Genesis 50:20 has long been debated: How are God's intentions in the story of Joseph to be related to the intentions of Joseph's brothers? Are, as some suggest, the intentions of God and the brothers collapsed into each other so that the only real agency is God's (see, for example, 45:4-15)? Or, as others claim, are the evil actions of the brothers a genuine reality that God uses to further God's own purposes with this family?
In response to such questions, it is important to note that the related texts ascribe effective agency to the brothers (for example, 45:4-5; see 37:28) and to Joseph (45:9-13). The story refers to the brothers' actions with the language of sin and evil (42:22; 50:15, 17, 20), for which they are guilty (42:21; 44:16). It seems unlikely that this language would be used for God's actions. Moreover, if God were the absolute subject of these events, there would be no real test for the brothers; their actions and those of Joseph would only be a façade for a divine game.
The text of Genesis 50:20 speaks of both human and divine intentions as effectively at work in these events, albeit in the service of different objectives. But God's actions are decisive for shaping the future: God's activity from within the context set in part by the brothers' evil behaviors has proved, finally, to be decisive. In other words, the brothers' sinful objectives have been thwarted by being drawn into the larger orbit of God's purposes and used by God in such a way as to bring life rather than death. In effect, God has "taken over" what the brothers have done; their actions have become God's actions by being woven into God's life-giving purposes. God does not intend human evil; God's intention is to take even such evil and bring about good for all involved. This God does and in the wake of such action the divine promises are reiterated (50:24).
15 Realizing that their father was dead, Josephs brothers said, What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him? 16So they approached* Joseph, saying, Your father gave this instruction before he died, 17Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you. Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father. Joseph wept when they spoke to him. 18Then his brothers also wept,* fell down before him, and said, We are here as your slaves. 19But Joseph said to them, Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? 20Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. 21So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones. In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.
New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicized Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org
10 February 2011