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  • Janyne McConnaughey, PhD

We May Have the Story of Joseph Wrong!

The first time I head the story of Joseph; it was with flannel graph. I say this to indicate HOW MANY YEARS I have been listening to the story. Suddenly this morning, I heard my inner ‘talking heads’ (all the stuff I have in my head from being in the church so long) trying to tell me that God is in control just like with Joseph. I then quoted the verse: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20 NIV).

Well that pretty much seals the deal for God’s control doesn’t it?


So, God wanted the brothers to throw him into a pit and sell him into slavery?

This would mean God wants bad things to happen to us and makes other people do bad things to us so we can have bad things happen to us.

No. The brothers got jealous. Joseph was young and bragged one time too many, so they chose to throw him in a pit and sell him, and then bloody the ‘coat of many colors,’ lied to their father and broke his heart. Honestly, we just need to leave God out of that whole scenario.

At some level, I believe we all understand much that happens is not caused by God’s control, maybe not even allowed--especially in the case of human choice. Yet, we have a tendency to state that God is in control—even when it presents a very conflicting concept of who God is. While our adult minds may understand nuances, the children around us do not. Much of this confusion becomes embedded and remains in us as adults.

My childhood memories of the story of Joseph caused me to believe that God somehow orchestrated everything Joseph went through so he would develop the necessary character and wisdom to ‘save many people.’ Do we know this is true? Or is it what we say when really awful things happen to us or those we love and we want to believe God is in control—we have to come up with a reason why God would cause/allow such things to happen.

There is a book I read to my Children’s Lit classes for years, Fortunately, Unfortunately. On one page the poor kid falls out of a plane, but on the next page, he lands in a haystack, but there is a pitchfork in it, but he misses it. Phew! The story of Joseph is a good news, bad news type of story. Joseph gets sold into slavery, but the good news is he ends up being an important slave in the house of Potiphar, but the bad news is the wife likes him way too much, but the good news is Joseph gets away, but the bad news is she lies about what happened and he ends up in jail . . . but the good news is . . . It just goes on and on and on. Surely if God was in control, it would not have been such a good news, bad news story—unless you believe God wants bad things to happen to us.

People make life messy. Joseph could have just been recognized for his wisdom and ability to interpret dreams while in Potiphar’s house and ended saving his people and the Egyptians. It wasn’t necessary for it to be so messy. People make life so much more complicated than the simple good God would like to bring in their lives. God had to speak to many more people about Joseph than would have ever been necessary. Couldn’t Pharaoh have just as easily learned Joseph could interpret dreams as a result of his being Potiphar’s slave?

Back to the verse: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” I remember thinking God was always in control of this—but it doesn’t actually say that does it? There are several ways this is translated—the most common being ‘intended.’ One unfortunate translation does say, “God planned it” but one, which seems more true to the story says, “God planned good to come out of it.”

As, I look at our life over the past year (which has finally turned in our favor) I can believe God was ever present and planning for good to come out of what was a certainly a huge human mess. As I look over my life and story, I see the same thing, but the idea that God was in control when I was abused in a day care at three is simply not something I can ever accept. What this says to my subconscious is, “God could have stopped this, but decided not to do so.” God can speak to humans about better choices, but once a human makes a choice to harm another, the deed is done.

In my mind, we get the story of Joseph all wrong when we try to imply that God was in control during every step of the journey. This in no way diminishes my concept of how truly amazing God is. In fact, God’s ability to bring good out of messy and sometimes tragic human disasters is awe-inspiring. I have lived this truth more times than I even want to consider. It is usually dependent on other humans making better choices (which I believe God prompts). It is also dependent on our waiting for God to do the work behind the scenes to bring the good—that requires much more faith than thinking God is in control and accepting bad things as ‘God’s will.’

Right here, I think about Joseph sitting in the prison feeling like God had forgotten him. He could have wallowed in self-pity, but did not. He proved himself. This makes me think about my husband who also refused to wallow and took the only job he could get (here at the RV park) and worked seven days a week at two jobs for over two months. Our fortunes will turn because of this and because God brings good out of the messes that humans make.

How much better would it be if we simply said, “God can bring good from anything” instead of “God is in control.” If God is in control in the way we want to think, then there is a lot of needless pain because God chooses not to control humans. That is basically what we say when we claim God allows suffering at the hands of others. In this interpretation of the story of Joseph, God allowed (and maybe orchestrated?) all that pain to be inflicted on him by his brothers so he could save his people (and the Egyptians). No. They meant it for evil.

We cannot live in this world without both good and bad things happening to us. On any given day, something good happens to someone and something bad happens to another. The roofers celebrate when hail wipes out a neighborhood, but the homeowners are wondering if they have the money for the insurance deductible. I heard Christians praise God when a hurricane turned from them and took out another coastal city instead of theirs—oops. A family rejoices with great humbleness when an organ donation saves a loved one. Life situations are often good for one and bad for another. It is the cycle of life and this time, Scott and I happen to be on the good side, while another family is on a very bad side.

I am so glad I do not believe this is a result of God’s control, but instead evidence of God bringing goodness out of disaster. I do not know of any good thing that can come from the sadness being suffered by others in this particular situation. I can only believe it is the cycle of life that eventually brings sadness into each of our lives. And in the midst, God is always working to bring about good.

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