealousy between the sons (ch. 37). This was not the “Brady Bunch” of times long past.
Nevertheless, Joseph navigated his way through a troubling home environment to be a dependable son. The story tells us he was Jacob’s favorite (Gen. 37:3), earning him the infamous “coat of many colors”. This was most likely a tunic or other common outer garment decorated with colors on the edges of the fabric. It was not a fashion statement to make him look more acceptable to his peers. It served one purpose: to let everyone know he was the primary heir to his father’s possessions. His brothers clearly understood its intent and they hated him for it (Gen. 37:4). To make matters worse, Joseph openly announced his dreams to them, which predicted his family would bow down to him someday. Their hatred and jealously of him reached a boiling point (Gen. 37:5, 8, 11).
One day when Joseph was away from his father’s watchful eye, his brothers conspired to kill him (Gen. 37: 18-20). Fortunately for Joseph, his oldest brother Reuben intervened and convinced the brothers not to kill him. Reuben planned to throw Joseph into an empty well to satisfy his brothers’ anger, but later return and rescue him (Gen. 37: 21-22). As “luck” would have it, a caravan of Midianite traders on their way to Egypt came through the very highway where his brothers were eating (Note from the text here: The brothers were supposed to be in Shechem, but had actually taken the flock to Dothan, which is about 15 miles north. It seems like a random occurrence, but if they had stayed in Shechem, the caravan would not have traveled by them). One of Joseph’s brothers, Judah, hatched a new plan: sell Joseph as a slave to these men. This seemed like the perfect compromise. They would make some money, avoid the guilt of killing Joseph, and never see him again (Gen. 37:25-28). They sold him, then dipped the infamous robe in goat’s blood, and gave it to Jacob as evidence that Joseph had been killed on the journey (Gen. 37: 31-33).
For the next 13 years, Joseph’s brothers lived their lives assuming their plan succeeded. Although their father was grief-stricken at the loss of his beloved son (Gen. 37: 34-35), they were back in line for a larger inheritance. Egypt was far away, Joseph would die a slave, and their father would never learn of their betrayal.
A lot can happen in 13 years. And a lot did happen in Joseph’s life.
Let’s summarize his story. Potiphar, Pharaoh’s Chief of Police, purchased Joseph in an Egyptian slave market (Gen. 37: 36). Joseph worked his way up to overseeing of all Potiphar’s household, and developed a stellar reputation with his master. However, bad “luck” would strike again. Potiphar’s wife made a series of romantic advances towards Joseph. Joseph refused and fled, but she accused him of sexual assault (Gen. 39: 11-18). He was immediately imprisoned after her accusations (Gen. 39: 20). He eventually shared space in prison with Pharaoh’s cupbearer and baker (Gen. 40: 1-4), and interpreted the bizarre dreams they had. Joseph asked the cupbearer to mention his case to Pharaoh when he was reinstated in to service, but the cupbearer forgot (Gen. 40: 22). Joseph stayed in prison an additional two years, which would have been approximately 5 to 10 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Then Pharaoh announced he had a troubling dream that needed interpretation (Gen. 41: 8). The cupbearer remembered the Hebrew guy from prison who had interpreted his dream. Joseph was summoned, and successfully interpreted the dream as a harbinger of a massive famine to come (Gen. 41: 29-32). Joseph’s “luck” finally turned. Pharaoh appointed him Egypt’s prime minister, responsible for preparing the country for the upcoming famine (Gen. 41: 38-49). He married, had two sons of his own, and became wealthy and powerful to a level second only to Pharaoh himself.
Joseph’s brothers re-entered the story. The drought and famine also crippled their homeland in Canaan. Jacob sent them to Egypt to buy grain when they learned it was for sale (Gen. 42: 1). Joseph was in charge of distributing stores of grain. When the brothers arrived in Egypt, they met long-forgotten Joseph face-to-face. Interestingly, they did not recognize him, but Joseph instantly knew who they were (Gen. 42: 8).
Before we go on, put yourself in Joseph’s shoes. Try to imagine your life being sold into slavery as a teenager by your own siblings. Try to imagine your life being a slave. Try to imagine your life being thrown into prison for a crime you did not commit. Try to imagine your life being denied “due process”. Try to imagine your life spending a decade in prison. Can you feel bitterness welling up inside of you? Can you feel hate towards your siblings? Now imagine being the second most powerful person on the planet (this would be somewhat equivalent to Joseph’s position in Egypt, the world’s dominant empire at that time). And imagine your siblings come and bow down in front of you, begging for food. What would you do? How would you respond?
