The story of Joseph is one of the finest examples in Scripture of what Paul meant when he wrote, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good” (Rom. 8:28). All things? Yes, including evil things. Nor should we attempt for one moment to lessen the evil intent in men’s actions (or Satan’s for that matter, for he lurks in the background of every evil deed and thought); Joseph’s brothers meant to harm him, but God overruled their actions for good. It will be Joseph’s clear announcement at the end of the story of his life (Gen. 50:20), just as it was Peter’s on the Day of Pentecost when he charged Jewish men and women in Jerusalem with the death of Jesus while affirming at the same time that He was “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23). Thus, when Joseph’s brothers said, “Let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits” (Gen. 37:20), they meant what they said. Their intent was evil. At the same time, God had long since prophesied to Abraham that his people would come under foreign domination (Egypt) until “the iniquity of the Amorites” was complete and Canaan was ripe for takeover (Gen. 15:13–16).
What we have here is a case of “concurrence” (or “confluence”) — philosophical and theological shorthand for a mystery that cannot be explained to our complete understanding: God does good while men (and Satan) do evil ensuring that His will of events comes to pass. But, we run ahead of ourselves.
It is a curious thing: many of the patriarchs were objectionable! Dysfunctional, egoistic, worldly — these qualities certainly characterized Jacob and his son Joseph. The latter’s boasting over a dream that signaled his superiority above his brothers must surely have come across as arrogant. His father “loved him more” than his brothers and made him a fine coat of many colors to wear (Gen. 37:3). It is at once a sign of bad parenting, a signal of past and future dysfunctionality within the family, a recipe for the very hatred (“jealousy,” 37:11) that would result in his brothers’ conspiracy to kill him. It is only at the intervention of Reuben that Joseph is spared, sold instead to a passing band of Midianite traders (37:28). The story from then on gets worse before it gets better. As far as Joseph’s brothers are concerned, he is as good as dead, and they conspired to tell their aging father that he was indeed dead!
Joseph, too, knew nothing of what lay ahead except that he had been given a dream, which he believed to be of God, that promised him much. What he would make of these dreams in the months that followed as he is sold as a slave and subsequently finds himself falsely accused of rape and imprisoned, we cannot tell. But neither does it matter. The promises of God do not depend on Joseph’s faith for their verification but on the veracity of God.
Bad things happen. We may become the victim of disease, or malice, or personal hatred. Our own ambitions may be shattered, our dreams of earthly gain crushed beneath a landslide of events that engulf us in darkness. One of two things is possible as a result: We could do as Joseph’s father did upon hearing the news of his son’s supposed death (he “refused to be comforted,” 37:35). It is Jacob’s lowest point in his life. The one upon whom he had shown his greatest affection is now believed to be dead, and he can find no trace of comfort. All is dark. It is an understandable reaction.
On the other hand, especially given the fact that we can see how the story ends, we can adopt the point of view taken by Stephen in his lengthy sermon in Acts 7. There, he traces the hand of God in the history of Israel, including the selling of Joseph into slavery in Egypt (Acts 7:9). It was part of the unfolding of a great plan and purpose — the formation of a race of people occupying a promised land out of which would emerge the “seed” of the woman who would bruise the head of the serpent (Gen. 3:15). In the microcosm of this story of Joseph there lies a larger story, a plan and purpose of gigantic proportions that affects us today!
It is hard not to think that Joseph got what he deserved, but that would be a harsh judgment. He did not deserve what his brothers did to him no matter how obnoxious his dreams may have appeared to them. Bad things happen, and sometimes we are to blame for them; they come because of something we have done. On other occasions, as in the case of godly Job, they come “without reason” (Job 2:3). Either way, we are to hold on to the fact that God’s hand is at work, ordering and governing the universe toward a goal of His design. The future is known in its entirety to God no matter how dark and twisted the road ahead may seem to be.
Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never failing skill
He treasures up his bright designs,
And works his sovereign will.
— William Cowper, 1774