My bible reading today covering the story of Joseph has given me opportunity to discussion two curious passages, one involving God’s causing the events leading up to Israel’s entry into Egypt, and the other related to the Messiah.
The first passage I want to discuss briefly is the well known verse in Genesis 50:20 which reads:
You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.
It is a powerful passage because it reminds us that in the midst of difficulty God is at work to bring about good. But elsewhere Joseph says, “it was to save lives that God sent me” to Egypt (Genesis 45:5). These passages can be understood in different ways. First they can be read as meaning that God is the one who (directly or indirectly) caused everything to unfold. It says, “God sent me” to Egypt, not Joseph’s brothers who were the ones to actually sell Joseph which resulted in his going to Egypt.
However, there is another way to read the passage. First where it says that what Joseph’s brothers intended for evil God “intended” for good can be and should be read as God being able to see what is transpiring or what is about to transpire, and he can work within that situation using the evil intent of Joseph’s brothers and turning it around for God’s good intent. This alleviates the problem of assigning the evil actions of Joseph’s brothers directly to God as though God caused them to do the evil act. But we still have to deal with Genesis 45:8:
So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God.
Now before any deterministic folk jump headlong into a rapid fire interpretation of this passage I want you to consider another text, namely Genesis 42:6 which reads:
So when Joseph’s brothers arrived, they bowed down to him with their faces to the ground.
This passage clearly alludes back to Joseph’s dreams in Genesis 37:9-10 which got him into all the trouble in the first place. There he dreamed that the sun, moon and stars bowed down to him. His brothers were indignant and Jacob rebuked him because they all understood the dream’s meaning, as Jacob says:
What is this dream you had? Will your mother and I and your brothers actually come and bow down to the ground before you?
Now while this prophetic dream is fulfilled in Jacob’s family coming under Joseph’s rule in Egypt, it is not fulfilled accurately in that Joseph’s mother did not bow down to him simply because she was already dead. Now, while the extreme determinists’ chews on that one for a bit, the rest of you can come back with me to Genesis 45:8.
There are a few ways to understand this passage. Obviously there is the high determinist way in which we undo our interpretation of Genesis 50:20 above and thus give God due credit for the evil done by Joseph’s brothers. We may chop this passage up to God’s foreknowledge (though I don’t think that argument works very well here), or we may look back to my post on Day 3 where we made an attempt at separating what a personality within the scriptures believed with what the scriptures themselves endorse. If this is the case here, then in this passage we should understand the text as simply telling us how Joseph interpreted the events, and not necessarily that the scriptures are endorsing that interpretation. As we saw in the post on Day 2, the scriptures consistently endorse the idea that God is to be praised for every good thing that happens, but not to be blamed for the bad. The scripture writers make no attempt to reconcile this quandary. I think that if either the author of this text or Joseph himself knew that some were interpreting this passage as to say that God is the cause of evil; they would be horrified because that is not what they believed. Rather, they seem to believe that God is the cause of all good so that he is even able to take evil and turn it around for good.
So then Joseph probably believed that God is the one who actually sent him to Egypt, thus Joseph was willing to accept a paradox that God was the cause but was not responsible for evil. If this is Joseph’s view, fine. But that does not necessitate that God was the one who actually sent Joseph to Egypt directly. We could even say that “God sent” Joseph in the sense that what the brothers intended for evil, God turned around for good (a la our interpretation of Genesis 50:20 above).
The second passage I would like to quickly touch on while I am here is the well known Messianic text of Genesis 49:9-10. That passage declares that the scepter (meaning Kingship or ruler of Israel) will not depart from Judah until the one to whom it belongs comes. This passage is rightly interpreted as having the very distant and ultimate fulfillment in the coming of Jesus. But it has another less distant fulfillment, most will say, in David. David is the first Judean King of Israel. So that passage is interpreted as directly referring to David and only after that, the “son of David”, i.e. the Messiah. However, there are two (in my opinion) insurmountable problems with this interpretation:
1) First it is important to always point out the obvious: This passage does not tell us when the scepter will enter Judea, only that it will not depart from Judah. This minor point will become import in a moment.
2) Second applying this passage to David and his descendents would repudiate 1 Samuel 13:13 where the Prophet Samuel says to King Saul (who was not from Judah), “If you had [kept the command of the Lord], he would have established your kingdom over Israel for all time”. Can that verse not be trusted? Was it fake because God intended from the beginning some irrevocable plan to make David king and that God was only toying with Saul and Israel to the extent of even “changing Saul’s heart” and empowering him with the Holy Spirit (1 Samuel 10:9-10)? I’m inclined to suggest that God is not so petty as to play these arbitrary games with men’s lives!
3) The third problem is even worse, but difficult to see until it is pointed out. In Jesus’ genealogy records found in Matthew, whose purpose was to trace the royal genealogical ancestry of Jesus to show that Jesus’ is heir to the throne, the Messiah, a key figure is named who deserves special attention. His name is Jeconiah (or simply Coniah, every commentator will tell you they are one and the same), the last King of Judah (Matthew 1:12). His mention is important because along with his kingship as leading into the exile (the exile by the way, is the curse pronounced on Israel back in Deuteronomy 28:15, 36), Jeconiah is cursed by Jeremiah (in fulfillment of Deuteronomy 28:36) in Jeremiah 22:28-30 so that none of his descendents will ever “sit on the throne of David”. What this means is that the royal Judean lineage of David is cut off from Jeconiah onward, and this fact disqualifies Joseph and Jesus from sitting on David’s throne strictly based on his (supposed) bloodline. This is significant because our passage back in Genesis 49:10 says that the “scepter will not depart from Judah”. Well, it does at the exile. No Judean king sits on the throne from Jeconiah to Jesus, and in fact a prophetic curse by Jeremiah forbids it.
So then, what are we to make of our Messianic text in Genesis 49:9-10? I suggest that the text is Messianic and that it is to be applied to Jesus alone, and not do David’s lineage. This, in my view, solves all of our problems by simply see the text as saying that at some point when the scepter enters into Judea, it will not depart. This text, then, applies to the baby in a manger whose central message of all his teachings and deeds is the Kingdom of God, who ruled from birth and continues to rule throughout eternity.
Just some hefty thoughts from today’s readings.