Joseph engineered a plan to see his youngest brother Benjamin and his father, Jacob (ch. 42-44). Eventually, Joseph revealed his true identity to his brothers (ch. 45). Joseph told them he was sent to Egypt by God to preserve their lives. Then Joseph arranged with Pharaoh to move his entire extended family to the land of Goshen in Egypt (ch. 46-47). Joseph made peace with his brothers and reunited their family in a foreign land. The family avoided starvation, despite the massive famine. When Jacob died, his sons fulfilled his dying wish to be buried back home (Gen. 50:7-13), and returned to Egypt.
At this point, the story takes a curious turn. Joseph had worked hard to “bury the hatchet” with his brothers. However, they convinced themselves that Joseph was only holding back his revenge until after their father died. They sent a message begging Joseph’s forgiveness, then bowed before him, offering themselves as servants if he would spare them (Gen. 50: 15-18).
Perhaps you can understand the brothers’ thoughts. It’s difficult to imagine a person with a disposition towards mercy. Can you picture someone who would just let all of that terrible past go without retribution? But that’s exactly what Joseph did. In fact, he had already forgiven his brothers, and put their past behind him. Gen. 41: 50-52 tells us Joseph picked two specific names for his sons to demonstrate this. The first, Manasseh, means “forgetful”. Joseph said he chose that name because “God has made me forget all my hardship and all my father’s house”. The second, Ephraim, means “fruitful”. Joseph said he chose that name because “God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction”.
How is this possible? How can a mortal man be so willing to forgive? Because Joseph understood the Providence of God. Webster’s dictionary defines providence as: divine guidance or care. Here is how Joseph defined it to his brothers:
But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. Genesis 50: 19-20 (ESV)
Do you understand what Joseph said? He knew two things which seem mutually exclusive can work together to produce the outcome. His brothers acted with evil intent in their hearts (you meant evil against me). But God had love, mercy, and redemption in His heart (God meant it for good). The two of them, although complete opposites in intent, had worked together to produce exactly what they both wanted. The brothers had fulfilled their sinful desires to eliminate their brother by sending Joseph to Egypt. Yet God had fulfilled His desire to spare the lives of His covenant people through Joseph in Egypt. It’s fascinating because God did not do this using an all-powerful remote control to make people do His bidding. He simply, but miraculously, allowed people to make their own choices, then worked His will through those choices. It did not matter whether the choices were meant for evil or for good.
Joseph’s awareness of this inspired his thoughts and actions. He was acutely aware of God’s involvement in his life even though he could not “see” it. That is God’s providence: a personal, yet almost always unseen, Hand that orchestrates the events of history, all while allowing people to freely choose their actions.
We could go through example after example in the Bible that demonstrates this concept. Situation after situation where God knew in advance what would happen, but waited patiently while man’s free choices brought it to pass. But the greatest example is the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. There, evil men got exactly what they desired (by crucifying Jesus), and God got exactly what He desired (having Jesus crucified). Not only that, but He planned the event in advance, as the Bible identifies Jesus as the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world.
The life of Joseph was not a random series of events. It was not luck. It was not accident. It was certainly not governed by natural laws put in place by a “god” who was asleep at the wheel. God did not react to make lemonade out of the lemons the brothers produced. As Joseph so clearly stated, there was always intent to the events of his life. The difference was his brothers intended evil, while God intended good.
Are you confused? If so, that’s ok. True Providence is not something that can be fully understood by our human minds. Only Almighty God can fully piece together how these miracles play in the theater of history. Before human history ever began, God had a plan for Joseph’s life. Yet God never forced Jacob to make a bad choice and show favoritism to one son over the others; Jacob did this of his own free will. God never tempted Joseph’s brothers to sell him into slavery; they did it of their own free will. God never whispered in the ear of Potiphar’s wife, telling her to lie; she did it of her own free will. However, He did act. He intervened at just the right times and just the right places to make sure everyone played their roles perfectly. All their actions combined to fulfill God’s sovereign plan.
To close, let’s re-examine the earlier question. Where do you stand on God’s role in human history? Let this story guide you. Look for ways God is working in your life, even though they will be invisible. Don’t view events as luck, karma, chance, etc.; identify the Providence of God around you. Also, reconsider your tendency to leave God out of the “bad” things that happen in life. The story of Joseph demonstrates that God is working in the “bad” things that happen to us also. God works through your cancer. God works through your co-workers and family members who treat you terribly. God works through the fire that destroyed your home. God works through the tragic loss of a loved one.
Consider one last verse from the apostle Paul:
And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28 NASB).
Paul wrote this verse roughly 2,000 years after Joseph died. Yet Joseph clearly understood the concept. He had not suffered needlessly, but for God’s purpose. God had worked His will for good. Joseph’s faith brought humility and patience. His experiences developed character, and sharpened his spiritual focus like a knife. Everyone plays a part fulfilling God’s sovereign plan, but serving God requires His grace. Are you called according to His purpose? Then all things will work together for good in your life also.