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Can God Use Evil for Good? Consider the Life of Joseph (Genesis 50:20)

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Scripture affirms that God is able to turn evil around for good to achieve His ultimate purposes. Reminding ourselves of God’s sovereignty is of great benefit to the believer and will affect the way that we see the world, our shalom (peace) and will enable us to encourage others. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent, but is His sovereignty a comfort? Charles Spurgeon was adamant that the Lord’s sovereignty is in fact His most comforting attribute.

Sometimes Genesis 50:20 is linked with Romans 8:28. In the former, Joseph reassured his brothers of his favourable intentions to them because they feared that he would seek revenge following the death of their father Jacob. “But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about this as it is this day, to save many people alive.” The latter, Romans 8:28 reads, “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.”

Do you believe the reality of the above verses in theory, hypothetically or personally, trusting the Lord through faith in Him?

Joseph’s Story

Joseph’s brothers meant to harm him, threw him into a pit and discussed what to do with him whilst they ate their meal. They envied his dreams, status, father’s affection and his coat which seemed to encapsulate that and provoked their anger. Can you imagine how they felt with Joseph being especially favoured? How would you have felt?

They sold him to the Ishmaelites who in turn sold him to Potiphar and in their eyes he was a merely a commodity. Many would ask what was God doing in that situation and at that time? Do you ever think like that? But even then Joseph was successful and prospered in all that he did. God used evil for good. He was made an overseer although Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce him and he was then falsely accused and imprisoned. He was seemingly punished for doing the right thing. Though even when he was imprisoned he was put in charge of the others.

Joseph was in prison and we may wonder how God could use evil for good, yet Paul wrote four of his epistles whilst in jail and similarly John Bunyan famously penned “Pilgrims Progress” whilst imprisoned.  Whilst in prison, Joseph correctly interpreted the dreams of the butler and the baker. The baker was hung and the butler prospered but forgot Joseph. How could he forget Joseph? Have you ever felt the sting of being forgotten or thought, why does God allow that?

Pharaoh then dreamt of seven fat cows and seven thin cows and so later the butler remembered Joseph who explained that the dream related to seven years of prosperity followed by seven years of famine. Pharaoh was pleased with Joseph and he oversaw Pharaoh’s house. During the famine, Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt and Joseph tested them and forgave them.

God’s Sovereignty and Providence in the life of Joseph

A lot happened during thirteen years of Joseph’s life and thirteen chapters of Genesis. What is the Lord doing in your life and can you see His purposes unfolding? What would have happened if Joseph had not been betrayed, imprisoned and forgotten temporarily? How would the famine crisis have been solved? How would Jacob’s family have survived? How would Jacob’s family have been reconciled? What might have happened to Joseph if he never left his family for a season?

What is the spiritual lesson here? It is not a case of the glass being half full rather than half empty. It is not a case either for a more noble aspiration, “the greater good for the greater many.” It is not a tutorial in stoicism. It is not the school of Rudyard Kipling humbly accepting triumph and disaster as imposters and if you can keep your head whilst others are losing it and blaming on you then you will be a man my son.

It is a case of trusting in God’s sovereign and providential care. His sovereign intervention can be understood in the way the Lord knows the end from the beginning, created and sustains the universe and His timing in human events is perfect. The Lord acts providentially in the lives of individuals operating on a small scale as well as a grand scale since He knows everything about them and attends for their specific needs according to His plan.

Recognising Joseph and Messiah

When reading the story of Joseph it is heart breaking when his brothers fail to recognise him. He tests them by secretly placing a cup in the sack of Benjamin, his youngest brother and instructing his steward to say, “Why have you repaid evil for good” (Genesis 44:4)? Judah then selflessly interceded and offered to be taken in Benjamin’s place for the sake of their father Jacob.

Unsurprisingly, Joseph could not contain himself any longer, he wept aloud and revealed himself to his brothers. He was exceedingly gracious and kind towards them. “Then Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph; does my father still live?” But his brothers could not answer him, for they were dismayed in his presence. And Joseph said to his brothers, “Please come near to me.” So they came near. Then he said: “I am Joseph your brother, whom you sold into Egypt. But now, do not therefore be grieved or angry with yourselves because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. For these two years the famine has been in the land, and there are still five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvesting. And God sent me before you to preserve a posterity for you in the earth, and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So now it was not you who sent me here, but God; and He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house, and a ruler throughout all the land of Egypt” (Genesis 45:3-8).

Rashbam notes that his brothers were the unwitting agents of G’d and therefore not to blame and G’d had planned that all of it should be for good.[i] Sforno sees God exploiting their evil for something good.[ii] Onkelos recognises the necessity of these events in view of the preservation of many people. You meant to do evil to me, but [from before] Elohim [it was meant] meant it for good, in order to do as it is today, to preserve the lives of a great people.[iii]The late Rabbi Sacks sees a still wider purpose since the plain sense of “am rav”, “a great people”, suggests Egypt and it was not until Exodus that the Israelites were called “am” (a people). Hence Joseph was sent by God not only to save his family but also the Egyptians.[iv]

Genesis 45:8 and Genesis 50:20 illustrate the same truth. Arnold Fruchtenbaum helpfully summarises. “In verse 20, Joseph related his faith in the providence of God over the events that had taken place, and he distinguished between the plan of men and the plan of God.”[v]

 In a similar way to how Joseph’s brothers failed to recognise him, many Jewish people have not recognised Yeshua (Jesus) their Messiah. Scripture foretells this so clearly in Zechariah 12:10, “And I will pour on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem the Spirit of grace and supplication; they will look on Me on whom they have pierced. Yes they will mourn for Him as one mourns for his only son, and grieve for Him as one grieves for a firstborn.”

This was referred to also in John 19:37 when Jesus was crucified and John wrote, “And again another Scripture says, “They shall look on Him whom they pierced” and also speaks of the second coming of Messiah in Revelation 1:7, “Behold He is coming with clouds, and every eye will see Him. And all the tribes of the earth will mourn because of Him. Even so, Amen.”

How can this be? Paul writes in Romans 11, that famous chapter which shows the Lord’s plans and purposes for Israel and the nations. “For I do not desire, brethren that you should be ignorant of this mystery, lest you should be wise in your own opinion, that blindness in part has happened to Israel until the fulness of the Gentiles come in” (Romans 11:25).

God’s sovereignty is an immense comfort and there will come a day when many more Jewish people will recognise their Messiah who will reign in His Messianic kingdom in Jerusalem for a thousand years. God can and does turn evil for good to achieve His purposes. The Lord has a specific plan for Israel and the nations and we can be certain of that since He is faithful to keep His covenants. The Lord has preserved His people Israel. Yeshua ascended at the Mount of Olives which is also where He shall return (Zechariah 14:4; cf. Acts 1:9-12).

[i] Rashbam on Genesis 50

[ii] Sforno on Genesis 50

[iii] Onkelos on Genesis 50

[iv] Rabbi Sacks Covenant and Conversation E.G.: The Power of Example

[v] Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum Ariel’s Bible Commentary The Book of Genesis Exposition from a Messianic Jewish Perspective (Ariel, 2009; San Antonio), p660