The following article has been written by a seminary student Benjamin Thocher from Westminster Theological Seminary. There Ben is working on his Masters of Arts in Religion, majoring in Biblical Studies.
Perhaps the most important theological aspect of Genesis 37-50 is the interpretive lens with which Joseph understands his life and circumstances. His brothers come before him following the death of their father Jacob. Having sold their brother into slavery they now stand at his feet, expecting his judgment to be poured out. Joseph instead responds to his brothers concerns by stating “as for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive” (Genesis 50:20). This statement is vital to understand the character of God and the reality of evil. To be sure, the antecedent to “it” in Genesis 50:20 is “evil” – to put it differently “God meant that evil for good”. Piper explains that “the ultimate reason that suffering exists in the universe is so that Christ might display the greatness of the glory of the grace of God by suffering in himself to overcome our suffering. The suffering of the utterly innocent and infinitely holy Son of God in the place of utterly undeserving sinners to bring us to everlasting joy is the greatest display of the glory of God’s grace that ever was, or ever could be”. This is to say then, that suffering had to exist in order that Christ might come and suffer on the cross. Piper goes on to say that “everything leading to the cross and everything flowing from it is explained by it, including all the suffering in the world”. Joseph too holds the key to understanding the role of pain, suffering, and evil in the world. Whereas his brothers intended to do Joseph harm, God was superintending the event to bring about his good purposes – namely, the salvation of the sons of Israel. In this same way the suffering the Israelites faced at the hands of the Egyptians was so that God could create for Himself a set apart people, and to display His glory throughout all the earth. Paul Helm comments that in “Joseph’s understanding God brought certain events to pass, events which had a beneficial end, and which were in accordance with his covenant promise to Abraham, using the evil intentions and actions of human beings. He does this, according to Joseph, without himself being implicated in the evil, and without diminishing in any way the evil of what was done to Joseph and the responsibility for that evil”.
The libertarian free will advocate will surely ask how this can possibly be so? How can God govern the choices of human beings without violating the freedom of those choices? It is this exact question that is answered in Joseph’s evaluation of the story – it cannot be understood. Mark Talbot rightfully states that “attempts on our part to understand it involve our trying to understand the unique relationship between the Creator and his creatures in terms of our understanding of some creature-to-creature relationship”. It is this misunderstanding that Talbot calls a category mistake. The creature cannot understand from its own perspective what it is to be creator. The story of Joseph then testifies in its entirety to the total sovereignty of God in and through the actions of sinful man.