Genesis 50:20, “You meant to do me harm, but God meant it for good . . .”
The story of Joseph is a favorite of children, with many elements to enjoy. The story has the family dynamics of a parent favoring one who is younger, not the oldest. This favor represents itself in an object: the coat of many colors. There is intrigue and deception in that Joseph’s brothers, acting out of their jealousy, sell Joseph into slavery into Egypt. Joseph encounters many trials there, ending up in prison. But through the gift of his ability to interpret dreams and his wisdom in how to act based on that interpretation, Joseph survives, even prospers. Joseph is largely responsible for Egypt surviving a terrible famine, having the ingenuity to have the people plant the land and store the crops.
The peak of the story occurs when Joseph’s own family comes to Egypt, before Joseph, looking for grain. They do not recognize him, setting in motion a back and forth where Joseph eventually gets them to bring his youngest brother and his now-aged father to Egypt, in effect saving them all from famine. And this is where we receive a theological gift where Joseph says to them, “You meant to do me harm, but God meant it for good, to save many lives.” Often the translation emphasizes the plan to do Joseph harm, and how God’s plan was an intention for good, for life.
There are other places where we encounter this language around God’s plan. There is Jeremiah 29 where God tells the people that God has plans for them to prosper. These words come to them in the midst of exile. There is Paul writing in Romans 8:28 that “in everything God works for good for love who love God . . .”. This gets to some of the most challenging parts of our lives when we are faced with deep pain which may have happened with intention by others, by their anger, their hate and hostility. But then there are difficult experiences for which there is no one to blame. There are disasters and illness and deaths that wreak havoc on a life.
But does that mean that that was God’s plan?
Walter Brueggemann in his commentary on Genesis points to a healthy tension in the text. He writes that it affirms both “realism” and “certitude”. “Realism about our human place of jeopardy. Certitude about its outcome, by the faithfulness of God. Realism taken alone leads to despair, for then we only know about the danger, but not about the outcome. Certitude taken alone leads to romanticism, for then we only know the victory but imagine we are immune from the battle.”
My sense is that there are times in the face of difficulty that this emphasis on God’s plan is faithful in that it does rely on a strong, powerful God to ultimately take care of the outcome. But that can also lead to a passivity, a willingness to let hate and hurt continue to inflict their wounds on us and on others.
The other side of the tension is where realism reigns, where it is our responsibility to fight disease, tragedy, and those who would hate and hurt others. I have lived long enough to know that human nature is both good and bad; our efforts are not the only answer. We do not do this alone. And at this point, my experience tells me too that this fight is not without pain, injury, and even death.
Yet the call is to walk into the fight, trusting in the eventual outcome of good.