God’s Intent

“Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people from starvation… So have no fear.”  (Genesis 50: 20-21)

God never speaks to Joseph.

God spoke to Joseph’s great-grandfather, Abraham; God told Abraham, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you.”

God spoke to Joseph’s father, Jacob, and told him, “Know that I am with you, and will keep you wherever you go.”

But God never speaks to Joseph; at least, not in so many words.

The God of Genesis is a talkative God. Adam, Eve, Cain, Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Hagar – God speaks to each of them by name. But with Joseph, God’s presence is never a voice – always a dream. And not the kind of dream that Jacob had in the wilderness, the dream where God stood beside him and promised to care for him. No, Joseph dreams of sheaves of corn, and stars in the sky.  He interprets those dreams as signs of a great destiny; his brothers interpret them as a sign of a great arrogance. But really, who is to say? Sometimes an ear of corn is just an ear of corn.

The story of Joseph and his brothers takes up the last 14 of the 50 chapters of Genesis, and in all that time God speaks only once, to Jacob. To Joseph, God speaks not a word.

I find that interesting.

I find that interesting, because, at the end of the story, Joseph is confident that his whole life has been under God’s care, his whole journey bent to God’s purpose. This despite the fact that some really terrible things have happened to Joseph.  As a young man, he is sold into slavery, and taken to Egypt, to live among people who do not understand his language or his faith.  The wife of his first master falsely accuses him of attempted rape (an accusation that, in another country, in another century, would surely have resulted in lynching). Joseph is unjustly incarcerated, for at least two years. Worst of all, this whole chain of events is set in motion by an act of betrayal, for it was Joseph’s own brothers who sold him.

Joseph eventually is freed from prison when Pharaoh hears of his skill in interpreting dreams. It turns out Joseph has also has a gift for predicting agricultural futures, a skill that strengthens Pharaoh’s rule and helps Egypt survive a long season of famine.  It is this famine that brings Joseph’s brothers to Egypt, in search of food.

They do not recognize their brother; but Joseph recognizes them.

Finding his brothers on their knees before him, Joseph does not seize the opportunity to punish them, or even to berate them. He embraces them, and pardons them, and tells them, astonishingly, “it was not you who sent me here, but God.”

Seriously?

When I hear someone describing some tragedy or loss — or, worse, some injustice — as “God’s will,” it always seems to me like a cop out, a convenient way of putting difficult emotions back in the canister. It drives me crazy when people shrug off suffering with a pious platitude. After all, the prophets and the psalmists never let God off the hook that easily. They lamented. They complained. They raged against injustice. And rightly so.

And yet: I also know that experiences in my own life that brought me pain have also given me strength, and compassion, and insight. Through them, I have been shaped, and molded, and equipped for my calling. This is a paradox – that God can use suffering to heal suffering. That God can use evil to defeat evil.

And so, at the end of his long and winding road, Joseph can tell his brothers, “Do not be afraid. You intended it for harm, but God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people from starvation.”  The Hebrew word translated as “intended” here can also be translated as planned, purposed, crafted, fashioned, shaped. God never speaks to Joseph; but God’s hand has been upon him all along, shaping him for service, bending his life toward good.

There are two important points we need to recognize about this conclusion, lest we fall into platitudinous piety.

First: it is Joseph’s conclusion to make – not anyone else’s.

It is Joseph’s conclusion to make, because his suffering, his trials, are his to interpret. Imagine if his brothers had said, “hey, look where you ended up, guess it’s a good thing we sold you.” Only Joseph can say when, and how, his life makes sense. On the other hand, the brothers have their own lives to interpret. What do they make of the famine that brought them to bow down before the brother they had harmed, and lost?

Second: it is a conclusion is made only in retrospect.

It would be nice to know our destination in advance. It would be nice to know, as Abraham did, what God has planned for us. It would be nice to get a set of instructions, as Noah did, telling us exactly what to do.  But most of the time, it doesn’t work that way. God never speaks to Joseph; it is only in retrospect, that Joseph sees his destiny plain. It is only when God’s end is in sight, that Joseph sees the meaning of it all.

Let us be clear. A famine is not a good thing. Betrayal, enslavement, and imprisonment are not God’s will for anyone. But even great harm can summon forth great good, for good is always God’s intent.

Of course, it is hard to imagine what sort of tool is being fashioned, when the metal is still in the fire. When we are being painfully bent out of our old shape, when our previous identity is melting away, it is hard to believe that we might be molded into something new.  And for some of you, perhaps, this is such a time. Indeed, I believe that for our nation, this is such a time. Our country’s path has taken a turn for the worse. The flames of racism and bigotry have been stoked and it remains to be seen what sort of people will emerge from the fire.

But imagine the possibility that, like Joseph, we may emerge from this trial with a new sense of calling. The possibility that, like Joseph’s brothers, we may emerge from this trial with a new sense of humility. The possibility that our own family history of enslavement may be at last exposed, and repented, and redeemed.

Joseph’s story challenges us to look honestly upon the lives we have led— not just the comfortable stuff we put on our resumes,  or post on our Facebook pages, or submit to our college alumni bulletins, or write in our history books, but the betrayals and injustices and injuries as well — and to consider how we might yet employ of all of this toward good.

God never speaks to Joseph. But Joseph’s story speaks to me. And it tells me this:  that whoever we are, wherever we’ve been, whatever kind of shape we are in right now, we may yet be shaped for God’s purpose. God intends all of us for good, and not for evil; for compassion, and not for hatred.

So, Joseph told his brothers, have no fear — neither of the past nor of the present, for the future is yet to be revealed.

May our lives be bent toward good, and may God be with us all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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