“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.
When I was in college, the first class I took was World Religions. Though I graduated with an English Literature major, I also had enough credits to be a Religion major. I didn’t need the dual major. I only took the religion classes because they interested me.
I also became a believing Christian during my college years. It was a transition that took place between that World Religion class and the summer between Sophomore and Junior years. It’s a long story that I might tell in detail some time, but the point for now is that I did a lot of reading and thinking about these things in those years and in the decades since. It doesn’t make me a theologian, but I have more than a passing interest.
Early on I learned that the creation story and flood story in Genesis, among other things, have counterparts in other religions, including other religions in the same area of the world – the Ancient Near East. Phoenicians, Assyrians, Persians, and other people groups had similar myths that have been uncovered from that general time period.
Zoroastrianism, in particular, was said to share many attributes similar to the ancient Hebraic view of the world, including the idea a singular creator God, a dualistic cosmology of good and evil, the ultimate destruction of evil, judgment after death, etc. The scholarly understanding when I was in college was that Zoroastrianism may have predated Hebraic thought and influenced it.
It occurred to me at the time, not having any reason to doubt that speculation, that Abraham may have been particularly open to his encounter with God if, indeed, he had lived in an area of the world and in a time in which there was this kind of influence. It made some sense. He was the right guy in the right place with the right influences setting the table for an encounter with God, the Creator of the world.
Recently I did some research on Zoroastrianism. Wikipedia acknowledges that Zoroastrianism has “possible roots dating back to the second millennium BC”, though “recorded history” of Zoroastrianism only dates back to the 5th Century BC. (Wikipedia). Obviously, dating the roots of Zoroastrianism back to the second millennium BC is just conjecture if records of Zoroastrianism only date to the 5th Century BC.
If we date the accounts of Abraham and his descendants according the biblical chronology and references, that history goes far back into the second millennium BC, but a loose consensus of modern archaeologists and theologians reject that dating in favor of first millennium BC dating. (See Wikipedia, for example) Modern scholars don’t take the Bible at face value. In fact, they presumptively dismiss it for its face value.
Scholarly views are not universal on this issue, of course. Not by a long shot. Some notable evidence and analysis exists that the modern consensus is wrong about the timeline for the life of Moses, the Exodus and other things. (See for instance Patterns of Evidence: The Moses Controversy) The Patterns of Evidence conjecture is that historians and archaeologists who assume a particular timeline for certain events are not apt to see the evidence for those events if they occurred in a different timeline.
The Patterns of Evidence thesis is that evidence for the events described in the biblical narrative is there if we peer through the lens of the right timeline and look for them in the right time periods. Specifically, the biblical accounts of Moses, the Exodus and entry into the land of Canaan are apparent in the archaeological record and historical data on the biblical timeline (second millennium BC), not in the first millennium timeline applied by modern, skeptical scholars.
Certain archaeological finds, like the Ebla Tablets, also raise questions about the modern scholarly consensus. The importance of “looking” in the right places according to the right timelines is explored in Timing the Walls of Jericho.
Back to Abraham, though… he was reportedly from the area of Ur (southwest Iraq), which is quite a distance from the area of Canaan (later Judea) where he ended up – about 1600 miles in fact. In Ur, he may have come in contact with Zoroastrians and other influences. That intrigued me in college, and so I revisit that thought journey again today.
As I was listening through the last four chapters of the Gospel of John this morning, these words impressed me:
He entered his headquarters again and said to Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave him no answer. So Pilate said to him, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above. Therefore he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin.” John 19:9-11 ESV
This was part of the interchange between Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect of the province of Judea, and Jesus. Pilate exercised the authority given him over the province of Judea in the Roman empire given him by the Roman authorities, but Jesus said, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above.”
I am reminded of God’s sovereignty. Jesus came to die. That was his plan. Pilate was just part of the plan. We tend to think of Pilate in negative terms as we look back at the story, but he was just part of God’s plan, like Judas.
Of course, Barack Obama was also our president. So was Bill Clinton. If we really believe the words that Jesus spoke to Pontius Pilate, these men would not have authority as presidents of the United States unless it was given from above.
Abraham believed God, and God “reckoned” that faith to Abraham as righteousness. When God told Abraham to look at the stars and said to Abraham that he would bear offspring and have descendants like the stars in the sky, Abraham believed God. What does that really mean?
We get a bit of a clue by looking at the Hebrew word translated “believe” is ̓āman. It means to confirm (support), as when putting confidence in something that is supported (trustworthy). The Hebrew suggests that Abraham confirmed, affirmed, supported, or had confidence in what God was telling him.
But there is more to it than that. The word, āman, as used in this passage, is in the hiphil form. The hiphil form suggests an act of intentional interaction with a subject. Abraham didn’t just star at the stars in wonder, he consciously and intentionally engaged God and what Goad was saying to him, and he affirmatively confirmed, supported and put his confidence in what God was saying to him. In effect, Abraham said, “Amen”, in his heart, and he meant it!
Faith/belief is a key concept and critical characteristic of the follower of Christ. Abraham is held up as the prime example of faith. Abraham is the father of all us all. Paul says that Abraham was “fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.” And this faith, trust and confidence in God that Abraham had is what God “counted to him as righteousness”.
This same faith, Paul says, will be counted to us as righteousness who “believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.”
Abraham didn’t do anything, but believe God, and God gave him counted him righteousness in return. Such a simple thing! And that is all we must do to be counted as righteous in God’s sight today – to believe in the one God sent to us, Jesus Christ, who suffered, died and was buried for us, and who has risen from the dead establishing the promise of God to us that we will be risen too in newness of life.
This seems so very simple that we are tempted to want more. We are tempted to think we must do more to be counted as righteous.
“For the present form of this world is passing away.” (1 Corinthians 7:31)
Perspective makes all the difference in how we see the world and live our lives. The perspective of faith is wholly different than the perspective of skepticism. The person who has been born again, born from above, born of the spirit, is a new creature; the new has come and the old has passed away. We are no longer of this world, though we continue to live in it.
Do we really grasp the meaning of these things? Sometimes I wonder. I wonder about myself as I look back at the things that have captured my attention at times, the anxiety and worries I have had about temporal things, and all the time I have wasted doing trivial things.