“But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.'” Genesis 50:19-20 ESV
I have written recently about the verse, Genesis 50:20 (things men might mean for evil God is able to use for good). (See God in the Dark) The message that God can turn the evil that impacts our lives for good is powerful one. Though we might despair in our circumstances, especially when the evil we experience is caused by people, maybe even people we love, God is ever at work. God is able to redeem our circumstances, and, more importantly, redeem us.
As with any verse in the Bible, though we need to read it in context to understand the fullest, and most complete meaning. Genesis 50:20 was spoken by Joseph in a very specific context, so let’s take a look at that context and mine this well-known verse for some deeper meaning.
To begin with, Joseph spoke these words after Jacob, Joseph’s father, passed away in Egypt. His body had been embalmed, and Joseph and his brothers had just returned from a trip to Canaan where they buried Jacob there in the land of Abraham, Issac and Jacob as they had promised their father.
Joseph and his brothers had just returned to Egypt. Recall that Joseph was then Pharaoh’s right hand man, overseeing all of Egypt, and all of Joseph’s family lived in Egypt because of him.
The back story, of course, is the way Jacob ended up in Egypt. Joseph was loved by Jacob, his father, more than his brothers. His father doted on him, providing for him even a special “coat of many colors” that Jacob proudly wore. Joseph’s brothers were bitterly jealous of him, and it seems Joseph was completely oblivious to that fact. (Jacob too it seems.)
One day Joseph’s brothers plotted to kill him, and they left him in a well to die. Joseph was saved by a caravan of merchant travelers who carried him down to Egypt and opportunistically sold into slavery.
Through a series of real ups and downs, Joseph eventually gained the favor of Pharaoh. Through his ability to interpret dreams, Joseph saved Egypt from a seven year famine by preparing and storing grain years ahead of time. As a result, Joseph was put in charge of Egypt as the Pharaoh’s right hand man.
That same famine prompted Joseph’s brothers to travel to Egypt to purchase grain from those stores that Joseph made available. They didn’t even recognize the powerful man who supervised the stores of grain in Egypt, but Joseph recognized his brothers immediately. The way Joseph toyed with them leaves the impression that Joseph wrestled with forgiving his brothers who betrayed him. Eventually, though, he relented, introduced himself in an emotional reunion.
Joseph arranged for Jacob and the whole clan to move down to Egypt where food was plentiful and provided them a very favorable living situation in Egypt. Now that Jacob died, however, Joseph’s brothers were fearful that he would turn on them. After all, they were keenly aware of their betrayal. But Joseph had forgiven them, truly, in his heart. Though his brothers feared reprisal, Joseph was not vengeful.
This was the context in which Joseph said, “[Y]ou meant evil against me, but God meant it for good….” Joseph’s own brothers purposed evil against him! Joseph wasn’t talking about the faceless evil of fortuitous circumstances. He was talking about the very pointed and personal evil perpetrated by his own family against him.
Of whom does that remind us?
Think about Jesus. God emptied Himself of his privilege and position to become one of us, being born humbly as an infant. He came to experience all the pain and frustration that you and I experience as humans, being obedient to His purpose, living a perfectly sinless life of self-sacrifice and love, only to be betrayed by His own people. God suffered the public humiliation and extreme pain of death on a cross at the hands of His own creation, the people He created and with whom he sought to share His life.
This is the parallel between Joseph and Jesus. Before verse 20, Joseph tells his brothers, “Do not fear for I am in the place of God.” And then he says, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.”
I have read this passage many times, but that prior verse didn’t jump out to me as it did this time. This, perhaps, is because we often paraphrase in a general sense, saying, “What is meant for evil, God can use for good.” Or we impersonalize it: “God can turn the evil or bad things in our lives for good.”
But the real poignancy of what Joseph said is understood only when we read it in context and realize that it was spoken in the first person. “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good….” Joseph wasn’t generalizing anything. He wasn’t minimizing what his brothers did to him. These weren’t circumstances that fell upon him from some unguided course of events. The evil Joseph suffered was intentionally inflicted on him by his own family
His brothers meant for him to die in that well. They carried out their betrayal in moment of jealous hatred. If it wasn’t for the famine in Canaan, Joseph’s brothers wouldn’t have been bowing before him. They thought he was long gone.
But it turns out, Joseph forgave them. He didn’t hold it against them. Fast forward to Jesus hanging on the cross, we hear echoes of the Joseph story in these words that Jesus spoke as he was dying, “Father, forgive them. They know not what they are doing.”
We usually employ the idea of God turning evil into good for the benefit of ourselves. We find comfort in the idea that God can turn the evil that befalls us into good. We usually mean by it some good that we will gain out of those unfortunate circumstances in which we find ourselves.
While God can (and sometimes does) turn the the bad in our lives into good, the meaning of this verse is far more cosmic than we realize. We see it in the second half of the same verse: “God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” It wasn’t merely that God turned the evil done to Joseph for Joseph’s good.
God used the evil done to Joseph for the good of his very family who betrayed him!
But that isn’t really the ultimate point either. God used the evil done to Joseph to benefit “many people“. Those many people include all of the caravan of people that came down to Egypt with Joseph’s brothers – wives, descendants, servants included. Those many people include the entire nation of Egypt who benefited by Joseph’s foresight to store up grain in the good years so that it was available during the seven years of famine. And not just Egypt, but God benefited all the people from various other places who traveled to Egypt for food during the famine. And God benefited Pharaoh, who greatly increased his wealth from all the grain that was sold to people from all over.
But there is even a bigger picture The Israelites would live 400 years in Egypt. Of course, their circumstances changed over that time from favor to servitude. God would eventually raise up Moses to lead them out of Egypt back to the promised land – the land that He promised Abraham, then Isaac, then Jacob, and the land Joseph dreamed they would return to. Joseph, like his father before him, requested that his remains by buried in Canaan because he also remembered and believed God’s promise to give that land to Abraham’s descendants.
Yet, it would be over 400 years before that reality would be realized. The promise was given to Abraham hundreds of years before. Though Abraham, Isaac and Jacob lived in that land, they lived only as sojourners there. They didn’t really put down roots. The timing wasn’t right. It wouldn’t be right until Joshua led the Israelites into the promised land almost 500 years after all of Abraham’s descendants left to live in Egypt.
Of course, the Abrahamic line is the vehicle by which God intended to bless all the nations of the world. That blessing to all nations was also promised to Abraham. Little did Abraham, or Joseph or anyone throughout all the time that his descendants actually lived in the promised land realize what that actually meant – that God would become man and live among us a perfect life only to offer Himself as a sacrifice for the sins of the world.
You see, when Joseph said that God meant for good the things his brothers meant for evil, the implications reached far beyond Joseph or his brothers. We tend to view our lives myopically, desiring God to make good out of the evil in our lives for us in our lifetimes, but God has bigger plans than that. Things might work out like that, but maybe not. God has bigger plans for us, too. We set our sights too low if all we care about is our present lives.
“[A]s Scripture says:
“No eye has seen,
no ear has heard,
and no mind has imagined
the things that God has prepared
for those who love him.”
1 Corinthians 2:9